The Massachusetts senator is laying out more progressive policy than anyone vying for the Democratic nomination. It's time to get excited about her.
I should know better, by now, than to have any positive feelings or expectations about a Democratic primary—least of all that most dangerous of emotions, hope. Yet here I am, in April of 2019, letting myself get excited. At long last, after much frustration, the Warren-mentum appears to be kicking in.
It is no secret that Warren has produced more substantive policy than any of her competitors. She is campaigning on a platform that is at once sweepingly ambitious and exceptionally down-to-earth, fueled by long-standing progressive commitments while also focused on delivering concrete, substantive benefits to average families. Her candidacy should satiate any progressive’s need for leftward momentum (if Elizabeth Warren were president, there would be a 2 percent wealth tax on the ultra-rich; actions would be taken to break up the big tech giants) but it also has intimate, personal stakes (if Elizabeth Warren were president, my daughter’s day care would be affordable, her college would be paid for, and my husband’s student-loan debt would be erased; we might be able to buy a house, set aside money for retirement, maybe even have another baby). Other candidates have gestured at some of these goals, but Warren is the first candidate who has shown that she can deliver. She knows the details of every plan, and publishes them so they can be vetted. She knows how she will pay for each promise. I trust her, not just to talk about a better future, but to bring it about. The thing is, I’m not alone — and some of the company I have, over in Camp Warren, is surprising.
The 2016 election was ugly; not just “intense” or “contentious” or whatever euphemism your favorite pundit is using, but actively traumatic for many people. This applies not just to the 24-hour trigger parade that was Donald Trump, but to the Democratic primaries, which are still being re-litigated to this day. The ceaseless harassment; the broken trust and demolished friendships; the sheer metric tonnage of misogyny; these are not things to take lightly or forgive easily, and it is no wonder that many of us are still stuck, even now, processing them. But at a certain point, “processing” is a polite word for stagnating; in the end, the only way to move on is to move on, to set your sights on some new horizon and start walking toward it. Democrats are badly in need of a transformational candidate who can give us that new vision. Whereas the current frontrunners represent different sides of an old war, Warren’s candidacy might allow us to move beyond it.
In the past week, as Warren’s student-debt policy and calls for impeachment lit a fire under her candidacy, I have seen the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances declare their support for her. This includes the Hillary-supporting feminists, many of whom were early adopters; ironically, the people who would actually “vote in a heartbeat for Elizabeth Warren” have turned out to be those Hillary voters, who see in her the careful intelligence, work ethic and battle-worn grit of their 2016 candidate, and who don’t need convincing about the value of a female president. But, crucially, Warren’s appeal is not confined to that base. (If you want to see a candidate who solely appeals to internet feminists, take a look at Kirsten Gillibrand, who is currently polling at less than 1 percent.) Warren has been the face of the populist left since long before it was fashionable, and I have seen several people who supported Sanders in 2016 drawn into Warren’s camp for 2020—frustrated by his unwillingness to call for impeachment or end the filibuster, attracted to her more substantive proposals, or simply reverting to her because she’d always been their first choice. Most importantly, Warren has actually spent substantial amounts of time crafting policy, performing outreach and getting buy-in from the Black voters who decide Democratic primaries.
This coalition is exciting precisely because it is a rebuke to the most pernicious false binary of 2016: the artificial division of “economic issues” and “identity politics.” When Warren sets out to improve the lives of the American working class, she does not set her sights on some imaginary white male breadwinner who may have been the image of virtuous proletarian struggle half a century ago but who is either extinct or attending Trump rallies in the present day. Her “working class” is day-care workers, an almost entirely female and disproportionately non-white labor force who would finally be granted the right to a living wage by her universal child-care platform. It’s single mothers, who are in desperate need of affordable or free child care to begin with. Her working class includes Black families looking to build a stable future for their children who would receive federal assistance in buying their first homes (along with affordable housing investments, across-the-board rent decreases, and better laws against housing discrimination) under the terms of her housing plan. Her higher education plan includes not just loan cancellation and tuition-free college, but a specific $50-plus billion investment in HBCUs.
These things aren’t distractions from economic justice, or a nice add-on to economic justice; they are economic justice. They are what justice has to look like in a country where capitalism has never impacted all workers equally or in the same ways. Once we’ve stopped arguing over whether we’ll deal with economic inequality or bigotry—feminism focused solely on individual advancement isn’t feminism! Socialism that doesn’t tackle racial and gender inequality only gives white men new ways to tyrannize the rest of us! And so on and so forth, you’ve heard it all and so have I—we can actually focus on how bigotry has impacted the living conditions of marginalized people, and what specific structural changes we can enact to alleviate that burden. Universal day care alone will revolutionize the status of women in this country, radically empowering us to participate in public life and wield power in the public sphere, in a way that a thousand Twitter arguments won’t do. Warren has the feminist vision and lived experience to make women’s freedom a priority—the child-care proposal was one of the first she ever unveiled—and she has the economic chops to produce a policy that actually works for everyone.
That’s impressive. The fact that she seems dead set on tackling every other inequity in public life the same way is downright amazing. At yesterday’s She the People forum, when asked about the Black maternal mortality crisis, Warren didn’t just nod and express sympathy, or pivot to a more familiar talking point. She outlined a comprehensive, practical plan to address the crisis by giving hospitals financial incentives for reducing maternal mortality—and did so seemingly off the cuff. It’s not just her brilliance that shows through in moments like these; it is her sense of responsibility, the fact that she pays attention to the needs of the American public and expects herself to have a real answer for each and every one of their problems. She listens. She cares. And more importantly, she wants to do something about it.
I do not mean to overstate Warren’s chances, or portray her as a saint. She still lags far behind in the polls, and reportedly struggles with fund-raising. In just about every Democratic primary, there is some insurgent candidate who captures the progressive imagination, enchants younger and left-leaning voters, and goes on to lose hugely to a standard Democrat; Elizabeth Warren may be this year’s dark horse, but that’s not an enviable position for any candidate to occupy. Nor is her record spotless; though she’s worked hard to win back First Nations people, her DNA-test fumble still rightfully alienates many people. And, like most Democrats, she is still measurably worse on sex workers’ rights than she is on other issues. I’ve even found her to be overly dismissive or surface-level in her gender politics in the past, though that certainly seems to have changed. So, yes: It’s very possible Warren will disappoint, and it’s very necessary to call her out when she does. Candidates aren’t cult leaders; they deserve support, not worship. Hope is still a dangerous feeling, both for how it lets us down and for what it allows us to overlook.
But I am grateful to have Warren in the race, nonetheless, if only because she allows progressives to ask a new set of questions. If you force me to choose between identifying as a worker and identifying as a woman, I will always choose womanhood. My gender is intrinsic to who I am; it defines my every waking moment, and my feminism will always come first. But there’s no reason I, or anyone else, should have to choose. Why relive the trauma of 2016, trying to decide whether you’d rather (a) be viewed as a full human being, or (b) retire some time before your 90th birthday, when you can have it all? Why pit “identity politics” and “politics” against each other, as if they haven’t always been the same thing? Warren offers a vision of a future in which marginalized voters will not have to split ourselves down the center, or rank our oppressions in order of importance, to participate in politics. She gives us a chance to bring our whole selves to the cause, and have all our needs and experiences valued. She makes me believe that progressive politics can actually be progressive again. In that, if in nothing else, her candidacy has already provided the change we need.
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