What Progressives Can Learn From Michael Avenatti’s Mistake

By arguing that Democrats should nominate a white, male candidate, the self-promoting attorney pushed progressive premises to their logical, and objectionable, conclusion.

Andrew Cullen / Reuters

Most progressives wouldn’t express anger or incredulity at the claims that the United States is a white-supremacist patriarchy; that racism and sexism were the decisive factors in the 2016 election; that “white male rage” is rampant; that many white women are choosing to preserve their white privilege at the expense of their gender; that those factors make it easier for white men to achieve almost any goal, and frequently put insurmountable obstacles before women and people of color; that white men are thus obligated to act as allies, marshaling their unearned advantages to effect change that others can’t; and that a Democratic win in 2020 may be all that spares the United States from fascism.

But when the attorney Michael Avenatti opined on what kind of candidate Democrats ought to choose as their standard-bearer in the 2020 election, he was met with both anger and incredulity from many progressives.

“I think it better be a white male,” he told Time’s Molly Ball. “When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight. Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes.” He added, “I think this is a very unique situation. I think Donald Trump is a very unique candidate. And I think if you run anyone other than a white male against him in 2020—and I think a lot of people in the party agree with me on this, and I think a lot of people disagree with me—I think you are begging for a repeat of 2016. That’s what I believe. Firmly.”

Avenatti is wrong.

A decade ago, Barack Obama won roughly 10 million more votes than John McCain, the white, male war hero he bested in 2008. Six years ago, Obama beat Mitt Romney, another white male, in 26 states and Washington, D.C., winning 5 million more votes than his rival. Two years ago, Hillary Clinton, a white woman, won almost 3 million more votes than her opponent.

And even if it were the case that, all else being equal, a white, male candidate would have an advantage over any other individual in defeating an opponent, all else is never equal in a presidential election.

As Paul Waldman observes:

Yes, there are advantages a generic white male Democrat might have … But there are no generic candidates. There is a group of very specific people who are going to run for president, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. If the process works right, the most capable—meaning the one who can overcome the hurdles placed in front of her and the brickbats thrown her way—will get the nomination.

Evaluating individuals is obviously the way to go.

Still, as much as I oppose the idea of Avenatti running for president, disagree with his analysis, and understand why many found his remarks self-serving, I am confounded by the intensity of the backlash among some progressives. Avenatti’s thinking flowed from premises that many of them insist upon and that almost no one in their coalition sees as being beyond the pale. He simply took them to their logical, and objectionable, conclusion.

Insofar as Democrats are convinced that America is a white-supremacist patriarchy, that racism and sexism were the decisive factors costing Democrats the 2016 election, and that fascism is nigh, you can see how they would conclude that a Cory Booker or an Elizabeth Warren can’t really best Trump, or would face much longer odds than a white man, and that winning should be the priority.

Conjure in your mind an institutionally racist, white-supremacist patriarchy. Does its popularly elected president look like Kamala Harris?

I don’t buy these premises, though.

I think that the vast majority of Americans reject the ideology of outright white supremacy; that racism and sexism are problems that need to be fought, but are not the biggest factors shaping the choice between two people most voters will come to see as individuals; that neither racism nor sexism played the decisive role in the 2016 election; that presidential elections invariably pit atypically privileged people against one another, rendering the framework of privilege inapt for analyzing such contests; that some Trump voters are persuadable, not irredeemably deplorable; and that candidates of all races and genders are capable of success at the highest levels on their strength as individuals. From that vantage point, it seems much easier to dismiss Avenatti’s analysis as ill-conceived.

This argument has divided the Democratic Party before. In 2008, Obama and his supporters, many of them from the party’s progressive wing, faced off against an opponent who thought that his nomination would be a folly, that the notion of him prevailing was a fairy tale. The “Yes we can” Democrats won that argument. Then they won the general election.

Progressives today are as energized as their Obama-era analogues were about advancing candidates who are women and people of color. But the rhetoric that many of them employ no longer reflects Obama’s “unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people,” let alone his pushback against what he called “a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right.”

Not that I fault progressives for that change in tenor! Obama’s presidency inspired a lot of racially tinged hatefulness against him, his wife, and others. Trump’s rise, fueled by birtherism and bigotry, and the Republican Party’s abhorrent accommodation of it have shown the United States to be an uglier place than I once believed. The GOP elevated a morally depraved divider who openly stokes racial and ethnic tensions for his own gain. His worst misdeeds are stark illustrations of the need to identify, fight, and remedy racism, sexism, and corruption.

But none of that makes the most pessimistic narratives that progressives advance correct, or alters the tension that their faction will soon have to resolve: The more dire their portrait of American injustice, the more likely fellow Democrats will be to side with Avenatti, whose concerns won’t go away even if people are afraid to speak them aloud. His claims can’t be rebutted simply by stigmatizing or condemning them. They require an optimistic counterargument, like the one that Obama offered. Done right, arguments of that sort can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

Understating barriers to racial and gender equality imposes costs; progressives seldom see misstating or overstating them as similarly problematic. But that sort of exaggeration is disempowering in its own way. There’s a lesson for supporters of Harris, Booker, and Warren in Avenatti’s comments—if they want to convince voters that he’s wrong, they’ll need to rebut his premises, not simply denounce his conclusions.