Elizabeth Warren’s Radical Idea

She believes that if voters are given the opportunity to support an agenda that’s both coherent and compassionate, they will take it.

Elizabeth Warren greets people at the Iowa State Fair
Brian Snyder / Reuters

Elizabeth Warren could well win the Democratic presidential nomination. An Iowa Starting Line poll from mid-August showed the Massachusetts senator with a commanding lead over the other candidates in the first caucus state. Her poll numbers are strong in New Hampshire, too. At the Iowa State Fair this month, she spoke to a crowd of thousands, and she has built one of the best organizing structures in the race. After a slow start, her fundraising is now robust, with 25 million in the bank, none of it from big-dollar donors. Voters wait in line for hours to take selfies with her, and press notes into her hand thanking her for her strong political commitments.

The rise of the progressive Warren seems like a natural development for a Democratic Party that has been shifting left in recent years, and that saw unprecedented success with female candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. But even as voters flock to Warren, some remain wary of whether she can beat Donald Trump in a general election. Maybe she’s too far left, they offer, or maybe a woman can’t win.

The New York Times ran a hand-wringing article reporting on conversations with several dozen voters, who offered both enthusiasm for Warren and doubts about her electoral viability. “They’re not ready yet,” Gail Houghton, a retiree of Council Bluffs, told the Times, referring to voters who she thought would be unwilling to vote for a woman president. Jan Phelps, of New Hampshire, offered, “I think she would make an amazing president. I’m worried about whether she can win. I worry that she’s being pulled even further to the left and that concerns me. Because we need to win.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post political correspondent Dave Weigel tweeted, “To understand Bidenmentum, you’ve got to have some of the conversations I had yesterday: Middle-aged women explaining that 2016 showed that voters won’t elect a female president, so they’ve got to be strategic.”

The speakers in these stories are always enthusiastic about Warren, delighted by her intellect, inspired by her policy agenda, and happy about the prospect of a woman president. But they seem confident that they’re alone, or at least in the minority, in liking these things. The speakers are progressive, but think that nobody else is; they want a woman president, but they feel that the rest of the electorate is too sexist to vote for one. They want to vote for Warren in the primary, but feel that they shouldn’t, or can’t afford to. Instead, they should capitulate to what they imagine are other voters’ bad impulses, so that when the general election rolls around, the Democrats will have a candidate who they think is more likely to beat Trump—a centrist, that is, and a man.

The tendency found in these reported stories is at least somewhat backed up by polling. Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that Warren had a significant advantage in its “magic wand” poll, which asks voters which candidate they would choose to make president if they could wave a magic wand to bestow the office, rather than having the contenders go through a general election. She did less well, however, in a more traditional survey.

It seems that Warren is extremely popular—but that voters do not trust one another to share that high opinion of her.

The result is a kind of sexism by proxy, in which voters think that they can’t vote for a progressive woman in a primary because they don’t believe other, supposedly less enlightened voters will vote for her in a general. They intend to reduce suffering, and to secure the best outcome available—isn’t the most important thing to beat Trump? They want to convey worldliness, sophistication. But the effect is to disadvantage worthy candidates like Warren because they are progressive and female, and to unfairly privilege unworthy candidates because they are centrist and male. It is voter masochism disguised as pragmatism, sexism disguised as common sense.

Even as these voters seem to acknowledge the seriousness of sexism, they wind up reinforcing it with their actions, reducing the likelihood that a woman could become president by asserting confidently that it is not possible.

The perception that a woman can’t win the presidency stems mostly from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, a single data point that is given undue importance in voters’ minds. After all, the loser of every other presidential election was a man, but no one questions men’s viability as candidates because of their gender. There is some empirical evidence to suggest that women have a harder time in races for executive positions than they do in elections to legislatures, and there is a good deal of evidence that women face uphill battles to attain positions that have not been held by women in the past. But Vox reports that while data suggest that sexism was a factor in the 2016 race, it was not decisive. And in 2018, women who were not incumbents were more likely to win their midterm elections than any other kind of candidate.

There is considerable evidence, too, that a progressive can win. Even if terms like socialism continue to garner disapproval from voters, particularly older ones, actual social-democratic policies are extremely popular. Data for Progress national polling found high support for raising the minimum wage, higher support for Medicare for All, and overwhelming support for a job guarantee. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is historically unpopular.

Why, then, do voters distrust one another so much, and how have progressives developed such a low opinion of their fellow Americans?

The 2016 election made it impossible to ignore the divisions in the American electorate. Progressives, liberals, and those generally inclined to value pluralism and tolerance were genuinely surprised by the Trump victory, genuinely frightened and disgusted to learn that so many of their neighbors shared his racism and relished his cruelty. Many of them took from 2016 the lesson that the electorate is wildly conservative and deeply bigoted, and that to win, Democrats must be as indistinguishable from Republicans as possible: that their candidate must lean to the right, and that he must be a white man.

This impulse has been encouraged by a Democratic Party that for decades has pivoted rightward, equivocated on its principles, and kept the passions of its base in check. Republicans have set the terms of the debate; Democrats have expressed opposition but often failed to offer a clear counter-agenda. The strategy has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where Americans elect conservatives because nothing else is on offer. Democrats don’t articulate what the progressive future would look like, and then use their losses as evidence of a need to move further right—all to avoid a worse and crueler Republican regime. So progressive values are left behind in the name of a vague but cynical concept of “electability.” The guess that a woman can’t be elected president is a variation on this same theme.

Warren’s bet is different. She’s pitching herself as hyper-competent, full of “plans,” and dedicated, above all, to righting the wrongs done by economic injustice. She’s a technocrat but speaks in moral terms, explaining her policy agenda to audiences in a way that presumes neither their stupidity nor their malice. Hers is a campaign based in an unusual degree of intelligent optimism, presuming not that the American electorate is dumb, racist, or full of cruelty, but that they are hardworking people who want one another to thrive. In this way, Warren has positioned herself as Trump’s opposite, not just ideologically but also temperamentally and morally: She is thoughtful and deliberate where he is impulsive and reckless; she is compassionate and kind where he is brutish and rude; she is empathetic and attentive where he is sneering and contemptuous.

If in past contests Democrats have followed Republicans to the right, in this one they have a chance to try something new—to state clearly their own principles and ideas. Warren’s strategy is based on the radical idea that if American voters are given the opportunity to support an agenda that’s both coherent and compassionate, they will take it.

Judging from the Iowa polls, they are taking it. But in order for Warren’s bet to pay off in the longer term, voters have to trust one another as much as Warren trusts them.