At the beginning of the year, as the political press was fretting over Elizabeth Warren’s supposed charisma deficit and whether Americans would stand being “lectured to,” the media seized on her down-home tendencies. Specifically, the problem was beer drinking.
The Atlantic wrote in January:
“Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer.” With those simple words, Elizabeth Warren unleashed a wave of social-media mockery for what her critics see as a ham-handed attempt to convey down-home authenticity. Warren’s comment was made during an Instagram livestream broadcast from her family kitchen on New Year’s Eve, soon after announcing her candidacy to run for president in the 2020 Democratic primary—the first major candidate to do so.
Warren, the piece noted, isn’t the kind of person who is just gonna get her a beer: She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s rich. She was a professor at an Ivy. But, as The Atlantic admits, “gonna get me a beer” isn’t posturing, it’s a typical speech pattern for somebody from Oklahoma. The thing about Warren that’s been irreconcilable for pundits and the political media: She may have taught at Harvard, but Warren actually is from down home. She’s both. And she’s deploying that personal story effectively.
Warren’s stump speeches are filled with personal references to the challenges of working middle-class motherhood—of finding and affording daycare and of the precariousness of it all. She’s claiming the narrative of the local girl made good, the woman who toughed it out. In politics, this story is usually trotted out by men, who want to tell you about a waitress they met in a diner in a key primary state and the homey wisdom she imparted to them. If you see it first-person, it’s more typically the stuff of country music.
As America’s governing power becomes more isolated from the great mass of society, politics has morphed into a ludicrous race-to-the-bottom competition to be the most folksy person—the most relatable populist—who has ever breathed. Patricians like John Kerry go bird-hunting for photographers, George W. Bush morphs into a Texas ranch hand, Cory Booker drops a “dagnabbit,” and rich city boy par excellence Don Trump Jr. wraps everything he owns in camouflage and fluorescent orange, just in case a deer might wander into his Upper East Side apartment. At this point in the Democratic primary, you can barely find a “g” at the end of a word to save your life. And Warren’s emphasis on her Oklahoma roots fits with this political imperative, a convenient corrective to the slam that she’s a fancy Harvard East Coast liberal who doesn’t understand Real American Freedom.
But if the performance is familiar, the details of the story that inspired it are authentic. Warren is somebody with an “Aunt Bee” who saved her career when she came to help raise Warren’s kids, which mirrors the domestic arrangement for the entire run of The Andy Griffith Show. And she has made this anecdote a vital element of her campaign. It’s an almost archetypal story, but it’s also one that connects with the realities of life for many people trying to make it work. Elderly women, in particular, have always helped out with small children, and Pew found that 22 percent of American grandparents report providing regular childcare—a vital stopgap when our national childcare system is such a disaster. (Rates are actually lower than in Germany and Italy—possibly because American seniors are more likely to be working still.) If anything, the phenomenon is growing, with grandparents stepping into the wreckage wrought by the opioid epidemic.
Warren’s persona is that of an Eagle Scout crossed with the mother of several small children: she has a plan no matter your concern. She is so ready with a plan, she made it a campaign slogan and even put it on t-shirts. Her campaign has dropped plan after plan onto Medium, outlining how she’d expand social security, prevent gun violence, invest in rural America, or rein in Wall Street. Lots of people see this as the essence of her campaign—she’s the professor with the big wonky pile of detailed plans.
But Warren’s personal narrative is what makes her plans come alive. On the campaign trail, when she talks about those plans, she puts them into the context of her lived experience, and her stump speech is almost a personal essay, as she tells a story about what she values, why, and what she’s going to do about it. Her pitch for universal childcare demonstrates this vital element of her appeal, her ability to deploy her down-home bona fides without running off the road into the ditches on either side of corny, over-the-top fakeness or offensive nostalgia. Before jumping into the specifics of her plan, Warren explains her personal commitment to the fight, telling about her Aunt Bee, who moved in and saved Warren’s nascent teaching career when the babysitter quit and she couldn’t find an acceptable alternative.
It’s, in fact, the sequel to another story she tells on the stump—about how she managed to secure childcare for her eldest daughter so she could go to law school because she managed to potty train her in five days using three bags of M&Ms. It’s a funny story, but it’s very familiar—many, many women have cried while trying desperately to bribe their kid with M&Ms, or trying to get them to sleep through the night so they can get some rest in order to function at work the next day. A secured place in a reliable daycare, as most parents know, can make or break a career; it can have an enormous impact on a family and a future, even as such concerns are bracketed out of politics as usual.
Or, consider another story, about when her father had a heart attack and her mother had to go down to Sears to get a minimum-wage job so the family wouldn’t lose the house. It’s told in an incredibly personal way, built around “the dress,” her mother’s formal outfit that only came out for weddings and funerals, which Warren watched her pull out and in so doing face the fact that she had to get this job. Warren uses the story to make a point about how far the minimum wage has fallen and failed to keep pace with the cost of living, and then about who government should be acting on behalf of—huge corporations or American families trying to get by. But she makes it stick by using the wrenching experience of seeing your parent absolutely desperate.
Warren’s tales aren’t particularly belabored. There’s no saccharine orchestral flourish. She tells them simply without the traditional political flourish of so-called “charisma.” It’s a familiar set of stories, in fact. Warren is using them to say that she struggled and she made it—but nobody else should have to struggle like that. And here’s what she’s going to do about it.
Warren’s approach and delivery remind me of another Oklahoman—Reba McEntire, specifically her early 1990s song “Is There Life Out There,” about a woman who got married young and is now reassessing. The hit single and accompanying music video is about a woman who goes back to school to get her degree, and if they’d cast the kids younger, they could have easily included a scene where she potty trains with M&Ms. Both the song and Warren’s stump speeches share a vernacular, a point of view for women who viscerally understand the precariousness of working middle- and working-class life.
It’s a sell, sure, but that’s the point. It’s a new kind of kitchen table politics, a concept that is often given lavish lip service but then redeployed as an explanation for why we have to be practical, why we can’t demand actual, robust social programs. The idea of what Americans “really” care about at the kitchen table is held up as a sacred imperative, but it’s often used as a dodge—a way of pretending that the world outside doesn’t exist and doesn’t shape the exigencies of the paperwork that gets spread out on that scarred surface. Warren, instead, wants you to look at the return addresses on those bills and start asking some bigger questions.
Other than her pinky promise to girls she meets at rallies, Warren hasn’t even put on a big show about how she’d be the historic first woman president, shattering the glass ceiling wearing the white uniform of the suffragist. But her stories are stories about the reality of being a woman; the invisible pressures that are supposedly personal and not political. But she’s reclaiming a fundamentally feminist concept: that the personal is political, and she’s doing it with one remembered bag of M&Ms at a time.