Elizabeth Warren Was a Once in a Lifetime Candidate. What Happened?

GUEST WORDS--Let me speak plainly. Liz Warren ending her campaign for the Presidency is an incalculable loss for America. 

Why? It all but rules out America’s chances to become something like a functioning modern society, a social democracy. Liz was that rarest of things: the kind of leader who comes along once in a lifetime.

Now we face the choice of three old white men.

I’ll come to all that.

Let me first pay a little homage.

None of this is meant to be mean. I was an early and vocal Warren supporter. Not so long ago, it seemed like Liz was a sure thing. She unveiled plan after plan — which were hailed as brilliant and transformational. By people like, well, me. Her momentum seemed unstoppable. Her coalition gathered force, furiously.

And then something happened. It all fell apart. How? Why?

Warren’s campaign was savaged from without — and from within.From the outside, Liz was demeaned and devalued and delegitimized — in a very specific kind of way: by patriarchy, at the behest of capital. From within, the campaign foundered, unable to really connect with the masses. Bang! That feeling was gone.

Let’s start with the obvious force behind the destruction of the Warren campaign: patriarchy. As soon as Liz began to pick up accolades and build a momentum, a strange, weird — and telling — thing happened. As if a switch went off…patriarchy moved to insulate itself from her.

America’s the most patriarchal society in the rich world — one of the most in the world, period. Everything in American life is controlled by patriarchal institutions — when you’re young, fraternities, then corporations and banks, and so on. At every stage of an Americans’ life, patriarchy is the controlling force. If you’re not a “bro” in America — or not protected by one — you’re not much at all. Bands of brothers control literally every last aspect of American life, deciding who gets which resources: money, time, freedom, justice, and in this case…attention, legitimacy, credibility.

What happened when Liz emerged as a genuinely dangerous force to reckon with was that patriarchy’s bands of brothers circled their wagons — and then began to sling their arrows.

Did you see how Pete received glowing praise from every kind of pundit under the sun — despite not having the faintest clue about how to really transform a failing society? Meanwhile, Liz was marginalized and ignored. How much airtime or column inches did she get — compared to a Pete, for example? Instead of discussing her transformational plans, pundit after pundit lavished praise on Pete’s…looks, sexual orientation, youth, virility, and so on. See the point? By being ignored and erased, Liz was being delegitimized. She wasn’t to be taken seriously, patriarchy was saying, with a kind of deafening silence. She wasn’t someone that you wanted to get behind if you wanted to be in patriarchy’s good books — and if you’re not in patriarchy’s good books, would you really keep that job, keep that fat paycheck, keep your corporate paymasters happy? Patriarchy made sure that Liz was erased with a kind of ruthless and total precision. So much so that most Americans couldn’t name a single plan or idea of hers by the end.

And when she wasn’t ignored and erased — she was attacked. Attacked in the ways that only a woman can be, or maybe a minority. You see, Liz had three strikes against her — in patriarchy’s eyes: she was a woman, she was a woman aspiring to transformation, and she was an intellectual, who understood how to really change things. To patriarchy, there’s literally nothing more dangerous than that. Hence, it’s quite happy with a Bernie around — he’s not nearly so much of a threat.

Why was Liz such a threat to patriarchy? Understand how it really works: this is crucial. Patriarchy is a band of brothers structured in a hierarchy. The hierarchy is denominated by violence and cruelty — the one willing to do the most inevitably rises to the top. And becomes the head fratboy, the CEO, or…the President. The band of brothers bonds through the spectacle of violence and cruelty — through public humiliation, shaming, making examples.

Liz said none of that should be the case. Violence and cruelty shouldn’t be defining values. Nor should society really be made of bands of brothers organized in hierarchies that use them to control every last resource. Her beliefs and attitudes and plans challenged that and rejected all that — those deep, core ideas of patriarchy, on the most fundamental level there is. There’s nothing — nothing — more threatening to patriarchy than all that: a woman with a mind who thinks a society shouldn’t just be a violent band of brothers…and says it.

Because Liz was such a threat to patriarchy, to its order and values, she was attacked in the ways only a woman can be. She was mocked, taunted, demeaned, insulted, laughed at, made fun of. Note what didn’thappen: she wasn’t criticized. The pundits attacking her — on both sides — didn’t actually bother to intellectually challenge her ideas. They just attacked her. For her history, for her tone, for her way of speaking, for her job, and so on. They attacked her personally. They assassinated her character.

By now, it was male pundits on both sides. Some ignored, some attacked. All did the job patriarchy wanted them to do. Get rid of that dangerous woman. So the Ezras and Chrises erased her, and the Bretts and Tuckers demeaned her.

And it worked. Because, sadly, Americans still take their cues from their pundits. So because male pundits on both sides by now were either ignoring her or attacking her — Americans shrugged, baffled, and walked away. You see, Americans are fearful people. If someone is not approved of, validated, by the powers that be — then Americans do not like to touch them with a ten foot pole. They are frightened that some of that disapproval, some of that disdain, might rub off on them. Life is hard enough. Why risk being tainted by an untouchable?

That is what happened to Liz Warren. She was made an untouchable by patriarchy. She was placed in the lowest caste of society. As a dangerous woman threatening to upset the old social order of bands of brothers united hierarchically by violence and cruelty — she was cast out of the village. Like a witch. She was burned at the stake. She was branded with a scarlet letter. She was shamed and demeaned in the way that so many dangerous women have been throughout history by patriarchy.

Perhaps not by the sword — by the word. But the word, my friends, can be the more hurtful and lasting blow of all still.

And yet we have to dig a little deeper than this if we really want to fully understand the Warren campaign’s failure. And in this part of the essay, I stress “campaign” — not her, the candidate herself.

You see, a good campaign — a smart, clever, strong one — should have seen all the above coming. It should have anticipated exactly just such a reaction from patriarchy — it’s immune system kicking in, to eliminate the virus of womanhood — and acted to beat it, anyways. But it didn’t. Instead, the campaign was either flustered and bewildered — or it played right into patriarchy’s hands.

The campaign — not the candidate, but the campaign — made three big, huge, terrible mistakes.

The first was amateurism. Let me explain what I mean by this. The very first thing the campaign should have done was to brand all those ideas. A New Deal for America, a New Social Contract, the Warren Plan — whatever, the turn of phrase doesn’t matter. Why? Because you need to reach people — especially when you’re being delegitimized and erased by every Ezra, Chris, and Tucker under the sun.

There’s a kind of Very Smart Person who thinks that branding and marketing don’t matter — and the result is that they tend to lose political contests, whether individually or organizationally. Of course they matter. They matter more so when you’re being erased. And they matter even more in societies like America — where people are drained cognitively and emotionally to begin with, so they have to take their cues from brain-dead bro-pundits. Who has time to really understand the news — when you’re being worked to a slow, painful decrepitude, 18 hours a day, and you still can’t make ends meet. That’s when you need to distill what you stand for into a crystalline essence — so sharp it cuts any sword attacking you right in half.

What does Bernie stand for? It’s very simple: proles, making class war. What does Biden stand for? Again, simple: a return to the status quo, nostalgia. But what did Warren stand for? Nobody could really say. And that is because she didn’t have a serious, strong, carefully distilled brand, and that in turn is because all those plans were just…plans. But nobody can parse a thousand plans — especially when the bros are trying to delegitimize you for having them, and the average person is weary and overworked and underpaid. You must do the job of distilling all that into something like a New New Deal or the Warren Plan or a New Social Contract for America. And then repeat it a hundred times a day — until that phrase becomes part of the vernacular. Then you have something you need: power.

Think about what she could have done if her campaign had done that. She could have gone on the attack — and said to the bro-pundits: “Why aren’t you talking about a New New Deal, instead of just personally attacking me? Don’t you think that’s failing Americans?”

In other words, it’s not just about style, or rhetorics — but the hard realities of power. You must win a kind of cultural currency and social acceptance to have political power. But the only way to do that if you’re being delegitimized by patriarchy is to outwit it. You must win the first step towards power by gaining a foothold in people’s minds, and you can only really do that by distilling what you stand for into something simple enough to process, remember, like, understand, need, desire — like Bernie’s class war, or Biden’s nostalgia. When you don’t do that — you play into your opponent’s hands. It’s all the easier to erase you, or attack you, when nobody can really understand you in the first place.

That is just professional communications 101, my friends. It is no more than what I used to teach promising young people at university courses, every single year.

Why didn’t Warren’s campaign get that, do that — just be professional, in other words? That brings me to my second mistake: arrogance, to the point of hubris. I know all the above intimately for a very good reason: I helped run one of the world’s biggest ad agencies for a decade or so. I’ve helped run campaigns that dwarf this one, and extend to every country in the world. Yes, really. I’m also one of the more-read people on politics and economics around. This is kind of my wheelhouse.

Apologies: I’m not tooting my own horn — I’m sure you’re good at your job, too. I want to simply make a point. I tried pointing out all the above to the Warren campaign with true, true desperation. I literally begged them. I groveled before them to listen to me. But the result was a kind of deafening silence.

Remember when I said there’s a kind of Very Smart Person who thinks they know best — despite not knowing much about the subject at all? That was the Warren campaign. Quite frankly, they were mostly amateurs, and men, too. I don’t say that in an insulting way — just in a realistic one. None of them had run, for example, a global level campaign for much of anything, so far as I can see — not to mention something radical and transformational.

The plans were brilliant — the economist in me can tell you that, and did. But the ad agency director in me could also have told you, from a very, very long way out…that this campaign was going to fail, catastrophically…that it was crashing and burning. In fact, that’s just what I told you months ago now, literally, as plainly as I could.

Why wouldn’t the campaign listen to us? I know for a fact that there were many people like me — experts, who tried to warn the campaign that it was making amateurish, predictable mistakes. Why would you turn down free advice from serious and renowned experts? Why would you literally not listen to them when they were begging you not to make such obvious mistakes? Because, of course, you think you know better. The result of that level of hubris is, of course, nemesis. The campaign was a lot like Icarus. It came too close to the sun — but it’s wings were wax.

Again, I want to stress that my criticism is of the campaign — not the candidate. That brings me to a weird paradox. Liz was and is a brilliant leader. But the campaign was just horrific and terrible, a shambles, to put it kindly — it could scarcely have been worse. I think my old students would have done a far better job, frankly. But I digress.

Warren’s loss is America’s loss, too. Because with her, something crucial and historic vanishes: America’s chance to become a functioning modern social democracy. Biden wants nostalgia — neoliberalism. Bernie wants class war. Social democracy isn’t really about either one. It’s about the kinds of values that Liz championed, in her own way. The idea that cruelty and violence shouldn’t be the defining values of a society, enacted by bands of brothers, who control every last resources, and who gets, how much, and for how long, and why. But that America should be a very, very different kind of society — more mature, sophisticated, wise, gentle, true.

Here’s the hard truth. Either Bernie or Biden is probably going to lose to Trump. Liz would have had a pretty good shot not just at beating him, but changing the conditions that produced him. At least if all those air-headed pundits and columnists and intellectuals, all the Chrises and Ezras and Tuckers and so forth, who attacked and erased her had done their jobs, not patriarchy’s job. Their real job. Educating and informing people who the best candidate was, and leading them in that direction. Because in this case, it couldn’t have been clearer — the best candidate, the one with the transformational ideas, the intellect, the vision, the will, the grasp of history and modernity….that was always Liz, by a very, very long way — if, at least, you were blind to gender and sex and color and class.

In the end, I think America will remember Liz this way. She was genuinely a once in a lifetime candidate. Who was America’s last and best chance to join Europe and Canada and the rest of the rich world in social democracy — instead of plunging further into the grim collapse that extreme predatory capitalism wrought. America will not see another leader like her again, probably. We were lucky to have the chance — and we blew it, my friends.

And so now that she’s gone, I think we should all take a moment to reflect and grieve. The violence and folly of the people we are, and always have been.

(Umair Haque has been a Medium member since Jun 2018. He writes for Eudaimonia and Co … where this perspective was first posted.)