Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
She’s running, and she’s started with a strong opening shot.
Elizabeth Warren announced Monday that she is forming an exploratory committee for the presidency – which is as good as saying she’s running. It’s the first major announcement of what will likely be a crowded Democratic primary in the 2020 race, and potentially the most diverse in history.
Watching Warren’s announcement video, you can see her priorities are clear: she wants economic and racial justice and recognizes that the two are neither identical nor severable (unlike too many others on the populist left who believe class is a singular unifying force and racism is a secondary “identity politics” issue solvable by economic changes alone). She recognizes that equality of opportunity isn’t just about what class you were born into; it’s also about how race and gender shape individual opportunity and mobility. Most strikingly, she doesn’t issue a milquetoast call for unity and change, or demonize some amorphous threat to American families and prosperity. No, she names and shames her villains, from big banks who push for their own deregulation, to self-interested and moneyed politicians who cut their own taxes at the expense of the rest of us, to hate-mongers on Fox News and in the White House who peddle racism and misogyny to stir up an angry, bigoted Republican base. That’s a kind of honesty at the expense of political feel-good-ism that we haven’t seen much of in recent presidential politics.
With the vision laid out in her video, Warren has staked out what might just be the ideally unifying position for Democratic voters, at least some of whom are still smarting from (and waging proxy wars out of) the 2016 primary, in which Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders. But while Warren may in theory be the perfect candidate to heal that rift, she’s still a woman – and that remains more of a liability than we may want to believe.
In 2016, many of the most vocal Bernie Sanders supporters were also some of the most vocal Clinton detractors, feeding into right-wing attacks and amplifying the narratives we now know were also pushed by Russian operatives seeking to sway the election for Donald Trump. Elections are almost never won and lost on a single factor, but this dynamic almost certainly contributed to Clinton’s loss. Along the way, Clinton supporters suggested that their candidate was subject to wildly disproportionate criticism in part because she is a woman, and pointed out that even on the left, many are subconsciously and reflexively hostile to female ambition and pursuit of power.
Many of Clinton’s detractors on the left met these observations with howls of indignation. It wasn’t that she was a woman, they said – it’s because it was her. And then, inevitably, something along the lines of: “I would vote for Elizabeth Warren if she were running.”
Well, now she is, so let’s see how that plays out. My prediction: a lot of the same people who swore they weren’t sexist because they would support a hypothetical Warren run will not in fact throw their weight behind an actual Warren run.
They should – and so should Clinton fans. Or at the very least, we should all welcome a candidate like Warren into the inevitably crowded field. For some, her disputing the president’s characterization of her racial identity was a huge misstep, playing into bad race science and undermining the right of Native Americans to decide tribal identity for themselves. Fair enough – although, if we are really being fair, Warren didn’t claim tribal membership or an allegiance to race science, and was rather trying to validate an oral family history that the President had smeared as a lie. In any case, one video intended to share her family history and shut up our bully of a President should hardly be disqualifying.
Maybe Warren really isn’t your candidate – that’s okay, too. By the looks of it, there are going to be a great many contenders. She certainly faces an uphill battle based on gender, and those of us on the left should be particularly attuned to the ways in which another eminently qualified woman will inevitably be attacked and undermined for her appearance, her voice, and even a cherry-picking of her record not similarly applied to progressive men in the field.
But Warren has done us all an immense favor by kicking her campaign off the way she did: she is setting the narrative, and insisting it focuses on class and race, economic inequality and gender inequality, and all of the ways in which our identities, and America’s history of racism and sexism indelibly shape who has opportunity, when and how.
It’s a brilliant beginning, and even if she doesn’t ultimately earn your vote, Warren has drawn the lines of the race – and launched from a crucial starting point.