“Is Elizabeth Warren ‘angry’ and antagonistic? Or are rivals dabbling in gendered criticism?” asks a recent Washington Post headline. It’s a question we should already know the answer to, given Warren’s Senate campaign in 2012, where her Republican opponent attempted to paint her as too stern and out of touch; or the dynamics of the 2016 presidential campaign; or the treatment of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women in Congress, or any basic understanding of women’s lives.
The rivals the Post referred to are Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who have lately seized on a new line of attack against Warren in their efforts to derail her rising campaign. To Biden, Warren has an “angry unyielding viewpoint.” In the mind of Buttigieg, Warren is “so absorbed in the fighting that it is as though fighting were the purpose.” Both of them, in recent days, have criticized what they view as her elitist “it’s my way or the highway” approach. In short, she’s too angry, too intransigent, too unwilling to compromise. Anyone who’s ever been called a bitch will feel a pang of recognition here. Biden and Buttigieg know exactly what they’re doing and what playbook they’re pulling from—it is, after all, one of the oldest in the book.
It’s not that Warren isn’t angry or isn’t unyielding in her beliefs. She is—and shouldn’t we all be, given the state of things? And her anger isn’t off-putting. Instead, coupled as it is with the details of her personal story, it has made her an increasingly compelling, increasingly strong candidate. As anyone who’s been to one her rallies knows, it’s an anger that envelopes you like a cozy blanket on a frigid night, one that draws you in.
Warren’s presidential campaign has been built on the premise that she keenly understands how the game is rigged and knows who to blame. On the campaign trail, when Warren talks of needing to fight, it’s an acknowledgement that change doesn’t happen merely through putting out policy proposals, though she famously has those too—it’s an understanding of the ways that power works, and the small group of people who for too long have been able to wield it against the rest of us. “Look, anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we’re already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight,” Warren said recently in Iowa. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight, is not going to win that fight.” (It’s a message that’s resonating. It turns out that a lot of voters love a fighter, especially one who wants to fight some billionaires!)
And she has no qualms in criticizing the ideological underpinnings of her moderate opponents. When Biden criticized her Medicare for All funding plan, she had a snappy rejoinder: “Democrats are not gonna win by repeating Republican talking points,” she said, before adding that Biden is “running in the wrong presidential primary.” And when Buttigieg, who has attempted to rebrand himself as a unifying moderate in the vein of Biden in recent months, sniped that “fighting is not enough” while on the campaign trail in Iowa, Warren began calling him out by everything but his name in her stump speech. “I’m not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone,” she said to a crowd at the beginning of November. “I’m running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families. I’m running a campaign from the heart.”
The question of whether or not Warren is angry feels all the more baffling at a moment when we should all be angry—that people are forced to crowdfund for needed medical care, that billionaires freely assume they have the power to influence the choices available to the rest of us (and that they’re right), that childcare remains a luxury and largely out of reach for working people. Warren’s anger isn’t the issue—it’s the idea, which Biden and Buttigieg are counting on, that when women are angry, no matter if it’s for all the right reasons, it’s somehow a sign of weakness. To be both angry and uncompromising is doubly fraught, something that supposedly reasonable men never fall prey to. Both Biden and Buttigieg, who have built their campaigns on the premise that they have the ability to “unify” our country (read: win conservative-leaning white voters), are counting on others agreeing with them. But Warren is counting on something else—that enough of us are angry, too. Just like her.