Last week in my two-part interview with “Mr. X,” a veteran Democratic consultant, we saw how centrist panic among opponents of Trump led to a brief, not-so-shining moment for Mike Bloomberg as the only man who could save us (he’s rich!), which was quickly dispelled in favor of the premature coronation of Bernie Sanders as the unlikely but “inevitable” nominee (everyone says so!), which was quickly dispelled by a resurrection of a sort not seen since 33 A.D. (holy shit!).
Now the conventional wisdom has it that the nomination is Joe Biden’s to lose, which was sort of where we started last summer, innit?
But last week also saw the heartbreaking end of the road for the most inspiring and best qualified candidate from either party, and with it, the latest affirmation that Margaret Atwood knows what the fuck she’s talking about.
THE FIREGLASS CEILING
The last 72 hours have seen so many eloquent elegies for the campaign of Elizabeth Warren that I’m not sure what I can add. But this was such a special campaign, and its end such a frustrating and depressing statement about America, that it deserves every requiem it can get.
Let’s start with the patently obvious. Elizabeth Warren is a brilliant and accomplished woman with an inspiring personal story, up from poverty in Oklahoma to become a Harvard law professor and one of the most admired Americans alive today. (Not coincidentally, also one of the most vilified—an equal honor.) At once a Washington outsider and an experienced United States Senator, she offered not just a vague, platitude-heavy vision for a more progressive America, but one backed up with detailed plans for every goddam thing. She is a champion of the people who scares the moneyed class witless, a passionate orator and scorching debater whose intellectual firepower is astonishing, and a charismatic leader who put together the most impressive campaign of all the Democratic hopefuls. In the words of Stacey Abrams, she gave “form to brainy, compassionate, determined, indefatigable leadership.”
From smarts to empathy to competence, one can hardly imagine a candidate more opposite to Donald Trump in every conceivable way. The only way Elizabeth Warren could be a more perfect “anti-Trump” is if she had served with distinction in Vietnam. (Are we sure she didn’t?)
Yet now she is out of the race.
I am aware that not everyone shares my opinion that Warren was a great candidate. I know many conservatives are snickering and eyerolling over the melodramatic eulogizing taking place along the Brooklyn-Berkeley axis. But with their frat boy behavior these folks only demonstrate the exact phenomenon in question. They are like people trapped in a burning building cheering for the fire.
I also know that for many right of center on the ideological spectrum, Warren’s progressivism was problematic. “She’s too liberal,” is the usual complaint. Many of those people feel the same way about Bernie Sanders, yet somehow it’s not accompanied by the same impassioned Salem-in-1692 level of anathema.
To that end, I would argue that much of this opposition is not really on substantive grounds, nor supported by facts, and would wither under point-by-point scrutiny. That is to say, it is not really policy driven at all.
We know that the vast majority of American voters choose their presidential candidates not on policy, or hardnosed assessment of qualifications, or even campaign promises (blue sky or otherwise), but on pure emotion. Which candidate makes us feel good, and hopeful, and proud; which one seems strong and smart (but not too smart!) and “presidential,” whatever that means. Which one feels like the right head-of-state for the given moment? And that is true not just for low information voters: for all the wonks who backed her because of policy positions, a great many of Warren’s supporters—like all candidates’—were undeniably motivated by those same abstractions. And so were a great many of her detractors.
De gustibus non disputandum est, as the Romans would say. (But what have they ever done for us?) Still, it feels like there is something uglier at play here with the opposition to the senior Senator from Massachusetts.
The usual complaints were that Warren sounded like a know-it-all, that she was prone to lecturing, that she’s shrill, or “schoolmarmish.” (“Professorial” is the kinder way it was sometimes put…..which, like lecturing, should not comes as a surprise, given that she was in fact a professor. As for being a know-it-all, is that not refreshing after three-plus years of a know-nothing?) And I’m not talking about just the response of red-hatted MAGA types, or even more mainstream right-of-center Republicans. I heard this stuff from centrist (or “moderate,” if you prefer) Democrats, and even some decidedly left-of-center progressives—some of them women.
I personally didn’t feel any of that, though again, I understand it’s all very subjective. But it’s worth noting, as Mr. X said last week, that “Shrill and schoolmarmish are criticisms applied exclusively to women.”
Meanwhile, Bernie’s whole brand is Angry Old Man Yelling At You.
Frankly, the pushback against Warren reminded me of all those conservatives who expressed disdain for Barack Obama, but couldn’t coherently articulate any legitimate policy disagreements, at least not without massive hypocrisy, or ever quite tell me what it was about him that bugged them so much.
Gee, I wonder what it could have been.
ELECT THIS, MFer
In case anyone doubted it, 2016 made it painfully clear that a vicious, almost-medieval loathing of the female of the species remains a strong strain in the United States of America, no matter how much we kid ourselves otherwise.
2020 is making the point again.
Please don’t besiege me with stories of Hillary’s shortcomings. Some are valid, others anything but. But even if all the things people say about her were true, short of Comet Ping Pong, I dare you to disagree with this statement: If that exact same candidate had a penis and not a vagina, Donald Trump would be hawking his vodka, steaks, and Chinese-made ties on QVC for a living instead of being followed around by a military aide carrying the nuclear codes.
Elizabeth Warren proves the point. Warren had none of the baggage that—allegedly—sunk Hillary. And yet, she is gone from contention even before the Democratic convention, as is every other female candidate (and candidate of color, too, for that matter).
Here’s a Warren supporter named Jeff Yang, a 52-year-old journalist for CNN Opinion and co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” quoted in Salon:
“(A)ll the excuses we heard about not electing Hillary—that she was a mainstay of the establishment….that we need somebody who’s not a career politician….that she was too middle-of-the-road centrist…..that we need somebody who’s progressive….that she’s somebody whose ideas are old……that we need something disruptive.
We had all that this time, right? And it looks like America is not going to elect her, which really comes down to me, to a recognition that whatever we want to claim, gender is at the core of this. It may not be deliberate. It may not be that people outright say they cannot imagine supporting a woman or having a woman president. But when the going gets tough, when there’s concern about electability, when there is a push-comes-to-shove around priority, things still seem to line up the same way. And that soft bigotry, that soft filtering, that consistently I think serves as the toughest of glass ceilings for women to raise.
I have always liked Elizabeth Warren, but even before she announced her candidacy just over a year ago, I was skeptical that she had a prayer. I’d heard far too many people—mostly men, but not all—launch into angry diatribes over how much they loathed her.
I was far from alone in that concern, even among others who actively liked her. As I listened to friends and family and colleagues express their intense negative reaction to her, it both depressed and disturbed me. “Depressed” because even now I am surprised (though I shouldn’t be) by how much irrational fervor is stirred up by the mere thought of this brilliant, principled woman irrespective of her policies. “Disturbed” because it made me worry that, no matter how terrific her ideas, how detailed her plans, how persuasive her speeches and debate performances, she wouldn’t be able to win because a crucial segment of voters simply would not vote for her.
I also understood very well that these fears could constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have written before about the canard of “electability.” In short, electability is as electability does. The myth that Warren is not electable is just that—a myth, one that could be proven definitively wrong. But misogyny is no myth, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about underestimating the meatheaded woman-hating quotient of this country. After all, we’ve seen it in action before.
I am deliberating use the word “misogyny” to describe this state of affairs, and not mere “sexism,” as sexism is far too tame and forgiving and fails to capture the depth of the hate.
Giving up on Warren even before she got started also would have meant voluntarily forfeiting perhaps the most formidable candidate we had. We can argue about what constitutes “formidable” (which is another way of saying “electable”), though the irrational hatred of Warren certainly couldn’t be discounted in that calculation, no matter how unfair it was. But succumbing to those fears meant surrendering to the lowest common denominator as defined by our foe and fighting on his terms (male possessive pronoun very much intentional), which is both strategically worrisome and just plain galling. In short, I was worried we could not win.
What changed my mind was watching Warren conduct her campaign.
THE ARC OF HERSTORY
Last September two (male) friends and I attended the Warren rally that drew 20,000 people into Washington Square Park. It had the electricity of a rock concert crossed with a tent revival, and for anyone who cared to listen, obliterated a lot of the false assumptions about Elizabeth (see above). I began to believe that she could win, and to have faith that substance could overcome spin and gender bias. I became an unabashed supporter, ready to fight our corner. Apparently many others agreed, as she surged in the polls on the strength of her demonstrable excellence.
Over the months that followed, Warren showed that she could silence the doubters and the naysayers, overturn the conventional wisdom, and (wait for it) persist and even prevail. From the start of her presidential campaign, when the self-described experts scoffed and predicted that she’d been out by Christmas, she slowly but surely solidified herself, continuing to defy expectations and prove her toughness and viability.
In fact, she was so strong and did so well, that then came that moment early this winter when that optimism suddenly—bizarrely—lurched into its opposite. There seemed to be a palpable panic among the Democratic electorate that she would actually be the nominee.
The other Democratic hopefuls began attacking her, as the presumptive frontrunner. She made some missteps—principally, a clumsy explanation of how she would pay for her Medicare-for-all. But, again, as Mr. X noted last week, only Warren was even asked that question; it has been Bernie’s signature proposal for years, and yet no one dared ask him for details. Whether that was sexism, or fear of backlash from Bernie bros (as Mr. X argues), or what have you, it damn sure wasn’t fair. Warren got no points for having an actual answer, complex and pragmatic as it was. (Who knew healthcare was so complicated, as a very stable genius once said?)
Of course, even the question is skewed, reflecting the baked-in bias of the allegedly liberal media. As Colonel (Ret.) Andrew Bacevich, now a Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, has said:
We live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost, even though the costs almost inevitably end up being orders of magnitude larger than anybody projected at the outcome. But when you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we come very cost-conscious.
But Elizabeth’s demise was never really about unhappiness with her policy proposals.
When a Warren candidacy moved from beautiful fantasy to plausible reality, even people who really liked her seemed to have a PTSD-like freakout. The idea of running a brainy female candidate against Trump a second time was too much for many voters to contemplate—especially if that candidate has superficial similarities to Hillary Clinton, notwithstanding enormous, possibly gamechanging differences, and could be readily demonized, however unfairly, as a hectoring smarty pants. The Democratic electorate suffered a collective anxiety attack.
After that, it was stick-a-fork-in-her time. My original fear proved to be correct, even if it was that very fear and doubt that brought on her defeat.
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO
The case against Elizabeth Warren cannot be made on the merits.
Oh, she was too liberal? Bernie is the currently the co-front runner, I would remind you. Too angry? I refer you again to the senator from Vermont.
The best her foes could do was the issue of her Native American heritage or minuscule presence thereof. Trump, of course, with his preternatural schoolyard bully’s mentality, tagged her with the nickname “Pocahontas,” a dig both juvenile and racist. (A Trump twofer. Check your bingo card.)
But even in its least generous interpretation—that she repeated family lore for personal advantage without factchecking it—that’s pretty weak beer, especially if that’s the worst they can say about her, and enough for right wingers to reject her. (Did a brainiac like Elizabeth Warren really need the affirmative action of Native American ancestry to get ahead?) It goes without saying that Donald J. Trump lies as easily as he breathes, yet all is forgiven and even applauded. (The god-emperor creates his own reality!) Even Biden regularly demonstrates a less sinister but still worrying Reaganaesque tendency to conflate fact with fiction.
Here’s the real thing that did her in:
As recently as last November, Forbes reported that almost half of American men said they would be uncomfortable with a female president. And that number is likely higher, as some men who feel that way were surely embarrassed to admit it to a pollster.
I was reminded of that when Hillary began appearing in the press recently to promote Nanette Burstein’s mesmerizing new four-part documentary series on Hulu “Hillary.” The bile being spewed on social media was scalding, to included frequent (I was gonna say “liberal”) use of the “b” and “c” words, and wishes for her to crawl away and die. (And that was from the left. I didn’t even bother to read what MAGA Nation was saying.) I have read similar vitriol aimed at Warren, especially attacks for being not supportive enough of Bernie and/or insufficiently anti-corporate or progressive. (Memo to the haters: what planet are you on?)
So misogyny is not solely the province of the far right, although they definitely have a timeshare there.
In a snide piece for Commentary called “Stop Blaming Sexism for Warren’s Failure,” Christine Rosen paints Warren as a darling of educated elites, and blames her for failing to connect with outside the chattering classes. She’s not wrong about that, though her contemptuous tone detracts from her credibility. (The same point was made minus the venom by Matthew Iglesias in Vox.)
In the rest of her piece, Rosen—author of an affectionate memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family—betrays her real agenda, which is her general scorn for progressivism, leaning on one lonely psychology paper to make the giant leap that sexism isn’t a factor in American politics.
Yes—and coronavirus is all a hoax.
When history looks back on American politics in the early 21st century, and in particular, the HRC and Warren campaigns of ’16 and ’20 respectively, the claim that sexism was not in play is going to have aged about as well as OJ’s quest for the real killers.
I hope that I have sufficiently mansplained the fate of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. There’s some sort of irony in there, but it’s too complicated for me to figure out.
Feminism (and sexism, and misogyny) have been a frequent topic of this blog, from its very first post in May 2017, Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary). See also Nevertheless They Persist, an interview with the founders of Persisticon, Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen, on the lingering effects of hating on Hillary, Sending Don Spelunking, about Nancy Pelosi, “She Worked for Me,” about Aretha Franklin, “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court, about Kavanaugh on the Court, and a two-part interview with Second Wave feminist icon Alix Kates Shulman, Feminism in the Age of Monsters and A Spark Is Lit.
That was not by design, but reflects the turbulent times in which we live, times in which we are being made to reckon with an oppression of the female of the species that is as old as humanity.
There’s a reason that The Handmaid’s Tale is freshly relevant and having “a moment,” as they say in showbiz. Margaret Atwood herself has noted that every horror in her book, from the obliteration of one’s name to ritualized rape and forced childbearing, is taken from a real world example. (Even as sometimes these ideas are played for laughs, as in Dr. Strangelove’s “mineshaft gap.”) As Laura Miller wrote in Slate, the misogyny of the novel—and its newly released sequel, The Testaments (I’m still in the middle of it)—is not science fiction: in fact, its world is the world that most women have known in most cultures throughout human history, more so than the relatively egalitarian one we know in Western democracy. And ours is still super fucked up.
So it’s with a heavy heart that I salute Senator Warren and her campaign for lighting a path for the future, and in the process, illuminating some of the darkness in which we continue to dwell.
I am deeply ashamed that I live in a country that would make Donald Trump president. But I’m nearly as ashamed that I live in a country that’s afraid to give Elizabeth Warren that job.
Painting: “Golden Silence” (2002) by the genius Isabel Samaras.
(Parody of “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” circa 1537, by Lucas Cranach the Elder.)