I've been lurking for awhile and have noticed a recurring idea, implicit or explicit, in many posts - "electability." I've seen it most prominently in connection with the Lieutenant Governor's primary, but it's also a big issue (of course) on the national scene. Hence Obama's constant references to his better chances to win the general election. Some people seem to deride the idea at all times, or at least pay it mere lip-service while advocating candidates who have no real chance in the general election, and I think that's foolish.
Look, we all agree, in very general terms, on the progressive agenda we want to advance. Thus the only question is how best to advance that agenda - to get that stuff actually put into law. And while not considering "electability" at all seems noble, we only hurt ourselves in the end if we do so. Structural and institutional considerations matter, whether we want them to or not. We can howl into the wind about that like Lear, but that won't change the fact that those considerations exist in any representative democracy, especially one as large as ours. Only dictatorships, like Stalinesque Russia, have the luxury of such considerations not mattering. In short, until the Internet achieves some sort of amazing complete decentralization of power so that 100% pure ideas can win the day (which is fine by me), it matters whether someone will - actually, for real, not kidding - win the general election in the end.
This isn't all so bad, of course. First, the actual ideas are still the most important thing that makes someone "electable." Think of FDR or JFK (or, ouch, Reagan). You aren't electable by, say, the Dems in the Democratic primary if you don't have great ideas. But, of course, FDR and JFK (and Reagan) were electable because they also had other things. Not just money, although that's important, but connections. And in a representative democracy, connections matter. You have to know people. The Internet is making it more important to know more, "smaller" people, and that's good - and I hope that trend continues - but right now you still have to know other people in power. Finally, personality matters, too, and for good reason. Think again of JFK, LBJ (a great example), and, well, Obama. That's Obama's biggest selling-point now, and if he wins the primary I bet that'll be the biggest reason why.
I'm just not convinced by any of the counter arguments to the electability argument. The only one with teeth is that the electability argument creates an echo chamber in which the candidates first deemed electable become the only electable candidates by self-fulfilling prophecy. I give the voters more credit than that. I think they realize that a small-time candidate with little money and little institutional support just won't be able to win the general election. Because 90% of people don't follow politics until the last few minutes. Because 90% of people only know their candidates from TV. Because, in these days of amazing parity between the two parties, you're not going to convince anyone from the other side to join yours if your candidate is a fringe candidate. In short, I think the primary voters themselves, along and in connection with the media, determine who's "electable." And it's no coincidence that the same traits that are generally deemed to make someone electable are perenially important.
In the end, the question reminds me of a debate I had with a friend about how to best advance the gay rights cause, specifically the push for the recognition of gay marriage - of which we both were fervent supporters. He advocated the full-bore litigation path, to sue in state courts and get states to recognize gay marriage. I thought it was a bad idea given the popular will, it was pushing too much against the majority of people. I thought it wasn't the time for that - we weren't at the Brown v. Board point yet where the courts could counter a small but weak majority and effectively advance the minority progressive cause. That pushing state legislatures was the better option. Looking at what happened in 2004 and the state of state constitutions now, I think I was right. The simple fact is that if you like gay rights, the strategy taken around 2004 backfired. We're worse off now. In short, strategy (or strategery) matters. We have to think.
In any event, this went way longer than I wanted too. I just get frustrated when people ignore electability and criticize others for not doing the same. Interest groups, who work in politics 100% of the time, understand this and often endorse people based in part of electability. I don't know how you can say that's wrong. They're just smart. They're just thinking. They're just using strategy. Individuals should do the same thing. If we don't, more Republicans will win. Things are changing for the better in this arena, in that electability is mattering less and less. And that's a wonderful thing, something almost entirely the result of work by liberals, work that should continue. But we shouldn't ignore the present state of affairs in a quixotic effort to further that work by voting for people who just can't win the general. When that work is done, then we can ignore all the institutional considerations and vote by nothing but our hearts.