Elizabeth Warren Sells Populism to Professionals
There is a distinct flavor to an Elizabeth Warren campaign event. The energy will be high. The candidate may take the stage at a run; at intervals during her speech, she will clench a fist, thrust it skyward, and cry out, “Yes!” The program will unfold so punctually that certain amused reporters will time its elements with stopwatches on their phones, the way old-timey football writers measured the hang time on punts. When it is time for audience questions, Warren will call out ticket numbers from a raffle-style blind draw (“Four-four-four-two? Who has four-four-four-two? Oh, there you are!”) with a little bit of tension in her voice: Who will ask the questions, and how long they will take to get to the microphone? They do not take long; Warren’s crowds want to impress her. At the end, the campaign’s well-documented selfie line will form, and everyone who wants a photo with Warren will get one. The country can’t really be slipping toward a sloppy authoritarianism if there are this many adults devoted to doing all the little things carefully, can it? Not every Warren event takes place in New England, but they all suggest a New England of the mind.
On Wednesday afternoon, Warren did happen to be in New England, on a Franconia, New Hampshire, farm with a majestic view of the White Mountains. Five hundred white folding chairs had been neatly laid out on the lawn, as if awaiting a wedding. The crowd was a bit bigger than that (“The count is seven hundred,” a press aide whispered to me), and, from walking through it, I would guess that the audience was more than ninety-five per cent white. There were retirees, students, schoolteachers, a few young families on vacation. A youngish man with a blond ponytail wore a T-shirt that read “Warren has a plan for that.” That was the slogan Warren settled on this past winter and spring, when she was introducing a new policy idea seemingly every week, and steadily climbing in the polls. This posture, the politician as expert, seemed to offer some reassurance to Democratic voters that there was an adult in charge. “A woman of substance,” a warmup speaker called Warren, a candidate with “reasonable plans.”
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But Warren does not sound, as Hillary Clinton often did, like someone whose aim is to seem reasonable. She runs hotter than that. In her stump speech, she does not read out inequality statistics, as Bernie Sanders does, but instead turns them into an emotional drama, at first through the by-now-familiar story of her mother donning her lone formal dress to apply for her first job, at the age of fifty, to save the family house. Warren remembers her mother crying outside her bedroom door each night and being obviously “terrified.” In Franconia, when Warren addressed the threat of climate change, she did not talk about degrees of warming but about the parental experience of “vulnerability.” (It reminded me a little bit of the way that George W. Bush talked about the threat of terrorism, as part of a successful effort to persuade suburban so-called security moms, in 2004.)
She is running a famously single-minded campaign, with an emphasis on wealth and corruption. In Franconia, the word she kept returning to was “money”; her villain was not Donald Trump, whom she referred to only once, in a parenthetical, before taking questions, but the Koch brothers. (“Oh! You’ve heard of them,” she said, in a tone of mock surprise.) Democracy, she said, has been captured by politics, and politics by greed; big, structural change is required. Toward the end of her stump speech, Warren said, heavily, “Boy, we’re also running out of time on this democracy.” I glanced out at the crowd. Seven hundred people were sitting attentively, in neat rows of white chairs—men in late-model Birkenstocks and women in navy jumpsuits—ready to line up to ask precise and well-planned questions. It was the picture of a prosperous, working democracy with plenty of time.
At this summer’s debates, Warren seemed to make a point of insuring that there was as little space as possible between her and Bernie Sanders. When MSNBC’s hosts asked the candidates whether they supported abolishing the private health-insurance system—an article of faith for Sanders but controversial with the general public, and very unlikely to happen anyway—Warren raised her hand. The two progressives have so loyally stuck to a nonaggression pact between them that it is at once obvious and difficult to fully comprehend that they are not actually competing for the same voters. According to a national Morning Consult poll from last week, the second choice for Sanders voters is not Warren but Joe Biden; Warren is the second choice for those voters who support Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, who are ideologically more moderate. (Among Warren’s voters, Sanders was the second choice of twenty-five per cent, only slightly more than the twenty-two per cent whose second choice was Harris and the improbable seventeen per cent whose second choice was Biden.) When the election analyst Nathaniel Rakich, of FiveThirtyEight, wrote last month that the Democratic field was finally sorting into some general lanes, they were not defined by ideology—Biden and Sanders seemed to be competing for each other’s voters. In another lane altogether, Harris, Warren, and Buttigieg were competing among themselves. Rakich wrote, “Perhaps what is happening here is that this is the ‘well-educated white liberal lane,’ as polls have generally shown these three candidates doing well with those demographic groups.” You might, more broadly, say that the primary race so far has somewhat less to do with ideology or race than with class.
Warren’s campaign rests on the theory that the past decade has transformed the way class is felt in America, so that instead of the uneducated against the educated, or the heartland against the coasts, it is now also possible to run a widely inclusive, populist campaign against the ultra-rich. If you keep your eye on what the capitalists get away with, you can run on economic populism with the support of doctors and lawyers and the P.T.A. “Your first fifty million, you get to keep. Good for you,” Warren said on Wednesday, explaining her signature wealth-tax proposal. From the ultra-rich—only “a tenth of a tenth of a per cent” of Americans—the government would take two per cent of every dollar after the first fifty million. By the way, she went on, most Americans already pay a wealth tax. “How many people here own their own homes?” Warren asked, and virtually the whole crowd put its fingers to the sky. Looking affirmed, Warren told them that their property taxes were effectively wealth taxes, just for a lesser level of wealth. She wanted to go after the guys “with the Rembrandts and the yachts.”
The Times ran a report from Warren’s campaign this week about the uniquely anxious place she occupies in the imagination of Democratic voters, under the headline “Many Democrats Love Elizabeth Warren. They Also Worry About Her.” The anxieties were that she would make a poor general-election candidate because she is too liberal, because she is a woman, because her disputed claims of Native American ancestry make her seem like a fraud. Most campaign reporters have heard these anxieties. But a different way to describe them would be to say that they are about the gap between the campaign and its cause—about voters’ uncertainty that a wealthy white Ivy League professor can lead a class-based crusade against wealth and its corruptions. Whether the law professor is the right person to pick a fight over the Rembrandts and the yachts.
But Warren is the only candidate in the race whose fortunes have materially improved over the past six months, which suggests that the vein she’s found has less to do with what is permanent within the Democratic electorate than with what is changing. When Rakich analyzed polling data from Emerson College last month, he found that Warren, alone among the major contenders, drew support from voters who were split almost evenly between Sanders and Clinton in 2016. The signal story of the past decade—of the financial crisis, of Donald Trump, of the #MeToo movement—is about how wealth, power, and depravity have been concentrated in the hands of a very few. The Warren campaign is a test of how broadly that story has resonated, and how much the country has been transformed. As the selfie line formed in Franconia, I saw a new national poll on my phone, from the Economist and YouGov—Biden had fallen to twenty-one per cent, in their accounting, and Warren was up to twenty per cent. Not the front-runner—at least not yet—but the race’s central figure.