Elizabeth Warren’s outgoing words to her staffers evoked the image of a boxing ring: “We left plenty of blood and teeth on the floor,” she told them. Her voice didn’t crack from sorrow, but just from making itself heard through whatever was left of her vocal cords.
She went down a fighter, exhausted but not beaten. Exiting the primary race as the last plausible female nominee, she knew she didn’t have the luxury of tears, not if she wanted pundits to cover her words instead of her emotions.
My Warren-supporting female friends around the country, however, freed from the expectations of political reporters, cried a lot. And while we’re all pretty in touch with our emotions, none of us is new enough to politics to take disappointment too personally. Usually. My group text of Warren fans (“Dog Moms for Bailey,” if you must know) was populated with crying emoji and at least one selfie featuring red eyes and tear streaks. There were subdued admissions: “I teared up.” “So sad. I’m just so sad.”
When I mentioned the intensity of the reactions I saw to a female acquaintance, someone I didn’t even know supported Warren, she replied, “Oh, I cried, too.” A friend who had canvassed for Bernie Sanders told me, “I didn’t expect to feel as much as I did.”
The Warren campaign surprised me too: I didn’t expect to support her. I'm earnest about a lot of things: my recovery from alcoholism, my faith, my relationships, my pets. But not about politics, not about politicians. So I didn’t think I’d wind up in one of those selfie lines—then order a framed copy of the photo. I didn’t expect to buy a Warren hoodie—then constantly refresh the UPS website, urging the package to arrive at my home in time for the South Carolina debate. I certainly never expected that I would start knocking on strangers’ doors to talk about her. I didn’t expect to feel the grief I feel right now. Going into the primary, my only expectation about the Warren campaign was that I was pretty sure she was going to lose.
In the aftermath, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why I—someone who’d always maintained an ironic distance from politics, sometimes quite vocally—would feel so strongly about a candidate. Not a candidate; this candidate. Even more to the point, why would I sink my limited capacity for earnest human interaction into a cause that was all but certainly lost?
There are a lot of different metaphors for what sincere steadfastness in the face of almost certain failure feels like. You could point to deck chairs in various formations on the Titanic, or the speed and trajectory of a lance aimed at a windmill. To me, campaigning for Warren felt like all the times in college I harangued my classmates about the independent bands I followed and wrote about, pulling them over to the stereo with some version of “You’ve got to hear this.”
I was born in 1972, putting me in the smack-dab middle of Generation X. In the early ’90s, when I was a college student, few things felt as important to me as making sure that everyone I knew heard about those bands. And few things were as guaranteed to be met with polite indifference—or aggressive eye-rolling—by anyone who wasn’t already part of that self-selecting subculture. But I didn’t care. I found these bands at shows, at small record stores that smelled like cardboard and clove cigarettes, on my college radio station. They had inscrutable names (Beat Happening, Silver Jews, Bettie Serveert, Melt-Banana) and limited pressings. Finding the bands involved searching for them, and the effort involved in discovery inspired both a territorial sense of possession (these bands were mine) and an ecstatic evangelism. Wasn’t everyone searching for something this real?
In the infectious twang of indie pop, the vulnerable warble of solo singer-songwriters, and the vicious hooks of punk rock I found something unpolished enough to feel genuine, something authentic when the world offered Authenticity™.
I’m white and my parents were middle-class, so my cultural touchstones come from a popular culture that was supposedly aimed exactly at me—but technology was changing the world so fast, my cohort could see the micro-targeting coming. So my tastes emerged from the murky twilight between the decline of the three major TV networks and the rise of the everything-available-everywhere internet, the moment between buying records and infinite downloads.
And I'm part of the generation of feminists who came of political age watching the Clarence Thomas hearings and the Bill Clinton impeachment. People my age saw the Supreme Court decide an election and a president start a war based on a lie.
In this environment, you learned very quickly that authority figures would deceive you, and that if you wanted anything different from what was suffocatingly popular, you were going to have to find it yourself. These ideas were related: If something was popular, it probably rested on some kind of lie. Brands could not be trusted, and we understood that politicians were just another kind of brand.
Hillary Clinton and Anita Hill taught me another sour truth: Being a woman—simply existing in the world of men—meant always being something less than authentic. Even the world of independent music demanded making compromises, having my words and ideas lifted out of my possession. I found myself powerless to resist protective coloring. I tried to be myself, but I was also always reflecting back at people what they wanted to see. In other words, being a woman in the world of indie rock was like being a woman anywhere.
Still, I found my own identity in the aggressive idiosyncrasies of those ’90s bands because their uniqueness suggested that I could be unique. I wanted them to succeed because it would allow me to believe that my own rough edges didn’t need to be softened too much. Authenticity might be rewarded.
Nonetheless, I became an adult assuming that I’d never hear what I really loved on the radio and that I'd never cast a ballot for the person I actively wanted in the Oval Office.
In 2008, I enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama, but I was very aware that I was voting for a brand even more than I was voting for a man. (And I was also very aware that I was voting for a man.)
As for Hillary Clinton, a brand was what she had been forced to become, and I didn’t blame her for that. Even that sacrifice wasn’t enough to inch past the seething, barely sentient blister of rage and bigotry she ran against in 2016, a man endlessly lauded for his own “authenticity” although nothing about him, from follicles to finances, is real.
No wonder my friends and I were reluctant to voice admiration for Elizabeth Warren at first. There was her incredible, tone-deaf opening gambit too: When she publicized those DNA-test results, I wrote her almost completely off. She was another disappointment, another future compromise to make.
But as her policies piled up and the selfie lines stretched, my friends and I began to talk in literal hushed tones about the feelings we were beginning to have. Her passion and palpable joy in campaigning caught our eye. Her quick wit bore repeating. I remember one quiet conversation on a dark airplane with another journalist who’d met her; maybe we were trying to avoid waking the other passengers, but it also seemed as if we were trying to keep a secret: I really like her, she said. I’m afraid, because I like her and I’m not sure I want to.
Personally, I found her plans appealing, but they seemed very, you know, on brand. Intellectually, I was confident that she was the candidate I’d most like to vote for, but “the candidate I’d most like to vote for” was a bar set familiarly low.
What happened was, I started to root for her in the debates. At first, I considered the other female candidates. Watching the crowded initial debates was, in fact, a little like going to those half-empty bars to see a lineup of 12 different bands, most of whom were playing the same exact shit but then you’d hear a lyric or riff that shot you straight through the heart. I can tell you the line that turned me from a casual listener into a die-hard fan of that one particular band: “I think you just called me a liar on national television.”
Reader, I jumped off the couch. I may have danced.
Warren was responding to a quasi-tiff that was 90 percent media invention and 10 percent eye-rolling “Well, duh”: She had been asked about an anecdote sourced to people close to her campaign, in which Bernie Sanders had told Warren something along the lines of A woman wouldn’t be able to run for the presidency and win (it was never clear what the direct quote was). Asked on the debate stage if the anecdote was true, Sanders said no. Given a chance to respond to their earlier interaction, Warren said (with what I’d consider remarkable restraint), “I disagreed.”
This exchange felt very familiar to me, and, I’m sure, to every woman. The boss takes credit for your idea; you register your complaint. Everyone moves on. A colleague talks over you at a meeting; you point out that it happened. Everyone moves on. A stranger catcalls you; you straighten your shoulders and narrow your eyes. Everyone moves on. I got angry but what are you gonna do?
But Warren didn’t move on. She approached Sanders calmly; she spoke evenly; she didn’t make a demand or ask for anything; she didn’t give him the chance to make a denial. “I think you just called me a liar on national television.”
It would not make as snappy a bumper sticker as “Dream big, fight hard,” but it is the expression of the same idea.
Her masterful kneecapping of Michael Bloomberg was better television, and shortly after, her otherworldly patience with a flabbergasted Chris Matthews was too. She lopped off the career possibilities of both men with surgical precision.
But all I needed to see was Warren standing up for herself when she didn’t know that anyone was watching. Or, more precisely, when she didn’t care who was. She was caught being herself—as authentic and inspirational as any indie anthem. Something about the accidental way the moment was captured made it feel like a discovery too. The flurry of texts with my pals was full of “Did you see that? Did you?”
Then I donated. A couple of weeks later, I tagged along with a friend who was working at the Iowa caucus, and when Warren showed up at the high-school gym we were parked in, I shook off the last remaining vestiges of hesitation and got in that selfie line.
That was, of course, the last moment when it seemed like her candidacy really had a chance. She came in third in Iowa, and then fourth in New Hampshire, and by the third week of February, she was polling behind Bloomberg nationally and predicted to lose her home state. I bought a hoodie anyway.
And when disappointment was taking on its sharpest definition, I started knocking on doors. Two weeks before Super Tuesday, only the barest sliver of a path to the nomination existed (to call what she needed a miracle would imply that God could do something about the patriarchy, and there’s not much evidence of that).
I live in Minnesota, so people were nice, but I didn’t get a lot of takers. I urged pamphlets on reluctant Joe Biden supporters with the recommendation that they could save them as souvenirs: “You can tell your kids about the most qualified woman who ever ran for president!” I stood with an undecided father on his porch for 20 minutes, as his toddler son climbed up and down his legs, and talked about her policies for education and racial justice. He asked me, “But what about making your vote count?” All I could say was that I felt like voting for her was a vote that counted. I wanted—I still want—the world to know that she was my choice, the best choice. I want to vote for more people—women—like her. In other words: You’ve really got to listen to this band.
I watched the Super Tuesday results with dry eyes, unsurprised and thus not overwhelmed. When she gave her farewell statement to the media, and her even feistier speech to her staff, I felt my gut twist, but it didn’t wring out any tears.
Those came during the texts and talks with my friends, when I realized the magnitude of what we shared and found the stubborn mustard seed of hope I’d had despite myself. We wanted her to win because we wanted to win. Her victory wouldn’t be a victory for “women,” but a victory that affirmed a woman could succeed without being anything but her specific self. Authenticity would be rewarded.
I feel slightly ridiculous going on like this about a person. Of course she was flawed, as was her campaign. And being this earnest in this political environment is slightly terrifying. Look what happened to her.
Yet when you find solidarity in the celebration of singularity, losing it feels like losing a part of yourself. To want something so much that you want others to want it too is rare. It’s that same precious mix I found in music: feeling seen as an individual and still having the utter conviction that others will see themselves too. How often can these emotions exist in balance with each other?
I could have cried about the injustice of Warren’s loss or out of anger for all the abuse she is still going to take. But I didn’t. I cried because I loved the idea of her presidency so much that I wanted you to love it too.
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