“Smart.” “Pragmatic.” “Team-builder.” Anti-Trump grassroots women saw themselves in Elizabeth Warren and loved her for it. The same characteristics kept them from throwing their weight behind her campaign.
I know someone who has a “Nevertheless she persisted” tattoo. If you hang out with the kind of fierce, aging, progressive women who have been moving mountains since Donald Trump’s election, you probably do too.
Since 2017, I have been following the new grassroots democracy groups that popped up like wildfire across the country in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. I have conducted scores of interviews, joined other scholars in survey research, attended planning meetings and protests, volunteered and canvassed myself, and crunched nationwide data to measure the spread and impact of the new groups.
How is it that the overwhelming individual support for Elizabeth Warren among post-2016 grassroots activists didn’t translate into visible efforts to support her campaign? After all, these are people who are so convinced that hands-on organizing matters that they have been knocking doors and writing postcards to voters nonstop since 2017. Candidates they have supported have flipped seats from suburban school boards to Congress and everything in between.
Their failure to attempt to put this organizational muscle to work for a candidate so many of them adore is the dog that didn’t bark of the 2020 primary.
Much of Warren’s support came from highly educated professionals who often don’t know how atypical they are because so much of the media they consume is produced by people just like them. As Eitan Hersh has shown, that’s the demographic whose political “engagement” most often takes the form of disconnected hobbyism: obsessively refreshing FiveThirtyEight.com, say, rather than putting hours in with neighbors in pursuit of material political results.
But that’s not true of the women who have been the core of anti-Trump grassroots groups. Thousands of them have chosen to pour 10 or 20 hours a week since 2016 into the compromise-ridden, hands-on labor required to make on-the-ground electoral change. And by now they have spent enough time trying to win elections to realize just how atypical their own views are.
In the Trump administration’s early weeks, Elizabeth Warren’s defiance of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s order to stop reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions’s racist record made Warren an icon of female defiance. The tattoo boom followed.
Yet Warren’s early campaign missteps (the DNA test and being blindsided by Native American reaction to it) kept her from what might otherwise have been a presumptive lead among these activists. Other candidates also drew their interest: Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Stacey Abrams (until it was clear she would not run).
Warren regained traction in April 2019, when she stepped forward upon the delayed release of the complete Mueller report to insist that, on the basis of what was already disclosed, President Trump’s conduct was an assault on the rule of law and demanded impeachment. Support for Warren didn’t yet show up in the polling data, but it was palpable in the Facebook groups and weekly protests where new grassroots energies percolate.
After the July 2019 Democratic debate, the grassroots organization Indivisible polled its members and found the net percentage considering (that is, the portion considering, minus portion not considering) voting for Elizabeth Warren to be 77 percent. No other candidate was close: Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris were tied at 36-37 percent, while Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden garnered almost no interest, at 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
Indivisible national leaders were eager to consider a presidential endorsement. But they got pushback from local group leaders, who were cognizant of the range of views among their own membership and remembered 2016’s fractious battles between Hilary and Bernie supporters. Other resistance groups not affiliated with Indivisible were navigating the same conflicts, developing Facebook post guidelines to tamp down primary disputes and focusing on tasks that sidestepped ideological divides, like running reform candidates in municipal elections.
For its part, Indivisible national headquarters ultimately produced a “scorecard” ranking presidential candidates instead, released in December 2019. Warren topped the board at 95 percent; Sanders followed at 87 percent.
Yet on the ground, Warren’s policy positions played in complicated ways. Many of those policy ideas found support among grassroots women themselves but were not necessarily popular in the communities where they had been knocking doors. In fall 2019, a New York Times Upshot analysis of a poll of battleground states suggested that instead of winning over Romney-Clinton suburbs (with her pragmatism) and Obama-Trump districts (with her populism), Warren risked losing both. Reading that analysis, some of Warren’s supporters nodded in sorrowful recognition.
All this did little to shake individual commitments to Warren. But it did reinforce the choice to keep the resistance groups’ infrastructure and imprimatur out of the presidential primaries. Sanders supporters’ strident dismissal of Warren’s Medicare for All proposal — and their growing pushback against the candidate herself as her profile rose — did likewise.
As late as February 2020, in the wake of Warren’s disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and even before she eviscerated Michael Bloomberg in the Nevada debate, Warren still had the support of fully 39 percent of the 16,000 Indivisible members across the country who responded to a poll asking who they would make president if they had a magic wand — that is, without electability concerns. Sanders garnered 17 percent of respondents’ “magic wand” preference, tied with Amy Klobuchar and not far ahead of Michael Bloomberg’s 11 percent.
Those numbers suggest that at the end of the day these intense organizers are no more issue-driven than the rest of us. They fall in love with the candidate who captures the way of being they want to believe in. In this case, for a strong plurality that was — and remains — Elizabeth Warren.
Yet they left Warren to build her campaign without them, or at least, without them as an organized presence.
Build she did. The campaign taught relational organizing techniques through weekly “Warren Night School” webinars and fielded deep volunteer-driven “ground games” in Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren’s army included some resistance stalwarts moonlighting from other commitments, but also many younger and more diverse supporters drawn in by precisely the stances on racial justice, immigration, and trans rights that some pundits dismissed as symbolic “wokeness” (ignoring that for impacted groups, the stakes could not be more crushingly concrete).
I told my daughter I was writing a piece about why women-led grassroots groups had largely chosen not to put organizational muscle behind Warren’s campaign.
“Because they’re cowards,” she texted back. It was the night of Super Tuesday and she was in tears. A month earlier, she had driven 24 hours round-trip to Iowa to knock doors for Warren in the snow. “It should have been 8 years of the best president in US history.”
Lara Putnam is professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is active in grassroots democracy groups in southwest Pennsylvania. This article was originally published by The American Prospect.