The Warren Paradox

Elizabeth Warren’s March 5 announcement that she was suspending her presidential campaign was certainly sensible, however disappointing it may have been to many in my own demographic, “highly educated middle-aged white women.” Throughout her campaign, she was usually labeled a “progressive” or even “radical,” along with Bernie Sanders, and in contrast to the more “moderate” candidates such as Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. After her departure, the “progressive” mantle was left to Sanders, who has now also dropped from the campaign and recently firmly endorsed Biden’s candidacy — the two have announced a series of task forces to ensure that both progressives and moderates will have a voice in policy development.

Many have analyzed the failures of the Warren campaign. I’m not going to join in the policy post mortem. Rather, I want to take a look at her storyline, which was somewhat unconventional, and illustrates an important facet of voter psychology.

It’s very common to think that voters are, or should be, rational actors — people who understand the pros and cons of different policies as they would affect themselves and others, and who make decisions accordingly. Policy analysis is important, but political scientists have found that it doesn’t play as big a role in voting as one might think. Perhaps the most important factor in voting is the intuitions the voters have about the candidates: how they feel about them. These feelings can certainly be influenced by whether they think a candidate would be able to bring about policies they like, but policies don’t have to be part of the picture at all. Another factor that’s probably even more important is whether the candidate’s “story” about our collective journey resonates emotionally with the voters.

Our collective stories

Along with all of a candidate’s policies and personality, we’ll always find a storyline: an underlying message about who we are and where we’re headed. Some are explicit, like Donald Trump’s pledge to make America “great again,” a Restoration. Others are only apparent from looking at the candidate’s plans and temperament (see Hillary Clinton’s focus on her job qualifications and policy plans: Stability and modest Progress). What was Elizabeth Warren’s storyline? The answer may surprise you.

For moderates, whether Democrat or Republican, the standard storyline is Progress — getting “better,” although the contexts we want to improve typically differ by party, with Democrats favoring improvements in equity and general quality of life, and Republicans often more concerned about economic growth. Both parties also value a Stability storyline, with Democrats often more willing to gamble some of that Stability in favor of greater gains toward its goals, and Republicans more concerned about the security/defensive aspects of Stability. With Progress, change is incremental, and the story’s point of view is here in the present, looking forward to where we can get in manageable steps.
Contrast this with Bernie Sanders, who was seeking more ambitious change. His use of language like “revolution” signals that Sanders was using a Transformation storyline. Rather than advancing in small steps, a Transformation implies a discontinuity, where we abruptly move from one condition to another. The story’s perspective is that new place where we want to be, looking back to “now” as a lesser time.

The Transformation challenge

If voters believe in it, Transformation is more exciting and inspiring than Progress, because it represents a bigger change. It’s more amazing. On the other hand, Transformations can be problematic for two reasons. First, they’re stepping away from the Stability storyline that underlies an incremental Progress story — the idea that if we want to move reliably in the right direction, the outcomes of our actions need to be predictable. Some of Sanders’ followers see this discontinuity as a plus, an end to “business as usual.” Meanwhile, others — outside Sanders’ sphere — worry that radical changes may not have the outcomes they’re promising, especially if the systems we’ve used in the past to do things smoothly are no longer in place.

The second problem with Transformation is that the emotional impact and motivational push that comes from thinking about the planned jump in the right direction can easily be offset by the very act of talking about practical considerations. At its best, making a major collective change requires a great deal of political goodwill, such as that arising from a widespread, bipartisan sense of crisis. At its worse, a Transformation can mean considerable personal sacrifice. A great example is when Chairman Mao declared a “Great Leap Forward” for China — millions starved.

One hallmark of the Sanders campaign is that some (many?) of his supporters seemed to believe that electing him would be sufficient to bring all of his plans into effect. He would be able to “make it so,” without having to compromise and work with both parties in Congress — as well as countless business stakeholders — over an extended period of time. Sanders himself has a great deal of experience and presumably doesn’t expect magical shortcuts, but he’s been criticized for proposals that are, in one columnist’s words, “sloppy and slapdash.”

The Warren story

Warren often sounds like she wants Transformation too. She did have big aspirations — improving corporate accountability, fighting government corruption, building a green economy, treating healthcare as a human right. The slogan she often used was “big, structural change,” and doubtless there are many aspects of American life that would benefit from a dramatic overhaul. Using language like “big, structural change” can also feel threatening, however, to those who are barely making-do as things are. Building on the “structure” metaphor, it may feel to them as if a familiar house is going to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. For others, it might just evoke something like a seismic retrofitting, which assures us that our current buildings will be even stronger and more reliable in the future. Her statement that she wanted “an America that works for everyone” is probably more aligned with the retrofitting of institutions to make sure they serve our needs better, rather than tearing them down to start over. People’s reaction to her words, however, will depend on what type of “structural change” the audience is imagining, something scary or something desirable.

Warren has said that bigger changes can be more feasible than modest ones because they can overcome voter cynicism. She’s probably correct about overcoming cynicism… but I can’t help but think of Bill Clinton’s ambitious plan to reform health insurance in 1993-94, which backfired so resoundingly against the Democrats. Any program involving massive and intricate regulations, for example, can become a prime target of charges of government overreach and mobilize citizens who see all regulations as infringements of their liberty.

The other phrase Warren is known for is having “a plan for that,” for almost any topic voters might care about. Her policy aspirations may have been similar to Sanders’, with Transformative goals, but her approach was different. The very fact that she invested so much effort in the pragmatics of ensuring her policies would work revealed that her perspective was firmly in the present, focused on starting where we are to get where we should be. So her storyline isn’t really Transformation; rather, it’s a grander form of Progress — Transformative Progress, if you will. It recognizes that change requires starting from where we are and who we have to work with.

A hunger for magic

For many of his followers, Bernie Sanders’ energy and integrity have given hope that we’ll finally “get things done” to move our country in the right direction, ideally helping us to catch up to Western Europe’s quality of life. Warren’s campaign, to the extent that her supporters wanted similar changes, has done likewise. Believing in their potential to help us make a collective “jump” in the right direction can let us experience a greater emotional intensity from the candidate’s messages. It energizes the public. More generally, any time that something makes us see them or their candidacy as extraordinary or special, we experience a stronger feeling than we would if they were just ordinary.
Another way to build up this sense that a campaign or social movement is extraordinary is to evoke the idea of “purity.” A common criticism of some subset of Sanders’ supporters is that they seemed to focus too much on “purity.” Part of this may mean that they want to reject the nitty-gritty of politics. And here we have a paradox for Warren — by contrast with Sanders, she tried to be realistic and transparent about the process. Voters seeking inspiration may not want to hear about tiresome details. If it’s true that some Sanders followers value this, then that’s something they share with the Trump crowd, who seem to enjoy his campaign claims that he would “just take care of it,” whatever the issue. It’s ironic that the very act of using facts and details to assure the public that their dreams are attainable could make the Warren message less inspiring than simply claiming it can be done.

Another form of “purity” valued by the Left is knowing a candidate is not beholden to “big money.” Warren’s late decision to take money from a Super PAC may have helped confirm to Sanders fans that she wasn’t “pure” enough (although Sanders’ campaign was supported by a nurses’ union Super PAC as well). Purity-based thinking is closely associated with black-and-white thinking, and for some within that all-or-nothing worldview, there might be room for only one true hero.

Other ways to make a candidate seem special and exceptional include convincing us that they’re especially honorable, heroic, saintly, or a noteworthy “first.” Even celebrity glamour can be enough — it worked for Trump and Ronald Reagan. Obama was in some ways an ideal candidate — he combined the Stability-Progress storyline that made him a comfortable choice for the Democratic establishment, while voting for him let many of us participate in the sheer miracle of achieving an African-American presidency, something most of us assumed we would never see in our lifetimes. (Electing a woman president doesn’t seem to have this magic — even Republicans typically treat it as something that just hasn’t happened yet.)

It goes without saying that we want to elect a president who will pursue sensible policies. The point I’m making is that this rational approach isn’t necessarily enough. To get voters excited about Election Day, parties need to nominate candidates who appeal to the heart as well as the mind. Warren won the hearts of many young girls with her “pinky promises,” but for the majority of Progressives she may have been just too rational. Joe Biden appears to be a warm, even affectionate person, and many Americans are fond of him. It remains to be seen, though, whether he can muster up that extra, magical spark he’ll need to electrify the Sanders faithful… and enough of the rest of the public to win an Electoral College majority.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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