Elizabeth Warren triggered me in both a positive and an uncomfortable way. She reminded me of two other professors I knew very well, my late parents. And when I say they were professors, I mean professors. They loved the “life of the mind.” To the mortification of their only son, they talked about research and teaching at their Ivy League campus for hours on end at the dinner table and everywhere else. Our house was a library and lyceum: they left me ten thousand books when they passed away.
So, like a lot of professors’ children, I vowed in my youth never to become a professor.
You may notice from my byline that I am a professor.
Unlike a much more common popular culture character — the K–12 teacher who can be crazy, good, or bad — the popular culture stereotype of the professor doesn’t seem to have progressed that far since the days of Abelard and Heloise. In fact, my clearest memories of professors on television and film have been distinctly unsympathetic. There was the randy English professor in Animal House, the randy English professor in Thirtysomething, and the — adjuncts count, right? — randy English professor in Californication.
Professors in adventure or sci-fi movies tend to be blathering “eggheads” but also occasionally heroes. Indiana Jones was an action hero, although it was hard to picture him leading a meeting of the departmental curriculum committee. The implausibly multi-languaged linguist in Arrival comes to mind, but like her, pop culture professors are always a bit odd and preternaturally focused. They may not be genuinely “nutty” (thanks, Jerry Lewis) — but would you want them to be in charge of the Department of Homeland Security?
Elizabeth Warren was an actual professor, and whatever else you say about her, she addressed every issue head on with detailed plans and proposals …just like a professor. Warren must hold the unverifiable world record of the presidential candidate who best understood (and likely even read) her own white papers.
Like any good professor, Warren also seems to be admired where she has taught. Although Warren failed to ignite the youth vote, in the post-campaign immolation moment, Harvard students did leave Post-it notes covered in encouraging wishes all around her faculty wall photo.
Pundits are now arguing about what her fate meant for electing a woman president one day. What I’m wondering is, will we ever have a professor in the White House? I know, Woodrow Wilson — but a century between professors seems like a long interval.
The case for professors seems mixed. Barack Obama was also professorial, and taught law — although he was not tenured — but he had other popular credentials and smoother populist instincts. Yet, Warren, if anything, seemed to be capable of even more passion than our 44th president. Rhetorically, the main charge against her was “inauthenticity.” If so, it was a different kind than that of, say, a Hillary Clinton. With Clinton, you got the impression that every phrase had been tested on a focus group. With Warren, while you believed she wrote all her position papers herself, many of the quips did seem scripted for target constituencies.
The old saw seems to be true: Most of us vote for someone we would like to have a beer with — note how Obama cleverly visualized that trope with another professor and a police officer! — not somebody who will teach us Econ 101. So, you hear people say that, in hindsight, Warren’s professor persona should have been downplayed and her single mother reality from Oklahoma pumped home in ads. But wait, she did tell the Okie story …often. And not everybody liked it.
Which brings up another question. A few years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education documented how the auto dealer lobby in South Carolina torpedoed legislation that would have allowed heavier investment in the state’s colleges and universities. When I read that story, I mused about how every lobby in America seems more powerful than higher education in general and professors in particular. Ever see headlines like “In run for mayor, incumbent gets boost from powerful chemistry professor activists” or “Comp Lit professor money swings key Congressional seat” or “Legislature caves to political scientist pressure”?
We professors may be professionals, but we don’t have any cohort consciousness to mobilize for our own like the remarkably influential US Association of Reptile Keepers and the California Dried Plum Board.
So, here’s a takeaway from the 2016 Democratic primary: You can be a professor and win a Massachusetts Senate seat, but that very same constituency won’t vote to elect you president.
But back to the authenticity question: I think my parents would disagree that professors are inherently inauthentic or elite. Neither of them was by any means born to the professor class. My father, a Navy vet, went to college on the G.I. Bill and was a consultant to many (real-world) businesses. My mother survived World War II in Greece and got a Ph.D. at a time when #MeToo was unimaginable fantasy. My parents’ love of great ideas and learning didn’t make them any less connected to ordinary folk. My father, in particular, had a magnetic personality and could strike up a friendly conversation with anyone, from a Greek fisherman on a dock to a fruit seller on the streets of Philadelphia. He genuinely loved humans as well the humanities, which is a distinction and a difference, and the mass of humanity appreciated it — visibly, in front of me.
So any professional can win political office, but professors have to employ a tactic that fellow political communication scholar Guy Golan and I call “countertyping.” If people negatively stereotype you for what you are, come from, or look or sound like, then you should deploy a contrasting set of images, phrasings, and behaviors.
The problem is that the code-switching must seem natural and uncondescending — that is, authentic. Huey Long, famously, could talk lawyer to the lawyers and sharecropper to the sharecroppers. But Warren looked, and sounded, forced when trying to be anything but herself. On the other hand, politicians like F.D.R. and Reagan, although shrewd about their public image, stayed in their own character and won popularity anyway.
I still believe in the American dream that any kid can grow up and become president — and, with shrewd zeitgeist timing, Disney does, too. But the candidate has to strike a tone and manner that seem natural. From the head is fine, as long as the heart is on display as well. The political and economic landscape matters also; if we had been in the middle of a deep recession or worse, we might have been more likely to turn to the proverbial brainy kid in the class to help us with our homework.
Elizabeth Warren’s loss does not prove women are unelectable as president in the same way Bob Dole and John McCain falling short did not prove hero-veteran status makes you unelectable.
But the right candidate has to run the right way at the right historical moment. And right now, professors don’t quite hit our electorate’s sweet spot.
David D. Perlmutter is a professor of political communication in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. His book Blogwars (Oxford, 2008) was one of the first studies of the then relatively new phenomenon of social media and politics.