Elizabeth Warren is an elitist.
So is any educated, successful and intellectually curious woman. That's a good thing.
Elizabeth Warren is an elitist. She’s angry. She’s an unelectable radical, except when she’s a boring centrist. Is she likable? (If you have to ask the question, you know she’s not).
Good lord I am sick of this playbook.
Over the past few days, two of the leading male candidates in the Democratic presidential primary race — Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg — have escalated separate lines of attack as they attempt to counter the field’s most prominent woman: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is antagonistic and angry.
She also is an uncompromising elitist, they argue, suggesting that if she were the nominee, it would harm the party in the must-win states in the upper Midwest.
The new attacks, marking a more vigorous phase of the race, get at something far beyond her policy positions, and into one of the most fraught areas for a female candidate: Is she likable?
The elitism attacks are particularly rich coming from a guy who went to Harvard and then worked at McKinsey, and has remade himself as a small-town mayor (with no other political experience). The “angry” attacks are particularly rich coming from a guy who said he would physically “beat the hell” out of Donald Trump if this were high school (it’s not high school, but doesn’t this feel like high school?).
It’s all predictable, because we saw it happen to Hillary Clinton, and to so many women in politics — and women in positions of power generally — before her.
Here’s the thing: Anger can be a tremendously useful emotion. Unhinged and indiscriminate rage is not — just look at the current president — but when there is a lot to be angry about, anger is a rational response. We see (white) male politicians and activists use anger at injustice as powerful rallying cries. And we see women using anger to build movements, challenge oppression, and fundamentally reshape our roles in society. (There are even a few books about this).
The problem seems to be when an individual woman is perceived as angry.
We know this is true: Women who exhibit anger in the workplace are seen as less professional and less competent. They are accorded lower status and lower pay. For men, it’s the opposite: Angry men are accorded higher status than sad men. And when it comes to anger, observers are more likely to assume a woman is angry because of her temperament or personality. Men are assumed to be angry because of some external factor — their anger is righteous and reactive, not a sign of personal instability or emotionality.
But here is the good(ish) news: That anger penalty that women face largely dries up when women point to external factors that legitimate the anger. It doesn’t put angry women quite on par with angry men — men still benefit more from being seen as angry — but it puts angry women who explain their anger in a better position than angry women who don’t.
Elizabeth Warren, it should be said, does not lead with anger and does not strike me as angry. But she does strike me as determined. And when she does speak with the kind of passion that is read as anger when it comes out of a woman’s mouth, that passion has a purpose and a target: Inequality, an unfair system, those who have weighted the scales in their own favor.
Elizabeth Warren is pretty smart, and she’s playing against the predictable “angry woman” trope pretty well.
She’s also taking pains to avoid the “elitist” trap. But this is perhaps where other politicians, political commentators, and the media need to reconsider our narratives and how they totally screw us and leave us with the worst possible representatives. “Elitism” has become shorthand not for snobbery or pretension, but for things that are actually pretty good (or at least value-neutral, and definitely not bad or shameful): Valuing education and the arts. Being highly-educated. Being intellectually curious. Choosing to live in a large, diverse and dynamic city over a homogenous rural area. Traveling outside of the United States. Learning lessons from anything and anywhere other than what your own eyes have seen.
That isn’t to say that it’s shameful to not have a college degree — of course it’s not. But also, education is good, and for certain roles (like the presidency and all of its adjacent offices) I absolutely want someone who is smarter than me, more experienced than me, and better-educated than me in the chair. It’s also not to say that living in a city is better than living in a rural area — of course it’s not. But neither is “cosmopolitanism” the bad thing so much of our political discourse makes it out to be; rural life is not more authentic or meaningful or American than urban life. And people who live in big, liberal cities are frankly in less of a bubble than those who live in homogenous rural areas — I can guarantee that in a day walking around New York City, I come across people with a far greater diversity of life experiences and perspectives than in a day in rural America. That doesn’t make rural America bad. But it does mean that the knee-jerk elitism / cosmopolitanism charge is false, silly, and ultimately self-defeating.
I don’t have good data or research on this because as far as I can tell no one has researched it, but it seems to me that women pay a higher price for being perceived as elite than men do. I’m still teasing this one out, but I suspect it’s for the same reasons we cast a more skeptical eye towards women who are perceived to want or seek money: We expect women to be driven by a desire to care for others, and it strikes us as unfeminine and untoward when women seek status, power or financial gain. For men, the pursuit of financial success is a positive, masculine thing. I suspect this is why Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speech was such a big deal in 2016, while Joe Biden has not paid a similar price for his own well-remunerated speaking engagements. Yes, 2016 was a time when there was a rising backlash to the monied political class. But that was also wrapped up in sexism and gendered expectations, and the idea that a woman would use her status for financial gain was intolerable.
We are used to men pursuing wealth because being a breadwinner is foundational to male identity — a man can be a good, respectable father and leader so long as he provides, regardless of whether he is physically or emotionally present. We are used to women being financially dependent on men, and dedicating their efforts to serving and caring for others. Women can have jobs, sure, and women can find meaning in their careers, but we expect that meaning to hinge on service. Working just for the sake of getting paid — especially if you’re getting paid well — is a suspect thing when women do it. For men, making money and accruing wealth for the sake of it is just fine. It’s even responsible.
We are still totally screwy when it comes to our perceptions of men vs women. A Pew survey examining words Americans think are positive or negative for men / women found that the word “powerful,” for example, is typically used to describe men in a positive way — but when it’s used to describe women, it’s used negatively 92% of the time. Other words that were more positive for men and more negative for women: Leadership. Ambitious. Strong. A word that was only used to describe women and not at all used to describe men? Beautiful. A word that was only used to describe men and not at all used to describe women? Provider.
So what does this have to do with the “elitism” charge? The concept of elitism is of course tied up with class, money and education, things we seem to believe women should attain via proximity to men and not on their own. Liberal men have also been tarred as elites — remember John Kerry? — but Kerry was literally a multi-millionaire speaking in fluent French (and the French fluency, btw, was a good thing and should have been talked about as such). For women, the bar is much lower, and the stain of “elitism” much darker. We accept that men will be at the top of any hierarchy, as political leaders, as lecturers, as the men leading us in Sunday prayer (it seems worth noting here than many millions of Americans follow religious traditions that formally bar women from positions of power and leadership). Being elite — being on top — is something we have formally and informally reserved for men. We don’t always like it in men, but it doesn’t violate our basic assumptions around the natural order of things. A female elite, though — she’s not just snobbish, or even spoiled (a word again reserved for women and children). She’s challenging what’s presumed to be normal. And how that registers is that she’s unlikable, that she thinks she’s smarter than me.
Donald Trump can say “I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world” and his supporters nod along. He was born and raised in New York City, the indulged child of a wealthy family. He literally has golden toilets in his home. And it’s true that he’s a vulgar, uncultured buffoon. But the true objection to “elitism” isn’t about being out of touch, or not understanding the struggles of working people, or being in a liberal bubble. It’s “I’m bothered because the world is changing in ways that undermine what I believe to be my fundamental right to remain at the top of the heap, and this person brings my insecurities to the fore.”
Highly-educated, competent, intellectually curious women do that — they undermine long-established and comfortable hierarchies. And so there’s no way they’re going to escape the “elitist” critique. Which is exactly why that critique should die a swift and efficient death.
Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard professor, a hard-working senator, and one of the country’s leading legal scholars. That does make her elite — in the exact way we should want a president to be.
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