You wouldn’t know it looking at the headlines, but the Democratic primary is not over. After three contests, only one of which had a clear and definitive victor, the media has declared that the nominee will inevitably be the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. Emissaries from the party’s centrist wing have begun wetting themselves accordingly. To hear some pundits tell it, both the primary contest and the general election have already been decided: it will definitely be Sanders, they tell us, and he will definitely lose.
Absent from these prognostications has been Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator whose campaign has faltered in recent months. After a third place finish in Iowa and a disappointing fourth place showing in New Hampshire, her candidacy has largely been presumed dead. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of potential general election matchups didn’t even include her. The television host Joe Scarborough, declaring that the party must unify to defeat Sanders, unhelpfully called on Warren to drop out of the race on Monday, along with the only other woman still running, the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. “Is it time for Elizabeth Warren [to drop out]?” Scarborough asked on MSNBC. “Is it time for her to get out of the race?”
But the day before Scarborough made his comments, a new CBS national poll showed that Warren had surged to second place. Her debate performance in Nevada the week before had been incendiary, re-energizing her passionate base of support. At the debate, she dismissed the centrist Klobuchar for her inadequate healthcare plan. “Its two paragraphs. It’s like a Post-It,” she said. And she took down the arrogant and ill-prepared Mike Bloomberg, grilling him on his use of NDAs to silence women who have sued him and his company for sexual harassment and discrimination. The former mayor of New York stood blinking and sputtering next to her, dismayed and unable to answer her attacks. The next poll released after the debate showed Bloomberg down 20 points.
The message of Warren’s Nevada debate performance was clear: what she did to Bloomberg, she can do to Trump. Voters took note. She raised more money than any other candidate after that debate. After the New Hampshire primary, her campaign had set an ambitious goal of raising $7m before the Nevada contest; they raised more than double that, much of it from first-time donors.
Female candidates are long warned against expressing anger, and for months on the campaign trail Warren had been rigorously positive, declining to take the bait offered her in earlier debates by Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and attempting to tamp down news stories about a sexist remark allegedly made to her in private by Sanders. Mostly, she responded to criticism in good faith, by doing her homework. When her rivals complained that she had no proposition for how to pay for Medicare for All she rolled out an ambitious plan to do so in full, something that the other candidates running on Medicare for All were never asked to do. When it was pointed out that she needed more support from black voters, she began building a racial justice element into every plank of her policy platform. As a female candidate, she was subjected to double standards and double binds: she can’t be angry or emasculating to her male rivals, but she also can’t seem weak, or vacuously chipper. Her response was largely to avoid conflict, and to keep her own side of the street clean. The result is perhaps the most rigorously researched and socially accountable policy platform of any presidential candidate in the nation’s history.
For a while, it worked: Warren surged in the summer and fall, and she built an organizing operation and a grassroots donor network rivaled only by Sanders, a white man who has effectively been running for president for five years. But the media loves to write the story of a downfall, and reports of a sexist comment by Sanders proved disastrous for her campaign early this year. Sanders supporters called her a snake; other voters wondered whether the misogyny they were demonstrating might not doom a female candidate in a general election. Her fundraising remains robust, as does her polling, but now, her candidacy has all but been declared dead.
Perhaps this is why Warren now feels free to be frankly angry: not just because playing nice has stopped working, but because her treatment has been deeply unfair. She is the most qualified, the most intelligent and she has run the best campaign, and yet she is being passed over in favor of candidates who are less honest, less prepared, less capable, less morally committed, or simply male. That Warren has been dismissed in favor of these lesser candidates is legitimately unfair, and anger is an appropriate response.
But the American people are angry, too. They are angry at a billionaire class that has enriched themselves at working people’s expense; they are angry at the cruelty of the Trump administration; they are angry at their student debt and at the impunity of men who sexually abuse women. And they are angry, too, at the way this election has panned out: they are angry that the media and the Democratic leadership seem to be antagonistic toward progressive values; they are angry that all the candidates who have survived until voting are white and that most are male; they are angry that a racist, sexist and misogynist billionaire has been able to buy his way into the primary contest, arguing that the only way for a Democrat to beat Trump is to have enough money to essentially rig the election in his favor. They are angry that they think this billionaire might be right.
Warren has always had a keen sense of injustice, and a righteous anger at those who perpetuate it. She seems to have finally stopped playing the unwinnable game of trying to be a likable female candidate, and to have embraced something closer to her real self: a woman who is mightily and eloquently pissed at what is being done to working Americans, and with an exact and thoroughgoing understanding of what has to be done to make things right. Win or lose, her anger and her passion have inspired millions, and no Democrat will win the White House without her guidance and her help. Democrats ignore Warren’s anger – and women’s anger – at their own peril.