I believe in my political independence, but I also believe in fate. In 2016, declaring the stakes were just too damn high, I ended nearly three decades as a registered independent to become a Democrat for about five weeks, the only way I could vote in that year’s presidential primary. I’d figured on doing the same in 2020 but also planned to procrastinate — until the man last week at the driver’s license photo center said I could change my party ID right there, in about 10 seconds.
So I am, as I write this, a Democrat — at least through April 28, the date of Pennsylvania’s presidential primary. Now I’m going to tell you who I’m voting for, and why.
I know that’s a little weird, but that’s an outgrowth of the weird way this column came to be. It started in 2005 under the now-barely extant brand of Attytood as part of the 2000s’ blogging revolution. I became immersed back then in the hothouse of journalism reform, and the radical ideas that truth and fairness matter more than access to the powerful or fake concepts of “balance” — and that writers should be highly transparent.
Journalism and democracy are inextricably linked, and one small piece of that is — despite what a few ridiculous cranks have said — that all journalists should vote. Some also believe that a journalist revealing who they voted for is a sign of bias, which also strikes me as somewhat absurd. I know that’s a fraught question for straight-news reporters, but for an opinion journalist like me it’s a no-brainer. I always want my readers to know where I’m coming from. And so I reveal my now-ever-changing party ID — and also my intended vote.
If the stakes were high in 2016 — when I naively and foolishly believed that Donald Trump’s campaign was the last throes of a doomed white supremacy, and that America was ready then for a political revolution — then they are off the charts in 2020. As president, Trump has massively misused and abused the powers of his office, corrupted the White House beyond what has seemed possible, and caused needless deaths and risked many more with a feckless foreign policy — all with increasingly unstable flights of narcissism. And yet, with an economy producing good stats and wealth for those at the top, and a neofascistic discipline imposed on his Republican Party and his base, Trump’s chances for reelection remain good. Saving the American Experiment requires a new president who will stop the downward spiral of authoritarianism.
Now here’s how I saw things in March 2016, when I disclosed that year’s party switch and who I’d be voting for:
I plan to cast a ballot for the only candidate in the 2016 race with a more-than 50-year record of saying what he actually believes and then fighting like hell to make those beliefs happen, the only candidate who understands that health care and advanced education aren’t just a necessity in the 21st century but a basic human right, and the only candidate who’s made it this far without kowtowing to the billionaire donor class and the hedge-fund interests on Wall Street. On April 26, I am going to vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as if my life depended on it. It’s just that important.
I also wrote that March that it was already clear Bernie could not win in 2016 but I felt a vote for his candidacy was essentially playing the long game, that the strategy was advancing “a political revolution that could last for decades.” Flash forward to 2020 and Sanders is a leading, serious contender for the White House — leading the Iowa caucus field in a major poll released this weekend. He’s done so without compromising his principles one iota. The prospect of a 46th president who’d fight fiercely against income inequality and for universal health care and higher education suddenly feels possible. So given how I felt four years ago, my vote for Bernie Sanders in April 2020 should be a slam dunk. Right?
Well, I still think Bernie Sanders could be a great American president, but here’s the thing. Bernie hasn’t changed, but times change, and changing times have changed me. My perceptions about what’s wrong with America and how to fix it are different than they were in 2016. I’ve had four years to absorb what Trump’s presidency says about us as a nation — and who has resisted Trump, and why. I’m still committed to the exact same political revolution. But I believe the candidate who will get us there is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
I plan to vote for Warren on April 28 for two reasons. One is simple, the other a bit more abstract. For starters, the two-term Massachusetts senator has run the best campaign, pure and simple. Her accidental rallying cry was handed to her by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who blocked Warren’s principled stand against the nomination of unqualified Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the Senate floor and added, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Since announcing her candidacy last year, persistence has been the hallmark of Warren’s campaign. She’s stuck to her plan and remained true to herself even as the Beltway crowd wrote her off again and again, and in doing so she’s remained a top contender in spite of those naysayers. Her decision to shun big donors for small contributions and play up personal voter contact — yes, including the now infamous “selfie line” — was ridiculed even as her money and support grew. Rather than ignore her biggest stumble — the Native American heritage missteps — she’s owned it through unprecedented outreach to indigenous voters.
Yes, Sanders’ half-century-plus of consistency as a democratic socialist is remarkable, but the story of Warren’s political conversion from somewhat conservative Republican to fiery progressive after she saw firsthand the unfairness of America’s bankruptcy laws is just as compelling and relatable, arguably even more so. Yet Warren and her team know that — with the nation in crisis — personal fortitude, an appealing campaign style and a good personal story aren’t enough.
Warren’s diagnosis of what ails the United States — massive political corruption and a rigged economic playing field against the middle and more struggling classes — is right on the money, pun intended. It’s why she was the first Democratic candidate to see the need for impeaching Trump, and why she’s had a forceful reaction to the president’s reckless actions toward Iran. But it’s also why her detailed plans — for a wealth tax on America’s kleptocracy to help fund universal health care and higher education and eliminate crippling college debt — are her centerpiece and biggest selling point.
The TV talking heads seem to take special pleasure in nitpicking the details of Warren’s plans, in a manner that’s not applied to any of the other candidates. But here’s the thing: Her supporters know — if I may borrow the only good thought that’s ever popped into Salena Zito’s head — to take her plans seriously but not literally. Whatever is typed in a report in 2019-20 won’t be what emerges from the sausage grinder of Capitol Hill. What matters is that President Elizabeth Warren will fight for those sweeping goals with persistence ... and passion.
In addition, while acknowledging there are some ways in which Sanders expands the electorate, I think a Warren nomination would ensure the most passion from the activists — primarily women — who led the Women’s March and the airport resistance to Trump’s travel ban in 2017 and knocked on millions of doors to get us a Democratic House in 2018. Although Warren isn’t yet winning among young voters or nonwhites, I believe she has a potential for growth that simply is not there for youth with Joe Biden or for both groups with Pete Buttigieg. Her stance as an ultraliberal, reform-minded capitalist is arguably a better place to be in November 2020 than Bernie’s lifetime socialism.
So why isn’t Warren the clear front-runner? I blame two things that are deeply intertwined: fear and misogyny. In politics, the second most dismaying thing so far about 2020 — after Trump’s growing instability — has been the fear bordering on a paralyzing panic that has overcome the Democratic electorate that I’ve just joined. This weekend, that much anticipated Des Moines Register/CNN poll, while showing Sanders and Warren at the top, also showed that — at what should be a time for choosing — “not sure” more than doubled from 5 to 11 percent.
Democrats seem to be focused not on the strength of their field but on making long mental lists of each candidate’s supposed weaknesses against Trump in the fall. No one has suffered from this exercise more than Elizabeth Warren. Her experience is written off as old age (despite boundless energy and mental acuity), her policy chops downgraded as schoolmarmish wonkery, and her enthusiasm for the campaign sometimes described as dorky. A lot of this can be boiled down to one word, or maybe two. Sexism. Or, misogyny.
Just because Gandhi didn’t actually say, “Be the change you want to see in the world” doesn’t mean that it’s not great advice. When I said earlier that I and my perceptions of America’s problems have changed since 2016, nothing has changed more than my awareness of the pervasive and highly toxic effect of the prejudice and often thinly disguised hatred of women that permeates far too much of society.
You see it at Trump’s Nuremberg-style hate rallies, which are animated by angry chants of “Lock her up!” toward Hillary Clinton long after any political threat from Clinton had dissipated. Or in the current trial of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the poster child for a litany of men in media, politics, entertainment and high tech who got away with unhindered sexism and sexual abuse for decades. And you see it in the way that Warren’s chances of winning in 2020 are dismissed, by voters who agree with her ideas but are certain she’ll be “Hillary-ed” if she gets the nomination.
This infuriates me, and if you care about women’s place in American society it should infuriate you as well. In the current wave of fear gripping Democrats, too many voters are throwing up their hands and saying, in essence, misogynists will tip this election ... so how can we get a few more white dudes onboard? I find that morally appalling. Imagine if the reaction in 1964 to voter intimidation and violence in Mississippi had been: “Let’s go slow on this civil rights stuff because otherwise LBJ might not get elected.” Yet that kind of thinking swirls in 2020.
America will not be saved by fear. It will be saved by courage. We’ve seen courage from scores of women who’ve come forward to accuse Weinstein, Trump, and other powerful men. Now, given the nattering nabobs of negativism who’ve weighed in on a Warren presidency, it will also take a type of courage just to vote for her.