Ever since I saw Donald Trump hold an audience captive for a rambling, eighty-minute stemwinder last spring, it has been clear to me that in their efforts to cover the candidate, members of the mainstream press often fail to cover the voters themselves. Despite endless speculation about poll numbers, likability, and who we want to have a beer with, it is rare that stories about a candidate capture the sense of why each one is compelling to supporters; what the atmosphere of the campaign is; and what we might learn by listening to more actual Americans – rather than just the 7% who make themselves heard, loudly, on Twitter.
So that’s what I set out to do when I attended Elizabeth Warren’s rally in New York City on Monday, an event that seems to have jolted the mainstream media into noticing her “slow but steady wins the race” campaigning style. As one young staffer said to me cheerfully — on background — the campaign is interested in incremental progress, not the “pollercoaster,” as she put it, that greases the machine of 24-7 cable news. I would say that the Warren people are very on message, but also authentic and energetic – and they almost never talk about Donald Trump. Ongoing comparisons to the 2004 Dean campaign, which I have studied closely, seem inexact to me. If anything, that campaign was anti-message, harvesting an eclectic mix of ideas from its networked supporters that ultimately failed to communicate a coherent perspective, much less the detailed policy plans that Warren regularly rolls out on Medium.
As I walked through the press gate in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park at 5:30 and collected my credentials, speakers were blasting the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” a happy tune from Warren’s youth, and my own. It was a hot, late summer evening, and the crowd, which the campaign estimated at over 20,000 people (NYPD estimates put it at about half that) was not just sweating: we were dripping. The area in front of the Washington Square Arch, where Warren was scheduled to speak at 7:00, seemed impossibly full from where I initially staked out a spot in the press gallery. Nevertheless, armed with my green paper press pass, I abandoned the bored (and boring) scrum of photographers and reporters all plugged into power strips, and made a break for the front, using skills honed in my teens at stadium rock concerts.
The journey through the crowd was, in itself, revealing. Warren boosters are shockingly polite, and a good reminder that there are political worlds beyond Twitter. Criticisms that “EW,” as the campaign team calls her, is poorly supported among voters of color were not reflected either in the makeup of the crowd or in the staffers I met. And no one seemed to mind that I had arrived hours later than they had and was now pushing my way past them. As I barged on through, determined to get as far as I could, I waved my badge in people’s faces, squeezing sideways between others, who were generating a tiny breeze by flapping small, circular, mint green paper campaign signs with navy blue letters that said: “I’m a WARREN fan.” I stepped over students from New York University, some of whom were curled up napping on the asphalt. I took shortcuts behind barriers by bluffing campaign staffers, and fell into the slipstream of political consultants in suits and neat haircuts heading in the same direction that I was. When I made it to within 100 feet of the podium, it started to rain.
I had left the relative comfort of the press area because I wanted to talk to supporters about why they were there, particularly since I wouldn’t be able to talk to Warren without waiting for ages in the selfie line that has become the standard wrap to every rally. But one peculiarity of our political moment is that, although we are all highly politicized now, many people are reluctant to talk about politics, even when attending a political event. As I wormed my way through the crowd, occasionally stopping to interview one of my age peers, no one wanted to answer even a simple question like, “Why are you here?” Most just clamped their mouths shut and shook their heads, reluctant to speak even the word “no” to an unknown reporter. I finally cajoled a pair of middle-aged women to answer a meta-question about the question: why would someone come to a Warren rally and refuse to speak about her? One of them laughed. “Oh, that’s New York,” she said, assuming I was from somewhere else entirely. “No one even answers the door when you knock on it here.”
And yet, as the rain intensified, the group around me started to talk, and I was able to talk to them. They opened umbrellas and urged strangers who had come unprepared, to squeeze closer together to fit under what became an improvised, collective roof. The good cheer was buoyed by a little peep of sun coming from the northwest corner of the arch. “I bet there’s gonna be a rainbow,” said one young woman to another: their badges identified both as Warren staffers. “We got a rainbow in Austin,” she said to her friend. “Remember?”
Speaking of rainbows – the rally was also very queer (ok, we were in Greenwich Village, but still, most young, queer New Yorkers live in Brooklyn now.) In the absence of a poll, I am going to hazard a guess that the gay men who rallied around Hillary Clinton in 2016 have bumped left and are all in for Warren. But interestingly, the gay men I talked to were not exclusively, or even primarily, concerned with rolling back homophobic and transphobic Trump administration policies, but rather with Warren’s emphasis on “equity issues,” as one supporter said. “I have liked her since she created the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau,” explained Brandon Stinchfield, a young, white professional from Massachusetts. “I like it that she’s always been a true progressive on economic justice issues.”
To me, this demonstrated the impact that radical movements like the Movement for Black Lives and Occupy Wall Street — and even the embrace of the Democratic Party — have had on moving LGBT people from identity issues towards the structural oppressions that create homophobia and racism. Warren, showed a true grasp of these relationships, Stinchfield emphasized, and for that reason he had confidence in her leadership, despite the supposed suspicion that young people are said to have towards the political establishment. “I trust that every decision she makes will think about people most at risk, and most impacted by the decision,” he said. “She has an equity framework, and she will consider people of color and LGBTQ people in all of her decisions. That’s something that’s not happening right now. In fact, it’s the opposite. And I,” he paused and thought for a second, “And I trust her.”
Warren seems to be expanding the circle of trust on the left, and is capturing some of the endorsements she needs to pull in bigger guns associated with unions and progressive political organizations like Justice Democrats. She notched an important victory on the day of the rally, when she landed the endorsement of the Working Families Party (WFP), as Maurice Mitchell, the National Director of WFP and longtime political activist, came out to introduce her. This is a story to follow: prominent members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) seemed to have been gut-punched, and even puzzled, by the announcement — one that followed swiftly on a story in Jacobin that had characterized Warren as an old-school liberal and Sanders as the only real progressive in the race. Jacobin’s rage was entirely predictable, and reflects the highly local nature of the socialist left in United States, and New York’s vanguard role in the organization. But it is also a harbinger of a possible repeat of the role that Sanders supporters played in undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign: Matt Bruenig, a founder of the People’s Policy Project, has already announced in Jacobin, on entirely speculative evidence, that the vote to endorse Warren was “probably” rigged.
But the WFP endorsement, which is largely symbolic, also suggests other things to watch in the race: that progressive organizations and community groups who have been hobbled, not only by Trumpist political and media tactics, but also by Democratic party regulars like Governor Andrew Cuomo, may see a Warren candidacy as a route back to power in the party more generally. If this is so, Warren’s speech did not disappoint. Running up to the podium at7:00 on the dot, she greeted the crowd with the kind of verve that you want to see in a winning campaign, displaying the kind of energy that signaled she was just dying to start a conversation. And what I noticed is that there is something Warren doesn’t do, something that is such a part of our political landscape that you may not notice it anymore. It’s what I call the “point and smile,” singling out donors by the stage for particular attention and warmth by pointing at them and flashing a huge smile, crinkling up their eyes and looking happily surprised. “Fancy seeing you here!” it says, as if bundling a hundred thousand dollars or so the previous week were just a footnote to the friendship.
Warren doesn’t do that. You know why? Because Elizabeth Warren got that hundred thousand dollars in five and ten dollar increments from everyone who was there. Which is why, for the first five minutes, before she told us the story of how Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins helped to create “big, structural change,” she turned from side to side, throwing her arms in the air as if to embrace everyone.
Claire Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, Executive Editor at Public Seminar, and host of the podcast, Exiles on 12th Street. You can follow her coverage of the 2016 election on Twitter @TenuredRadical.