Elizabeth Warren’s exit reaffirmed that everyone loves a powerful woman as soon as she stops trying to take power away from men. It’s science: A 2010 Harvard study found that “when female politicians are perceived to be power-seeking, voters react negatively with feelings of moral outrage.” There’s no way to run for president of the United States without being perceived as power-seeking, and the outrage directed at Warren tracked perfectly with the study’s findings, as she was accused of offenses like being “too ambitious, too needy, too much.”
Intentionally or not, Warren’s Democratic rivals channeled this sexist outrage against her and were rewarded. Joe Biden called Warren—a woman whose signature was standing in four-hour-long selfie lines and loving every minute of it—“angry and unyielding.” Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg smugly dismissed her—a woman who fought millions of dollars’ worth of lobbying from the Wall Street banks that wiped out a third of household wealth to establish a consumer-protection bureau—as someone who gets “so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point.”
Buttigieg’s most significant experience was being the mayor of a college town that hasn’t elected a Republican in 50 years, and where he alienated much of the black community. It's hard to imagine a woman running for the presidency with such a short résumé being taken seriously, but Buttigieg was granted a level of deference that was denied to candidates who were female or people of color. When Julián Castro and Kamala Harris attacked Biden, they were met with a collective gasp of “how dare you” from pundits and political reporters. But when Pete attacked Warren, he was automatically granted standing, and his attacks were welcomed: “Pete Buttigieg had his biggest night yet,” The New York Times declared after a debate he spent attacking Warren. When she responded to the attacks, the last part of the trap facing women who seek power was sprung, as she was greeted with headlines like this from CNN: “Warren responds to ‘angry’ charge.”
Completing the vicious cycle, the love came pouring in the minute Warren stopped seeking the power of the presidency. The reaction is already generating think pieces: “Why is Elizabeth Warren’s departure striking such a chord within the Democratic Party?” The Washington Post asked, noting that the reaction to Warren’s withdrawal was much stronger than to the withdrawal of candidates who performed better than she did at the polls.
The tale of the tape is clear for those who open their eyes to it: Warren maintained sky-high favorable ratings among Democrats, while men who had lower ratings garnered more votes in primary states than she did. In California and Colorado, for instance, Warren topped the field in favorability ratings—tying Bernie in California and beating both Biden and Bernie by big margins in Colorado—but finished behind them in the primaries. In another poll, voters were asked who they would choose to make president if they could wave a magic wand and electability weren't an issue, and Warren beat the field. She dispatched an ascendent Mike Bloomberg, fueled by a formidable $500 million campaign, with the flick of her wrist. Polls consistently showed that Democratic voters loved her and wanted her to be president—but they didn't vote for her because they thought a woman could not beat Trump. Given this set of facts, there’s simply no way to discount sexism as a major factor.
If you read this far hoping to have your anger assuaged: Sorry, you won’t find that here. Warren supporters have good reason to be angry about the persistent sexism in our political system, and they should stay angry, possibly forever. Consciously or not, those who tell you not to be angry are asking you to acquiescence in a set of sexist power dynamics that we cannot accept and must change. In the words of Rebecca Traister, in her book Good and Mad, “Don't ever let them talk you out of being mad again.”
But the one piece of good news is that anger can still be used to satisfy Warren’s ultimate goal. The irony of perceiving Warren as “power-seeking” is that unlike most of the men in the race, she was not running for president mainly because she spent most of her professional life dreaming of and angling for the job. The policies, not the power, are what animate her.
If we take back the Senate, Warren will have a wide-open field to enact her policies. So if you’re angry, and you can’t decide whether to support Bernie because he is much closer to Warren on substance, or Biden because he is building a broader coalition and generating stronger turnout, you can focus on paving the way for Warren’s policies by helping Democrats take back the Senate.
Warren has only been in politics for seven years. She first stepped foot in the Senate in January of 2013, years after Democrats’ ability to pass big things had effectively ended when Republicans retook control of the House in 2010. She was not in the Senate for the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats held unified control and were extraordinarily productive: That’s when we passed Obamacare, ended “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and passed Dodd-Frank, including the creation of the CFPB, among many other things. That two-year session of Congress was regarded by historians as the most productive since Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society.
It was an electrifying time, and the Senate held enormous influence over what passed into law. Congress, not the executive branch, is where laws are written. It’s exciting to think about what she could do if Democrats can take back not just the White House, but the Senate too. There is not much precedent in recent history for a senator with the unique star power, national reach, and ability to sell their ideas that Warren has, operating under unified Democratic control. Warren may have lost the primary, but she wields enormous political capital and her ideas remain extremely popular. Her wealth tax is supported by 63 percent of Americans, including 57 percent of Republicans. And many of her other proposals all register majority support from voters: lowering prescription drug prices, revolutionizing corporate governance by giving workers board seats, reshaping trade deals with stronger labor and environmental protections, and enacting universal child care.
If Democrats beat Trump in November, control of the Senate will determine whether we have the power to enact her policies or not—and will have a much bigger impact on the national agenda than the question of whether Bernie or Biden is in the White House. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, no Democratic president will get much done, period. McConnell will run the same obstructionist playbook against them that he ran against Obama. Racism might have been a key motivator in Republicans’ historic obstruction against Obama, but now Republicans know the playbook they used against him works: It depressed Democrats’ base, and Republicans found it easy to dodge blame. There’s simply no reason for them not to run the same playbook, and ride a combination of a depressed Democratic base and dynamics that historically favor Republicans to big midterm gains in 2022.
Taking back control of the Senate suddenly looks possible. If Democrats win the White House, they need a net gain of three Senate seats to take control. (In an evenly split Senate, the party that controls the White House determines control of the Senate because the vice president is also the president of the Senate and gets to break ties.)
When Senate control is likely to hinge on one or two seats, a single event can alter the balance of power—and the entry of former governor Steve Bullock into the Montana Senate race qualifies as a power-shifting event. Democratic senator Doug Jones is facing a tough race to hold on to his seat in Alabama, where Trump won by 28 points in 2016. Other than Jones, the other Democrats running for re-election are favored to win, so we need to pick up three to four seats currently held by Republicans. A slew of polls in recent weeks shows Democrats on top—albeit by slim margins—in Maine, Colorado, North Carolina, and Arizona. In all these states, the Republican incumbents are struggling with dismal approval ratings—even Susan Collins, whom Maine voters finally seem to be tagging as a conventional Republican, rather than a mavericky independent. A true wave could tip the next tier of races into play: Iowa and Georgia (where both seats are up), as well as Texas and Kentucky. It’s a diverse set of races in every respect, with an unlimited need for the energy and passion of the many disappointed Warren supporters out there. And if your goal is to see her policies become reality, no other political effort in 2020 offers a better return on your investment.
The absolute best-case scenario for Senate Democrats still leaves them well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Passing an ambitious agenda will require getting rid of the filibuster—a topic for another column. For now, suffice it to say that Biden and Bernie are equally fuzzy on the issue—but like Nixon going to China, Biden could have an easier time convincing senators to go nuclear.
Winning back the Senate will require a ton of work, but what better outlet for those looking to channel their anger into something that will increase Warren’s power over the national agenda. Take hold of that anger and use it. As Ms. Whatsit says in A Wrinkle in Time, “Stay angry, little Meg. You’re going to need it now.”
Adam Jentleson is a GQ columnist. He served as deputy chief of staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
Julia Ioffe joins Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail, where the surging senator has spent the season overcoming her campaign's wobbly start and getting down to business—trouncing debate foes, climbing in the polls, and somehow making a slew of policy plans feel exciting. Suddenly, she's winning over Democrats by making the grandest ideas sound perfectly sensible, including her biggest pitch of all: That she's the one to beat Trump.
Originally Appeared on GQ