The first thing Warren demonstrated, in her race against Brown, was an uncanny ability to encapsulate an argument in a snappy, concise, combative nugget. It was early in this cycle, at a pre-campaign event, that she first delivered her now-famous “you didn’t build it” explanation for taxing the rich—a cogent, impassioned description of how the social contract helps not just the people at the bottom but people at the top.
“There is nobody in the country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” Warren said in the mini-rant about fair taxation, captured on shaky video at a summertime house party, as sunlight poured through picture windows in the background. “You built a factory? Good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.”
The video instantly went viral, infuriating conservatives, while cementing Warren’s reputation as an up-and-comer with the progressive left. She raised millions of dollars from liberal groups outside Massachusetts in the aftermath. She demonstrated those same verbal skills, along with an ability to be quick on her feet, in the televised debates during that cycle, running lawyerly circles around some of Brown’s policy proposals. But, in a move that was both handy and prescient, Brown took her tendency to lecture and tried to use it to his advantage. He referred to her consistently as “Professor Warren,” to remind voters that she was one of the elites. In one debate, he delivered a cool and practiced line: “I’m not a student in your classroom. Please let me respond.”
Brown’s critique had the Warren camp rattled; two months before the election, her advisers scrambled to create a new set of ads designed to portray her as more folksy and less preachy. At the time, a Democratic activist told Frank Phillips, the Globe’s veteran political reporter, that Warren came across as a “scolding advocate.”
In the years since, a certain amount of scolding has become an accepted quality of progressive favorites. It generally describes Bernie Sanders’ demeanor. It’s part of Rachel Maddow’s schtick on MSNBC. And it has characterized Warren’s quick rise to political stardom. Her supporters cheer her for scolding the people who need to be scolded and have gotten away with not being scolded for far too long. They respond to the passion behind her message, the research that grounds it, the fact that her chief campaign issues also reflect her lived experience and her life’s work. To them, her 2020 campaign mantra—“I was born a fighter”—felt like a prediction, an anointment.
But in a national arena, where she had to appeal to voters outside the coastal college-educated class, the “scolding” part of that description always dragged Warren down. In the presidential race, she tried her best to carry herself as a friend and folksy peer—thus, the never-ending selfie lines, the stories from Oklahoma, the references to her “daddy.” In a room full of people, like that café where I first saw her, the personal touch seemed to work. But through the cold glare of the TV cameras during the debates, as she raised her hand waiting to be called on and chided fellow candidates for their thinner policy plans, she couldn’t shake the aura of the classroom, the perception that she was a professor, first and foremost.
Her supporters see gender bias in this critique, and they’re not wrong: “Scold” isn’t used much for men, and some Americans might resent a woman who’s not afraid to seem smarter than they are. But anti-elitism is a far better explanation for why Warren couldn’t connect. Voters chafed in a similar way at the lecture-y style of Al Gore in 2000, another policy wonk, and one whose deliberate way of speaking somehow made every statement sound didactic.
As Matthew Yglesias pointed out in Vox this week, only a third of 2016 voters graduated from college. America currently has more high-school dropouts than people with master’s degrees. American politics is having an anti-elitist moment, a fact that might have hampered Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, as well. Many voters don’t want to be schooled by people with Ivy League pedigrees whose every syllable telegraphs the assumption that they know best.
When she’s talking about domestic policy and economics, at least, it’s quite likely that Warren often does know best, since the effect of financial systems on the middle and working class have been the subject of her life’s work. But Donald Trump’s ascendancy—and, this week, Joe Biden’s—proves that, for now, a knowledgeable candidate isn’t the voters’ top priority. Knowledge is what you hire staff for, or what you get from talking heads on cable TV.
And to those voters, the people who might bristle when the smartest person in the room shows off her smarts, Warren’s attempts at folksiness somehow managed to backfire. That’s ironic, given that she had one of the most authentic working-class backgrounds of anyone in the field. But when you’re seen as a Harvard professor first and foremost, referring to your father as “daddy” suddenly doesn’t sound relatable; it sounds condescending.
The real Elizabeth Warren—the one who bounded into the arena in 2011 and got very close to the presidential nomination—is both a hugger and a technocrat. She’s a working-class person who sweated her way into the elite. Her story is a testament to American possibility. But in her presidential campaign, it was the technocratic message that took over. Partly, this was Warren’s fault, as she leaned into a persona as the candidate with the plans. Partly it’s the fact that her political training ground was Massachusetts, where technocrats have been some of the most popular leaders in both parties. And part of it could be the kind of student of politics Warren turned out to be. She worked hard. She learned well. She made her case the best way she knew how. It turned out, at this moment in history, to be the wrong thing to do.