"Elizabeth Warren" by Tim Pierce / CC-BY-2.0 Credit: Tim Pierce

Polling for the Democratic nomination tells a depressing story for those seeking to break the glass ceiling and make the ultimate stand against patriarchy: the top contenders for the Democratic nomination are currently all white men. Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg lead in almost every poll; the closest female contenders, Warren and Harris, are stalled in single digits often tied with Beto O’Rourke. Which means that nationally known and highly qualified women Senators are tied with a failed Senate candidate and trailing the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, just a few short years after the party nominated its first female candidate for president and four years after the first Afircan-American president left office.

Part of the problem is that many Democratic women are no longer convinced that a woman can beat Trump, and are supporting white men for reasons of electability:

Across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three of the first states to hold 2020 nominating contests, dozens of women told The Associated Press that they are worried about whether the country is ready to elect a woman as president. Their concerns are political and personal, rooted as much in fear of repeating Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Trump as in their own experiences with sexism and gender discrimination…

Helen Holden Slottje, a 52-year-old New Hampshire attorney, noted the irony in women raising concerns about nominating a woman.

“I fear for that with women, that it’s, ‘Well, we had our chance. We had Hillary. Hillary didn’t pan out. Best to just pick another 65-year-old plus white guy who has the best chance of winning,’” Slottje said.

This is a tragedy, and it’s simply not true. In most head-to-head polling, Senators Warren and Harris would both easily defeat Trump. There were many reasons that Trump defeated Clinton in 2016, and sexism was surely among them. But sexism wasn’t the sole determining factor. Racism played a big part. There was historic cheating and interference from Russia, Comey and much else. Democrats failed to accurately gauge the more populist mood of much of the country, and their views of the real economy beyond the traditional indicators. And Clinton’s campaign simply made a number of profound strategic mistakes.

But in the narrative that followed the 2016 campaign, much of the media and messaging targeted at Democrats repeated that Clinton had done essentially nothing wrong, that Democrats had run the best possible campaign under the circumstances, and that the blame for what happened in 2016 lay not with errors of judgment by the campaigns and those responsible for messaging and tactics at the highest levels of the party, but with the voters themselves. Much of this defense was erected in order to combat recriminations and complaints from the surging Sanders wing of the party–many of which have admittedly ill-founded.

But as I’ve warned in the past, the insistence that nothing could have been done to persuade many of those who voted for Trump without throwing disadvantaged communities under the bus is not only wrong, but carries a heavy price. If you believe that no amount of economic populism or strategic difference could have made a difference in keeping Trump out of the Oval Office, then the necessary and inevitable conclusion is that the public is simply too racist and sexist to elect a woman or person of color against an explicitly racist candidate like Trump. And then predictably, voters most concerned about driving Trump out of office will wind up supporting a white man for misguided strategic reasons.

And that is tragic. A year after a Democratic wave swept an unprecedented number of women and people of color into higher office all across America, and at a time when Trump’s approval rating is cratering, women should not be afraid of nominating another woman to drive Trump and his brand of pig-headed patriarchy out of the Oval Office.

Kamala Harris would easily be able to dispatch Trump. So would Elizabeth Warren. The polling already shows that, and much the public still has yet to get to know them better. Harris is still largely an unknown, and most voters who know Warren are most familiar not with her strengths but with her weaknesses. More exposure would help them both.

But if Democrats want to avoid setting up yet another older white man as their nominee, they have to be willing to acknowledge that things could have been done differently in 2016 to avoid defeat. Otherwise, the Democratic base is going to draw regrettable conclusions about the state of the electorate and act accordingly.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.