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What Role Did Sexism Play in Warren's Failed Presidential Bid?

Sexism no doubt played a role in limiting Warren's chances for the nomination, but her failure to win broader support is more significantly attributable to other key factors.

Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders participate in the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders participate in the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the presidential race has sparked a wide-spread conversation over the extent to which the collapse of her campaign can be attributed to sexism. This dialogue is a welcome development. Despite the many advances that women have made in the last century, the United States remains a society pervaded by sexism. While women have been elected to executive office across both the Global North and the Global South, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of not having elected a single woman to the presidency in its 244-year history.

Even today a large number of voters remain uncomfortable with, if not outright opposed to, the idea of a woman in the White House. And while this may be more true of Republicans, it no doubt contributed in some measure to limiting voter support for Warren in the Democratic primaries. It is a fact that women face much higher barriers than men in virtually all walks of life, including the electoral arena. It is therefore no surprise that the end of Warren’s campaign has been an especially painful blow for her female supporters, compounding the blow of Hillary Clinton’s electoral college loss to Donald Trump in 2016.

What role, then, did sexism play in limiting Warren’s prospects? Is Amanda Marcotte of Salon correct in asserting that “there is no other explanation than raw, unvarnished sexism. It just can't be anything else...”; or Kerry Eleveld in claiming that “no woman was going to escape the electability trap”? Or could it be that, in addition to sexism, there are other factors involved?

In order to address this question, we can begin by comparing Warren’s performance to that of Hillary Clinton four years ago. Clinton not only performed far better than Warren in the race for the Democratic nomination, winning it in the end over Bernie Sanders, but she also defeated Donald Trump by nearly 3 million popular votes in the general election, the third highest vote total ever recorded by a presidential candidate. Moreover, she accomplished that feat while facing the most openly misogynist presidential candidate in modern US history.

Judging only by popular vote totals for a woman candidate, then, the claim that sexism alone accounts for Warren’s withdrawal would suggest that there was a massive increase in sexism in the span of only four years. In the era of #Metoo and the historic conviction of Harvey Weinstein, this seems hard to believe. Similarly, sexism alone cannot explain Warren’s precipitous drop in public opinion surveys in the last few months. We therefore suggest that other significant factors are at play, in particular, Warren’s awkward position vis-à-vis the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party and her strategy of change.

Caught in the Middle

The fundamental schism in the Democratic Party today is that between its long dominant so-called “moderate” wing and the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders. The former is characterized by deep ties to a wide array of wealthy and corporate interests and a concomitant commitment to maintaining the essential features of the social and economic status quo. The latter, by contrast, is committed to eroding the power of those interests and to disrupting the status quo, including within the Democratic Party itself. Clinton and Joe Biden are the quintessential representatives of the moderate wing, while Sanders is of course the standard bearer of the insurgency.

Warren sits awkwardly in the middle of this schism, especially as it has grown more polarized. On the one hand, her major policy proposals have a far greater affinity with those of Bernie Sanders than they do with Biden’s or Clinton’s. Moreover, like Sanders, she has sometimes engaged in a strong critique of big money interests, building her public career as a champion of consumer rights and a critic of the big banks. Though she has also declared that she is a “capitalist to her bones,” she has nonetheless earned the enmity of key bases of support for the party, particularly the banking and more recently health care industries.

This stands in stark contrast to Clinton and Biden, who do not need to reassure anyone about the depth of their commitment to capitalism and have long histories of deep connections to Corporate America. Clinton in particular has famously served on the board of Walmart and earned tens of millions of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street. And both have been the recipients of vast amounts of financial support from wealthy and corporate funders, something Warren has attempted to distance herself from, even if inconsistently.

Democratic Party Connections

Both Clinton and Biden also have far deeper and longer connections to the party than Warren does. Like Warren, they are former Republicans, but they switched to the Democratic Party several decades ago. Warren by contrast became a Democrat only in the mid-1990s, a point at which Clinton had been a very active first lady to her husband Bill for more than 15 years (first in Little Rock and then in Washington, D.C.) and Biden had been a U.S. Senator for more than two decades.

Clinton, it should be emphasized, is very much the product of the consolidation of the party’s rightward shift that took place in the 1980s with the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Founded in early 1985 by a group of largely Southern governors and senators (including Bill Clinton and Al Gore), the DLC set out to deepen the party’s ties to business, while further distancing it from organized labor, the working class, and the poor. Its mission came to fruition in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton and Gore, who proceeded to implement a series of landmark policy initiatives that heavily favored big business at the expense of virtually everyone else. These included, among others: the North American Free Trade Agreement; the 1994 crime bill; the “end of welfare as we know it”; the 1996 Telecommunications Act; and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

As the eventual heir of the DLC legacy, Hillary had all of Bill’s connections to the party’s vast network of funders and office holders. As Bill once bragged, with his presidency, Americans got a “two-for-one.” Indeed, the Clintons ran the White House as a team and became notorious for the ruthless control they exerted throughout the party. And it was Hillary’s deep connections to party networks that enabled her to win a Senate seat in 2000, run for President in 2008, win appointment as Obama’s Secretary of State the next year, and then run for President again in 2016.

"Warren is caught in the crossfire of a set of tensions that severely limited her electoral prospects."

By 2015, Clinton’s ties to the dominant forces in the party were so extensive that she was for all intents and purposes the party’s anointed presidential candidate, aided in no small measure by state level apparatuses and the Democratic National Committee, which pulled every lever at their disposal to help her prevail, especially after Sanders entered the race. 

One might conclude that this is what a woman has to do to in order to attain high elected office. This is indeed true, but it is also true for male candidates like Biden. What matters is not so much Clinton or Biden the individuals but rather the kinds of alliances and compromises that they have been willing to make (in fact, in most instances, have had to make because of the nature of the US political system and the prevailing balance of social forces) in order to rise to the pinnacle of their chosen profession.

In this regard, Warren has been at a distinct disadvantage. Her professional trajectory is very different from Clinton’s and Biden’s. For most of her career, she has been an academic. Her first entry into public policy debates was in the mid-1990s when she advocated for individual victims of bankruptcy. And it wasn’t until the 2007-2008 financial crisis that she gained a national reputation as an outspoken advocate of bank regulation.

Most significantly, Warren was responsible for championing the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a regulatory agency for which she was regarded as the obvious choice to lead. Very tellingly, however, Obama chose not to appoint her to the post, due to opposition from the financial industry. Finally, her first foray into electoral politics occurred only eight years ago, when she won a US Senate seat for Massachusetts.

In short, Warren is hardly part of the inner circle of the Democratic Party. Her public career has been of short duration and her political career even shorter. She does not have the deep ties to party networks, including funders, and the policies she has championed have in fact alienated many of those funders. In these respects, she stands in fairly stark contrast to Clinton and Biden, who are regarded as very safe bets for the dominant forces in the party. Her rise to prominence has also been quite different than Obama’s, who relied on a message that was much vaguer, shorter on substance, and less threatening to the party’s funders. One need only contrast Obama’s decision to make Clinton Secretary of State, arguably the second or third most important position in government, with his decision not to name Warren head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she was primarily responsible for creating.

Warren’s Strategy of Change

While Warren’s policy proposals may be similar to Sanders’, her strategy for accomplishing them, her core base of support, and the nature of her relationship to her supporters are strikingly different. Warren’s strategy of change is built on the assumption that the political system is fundamentally sound and simply requires a very competent and morally decent executive with an excellent set of policy proposals and a team of smart policy makers. As an Ivy league professor, her worldview is one grounded in the belief that smart ideas can win if the “best and the brightest” can lead them. She has no history of connections to social movements and is largely unconcerned with altering the balance of power in society or the political system, or building the kind of socio-political mobilization required to make her proposals a reality.

She thus embodies a perspective that assumes that change is largely a technocratic process driven by the most compelling policy makers, ideas, and plans. Her core base of support, moreover, is people much like her—white, upper middle class, highly educated professional women—and her primary relationship to them is that of a role model, someone in whom they can see themselves.

It amounts to an essentially representational kind of politics, which measures success first and foremost by its ability to advance the career of an individual politician. In this respect, she bears a strong resemblance to Barack Obama, though obviously without the benefit of his identification with black voters. In fact, because of her lack of deep ties to key party constituencies, she also lacks the kind of connections to older black voters that Clinton and Biden have relied on to block Sanders. That is to say, for all intents and purposes, they have also blocked Warren.

Sanders, by contrast, is pursuing a strategy based on the assumption that the political system is fundamentally undemocratic and is specifically designed to maintain the social and economic status quo for the benefit of a tiny wealthy elite. From this perspective, forging solutions to the vast problems afflicting society requires more than competent managers and technocrats and well-designed plans. It requires a significant shift in the balance of social power and a democratization of the political system.

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His core base of support, moreover, is multi-racial (though more heavily latinx than black), multi-generational, and predominantly working class and female. And his relationship to that base is that of “organizer in chief,” whose objective is essentially to build a long-term mass movement and thereby organize himself out of a job. He rarely talks in personal or individualistic terms and his campaign slogan speaks volumes: “Not me, us.” While every other candidate routinely speaks in first person terms, particularly Biden (“I wrote that bill!”), Sanders most often speaks in terms of “we.” It is a challenging form of politics that runs entirely counter to the standard modus operandi in the US.

And while Sanders is routinely denounced as an “old white man,” his supporters are disproportionately young and latinx and majority female. Hence, it is the opposite of representational politics. It is a politics of solidarity and collective action. This has run into limits of its own, for while Warren’s popularity rises as one goes up the income scale, Sanders’ popularity drops. Sanders has also struggled to gain the support of older black voters. It has nevertheless afforded him a much larger core base of support than Warren.

"The cause of feminism is not advanced by simply raising individual female faces to high places. It is advanced by a feminism for the 99%, one that addresses the needs of—and empowers—women at all levels of society, but especially those who are the poorest, most oppressed, and most exploited."

Like Biden and Clinton, Sanders is a career politician. However, unlike them, he is very much an outsider. Indeed, even more than Warren, he exists very uncomfortably in the Democratic Party, a relationship which afflicts his strategy with its own set of significant contradictions and limitations. But because of the program he’s offering and more importantly, his relationship to a broad social base, he has a source of strength that Warren does not. And rather than sitting in the middle of the schism like Warren, he occupies one pole of it and indeed is essentially the cause of it.

Thus, Warren is caught in the crossfire of a set of tensions that severely limited her electoral prospects. The reason for her much poorer performance compared to Clinton is not that she was a bigger victim of sexism than Clinton was. It is that her policy proposals and limited ties to the dominant forces in the party make her far less acceptable to the party’s so-called “moderate” wing. And her approach to politics makes her much less able to build the kind of broad base of support that Sanders has. Her position is therefore inherently unstable and far less sustainable.

Still, contrary to all the duplicitous propaganda about the scourge of the “Bernie Bros,” many Sanders supporters regarded Warren as a solid second choice because of the similarity in their programs. Her strategy of change in no way represented the historical opportunity that Sanders does of building a long-term mass movement that promises to give a greater voice to the most excluded sectors of society. But her semi-outsider status, her championing of Medicare for All, and her declarations that she was “with Bernie” earned her considerable favor among the people drawn to him, and no doubt helped to explain her solid showing in early polls. However, much of that support began to erode as she struggled to respond to the party’s polarizing currents.

Weakening Program and Attacks on Sanders

A major turning point in Warren’s fortunes, which served to highlight Sanders’ stronger appeal among young women of color and the new progressive forces within the Democratic Party, was the decision of three members of the so-called “squad” (Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib) to endorse Sanders in late October. The fourth member, Massachusetts Rep. Ayana Pressley, broke with the squad to endorse Warren a week later.

But while Pressley is lesser known and has the reputation of a cautious Capitol Hill operator, the other three, and Ocasio Cortez in particular, have become household names and are regarded as the upcoming leaders of the multi-racial movement behind Sanders. Their support gave Sanders’ campaign a major boost following news of his heart attack, while at the same time dealing a serious blow to Warren.

Warren’s subsequent actions, moreover, only served to weaken her standing in the polls further. After coming under fire from centrist candidates, in particular Pete Buttigieg, her commitment to Medicare for All suddenly began to waver. Most dramatically, she advocated passage of a public option as an eventual step toward M4A. Moreover, in an attempt to avoid increasing middle class taxes, she ended up releasing the most regressive M4A financing plan anyone had ever proposed. Compared to the ordinary income/payroll tax approach, the Warren plan would have had low-wage workers paying far more and high-wage workers paying far less. These moves failed to win the favor of centrist voters, but they did contribute to alienating many progressives, and in particular Sanders’ supporters.

As her popularity started to erode, Warren began to put even less emphasis on programmatic questions and relied more heavily on representational politics, highlighting her status as a woman candidate and the historic achievement her election would represent. This reinforced her support among liberal upper middle class white women but failed to win over others, including leftist feminists and feminists of color who are looking for more substantive achievements for working class and poor women and are less concerned with symbolic victories.

Strikingly, this change of strategy was accompanied by an escalating series of attacks on Sanders, starting with the claim that he had told her privately a year earlier that a woman could not be elected President. Many Sanders supporters were left incredulous, not only because it made no sense, given Clinton’s historic performance in 2016, but also because there had been no mention of it for over a year.

Warren followed this up with other spurious accusations, such as the inaccurate claim that Sanders had written the convention rules following the 2016 election but was now refusing to follow them. His position, in fact, has been entirely consistent: he opposed superdelegates in 2016 and he is opposed to them now. But because his forces were outvoted at the convention by the Clinton forces, he had little choice but to accept the compromise of moving them to the second round of voting. However, rather than joining him in denouncing the superdelegates as an undemocratic mechanism to ensure the nomination of a centrist candidate, Warren instead accused him of hypocrisy.

Moreover, following her drubbing in the South Carolina primary, she sharpened her attacks on Sanders. While also criticizing Biden and Bloomberg, she adopted one of the centrists’ main lines of attack on Sanders, declaring that “This crisis demands more than a Senator who has good ideas, but whose 30-year track record shows he consistently calls for things he fails to get done, and consistently opposes things he nevertheless fails to stop.” It was a particularly jarring statement, if only because in a Congress long defined by gridlock, few members get much done. More importantly, it failed to acknowledge that the biggest explanation for Sanders’ record has been the obstacle posed by Democrats in Congress, his opposition to the Iraq War being but one obvious example.

Warren has also fed the propaganda about the “Bernie Bros,” obscuring not only the fact that a majority of Sanders’ supporters are women, but also the boorish behavior of many of the supporters of other campaigns, not to mention the onslaught of red-baiting and anti-Semitic attacks to which Sanders has been subjected. While uncivil behavior is of course pervasive in America’s impoverished and deformed political culture, including among Sanders supporters, no candidate has come under a more sustained assault and in particular from the mainstream media than Sanders, including equating his campaign to the coronavirus and the Nazi invasion of France, the claim that his election would lead to mass executions, and racist attacks on his surrogates. And while Sanders has disowned those of his supporters who have behaved badly, Warren has remained silent in the face of all of the attacks on him, suggesting that she is the sole victim of loutish behavior.

In addition, Warren claimed that she and Amy Klobuchar were the only non-billionaire candidates not backed by a super PAC. This was an extraordinarily misleading claim, given the historically unprecedented grassroots character of the Sanders fundraising apparatus. It was also an obvious additional nod in the direction of representational politics, implying an affinity with Klobuchar based on gender, when they have very little in common programmatically. Worse still, in a matter of days, Warren abruptly reversed course by welcoming the backing of the largest super PAC of any of the Democratic candidates. It was an entity with secret donors, who like anyone else who was paying attention, clearly understood that Warren had no chance to win the nomination and that its purpose was simply to block Sanders.

The Way Forward Against Sexism

Sexism no doubt played a role in limiting Warren’s chances for the nomination. But her poor performance is more significantly attributable to other factors, most importantly her awkward position in a party torn between a “moderate” wing determined to maintain its hold on power, even if it meant losing the general election to Trump, and an insurgent campaign that is seeking to build a long-term mass movement dedicated to democratizing U.S. society.

Warren never had the backing of the former and she does not have the strategy for change or the broad and diverse support base of the latter. Moreover, her response to this basic contradiction has only served to undermine what once made her campaign a promising one and endeared her to a great many Sanders supporters.

Her actions (or lack thereof) since withdrawing from the race would appear to suggest either a paralysis in the face of this polarized political context, an unlikely bid to gain greater influence in the party, or perhaps simply a veiled effort to block Sanders from winning the nomination. Her option to stay in the race with the help of a Super PAC following the South Carolina primary, when her prospects were so poor and all the centrist candidates had coalesced around Biden, was striking enough. But her decision to stay on the sidelines following her weak showing on Super Tuesday is even more notable.

Her withdrawal from the race was the obvious opportunity to throw her support to Sanders, with whom she presumably has the greatest programmatic affinity. The only alternative was to throw in her lot with the preferred candidate of the party’s dominant forces, Joe Biden, a man who is not only at great risk of losing to Trump, but who represents a serious blow to the cause of feminism. As Sanders recently reminded us, it was Biden who two years after the ruling on Roe v. Wade said, “I don’t like the Supreme Court Decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

The Sanders campaign has its own strategic challenges, stemming primarily from the decision to seek the nomination of a party whose dominant forces are so utterly opposed to his agenda. But one thing is certain: should he beat the odds and win the presidency, it won’t be a victory for “old white men,” because in the end, it’s not about him. It’ll be a victory for the working class, for people of color, for immigrants, for LGBTQ folks, and not least, for women. His campaign, in fact, is the most feminist campaign in U.S. history

It is of course a travesty that no woman has ever been elected President. But the cause of feminism is not advanced by simply raising individual female faces to high places. It is advanced by a feminism for the 99%, one that addresses the needs of—and empowers—women at all levels of society, but especially those who are the poorest, most oppressed, and most exploited. To move that cause forward will require overcoming enormous obstacles, including the obstacle posed by the Democratic Party.

Deepa Kumar

Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire and Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike.

Patrick Barrett

Patrick Barrett, Ph.D., is the Managing Director of the Havens Wright Center for Social Justice at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He writes and teaches about US and Latin American politics. He is co-editor of "The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn," and his work has appeared in a variety of academic and alternative media outlets. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Havens Wright Center.

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