Elizabeth Warren has me all fucked up. I was all ready to dodge the 2020 primary season as long as possible, getting ready for a new round of the Bernie/Hillary trench wars to suck all the energy out of the room and leave everyone picking at old scabs and deifying or demonizing politicians instead of focusing on what could be done to help less powerful people.
It’s not that I was tired of politics. It’s just that I was tired of that conversation. The thing I’d found most satisfying about getting involved locally after the rise of Trump was the serious approach that activists took to their work. It wasn’t about following heroes, it was about having a serious discussion of what needed to be done to alleviate the systemic problems in our society and looking at politicians as vehicles for the solutions to these problems. I liked that energy, and I wanted to keep it rolling and ignore the horse race. And then one of the dang ol’ horses had to capture the exact energy I was searching for, and now I’m back at the track sitting on the edge of my seat with a ticket in my hand that says “Elizabeth Warren.”
I am not a neutral commentator (who would be in such days?) I gave Elizabeth Warren money, met her, and support her on account of thinking she has the best case for being president. I would like to get a job on the campaign where they pay me money to support her professionally.
I always liked Warren. She entered into the political scene with a clear and important mission, was bold and precise in hearings, and had just the kind of idealistic nerdiness I find endearing. I remember one time someone at The Onion proposed an idea about her and Bernie Sanders dating, and I said “oh, come on, Bernie’s not in her league,” and this was back when I still felt a lot of warmth toward him for bringing both socialist policies and old Brooklyn Jewish speech patterns into the mainstream. It’s a silly detail, but I mean to say I always read her as very “likable,” and still do.
But what’s getting me grinning, laughing, cheering, and jumping out of my chair about her 2020 campaign is the part of her that does not give a fuck whether you like her or not. I’ve never seen a campaign before that was led more by policy - radical policies to solve socioeconomic problems intersectional, taxation policies to pay for the plans, meta-political policies to pass the other policies through congress, ethical policies to preserve the integrity of the system, fundraising policies to keep the campaign free of big donor influence, staff pay policies to ensure gender equity. In 2020, I know what Elizabeth Warren intends to do, and how, before I know how she’d bluster about it, before I’ve heard a single vague promise, before I’ve seen her try to ingratiate herself to the groups she’d benefit. Rather than leading with an image of herself as a leader, she’s leading with a description of the problems that plague our society, and the things we can do about them. It’s campaigning by demonstration.
This isn’t the most exciting thing in the TV world, or at least the cable news, reality TV world that Trump played so well. It doesn’t fit the image of those type of stars. But it’s very exciting in activist world, because those are the moves people recognized as being practiced by the people who get things done, and that lights people up with the excitement of the changes actually happening. I’m a basic dude and American media consumer like a lot of the people who are going to be voting, so I get why people love candidates who remind them of war heroes, sports heroes, “geniuses.” But that’s how Warren’s campaign feels once you’ve been at that space - the same level of boldness and excellence, in an arena where it’s actually useful. She’s firing off policies like supersonic rockets, exploding onto the scene before you hear them coming. She’s quietly sinking threes while everyone else on the court is dribbling around but afraid to drive or shoot. She’s sneaking into the classroom and solving math problems on the board before anyone else is even expected to attempt an answer. Imagine it like that, except the results are actually applied to real people’s lives and the greater social good.
Maybe you don’t feel it the same way. Maybe some of her policies have holes, or are misguided in overall approach. Maybe you’re still rubbed the wrong way by some of her missteps, or you’d like to see more reliable support for groups that the conversation still misses. But the world in which she’s conducting her campaign, a world in which we start with a clear description of problems and address them through substantial solutions, is where we should be having the discussion. Warren doesn’t have a monopoly on this realm of the campaign. Julián Castro has been focused on issues the whole time, and has the most comprehensive immigration policy of anyone. Jay Inslee is clear on climate change. Kamala Harris has a teacher pay policy that would be transformative and that I hadn’t seen in mainstream politics until now. Bernie Sanders is introducing voting rights overhauls and bold foreign policy changes. Amy Klobuchar has a plan to use clemency powers to reverse drug sentences that can be done without Congress. Beto O’Rourke has a disability rights platform that, while it still needs work, is informed by real face-to-face talks with activists. Maybe one day even Joe Biden will contribute an idea. But at some point, policies will have to reach people, directly, in a way that a warm smile, a relatable food choice, a skateboarding demonstration, an impressive set of language skills, won’t, and since these are the things that will need to happen these are the things we should be talking about.
So bring your A game. I don’t think anyone else in the primary field can go to-to-toe with Warren in the arena of policy and beat her. But if they can, good. That’s a strong candidate who can help people and understands how. That’s also a candidate who will have spent time arguing the relative advantages and disadvantages of solutions to serious problems, rather than fighting vague speculation about their personality that they can’t do much about. They will have come out of that trial stronger, and mastered a world in which Donald Trump is completely incompetent, ridiculous, unable to even grasp the issues let alone articulate them let alone solve them. They will also have skills that apply in the world we actually live in – a world in which boring but serious structural rules determine our fate, and restructuring of those rules changes lives. We have to live in that world, and our candidates should too.