I recently spent an afternoon with some new friends in Connecticut, writing letters to registered Democrats in Georgia who hadn’t voted in the past few elections. It was a nice time: one man and five “middle-aged hysterics” (as one of the Chapo Trap House brocialists once called the women of the Resistance) trying to allay our preelection jitters and feel a bit less useless. As we were getting ready to leave, having written a collective total of 199 letters, I put on my columnist’s hat and asked how people felt about Elizabeth Warren. The general verdict from this tiny sample of revved-up white, liberal, never-miss-an-election New England Democrats was that she’s finished—or should be.
“Too much has happened,” said one, referring to the current flap over Warren’s DNA-test results. “It’s too much of a negative.” Another said, “I don’t like that ‘angry woman’ T-shirt,” referring to the one for sale on Warren’s website that reads “Impolite Arrogant Woman,” which is what White House chief of staff John Kelly called her in an e-mail. (My friend thought it would rub moderates the wrong way.) “She’s shrill,” said a third—the kiss of death for a woman candidate.
“Who would you like to run?” I asked. “Phil Murphy,” one replied. He’s the governor of New Jersey—and yes, I had to ask.
So there it is. Two years ago, Warren was a left-liberal political goddess: smart, energetic, with a great economic agenda and a background in the “ragged edges of the middle class.” She was the woman that lefty men who hated Hillary said they’d love to vote for—so how could they be sexist? But now Warren is a bungling racist with a screechy voice who’s pushing way too hard for the Andrea Dworkin vote. Oh, and she used to be a Republican. And she’s had meetings with Jamie Dimon and other bankers. Plus, any day now, lefty Twitter will remember that Warren endorsed Hillary in the primary, and then it will really be all over for her.
Right now, though, the issue is her attempt to prove her Native American ancestry by releasing the results of a DNA test, accompanied by a video about her barely-middle-class family and childhood in Norman, Oklahoma. For the record, I thought the video hit just the right notes: It was friendly, genuine, down-to-earth, and actually informative. It turns out that a lot of people in Norman didn’t know that Elizabeth Warren is their own high-school classmate and neighbor Betsy Herring, because that’s what happens when a woman takes her husband’s name.
But the release of Warren’s DNA results did not go as planned—at all. Many Native Americans were outraged. Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, accused her of “dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens.” “I am a Cherokee woman. Elizabeth Warren is not,” remonstrated Rebecca Nagle at ThinkProgress. In a New York Times op-ed, the brilliant sociologist Alondra Nelson charged Warren with reifying genetic testing as determinative of racial identity, while Masha Gessen at The New Yorker lambasted her for advancing an “outdated, harmful concept of racial blood.”
These critics have a point. The relation of biology to identity is tremendously complicated and, moreover, changing rapidly. Also, Warren should have reached out to Native American communities before releasing the video—that’s just Politics 101. But I wonder if, in making their case so vehemently, people on the left haven’t taken the least charitable view of a rather more nuanced message. After all, Warren didn’t claim to be a member of a tribe, and she takes care to point out that “only tribes determine tribal citizenship.” She condemns both the “casual racism [of] war whoops and tomahawk chops” and the generations of discrimination and violence that Native Americans have faced. In the video, she’s simply confirming her family’s history: Her father’s people didn’t want him to marry her mother because it was understood that she was part Native American. That turns out to be true.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans doubled down on their mockery. Among many other racist memes, former congressman Jason Chaffetz tweeted a photo of himself with an old-fashioned wooden Indian in full regalia, captioned “At Disneyland today with Senator Elizabeth Warren.” In retrospect, it was clearly a mistake for her to respond to Donald Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunts by trying to set the record straight. It’s a perfect illustration of the old adage against wrestling with a pig: You both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it. When Trump mocks his opponents, he has them in a cleft stick: If they respond, they look flustered and guilty—as with jokes, if you have to explain, you’ve failed. But if they ignore him, they look like they have something to hide.
However, for those of you happy to consign Warren to an early political grave, I have bad news: There is no Democratic presidential candidate without an Achilles’ heel. As California attorney general, Kamala Harris took some punitive law-and-order stances. Cory Booker has ties to Wall Street and Big Pharma. Kirsten Gillibrand opposed gun control when she represented a House district in upstate New York, then moved sharply left as a senator—flip-flop! What’s more, she took the lead in destroying the beloved groper Al Franken. Joe Biden, tormentor of Anita Hill, has a list of political sins at least as long as Hillary’s. And as for Bernie Sanders, the one person who many readers think is pure, you may not care about his long-distant radical-hippie past—the weird sex writings, the fraternal greetings to the ayatollah, the fact that he didn’t have a steady job until he was almost 40—or his pro-gun votes, his not being a Democrat, or even that he’ll be 80 by next Inauguration Day. But are you sure those things—and whatever new dirt opposition researchers dig up—can’t be blown into a full-fledged scandal, just like Warren’s DNA test?
Nobody’s perfect. Probably not even Phil Murphy. So I’d think twice before cheering Warren’s troubles—your own preferred candidate may be next.