Elizabeth Warren’s Explanation for Her Republican Past Reeks of White Privilege

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had a great night during CNN’s string of town halls, but her latest explanation for her Republican past was a misstep that could alienate voters who were wary of her conversion to begin with.

This issue has largely flown under the media radar for years, so it is difficult to judge its impact. While a great many of the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton care deeply about the GOP’s lengthy and disgraceful history of exploiting racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry to deny or suppress the rights of marginalized people, it’s unclear how many know of Warren’s past, or are bothered by her explanations for it.

You can count me as one of them, and when the issue came up at Monday night’s town hall, Warren’s response did not do the trick.

Part of the problem, as always, was the framing of the question. A student named Cecilia D’Arms noted “you were registered as a Republican until 1995,” and that “you’ve since become one of the most progressive people in Congress.”

“Did you change your beliefs? Or do you believe that the political parties changed around you?” she asked.

Warren’s stated reason for her conversion was essentially the same as those she has given in the past, that she was disturbed by economic conditions for “America’s working families,” and that “I looked around in the middle of that fight and I realized all the money was on one side and all the hurting was on the other. And that’s when I jumped in politically. I got in that fight, and I fought it for 10 years. And by the end of that fight, I fully understood that every single Republican stood there for the banks and half of the Democrats did.”

“So my party was the party that at least we got half of them to stand up for working people, and that was the big change for me.”

As usual, her answer did not include any references to the racist Southern Strategy, or Republican opposition to women’s rights or civil rights for LGBTQ people, but did seem to include several excuses for ignoring all of the things Democrats like me hate about the Republicans. By my count, this marks the fifth time she’s ever been asked about this, and has never once mentioned any factor other than the economic argument.

“I grew up in a family that wasn’t political,” Warren said. “We weren’t a political family,” she said. “And when I was a young mom and struggling to try to keep up with my job and get dinner on the table and take care of a couple of little kids and launch my career, I didn’t think much about politics,” she said.

On their faces, these are privileged excuses that a person being ground under the boots of Republican politics and policies, and Democratic appeasement of them, could never afford to make. They couldn’t afford to ignore Ronald Reagan’s naked exploitation of racism, carried on by his successor and his other GOP partners.

But these excuses are also dishonest, because Warren’s conversion did not occur as a youngster in Oklahoma, or as a “young mom.” It happened in 1996, at the age of 47, or perhaps even later. In a recent Politico interview, Warren said she wasn’t even “100% sure” about her registration then.

It is entirely possible that Warren has a compelling answer to give for how it is she ignored all of these things until she was 47 years old, perhaps even an acknowledgement of the privilege it took to do so.

Part of the problem is that Warren’s privilege extends to living in a world in which nobody has asked her about it yet, because too many people in a white-dominated media share that ability to excuse or ignore bigotry, and are absolutely committed to lionizing Ronald Reagan.

But that excuse only goes so far, and Warren’s excuse-making, as well as her shifting past explanations, appear to demonstrate that she knows this is a vulnerability for her.

When Warren was first asked about her Republican roots in 2011, Warren gave the now-familiar answer that “I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore,” but she conspicuously refused to say whether she had ever voted for Ronald Reagan.

“I’m not going to talk about who I voted for,” she said.

Either Warren was extremely committed to the secrecy of the ballot, or she thought it could be politically advantageous to leave open the possibility that she’d voted for Reagan when she hadn’t (not good), or she had voted for Reagan and was ashamed.

But by last year, her reverence for the secrecy of the ballot box had evaporated, and she claimed she had voted for Jimmy Carter as a “registered independent,” a new line in this narrative. She didn’t say who she voted for in 1984.

And in that Politico piece, “according to Warren, in the six presidential elections she voted in before 1996, she cast her ballot for just one GOP nominee, Gerald Ford in 1976.”

There’s nothing wrong with being a political convert. I’ve worked for one, and been friends with them, but usually, they recognize that they were terrible people for ever having been on the wrong side. Often, that makes for an even more compelling reason to trust in their conversion.

Senator Warren’s performance during this campaign, and at Monday night’s town hall, demonstrate that she’s a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. But spending twenty years of your life on the wrong side of a significant portion of the Democratic base doesn’t disappear because “I didn’t think much about politics.”

She should have.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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