In the fall, it looked like Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren might just run away with her party’s presidential nomination, as she topped former Vice President Joe Biden in many early state polls.
But following a series of events, including a slew of New York Times/Siena College polls showing that Warren performed the worst of any front-runner against President Trump in swing states, as well as a number of contentious debates with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg over “Medicare for all” and money in politics, her lead vanished. Warren's third-place finish in Iowa makes it unlikely the Massachusetts senator will retain her status as a top-tier candidate unless she pulls off an upset in New Hampshire.
If her campaign does collapse soon, political observers will gather to write obituaries of her failed bid for the White House, seeking to explain her rise and fall. I’m sure many will ask, “What happened to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign?” But my question is, what happened to Elizabeth Warren?
In the fall of 2012, I helped Warren get elected by working with an outside progressive group to raise thousands of dollars and corral dozens of volunteers for her. Warren’s appeal that year was simple. She was a Republican-turned-bankruptcy law professor who left the party after growing incensed about the financial sector’s abuses. While she was reliably liberal in her political orientation, her message was anything but sectarian. She wanted to build a broad and deep coalition to tackle economic unfairness and to rally the middle class around an agenda that promoted broad prosperity.
It was a winning message in Massachusetts, and as a U.S. senator, she found her niche taking on economic elites on Wall Street and within the Obama administration. Just ask Larry Summers, who isn’t in charge of the Federal Reserve today, partly thanks to Warren’s forceful advocacy against him.
That Elizabeth Warren was present at times in the finer moments of her presidential campaign — when she would talk about the hollowing out of the middle class, for instance.
But over the course of her bid, Warren grew increasingly chauvinistic, personally attacking anyone who disagreed with her as corrupt or a heretic. When Biden raised questions about “Medicare for all,” Warren accused him of “ repeating Republican talking points” and even went so far as to say that he was “running in the wrong presidential primary.” After years of doing private fundraisers with very rich people, she went out of her way to assail Buttigieg, one of the least wealthy candidates in the race, for doing a fundraising event in a California “ wine cave.”
It would be one thing if Warren’s insults were limited to political opponents. But she even started lashing out at everyday people who didn’t share her politics. When a questioner at a televised town hall asked her what she would say to someone who disagrees with gay marriage, Warren showed little empathy for the position even Barack Obama took during his first race for the presidency.
“Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that,” Warren replied. “And I’m gonna say, ‘Then just marry one woman.' I’m cool with that.” As the crowd laughed, she added, “Assuming you can find one.”
The antagonistic answer, implying that only men opposed gay marriage (and that they were probably losers who couldn’t find a woman, to boot), was surely a crowd-pleaser among the upper-crust social liberals who flocked to Warren’s campaign in droves. But according to the latest Pew data, around 51% of black people support gay marriage. That means about half of this important Democratic constituency isn’t on the same page as Warren is on this issue. As those of us who have worked in and study politics know, minority voters are often much more socially conservative than white voters, particularly within the Democratic coalition. And rather than approach those people with humility and charity, Warren chose instead to insult them.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Warren never took off with minority voters. According to the latest Morning Consult polling, Warren’s support among black and Hispanic voters is around just 10%. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has done little else except spend hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads, has already overtaken Warren among these key constituencies.
This failing has not been helped by the fact that Warren’s outreach strategy toward America’s Hispanic population has been to refer to this populous minority group as “ Latinx,” a gender-neutral neologism favored by leftist ideologues that only around 2% of Latinos themselves use, according to one survey. It is hardly a surprise that most of Iowa’s small Latino population appear to have favored Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. At least his campaign uses the same language they do.
In her campaign’s pre-Iowa closing pitch, Warren preached unity, making the case that she can bring together warring Democratic Party factions. But by attaching herself to woke chauvinism and attacking her rivals so harshly, she appeared anything but unifying. After all, it was Sanders and Buttigieg who agreed to go on Fox News and talk to the other half of America. Warren instead chose to deride the network as a “for-profit hate racket,” perhaps deciding to court the all-powerful Media Matters vote rather than the votes of those who watch America’s most popular network.
In perhaps her most bizarre bit of pandering, she told supporters in Iowa that she will ask a transgender child to vet her education secretary pick. “I'm going to have a secretary of education that this young trans person interviews on my behalf,” she said, “and only if this person believes that our secretary or secretary of education nominee is absolutely committed to creating a welcoming environment, a safe environment, and a full educational curriculum for everyone will that person actually be advanced to be secretary of education.”
As someone who has worked around the professional progressive movement for the past decade, I don’t think most of the progressive agenda itself is the problem. From a wealth tax to some form of universal healthcare, many of these ideas are popular. The problem with modern progressivism is how much it looks down on people who disagree. It’s a kind of elitism that makes populism impossible, because you can’t have populism without the population. The old Elizabeth Warren understood that. It appears that the new Elizabeth Warren has forgotten it.
Zaid Jilani is a Bridging Differences writing fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and a freelance journalist.
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