The Tragedy of Elizabeth Warren
How the Massachusetts Senator Went From Progressive Firebrand to Establishment Sellout in a Single Primary Season
Flashback: it’s the week before Super Tuesday. Fourteen states and the Democrats Abroad prepare to determine more than a third of the delegate allocation for the Democratic presidential nominee. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is on the heels of disappointing 3rd and 4th place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively. She then came in 4th place in Nevada, where Bernie Sanders quadrupled her vote total. Warren has, to this point, trailed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in every single contest — and with Super Tuesday around the corner, Pete has already dropped out. With no mathematical path to the nomination, the right thing to do to empower a progressive movement based on the ideology she claimed to exemplify was obvious: drop out and endorse the senator from Vermont. Nevertheless, she persisted.
For every hopeful story of principled underdogs winning against long-shot odds, there are a thousand cautionary tales of people that sold their souls for personal gain — and lost anyways. At some point it became apparent that Warren was no longer vying for the presidency, instead playing the type of cynical, self-serving political gamesmanship so many find off-putting about D.C. culture.
Polls showed her losing in her home state of Massachusetts. Her campaign funds ran dry, and she readily embraced an influx of dark money from the rapidly-formed Persist PAC, running more than $14 million of last-minute ad buys in Super Tuesday states, again, despite a mathematical impossibility for her to win the nomination.
And perhaps most tellingly, this all came despite Warren herself outspokenly condemning Super PAC funds on multiple occasions. Her own campaign website boasts this, saying, “Elizabeth rejects big money’s influence on our political system: she’s not taking a dime of PAC money in this campaign.” And I’m typing that in present tense — you can go look at her official presidential campaign website right now in August 2020 at the time of this article’s writing, and it still says that.
Not Us, Me
The last minute flip was audacious in all the wrong ways, a loud-and-clear pronouncement that, to Warren, progressive virtues are the kind of things to be deployed and rescinded based on what she believes is politically expedient. A sort of “Not Us, Me” perversion of the values embodied by a movement that had mostly supported Warren’s brand of policy-wonk progressivism in the months prior. For reformists intrigued by a viable alternative to Sen. Sanders (with similar legislative proposals, if not quite as far-reaching) that would also be the first woman elected President of the United States, this was a brazen stab in the back. To Sandernistas that had spent a bulk of the campaign trail following Bernie’s example of not attacking Warren, opting instead to draw contrasts between the two New England senators and the establishment corporatists filling the rest of the debate stages, this was a confirmation of cynical predictions voiced long ago about Warren’s loyalty to the populist left.
She enjoyed a few weeks in the campaign season where her polling numbers were very strong and it looked like she might run away with the progressive coalition elevating her over Sanders, especially when he had a heart attack and concerns about his health dominated the media cycle. But following timely endorsements from AOC, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, Sanders’s numbers spiked, and Warren’s campaign found itself at a crossroads. What followed stunned some progressives (and certainly did not stun others), when Warren’s campaign messaging took on a sharp anti-Sanders tilt. Efforts were made to paint Sanders’s online supporters as vicious (feeding into the nonsensical Bernie Bro narrative oft deployed by the Democratic establishment in the previous cycle), and painting Sanders himself as anti-feminist in a bizarre accusation that he’d told her a woman could not win the presidency. The debates went full reality TV when Warren rebuffed Sanders’s outstretched hand, and the image of Tom Steyer standing goofily near the tense scene was burned into our minds forever.
A History of Hypocrisy
Questions about Sen. Warren’s trustworthiness had been raised plenty of times prior to this point in the primary. Few could forget her dishonest claim toward Native American heritage when filing for the State Bar of Texas, nor her embarrassing doubling down on it when she touted results of a subsequent DNA test. Some will recall the open letter from 200 tribal citizens expressing their frustrations with the entire debacle. The ensuing back-and-forth prompted Julie Hubbard, executive director of communications for Cherokee Nation, to remind Warren and everyone else that “…being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws not through DNA tests,” and the issue remained not only a PR nightmare for Warren and her team, but a valid point of concern regarding the senator’s character.
Others, still, will recall Warren’s no-show at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. When the Standing Rock Sioux and allies fought to prevent the pipeline’s creation, Warren was absent. She stayed out of the fray while the issue was politically hazardous, emerging only to speak out once the matter was already settled and the Army Corps of Engineers denied the pipeline’s permit. This was after indigenous and environmental activists had endured tear gas and pepper spray-laden clashes with law enforcement for the better part of a year. To contrast, Sanders had joined the protests months prior to Warren’s canned statement on the day of the ruling.
And perhaps the most blatant show of cold, political calculation came during the 2016 primary season, when Warren chose not to endorse anyone during the heated clashes between Sanders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite a clear difference of ideology between the two candidates.
Clinton, the complete personification of neoliberal corruption, enjoyed Warren’s endorsement after Sanders’s defeat.
Some on the left will understandably claim they didn’t trust Warren from the get-go. Others began the 2020 primary a bit more open-minded about her, perhaps eager to find allies in a crowded field of overtly corporatist candidates and assuming that she or Sanders would endorse the other without hesitation once it was clear they held no path forward, coalescing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party into a force that no amount of dark money or backroom deals could defeat.
Instead, in what appears to be a failed attempt at gaming for a spot on the ticket opposite former Vice President Biden, she ends the campaign having lost all credibility with the populist left.
She has nothing to show for her blatantly sacrificed principles but a memorable and ignominious place as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to co-opt progressive ideals for selfish gain.
In many ways, the Washington machine reflects the same dynamics of personal erosion of the capitalist system Warren supposedly sought to reform. To thrive within the broken system as an individual, one faces tremendous pressure to “play by its rules,” often emerging more materially powerful at the cost of one’s faithfulness to noble virtue. If the original goal is lost in the process, one can hardly call that victory. And in that sense, Sen. Warren represents a critical lesson for anyone seeking the best theory of change for the United States: attempting to compromise with a corrupt-by-design system leads only to personal degradation. Attempts to reform will leave you lesser, not the machine. For real change to occur, you have to be the unchanging, uncompromising element.
Your morals have to persist. In the end, Warren’s didn’t.