Just so you know where I’m coming from right off the bat, I don’t think “socialism,” “liberal,” or “progressive” are dirty words. A functioning society has a strong social safety net and funds education, research, and the arts. Any truly progressive policy has to be anti-racist and anti-sexist. Government should regulate industry for the greater good. For all these reasons, I support Elizabeth Warren for president; of all the candidates, her policy goals writ large seem to align most closely with my values. I remember an early campaign video of hers when she was running for the U.S. Senate where she explains that it’s great if a business owner is successful and makes a lot of money, but they have to understand that they didn’t succeed on their own, because they relied on all the public goods and protections (roads, railroads, utilities, federally insured loans) that make private business possible. So, it’s only fair to say those business owners need to pay their taxes. She was making not just a policy argument, but a moral one, speaking to our sense of basic fairness.
Since then, she has honed this ability to frame key policy positions as folksy populist fables that resonate with diverse groups of people. In her personal story, too, she embodies the very idea of hard work and perseverance as the formula for social mobility and success despite unfair obstacles.
But if I’m being honest, my support for Warren was solidified by stories about her being a great teacher. As someone who’s spent most of my life working in higher education, thinking a lot about pedagogy for years, I think it says a lot about her that she is so widely recognized for her teaching. In an article in The Cut, Rebecca Traister writes:
“Warren has won multiple teaching awards, and when I first profiled her in 2011, early in her Senate run and during what would be her last semester of teaching at Harvard, I spoke to students who were so over the moon about her that my editors decided I could not use many of their quotes because they were simply too laudatory. Many former students I interviewed for this story spoke in similarly soaring terms.”
What does it mean to be a great teacher? In my experience, it means you listen, you care, and you learn alongside your students. It means having high expectations not because of some abstract idea of rigor or because you’re playing gatekeeper, but because you believe in your students’ potential and abilities. Students can always tell the difference. Stories of her influence on specific students show her to be a transformational teacher. Katie Porter, a former student of hers, was teaching tax law at the University of California – Irvine when she decided to run for Congress in 2018 and rode the blue wave into office in California’s 45th district, the first Democrat to represent the district ever.
As Traister continues, though, Americans have conflicted feelings about teachers, one of the few roles in which women traditionally had some measure of power:
“It’s true that people may resent teachers. It’s also true that people are primed to resent teachers, because they resent women who might wield power over them, and it is still new and uncomfortable to think about women having political — presidential! — power. And yet: People who have had great teachers love them in ways that are intense and alchemical and irrational and sometimes difficult to convey — which is also, oddly enough, how some people love the politicians they believe in and choose to fight for.”
And so voters nervously question Warren’s electability, convincing themselves that only a white male candidate can win against Trump. Or, they label her “extreme” or “too far left” even though her policies are popular with a majority of Americans. Yet other voters are devoted to her because they sense that her platform isn’t just spin. Her life story isn’t just one of overcoming sexism and the gender norms and expectations of her day; it’s also one of a political awakening born of educating herself about a problem (bankruptcy) and seeing how the whole system is rigged. She is a great teacher because she is a learner who applies her lessons well.
Is she perfect? Of course not. But unlike Buttigieg or Biden, who still stumble on questions about racial justice and, in Buttigieg’s case, whose arrogance seems to get in the way of his ability to learn and adapt, Warren seems to be listening. She offers a different model of leadership than the ego-driven, love-the-sound-of-my-own-voice kind we’ve gotten used to and come to expect. What does “presidential” really mean? With a few exceptions, like Traister’s piece, however, the media seems not to know what to do with her or her candidacy. Oh no, if she can’t win in a neighboring state like New Hampshire, what chance does she have?, pundits opine. But as my husband pointed out, that’s like saying, oh no, she didn’t do well in Arizona, and she’s from neighboring California! And yet, media narratives make reality, sway perception, and make everything seem a foregone conclusion even though the primaries have just begun and there are still so many delegates at stake.
I think it’s telling that Warren is so many voters’ second choice. They sense she’s got the right ideas and is more than qualified, but they’re like skeptical students reluctant to give up their received views and take a real intellectual risk, because they’re too afraid, too emotionally attached to what feels safe and familiar. This is what makes me sad, bracing to be disappointed even as I hang on to hope that she can prevail. This mix of hope and foreboding is captured in Monica Hesse’s recent piece in the Post about the post-Iowa, pre-New Hampshire moment:
“Then it was time to really think about Elizabeth Warren. Which really means sorting through what version of America you believe in — the one where we are ready to vote a woman into the Oval Office, or the one where we aren’t — and whether it’s the believing, one way or another, that makes your version true.”
Here is Elizabeth Warren talking about how she went to see her second husband teach before she proposed to him, because she knew she couldn’t be with him if he wasn’t good:
“That’s the heart of really great teaching,” she said. “It’s that I believe in you. I don’t get up and teach to show how smart I am. I get up and teach to show how smart you are, to help you have the power and the tools so that you can build what you want to build.”
She believes in us. Why can’t we believe in her and in ourselves, America? What is it going to take?