Warren’s supporters were so enamored with her righteousness that they struggled to see her obvious flaws
Elizabeth Warren (CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom)
By Katie Herzog
Even before Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) announced on Thursday that she is ending her campaign for president, her supporters began offering a simple one-word explanation for her failure to win a single primary race, much less the Democratic nomination: sexism. And if it wasn’t that, it could only be sexism’s even more evil twin: misogyny.
The feeling is nicely summed up by Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale and author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. “To repeat the obvious: there is no other explanation except for misogyny for what has happened to Senator Warren this year,” Stanley tweeted after Warren suffered across-the-board losses on Super Tuesday. He called this “profoundly depressing.”
This feeling was mirrored by feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who wrote in an essay that Warren had been “outright erased and ignored” by both media and voters. “Don’t tell me this isn’t about sexism,” Valenti wrote. “I’ve been around too long for that.” Sure, Warren may have been the most exhaustively covered female candidate since Hillary Clinton, and she may have one of the biggest war chests in the race, and she may have had among the most stage time at the debates, but still! She lost. The only explanation is that she’s been systematically ignored and erased.
The candidate herself addressed the issue of sexism at a press conference outside her home Thursday when a reporter asked about the role gender (née “sex”) played in the campaign.
“Gender in this race?” Warren said. “You know, that’s the trap question for everyone. If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ If you say there was no sexism, about a bazillion women, think, ‘What planet do you live on?'”
I live on the planet where the Democratic electorate chose a woman to be their candidate in 2016—and where that same woman won the popular vote. I suppose it’s possible that the last four years of President Donald Trump have turned Democrats more sexist than they were before, but did that just temporarily stop for the several months Warren was at the top of the polls before Democrats realized they actually don’t want a woman after all? I doubt it.
At the same time, I find it curious that while Warren’s campaign was apparently cut down by sexism and/or misogyny when other female candidates in the race dropped out, sexism didn’t often come up. One would assume that all female candidates would be subject to the same systemic prejudice, and yet few people claim that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) have failed—or, in Gabbard’s case, will fail—because American voters hate women.
When it comes to Gabbard or Klobuchar or the men in the race, people evaluate their campaigns and generally determine it’s the candidate, not the voter, who is at fault. Gabbard isn’t losing because of sexism, she’s losing because she’s a fill-in-the-blank homophobe/cult follower/Bashar Assad apologist. Klobuchar wasn’t a victim of misogyny, she was an uninspiring candidate who abuses her staff and eats her salads with a comb if she can’t find a fork (a quality I personally find highly electable).
So why is Warren’s loss called sexist when Klobuchar’s was not? When I asked this question on Twitter, a number of people answered something along the lines of “because she is really a man”—a great example of actual sexism. But I think the answer is something else: Warren’s followers are both primed to see sexism everywhere and so enamored with their candidate—so sure of her (and their own) righteousness—that they are unable to see any of the flaws that are so apparent to anyone outside their bubble.
Ironically, this tendency to blame all of Warren’s failings on sexism comes across as somewhat…sexist. Every time she loses, she is portrayed by some of her most ardent defenders as a victim, as though she has no control over her own campaign or her own choices. It’s not just infantilizing and patronizing, but it also removes agency and responsibility from the candidate herself. And yet, claims that “sexism did it” is repeated so often they’re taken as a fact, even when no evidence is offered to support them.
Some people seem to think it’s just obvious: If a man with Warren’s qualifications, intellect, and talent ran for office, he would have won. That may be true, although the results of the last election make me fear that qualifications, intellect, and talent don’t matter all that much in American politics. So here’s an alternate explanation: Elizabeth Warren didn’t lose this race simply because of sexism but because she made a series of political miscalculations, starting with the disastrous unveiling of her DNA test, which managed to anger progressives and makes conservatives point and laughs. Then there was her refusal to go on the most popular cable news network in America in order to make a political point, the condescending manner in which she spoke about voters she disagreed with, her bungled Medicare for All plan, and the fact that she positioned herself to split the progressive vote with Bernie Sanders—a candidate with grassroots momentum and a campaign that has been ongoing since 2015. Had she pitched herself as a capable, qualified, less ancient, and more moderate Democrat instead of Bernie Lite, it’s possible it would be her running against him right now instead of Joe Biden.
Unlike most Reason readers, I was a Warren fan before this campaign—such a Warren fan, in fact, that six months before Trump was elected, I made a bet that Clinton would lose and Warren would be the first female president. But then she pivoted from the reformer who went after banks and stood up for the consumer into the sort of social media justice warrior who thinks she speaks for marginalized people while actually speaking over them. Despite this ill-advised rebranding, she still had plenty of ideas that I liked, from universal preschool to boosting small business to ending for-profit prisons and getting rid of the Electoral College. But her good ideas were too easily overshadowed by her bad ones.
Take, for instance, the LGBTQ town hall (which was a bad idea in the first place). Warren was asked by a 9-year-old trans boy named Jacob what she, as president, would do to keep kids like him safe. Instead of telling him the truth (“Jacob, bullying is sort of a local issue but I recommend a kickboxing class”), she said that she would let this 9-year-old kid vet the next secretary of education. This may have played well in that room, but she wasn’t running to be the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance; she was running to be president of the United States.
Now, I don’t think she actually would have marched Jacob into the Senate confirmation hearings any more than I think she would have passed Medicare of All with or without raising taxes. She was just pandering, and I don’t really fault her for that—pandering is part of campaigning and all politicians do it—but it doesn’t matter whether or not she would have actually let a third grader veto her cabinet picks. What matters is that she said it on live television, and had she won the nomination, it would have come back to bite her in the ass in the general election. There was a mountain of moments like this, and against Trump, she would not have stood a chance.
Warren could have focused on the working class; instead, she focused on the weakest class. She advocated for social positions that may resonate with highly educated, largely white activists but just don’t appeal to a broad base of Americans across race and class. She talked about nonbinary driver’s licenses and advocated for trans women to play women’s sports and used the term “traffic violence” when the rest of us simply say “car crash.” She’s out of touch—or at least, her advisers are—and there aren’t enough Oberlin grads for her to win Ohio, much less the swing states that will likely determine the outcome of the 2020 race. So here’s why I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Warren: because she would have given us four more years of Trump. That isn’t sexism; it’s math.