Una Mullally: Elizabeth Warren’s patronising joke is a gift to Republicans
Democratic presidential hopeful's zinger last week, an example of punching down, was a worrying strategic fumble
The consensus is, Elizabeth Warren “won” CNN’s Equality Town Hall, a televised forum on LGBTQ issues last week. When asked how she would respond if someone approached her saying, “Senator, I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Warren answered, “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.” As the audience laughed and applauded, Warren waited to drop the second part of the punchline, “Assuming you can find one.” Zing!
It doesn’t matter what else happened during this forum, the viral moment was in the bag. In an era of reaction gifs, where “winning” is about burning people with the heat of one’s response, and the “clap back” is highly rewarded, I’m sure Warren’s quip earned her some new supporters who already think like her.
I initially enjoyed the clip; the delivery, the humour, the burn. But those feelings quickly evaporated into a sense of dread. The similarities between some of Bernie Sanders’s policies and politics and Warren’s are real, but the candidate Warren most resembled in that moment was Hillary Clinton. I’m sure stand-up comics appreciated Warren’s timing, but could there also be an argument that she broke the golden rule of liberal comedy? That she, in that moment, was punching down?
More bluntly, on what planet does Warren think such a remark would make the hypothetical person she was responding to vote for her? This wasn’t about connecting with a potential voter, it was about performance. It was about “nailing” an elusive viral moment. It was about catching a soundbite in the media’s dragnet.
The Democrats are up against so much, including voter suppression and Trump’s information warfare
If I were a jilted, bitter, angry Trump voter, I know how I would perceive what Warren said. It is more evidence to file under: look at what they think of us. It’s not exactly a “Deplorables” moment, but it’s getting there. Basically calling someone a loser in the name of a mic drop, and humiliating someone on the basis of their genuinely held beliefs – however wrong you might think they are – are tactics you will not find in the Top 50 Ways to Win Swing Voters. The clip was shared widely by liberals, but it can also be framed by the right-wing American media as an example of the Democrats’ perceived superiority complex and their patronising tendencies. Why would you gift Fox News this moment?
One could argue that while Warren is on this leg of the campaign trail, very much running for president, her first battle is of course securing her party’s nomination. That’s about galvanising support among those who broadly think like her, or like Democrats, or are sick of Trump. But Warren’s job is twofold. The only route to victory for a Democratic candidate in 2020 is either an unprecedented surge in new voters in specific states, or for counties that voted for Obama and then for Trump to swing back. It is highly likely that the Democratic candidate will once again win the popular vote, but that counts for nothing in the US’s warped democracy that prioritises the electoral college. The Democrats are up against so much, including voter suppression and Trump’s information warfare.
Broadcast media mostly positions political debate in a binary context, one side versus the other. These Punch and Judy formats prioritise point-scoring, and “winning” in the room and in the moment. I’m often floored by politicians and other public figures who should really know better allowing their ego to overtake strategy, and focusing only on an adversary in a studio, and not on the opportunity to reach and convert those listening or watching. Social media, particularly Twitter, has fostered this kind of discourse, one giant, never-ending, battle for points.
This isn’t about acceptability politics, it isn’t about tone policing, it isn’t about pragmatism over idealism, and it isn’t about not fighting. This is the fight
Quips at the expense of “the other” may feel emotionally satisfying, but they will not win potential voters. My sense of dread was compounded by the inevitable lukewarm comedy Saturday Night Live served up in response, like a 2016 time machine, with Kate McKinnon as Warren doling out zingers. Has nobody learned anything?
Sure, Warren might privately think that someone who opposes marriage equality deserves to be smacked down, but publicly, what does that smackdown offer strategically? A much more interesting and impactful response would have been for Warren to talk about how even people with fundamentally different views can find common ground elsewhere. “So hey,” she might have responded, “we may disagree on marriage, but how much are you paying for your health insurance? Are you working two jobs to get by? Are you worried about your mortgage payments? Does the prospect of your child attending college feel like an unattainable dream? How do you feel about small businesses not being able to survive in your town? Let’s talk about that.” Newsflash: America has marriage equality. How about addressing the things it doesn’t have?
This isn’t about acceptability politics, it isn’t about tone policing, it isn’t about pragmatism over idealism, and it isn’t about not fighting. This is the fight. The Democratic Party needs people who don’t like them or their candidates to vote for them.
Empathy is at its most profound when channelled towards those who do not think like you. Focusing on that may give Warren fewer cheap viral moments, but in a traumatised America, a sense of healing, not humiliation, is what’s needed.