The 2020 Democratic primary took place in a disorienting atmosphere. The 2016 election, in which the supposedly unelectable candidate had defeated the supposedly safe one, seemed to overturn all the conventional assumptions about the electorate, and many activists and candidates went into the next election as if those assumptions weren’t true. Perhaps the voters were craving an even more radical change to the system. Maybe the key was to activate the moribund progressive voters who had been energized by Bernie Sanders and then sat out the general election.
Eventually, reality intervened. Joe Biden’s runaway victory, followed by an unexpectedly close general election that saw Black and (especially) Latino voters swing toward Donald Trump, reasserted many of the old laws of political physics.
Persist, Elizabeth Warren’s new memoir of her life and presidential campaign, is an excellent and informative account of how that bubble formed. Her campaign was perhaps a prime case study in the delirious post-2016 atmosphere and the errors in political judgment it produced.
The problem is that she is so deep inside that bubble she seems not to recognize it for what it was. She can paint a compelling portrait of what the inside of the Democratic Party activist bubble looked like, but shows no awareness that there is anything outside of the bubble, or even that she was inside of one.
Warren does deal extensively with campaign questions about her electability. But she treats these as largely, and even axiomatically, sexist. She recognizes both a directly sexist effect (voters who would support a male Democrat, but not a female one) and secondary sexism (voters who hesitated to nominate her because other voters might not support a woman). And there is no question that sexism played a role. In particular, Warren suffered from the superficial inference made by many Democrats that, since Hillary Clinton lost and was a woman, the party couldn’t risk nominating another woman.
But sexism alone has a hard time explaining why Warren took the lead in national polls of primary voters before collapsing in the fall of 2019. Surely, the reason many of the voters who were prepared to nominate her changed their mind is not that they learned her gender.
Warren’s account ignores the possibility that her campaign simply misjudged the electorate, both within the party and outside it. As a result, she positioned herself too far left, which not only cost her support among Democrats, but created well-founded concerns — even among Democrats who liked her ideas — about her ability to beat Trump. (I was one of those voters. My initial enthusiasm for her candidacy gave way to dismay at her apparent lack of political savvy.) Perhaps she would have lost no matter what she did, but her strategic choices seem to have hurt her chances in ways she does not acknowledge.
At the outset of her campaign, Warren staked her ground closer to the ideological center of the party. She labeled herself “capitalist to my bones,” pledged to avoid any tax increases on the middle class, and emphasized her interest in reforming the most dangerous and antisocial corporate behavior. This was in keeping with Warren’s identity as a former Republican who had been inspired to join public life in response to egregious abuses of the financial system.
Yet the competition with Sanders pulled her farther and farther left. Not only did she join other candidates in endorsing highly unpopular proposals like completely decriminalizing border enforcement and providing subsidized health insurance to undocumented immigrants, but she continued to load new program after new program onto her platform.
The biggest trouble came in her decision to junk her health-care plan. Warren initially promised to bring about universal health insurance by building on Obamacare. In 2019, she decided to join Sanders by endorsing Medicare for All. Bringing 150 million people currently covered by employer health insurance onto government rolls, increasing the federal budget by more than half, would make it impossible for her to keep her promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.
Warren does briefly describe a damaging debate in which other candidates piled on the questionable math assumptions undergirding her plans. She doesn’t consider that her own decision to abandon her original health-care plan put her in a position where those questions were so easy to ask and so difficult to answer.
In February 2020, at a moment Biden’s campaign was bottoming out, Perry Bacon astutely noted that the balance of power within the Democratic primary was held by voters with “somewhat liberal” views. Warren’s campaign, though, has spent a year sprinting away from those voters, as if the party was actually torn between social democracy and democratic socialism.
Warren shares her obvious pride at her refusal to accept large donations, which steered her toward a mass donor base that eventually raised well over $100 million. This strategy, Warren argues, freed her from having to cater to the views of wealthy funders. She fails to consider the possibility that the need to constantly excite her small donor base with a constant string of new progressive announcements may have entrapped her in a different way.
The most painfully oblivious sections are when Warren describes her efforts to woo Black and Latino activists, whose endorsements she equates with wooing those communities as a whole. After one speech about racism, she exults, “the Washington Post said it was the speech Black activists had been waiting for.” The release of her cutting-edge progressive criminal-justice plan “got a good reception” from an activist, whose approving tweet she quotes with satisfaction. Her endorsement by “Black Womxn For” is a moment of triumph in the narrative.
Despite the extensive detail of her hard work to win over activists, she shows no measures of broader Black sentiment. In February 2020, New York Times reporter Astead Herndon detailed how Warren’s success with Black and Latino political activists had yielded barely any support among actual Black and Latino voters. Warren’s strategy, noted Herndon, revealed “the limits of using the language of progressive activists to speak to a Black community that is more ideologically diverse.”
That disconnect became even more starkly evident the following November when Trump made shocking gains with conservative-leaning Black and Latino voters. That result produced a searching examination of the disconnect between the increasingly left-wing cadre of young, college-educated activists on the left and its voters, especially the party’s disproportionately Black and brown moderate wing.
If Warren learned anything from this failure, or even considers it a failure at all, Persist does not let on. The shame is that Warren’s emphasis on sexism as a cause of her defeat leaves little in the way of usable lessons for the admirers she has justifiably drawn. (Female candidates can’t do anything about their sex.) The actual lessons of her campaign would be to treat the cadres of activists on Twitter and in academia as just one small yet vocal constituency within the party, not the party itself. Warren is hardly alone in succumbing to this fallacy — the same misread of the electorate tripped up most of the field, with the famously Not Online Joe Biden being an exception.
Maybe the goal of Persist is to console and inspire her supporters, rather than conduct a serious autopsy. Still, if she wishes for her successors to fare better, Warren ought to put her famously incisive analytic skills to use analyzing her own campaign.