America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence

The country still doesn’t know what to make of a woman—in politics, and beyond—who refuses to qualify her success.

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In November 2019, as the Democratic presidential candidates prepared for the primaries that had been taking place unofficially for more than a year and that would begin in earnest in February, FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone profiled Pete Buttigieg. In the process, Malone spoke with two women at a Buttigieg event in New Hampshire. One liked Joe Biden, but felt he was a bit too old for the presidency. The other liked Buttigieg, without qualification: “I feel he’s well positioned,” she explained. “The country is ready for a more gentle approach.”

As for Elizabeth Warren? “When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even when I agree with her.”

A version of that sentiment—Warren inspiring irrational animus among those whom she has sought as constituents—was a common refrain about the candidate, who announced today that she was suspending her campaign after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. This complaint tends to take on not the substance of Warren’s stated positions, but instead the style with which she delivers them. And it has been expressed by pundits as well as voters. Politico, in September, ran an article featuring quotes from Obama-administration officials calling Warren “sanctimonious” and a “narcissist.” The Boston Herald ran a story criticizing Warren’s “self-righteous, abrasive style.” The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, in October, described Warren as “intensely alienating” and “a know-it-all.” Donny Deutsch, the MSNBC commentator, has dismissed Warren, the person and the candidate, as “unlikable”—and has attributed her failure to ingratiate herself to him as a result, specifically, of her “high-school principal” demeanor. (“This is not a gender thing,” Deutsch insisted, perhaps recognizing that his complaint might read as very much a gender thing. “This is just kind of [a] tone and manner thing.”)

The campaigns of those who deviate from the traditional model of the American president—the campaign of anyone who is not white and Christian and male—will always carry more than their share of weight. But Warren had something about her, apparently: something that galled the pundits and the public in a way that led to assessments of her not just as “strident” and “shrill,” but also as “condescending.” The matter is not merely that the candidate is unlikable, these deployments of condescending imply. The matter is instead that her unlikability has a specific source, beyond bias and internalized misogyny. Warren knows a lot, and has accomplished a lot, and is extremely competent, condescending acknowledges, before twisting the knife: It is precisely because of those achievements that she represents a threat. Condescending attempts to rationalize an irrational prejudice. It suggests the lurchings of a zero-sum world—a physics in which the achievements of one person are insulting to everyone else. When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even when I agree with her.

To run for president is to endure a series of controlled humiliations. It is to gnaw on bulky pork products, before an audience at the Iowa State Fair. It is to be asked about one’s skin-care routine, and to be prepared to defend the answer. The accusation of condescension, however, is less about enforced humiliation than it is about enforced humility. It cannot be disentangled from Warren’s gender. The paradox is subtle, but punishing all the same: The harder she works to prove to the public that she is worthy of power—the more evidence she offers of her competence—the more “condescending,” allegedly, she becomes. And the more that other anxious quality, likability, will be called into question. Warren’s “‘my way or the highway’ approach to politics,” Joe Biden argued in November, attempting to turn what might also be called principle into a liability, is “condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view.”

Late last month, Kelli María Korducki, an editor at Forge, wrote an essay titled “Why High-Achieving Women Pretend Their Lives Are a Mess.” Korducki pointed to 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon as a particularly revealing kind of archetype: the woman who is successful in her career but who is also, in her personal life, a disaster. “She was a striver in the workplace,” Korducki writes of Lemon, “but she also binged on baked goods and watched Real Housewives. She was a singleton on the dating market who was also a raging prude. She was consistently the smartest person in the room. She also sometimes wore plastic Duane Reade shopping bags as underwear.”

For Korducki, the trope of the hot mess doubles as an indictment of how American culture perceives feminine ambition and success. She dubbed the phenomenon “Hot Mess Syndrome,” and her essay struck a chord. You can read that syndrome as an answer to a culture that demands too much of women—a culture that has wrought the second shift and “having it all” and the even more generalized assumption that to be a woman is, to some extent, to bear pain. You can also read it, as Korducki does, as a kind of preemptive apology—and as a bid for relatability. To succeed as a woman on the terms set by the current culture, Korducki writes, “you’d best be a little bit of a fuck-up.”

Reading Korducki’s essay, I kept thinking of Warren and the curse of condescension. I kept thinking of the ways the most successful woman candidate this cycle, in terms of blunt electoral outcomes, had the logic of the hot mess imposed on her—even when that logic, strictly speaking, made no sense. Warren’s pitch throughout her campaign was specifically about selflessness and service—about the ways she wanted to summon her skills to make life better for people. “All we want,” Warren wrote in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance, “is a country where everyone pays a fair share, a country where we build opportunities for all of us; a country where everyone plays by the same rules and everyone is held accountable. And we have begun to fight for it. I believe in us. I believe in what we can do together, in what we will do together.”

It is difficult to read that as “condescending.” What Warren’s words are, though, is unapologetic. Warren, is, very notably, not a hot mess. She has presented herself as omnicompetent, in control, not even “a little bit of a fuck-up”—and, therefore, as an antidote to the political and moral chaos that has been sowed by the presidency of Donald Trump. She is competence incarnate. She has a plan for that, just in general. She is unapologetically—and unavoidably—credentialed. She is a professor at Harvard. She created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She embraces those facts as assets. Which is also to say that, on the campaign trail, she has done what campaigning requires candidates to do: She has sung her own praises. She has sold her own story.

Such an absence of apology, however, is not something American politics—or, indeed, American culture—is fully accustomed to observing in women. Liz Lemon, that revealing fiction, has a long shadow. In 2017, Boston Magazine ran a profile of Warren, listing her many political accomplishments and calling her “the new face of the Democratic Party and a favorite for the 2020 presidential race.” The story was headlined, “Why Is Elizabeth Warren So Hard to Love?”

One of the truisms of the 2020 campaign—just as it was a truism in 2016, and in 2008—is that women candidates are punished, still, for public displays of ambition. (One resonant fact of Hillary Clinton’s political life is that she was much more popular, in opinion polls, during her tenure as secretary of state—a role for which she did not campaign, and in which she served as at the pleasure of the president—than she was when, just a few years after that, she sought the presidency herself.) American culture has maintained a generally awkward relationship with political self-promotion: That George Washington was conscripted into the presidency rather than campaigning for it remains a foundational bit of lore. When women are the ones doing the promoting, the tension gets ratcheted up.

Kate Manne, a philosopher at Cornell University, describes misogyny as an ideology that serves, ultimately, to reinforce a patriarchal status quo. “Misogyny is the law-enforcement branch of patriarchy,” Manne argues. It rewards those who uphold the existing order of things; it punishes those who fight against it. It is perhaps the mechanism at play when a woman puts herself forward as a presidential candidate and finds her attributes—her intelligence, her experience, her compassion—understood as threats. It is perhaps that mechanism at play when a woman says, “I believe in us,” and is accused of being “self-righteous.”