'Class Warfare' and Gender Politics in Massachusetts

Could Elizabeth Warren's Harvard association hurt her chances in a match-up against incumbent Senator (and "everyman") Scott Brown?

Elizabeth Warren embarked on her first campaign meet and greet in "sensible shoes," WBUR reporter David Boeri stressed. Clad in a "royal blue jacket" with "cropped short blond hair and rimless glasses," she looked a bit like a PTA president from an upscale suburban town, Boeri suggested. He might just as easily have compared her to a PTA president from a middle class town, a librarian, or every other simply dressed 60-year-old woman not tottering around in stilettos. He might even have described Warren's jacket (perhaps more accurately) as robin's egg or sky, not "royal" blue -- if only she was not, as Boeri reminded us, "this Harvard professor and member of the elite."

Scott Brown wears sensible shoes too, but his are not newsworthy. Brown's fashion signifier is a barn jacket. You might say it makes him look a bit like a country squire if you didn't know it has made him into everyman. Brown is our casual Friday senator, with a well-established ordinary guy image, although these days sartorial insouciance is as much a sign of wealth as folksiness. At a recent birthday bash for a local developer and philanthropist attended by some 400 people, Brown was one of only two men I saw not wearing a tie: the other was a gazillionaire.

In fact, both Senator Brown and Professor Warren are members of the elite, and neither were born into it. Both can and will boast of relatively humble backgrounds and early hardships as they battle for the seat held by the late, to the manor-born Ted Kennedy, a champion for poor people and the middle class. (Economic backgrounds, like appearances, can be deceptive, or irrelevant. "Neatness isn't everything," the often disheveled Barney Frank declared in an early campaign.)

Still, in these anti-rational, anti-intellectual times, with populism co-opted by political fabulism, a Harvard association stings. Warren is much more likely to be tarred as an intellectual elitist than an economic one, especially in the general election (if she wins the nomination, as expected.) Brown, known as a former model and easy-going jock, not a policy wonk, is un-burdened by intellectualism; he ran strongly among voters without college degrees and relatively poorly among college educated voters in 2010. But Warren is not professorial or condescending; she's doesn't have the look or feel of a stereotypical Harvard professor; and when she gives voice to her populist passions, economically strapped voters may not mind her rimless glasses and high intelligence. (In fact, she already bests Brown in one poll.)

How might gender politics interact with economic anxieties and class conflicts in a race between Warren and Brown? For years, conventional wisdom has held that female candidates fare relatively well when "it's the economy stupid," and not crime or national security. Traditionally women were presumed to be more honest and compassionate than men and accustomed to balancing budgets. Traditionally, female candidates have exploited feminine stereotypes in advancing themselves and items on a feminist agenda, notably suffrage. (Government is "enlarged housekeeping," Jane Addams once said.) But the extreme, atypical economic crisis currently confronting voters can't simply be said to require better housekeeping; deficit reduction is not an exercise in compassion, and neither honesty nor compassion seem highly valued today, as male and female Republicans alike run as un-compassionate conservatives and self-styled mama grizzlies revel in ruthlessness.

Elizabeth Warren (who will let people know she's a mother and grandmother) seems poised to run both as an unabashedly compassionate liberal and a stern disciplinarian, who'll balance empathy for working and middle class voters with the promise of punishment, or reform, for the institutions exploiting them. For Democratic women in Massachusetts, committed to diversifying a mostly male delegation, Warren is the anti-Bachmann, anti-Palin candidate.

Republicans started successfully recruiting female candidates back in the 1980s, but they were somewhat disadvantaged then by support among women for reproductive choice, family leave, and other rights championed by Democrats. Today feminism is incoherent, support for choice is more tenuous, and Republicans have successfully run some faux feminists distinguished by their looks, fashion sense, or grizzly maternal instincts and a perverse platform of female empowerment based partly on prohibiting abortions. Perhaps in Massachusetts, Democrats can successfully run the real thing.