If Elizabeth Warren "had a penis" would she be president today? This is among the burning questions contemplated in Electable: Why America Hasn't Put a Woman in the White House … Yet by NBC News correspondent Ali Vitali, who spent the 2020 Democratic primary covering Warren and other prominent female candidates such as Amy Klobuchar and eventual VP nominee Kamala Harris.
"Everyone comes up to me and says, 'I would vote for you, if you had a penis,'" Warren fumed to Vitali after the candidate's disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucus. She ended her campaign two months later as the last (semi-viable) woman standing.
Are Democratic voters really that sexist? Probably. Warren has a history of making things up about herself and telling stories that are too good to be true, but who's to say? It's a comforting thought for her supporters—the mainstream journalists and other college-educated professionals who were "baffled" she didn't win the primary because all their friends voted for her.
This includes Vitali, who asked Warren after she dropped out of the race what her "message would be to the women and girls who feel like [they] are left with two white men to decide between?" At least that's how it's presented in the book. What the reporter actually said was "I wonder what your message would be to the women and girls who feel like we're left with two white men to decide between." (Emphasis added.) The revised version sounds more professional.
Vitali, to her credit, avoids the blatant partisan hackery that many of her fellow journalists are unable to resist when discussing the subject of women in politics. She highlights the success of Republican women in earnest, and does not insist on explaining how it doesn't really count because their policies are "bad for women." But it's pretty obvious which team she's pulling for.
Washington Post columnist David Byler correctly observed in 2019 that "many journalists either match the demographic profile of [Warren's] base or live around people who do," while the candidate's "view of politics closely matches the prevailing media view of what politics 'should' be." It's a view inclined toward lengthy academic discussions about how sexism prevents bad female candidates from winning elections.
The book sets out to answer a fairly specific question: Why did Democratic primary voters choose Joe Biden, as opposed to Warren or any of the six female candidates who ran, to face Donald Trump in 2020?
It's not a very difficult question. Democrats really wanted to beat Trump, and Biden was Barack Obama's vice president for eight years. Nevertheless, Vitali persists in providing a lengthy academic analysis based on Ivy League studies of "gender dynamics" and "sexist undercurrents" to argue the 2020 election "laid bare some concerning realities" about how "Americans may still be easily scared off from believing that women can be viable, trusted, winning options."
Electable was written for college-educated professionals who enjoy having these discussions and find them meaningful. It was written by a college-educated professional who works in the media and covers politics, two industries dominated by college-educated professionals. It relies on expert commentary and analysis from college-educated professionals who all basically agree with each other and are well-versed in the corporate-academic jargon of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Pages upon pages comprised of slightly different versions of the following sentence: "'We think of them as different,' Madeline Heilman, a psychology professor at New York University and expert in bias and gender stereotypes, told me of how society conceptualizes leadership qualities between the genders."
Vitali describes feeling "pressure" to maintain a "level playing field and uniform metric of assessment" for female candidates attempting to "topple the patriarchy." She pounds the shift key for added emphasis to call out the "White Men of Political Media" who always ruin things, and at one point endeavors to "unpack [the] arguments" in a Chris Cillizza article. She recalls emailing colleagues to celebrate a "mainstream discussion of female rage," and laments the toxicity of "whitewashed feminism."
The book is well-reported and deeply sourced, so occasionally an insightful comment slips through. In the words of one anonymous strategist: "Democrats have to acknowledge we do not fully understand a good chunk of this country." Indeed they do not. The results of the 2020 primary suggest Democrats don't fully understand a good chunk of their own voters, most of whom are not college-educated professionals who read Rebecca Traister and celebrate "allyship" and pretend to care about the WNBA.
Christina Reynolds, a former Hillary Clinton staffer, offers a simple suggestion regarding women who run for public office: "We don't have to view them as candidates who are women, but just candidates, right?" Sure, but the Democratic establishment (which includes most journalists) would never allow it. They are part of the problem.
"We require women, and women of color, to explain themselves more to us—which is on us, not on them," a former Kamala Harris aide tells Vitali. "She'd be asked all the time, 'What is it like being a Black woman running for president?'" Yes, because journalists are obsessed with identity politics and insist on talking about it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons they are so out of touch with the general public, the vast majority of which does not share this weird fixation.
Politics really does attract the most obnoxious people. Vitali recounts a particularly grim scene she witnessed on the campaign trail in Iowa in November 2019, when dozens of Warren staffers decked out in "Liberty Green" (the campaign's official color) braved the freezing rain outside the convention center in Des Moines while chanting, "We stan! We stan! We stan a woman with a plan!"
When Vitali cites studies that show women are less likely than men to consider running for office or even "to consider elective office a desirable profession," the implication is that society is wrong. Maybe women are right.
Women like Jennifer C., for example, who penned the following review of Electable on Amazon: "Too big. I measured the dog per the instructions and he falls in the middle of the XL size range, but it's way too big - slides around and droops terribly. *NOT ELIGIBLE FOR RETURN OR EXCHANGE* :("
Electable: Why America Hasn't Put a Woman in the White House … Yet
by Ali Vitali
Dey Street Books, 352 pp., $28.99