If your social circle is similar to mine, you likely know which op-ed I’m referring to. In case you don’t, it’s the one by Farhad Manjoo dated June 5, entitled “I Want to Live in Elizabeth Warren’s America.” The condescension begins before the first paragraph, as the subtitle reads, “The Massachusetts senator is proposing something radical: a country in which adults discuss serious ideas seriously.”
The title and the subtitle together imply that that Manjoo wants to live in a more “serious” America, where “adults” can debate and discuss the nuances of in depth policy ideas put forward by the likes of Harvard professors-turned-political candidates. He wants to live in an America where intellectual rigor trumps flowery rhetoric, and where specific details trump broader, more visionary programs.
As for myself, I’d like to live in an America where everyone has healthcare. And if it takes a less cultured, less sophisticated, perhaps even less intelligent leader to generate a grassroots movement that can get us there, then I’ll take that over Manjoo’s intellectual utopia any day, any time. At one point in his article, Manjoo writes, in reference to his disagreement with Warren’s proposal to break up big technology companies, “For a moment, it almost felt like I was living in a country where adults discuss important issues seriously. Wouldn’t that be a nice country to live in?” The answer: not necessarily.
Why not? Well, it’s not that I dislike Warren. In fact we devoted an entire episode of our podcast to the great policy ideas she has put forward. I agree with nearly all of them, and I do think she deserves ample credit for crafting creative policy proposals that transcend bumper sticker catchphrases and formulaic platitudes. What Warren lacks, however, is the ability, and perhaps even the desire, to build mass movements around these great ideas of hers (I highly recommend Meagan Day’s writings at Jacobin Magazine for a more thorough analysis of this). And one thing that I said during the podcast episode is that much of Warren’s support comes from people who may have similar policy priorities to a candidate like Bernie Sanders, but who harbor a snobbish disdain for his unpolished, some might say “unserious,” brand of politics. To them, a “political revolution” is just a bunch of unwashed hippies in the streets who lack the subtlety and sophistication necessary to implement policy. They much prefer the doctrinaire, professorial technocrat who can expertly craft original, complex proposals all by herself. The campaigns’ two respective slogans, Warren’s newly found catchphrase “I Have a Plan for That” and Sanders’ “Not me. Us.” perfectly illustrate their different approaches.
What’s telling about Manjoo’s op-ed is that he explicitly floats the idea that Warren’s plans could be DOA given the current political climate. He writes:
“You might think I’m getting too giddy here. You might argue that policy ideas, especially at this stage of the game, don’t really matter — either because the public doesn’t care about substance, or because it’s unlikely that any president can get what she wants through a partisan, rigid Congress, so all these plans are a mere academic exercise. Or you may simply not like what you’ve heard of Warren’s ideas. Still, do me a favor. Whatever your politics, pull out your phone, pour yourself a cup of tea, and set aside an hour to at least read Warren’s plans. You’ll see that on just about every grave threat facing Americans today, she offers a plausible theory of the problem and a creative and comprehensive vision for how to address it.”
Yet even after pouring cold water on the notion that these “ideas” will come to fruition, he still celebrates them for what they are. Is the implementation of any of these policies really what’s important to him? Or is the ability to drink tea and read about them in the New York Times enough to usher in the kind of America that he wants to live in? Also note that there’s no mention in this passage, or the entire piece for that matter, of any grassroots activism or mass movements of ordinary people that could help Warren push some of these ideas through the “partisan, rigid Congress.”
Not only is such a mass movement of engaged citizens necessary to implement any kind of pro-active progressive agenda, but such a method of implementation is desirable over this technocratic, top-down approach. At least it is in the America Iwant to live in. I’d like to live in an America where ordinary people, no matter how “unserious” the New York Times may brand them, can band together to fight for policy priorities that they know are urgently needed, regardless of their ability to parse through the minutiae of each one of them. The mother who rations her child’s insulin because she can’t afford the $900 monthly cost knows enough to understand the need for Medicare for All. She doesn’t need to be able to articulate precisely how, in some theoretical political reality that doesn’t exist, she would implement such a policy, at what precise cost, and precisely where she would procure the funding. She doesn’t need to have all those answers just yet, *and neither does her president.*It’s much more important that her president can activate her political energy, along with millions of others’, to create mass demand for sweeping reform. It then falls to the Congress and the cabinet to iron out the details.
If you don’t believe that, you need only to look to recent history, at the struggle over the Affordable Care Act. According to Barack Obama’s great “idea,” the law was to include a public option, a sort of Medicare buy-in. That measure was defeated, not by a Paul Ryan white paper or a Thomas Sowell speaking tour, but by a sweeping grassroots movement of the newly formed Tea Party Republicans who came out in droves across the country to town hall meetings and protest rallies, voicing their staunch opposition to the ACA. Was that not a political revolution of sorts? I mean,they call themselves the Tea Party for chrissakes. And they were successful, not only in neutering much of what would eventually pass as “Obamacare,” but then of course, achieving massive electoral victories the following year, and changing American politics for years to come.
Agree or disagree with the Tea Party, their rise in the early years of the Obama administration was a healthy example of democracy in action. Democracy is what allows the unrefined, unsophisticated, “unserious” people to have a seat at the table, and to have their opinions matter when it comes to forming a government and dictating how it operates. To yearn for an era in which only the most “serious” people are involved in these decisions is fundamentally anti-democratic, and therefore both unfeasible and undesirable.
Manjoo concludes his article with the most wrongheaded elitism we’ve seen in quite some time:
“The only way to liberate ourselves from Trumpism is through politics that rise above Trumpian silliness.”
To quote the “silly” man who defeated the entire “serious” political class a few years ago, “Wrong!”
The way to liberate ourselves from Trumpism is to elect a president who can, to borrow another phrase from the man himself, “drain the swamp” of the water in which Trumpism swims. This entails restoring dignity to working class people. There are many “plans,” or “ideas,” that one could formulate for accomplishing this. But with those ideas comes a requirement for both a willingness and ability to form a broad, aggressive coalition of serious and “unserious” people alike – you may even need a few “silly” people in the mix as well – to create an undeniable demand for such a political program. Could Elizabeth Warren be that candidate? It’s possible she could be, though a side-by-side comparison with Bernie Sanders shows she’s clearly less capable of building and mobilizing such a coalition. But with Farhad Manjoo’s attitude, she doesn’t stand a chance.
Perhaps I should have ended there, but for some reason I do feel the need to be a bit conciliatory, as neither Warren nor her supporters are my true enemies. So I’ll conclude by giving some free advice to my opposition. If you support Elizabeth Warren, that’s fine. For all her flaws, I think she’s a very strong candidate, who, if my first choice becomes unavailable, would have my enthusiastic support. But the way to win people over to her isn’t to flaunt her “seriousness,” as if she’s this refreshing intellectual oasis in a vast idiot desert. That makes you sound like a smug, condescending asshole, which you very well may be, and that’s fine too. But for purposes of electoral politics, especially in a populist moment such as this one, you may want to tuck that part of your personality into, to quote another 2016 candidate, your “private position.”