Inside the Mind of the Warren Voter

Sen. Elizabeth Warren high-fives a girl at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Understanding those Democrats who swoon for the woman with ‘a plan for that’

You were shocked — horrified, depressed, bewildered, and angry — when Donald Trump won. Suddenly, you had to prepare to live in a nightmare for the next four years, and it sent you into a months-long funk. How could this happen, you wondered?

And then, suddenly, it hit you. Trump pulled off a trick that the devil himself would envy: He managed to sound the way Democrats usually sound to voters, and he made Hillary Clinton sound like the Republicans that people voted against in 2006, 2008, and 2012.

He kept using the term “rigged” to describe the election, the media, the polls, the country: “Our system is absolutely, totally rigged,” he would say. He even had the nerve to claim he was the first one to use the term! But you remember Elizabeth Warren at the 2012 Democratic convention, speaking like a friend just to you, articulating a difficult truth because you needed to hear it: “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: They’re right. The system is rigged.”

Most people in Washington have no idea how hard modern life is outside their gated neighborhoods, and how often ordinary Americans get a raw deal. People work hard, scrimp and save, and then some health problem wipes them out. Their health-insurance company promised to be there for them, only to start nickel and diming them in their darkest hour, when they’re least capable of handling a big fight over paperwork. It’s like they only want to insure people who will stay healthy forever. And we’re supposed to fear government-run health care? At least the government doesn’t worry about profit margins, shareholder dividends, and CEO bonuses.

People don’t come out of the womb knowing how to manage money or handle debt, and the schools rarely bother to focus on this, even though it can make or break your adult life. Big banks start sending kids credit-card offers as soon as the college brochures arrive in the mail. They hide all the important consequences in the fine print. Very few late teens or twentysomethings understand the full ramifications of a double-digit interest rate on their credit card. The easiest thing in the world to do is to convince yourself that this month is tight, but you’ll pay it back next month. The big companies want you to make that bad decision. Because once you do that, they own a little piece of you, and it’s almost impossible to get out from under that debt. Warren tried to warn people about this stuff on Doctor Phil a long time ago, but you can only do so much good as a guest on a daytime chat show.

You hear all these folks blaming young people for having all that student debt. The only kids who know they’re going to be making a fortune after graduation are the ones going to Wall Street. For everybody else, the job market is a roulette wheel — maybe you get lucky, but chances are that you won’t. Even if you go into one of the highest-paying professions, you can still be burdened with debt for years and years. Physicians graduate with a median $194,000 in student debt. These are people who go on to work the midnight shift in the emergency room, handling your child’s asthma, your dad’s heart condition, your friend’s cancer. They’re exactly the kinds of people who we should be rewarding for doing the right thing; they’ve signed on for one of the toughest, most demanding, most important jobs our society has. But we punish them with all this debt. When doctors are worrying about making ends meet, why can’t we all see that runaway greed is devouring our society?

The American system worked as long as big companies didn’t try to maximize their profits by taking advantage of good people who lacked financial literacy. Maybe they held up their end of the bargain well enough until the ’80s, or the ’90s, or sometime in the George W. Bush years. But now, nobody cares, or at least it seems like nobody cares. You have this nagging feeling that everybody at the top — the bankers, the Wall Street investors, the CEOs, the tech billionaires — somehow know that something bad is just over the horizon and the clock is ticking on “normalcy.” It’s like they’re out to grab every last bit of wealth they can before they have to batten down the hatches and hide out from the bad times that will consume the rest of us.

Warren isn’t perfect, but she stands up to the bullies and she fights for fairness, which is a hell of a lot more than most politicians can say. The other day she gave a whole speech about corruption. We’ve tried to avert our eyes from a hard truth for a long time, but we can’t anymore: This is a deeply corrupt country. We’re not as good as we’ve long believed ourselves to be. This is why people responded to “Make America Great Again.” Pharmaceutical companies, gun companies, fossil-fuel companies, polluters, hedge funds that buy companies and strip them for parts — no one demonstrates any sense of responsibility to the collective good anymore. They just make all the money they can and let somebody else worry about the mess they leave behind.

President Obama was a genuinely good guy who tried his best and accomplished important things, but he kept trying to be nice and conciliatory to forces that wanted to see him destroyed. Warren won’t make that mistake. She terrifies them, and you love her for it. All the the things people criticize her for — schoolmarm-ish, lecturing, dour, droning — are music to your ears. What, do people think we can get out of this mess with some nice and sweet good girl, some Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow? (Actually, Warren was of those, way back in 1966.)

As president, Warren would spend four or eight years trying to claw money back from the Fortune 500 any way that she could and return it to working people. She would expand the size and scope and reach of the federal government so much, she would make Obama look like Ronald Reagan, and you can’t wait. They’re darn right that under Warren, taxes would skyrocket, the stock market would probably sink like a stone, and billionaires would emigrate. Warren’s presidency would be a miserable time to be a rich person in America, and you’re fine with that. It’s time they got a taste of what life’s been like for the rest of us.

You can’t believe anyone’s still giving her grief over the Native American thing. All she did wrong was believe her own family’s stories! Nobody can prove that the claim of Native heritage alone ever got her hired or promoted or recognized. She didn’t tell Harvard Law School to call her a “woman of color.” She says she didn’t even know the school was doing that, and you believe her. Even if she did know about it, a white lie like that never really hurt anyone. It’s a distraction from the main issue: that dishonest elites who cut corners have risen to the top of American society and they’re now trying to get even more power for themselves.

Though you’d accept Joe Biden as the nominee, you don’t have any illusions. He would be an improvement on Trump, of course. But for decades, the credit-card companies in Delaware said “Jump” and he asked, “How high?” His son’s deals with shady characters don’t reassure you either. A Biden presidency would be the sort of mild headache that America’s well-connected corporate class figured out how to treat a long time ago.

As for Bernie Sanders, there are days you love him, but you’re not so certain he can get the job done. He senses the same injustices that you do, but he isn’t willing to do the homework the way Warren was. He railed about this stuff for decades before anybody noticed. You hope his truce with Warren holds, because he deserves a lot of credit for shaking up a complacent, corporatist Democratic party in 2016. But it’s really time for him to pass the torch to someone younger, like the 70-year-old Warren.

You’re thrilled that Warren’s enjoying a surge lately. Early in the cycle, you kept hearing people say she had missed her window, as one younger, fresher face after another kept announcing presidential bids. But up on the debate stage, it’s become clear: Warren has been in the center of this fight for years, and lots of her rivals are just going through the motions. You’re happy to stick with her, and your gut is telling you she’s still got what it takes to prove the doubters wrong, every step of the way.


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