The individual who enters commercial life with Bloomberg-sized ambition takes on a burden few of us would envy.
Elizabeth Warren was the presidential candidate for the faculty lounge. That characterization is superficially obvious. Before becoming a politician she spent almost her entire career as a professor, ascending to the height of the academic world by becoming a chaired professor of law at Harvard, the world’s most famous university. But the characterization reflects a deeper truth: she embodies professors’ confidence that the world can be bent to their preferred pattern with top-down plans combined with a contempt for traditional values out of step with those on campus. Explanations of her failure also show a blindness to the distrust that most people, particularly the non-college educated, have for identity politics.
Warren was the candidate of plans, producing an avalanche of schemes for remaking America from the White House. She wanted to eliminate private health insurance and put the government in charge of a trillion-dollar industry. She had a plan to change the way energy was produced in the nation: from day one she would have banned fracking by executive order (although it is very unclear if she had the authority to do so). She wanted to create a federal charter for all large corporations, ending two centuries of permitting states to compete in providing the optimal structure for corporate decision making. These federal charters would themselves become instruments of social planning, allowing the federal government to dictate objectives to companies. And, of course, she had a plan to cancel a substantial amount of student loans and then make attending public college free.
This last plan inherently appeals to professors. Increase demand for their product and their income is likely to rise. But more generally, the confidence in top-down social planning is characteristic of academia for several reasons. First, academics are trained in spotting patterns and often want the world to conform to some desirable pattern that they have discerned, usually of some kind of policed equality. Second, most academics prefer a world in which the status of the academic is valorized, and academics are natural advisers to and implementers of endless central plans. Third, academics claim to prize rationality and thus are often overconfident in the ability of their own reason to remake society, given that the secondary and tertiary consequences of all their plans are unforeseeable. Finally, academics are insulated from direct markets and thus do not generally appreciate how markets provide information that no centralized plans can. Single-payer, for example, is a great way of suppressing price signals.
But being a central planner does not get you much traction outside the faculty lounge. Technocracy does not stir people’s souls. And being a planner can trip you up as a politician. Warren faded when she could not successfully cost out the enormously expensive government takeover of health care. For a planner not to have a plan about costs is fatal. But revealing the full costs and taxes realistically needed to pay for that plan would have been equally fatal.
Bernie Sanders provides a useful comparison to Warren in this respect. Sanders also pursued Medicare for All, and overall, his social policies would cost even more than Warren’s. He also has no realistic plan to pay for it all. But Sanders is not running as a technocrat with plans but as a socialist with class enemies. He inspires people by promising to give out free stuff and grind the evil billionaires into the ground. This kind of populist message resonates in politics, drawing on elemental human emotions like avarice and envy. Indeed, Warren did best and often got the most attention when giving an ever-so-slightly less anti-market version of the Bernie mantra. But a leftist technocrat will lose to a leftist populist unless that technocrat is also the candidate of the establishment.
Warren was also the candidate of the faculty lounge in brooking no disagreement on social issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage. She was asked what she would say to a potential supporter who said that his faith taught him that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Her answer: “Fine, then just marry one woman, assuming you can find one.” It is hard to think of a reply more calculated to repel many religious people in its flippancy and condescension. But this approach is also characteristic of academics. Some will discuss the relative merits of different economic policies, but they overwhelming support one position on social issues from same-sex marriage to racial, ethnic, and gender preferences. It is not that most are not religious. It’s just that they have a different sense of the sacred: Johnathan Haidt has suggested that, in the university context these days, opposition to progressivism on social issues is the equivalent of blasphemy.
The reaction to the end of Warren’s candidacy also captures the blindness of the academic lounge and the establishment press to which it is intimately connected. The New York Times lamented that Warren had made a mistake in focusing exclusively on her “wonkish,” plan-making side. She should have emphasized the great story of her “working-class roots” and upward mobility from a relatively modest background in Oklahoma. Unmentioned was the obvious reason Warren did not tout her roots: in the past, she had claimed falsely that they were partly Native American. A campaign that touted her background would have put this claim front and center.
That false claim is also a story straight out of the faculty lounge. In academics today, a possible path forward is to have a claim to minority status. The appointments process at some schools is consumed with making sure that the faculty reflects a defined set of minority groups. The candidate of the faculty lounge thus foundered in no small measure because she pandered to the obsessions of the faculty lounge.
The other lament, of course, is that Warren was a victim of sexism. But Warren actually benefited from being a woman. If a man had done what she did in falsely claiming the identity of another group, he would have been finished as a national candidate. But Warren could fall back on her identity as a woman: she still had something to contribute to the identity politics that animates much of the academic world—and a good deal of the Democratic Party—today.
The easy excuse of sexism will ensure that academics learn nothing about themselves from the failure of Warren’s candidacy. The faculty lounge has arranged its sacred principles to ward off all self-examination.