There are at least two Elizabeth Warrens — Bankruptcy Law Liz and Michelob Ultra Betsy.
Bankruptcy Law Liz has more sweeping policy ideas than you have friends. She reads two books a week, which happens to be the number of books the median American reads in six months. She was a Harvard professor. She calls herself a “data nerd.”
Michelob Ultra Betsy is an Okie by birth. She says “dangit” and “golly” and “boo-hoo.” She puts an “h” before words that start with “w,” as in “hwhite.” She sounds like people who are probably unlikely to vote for her. She is a populist. And while Liz reads serious tomes, Betsy is currently on the fifth book in the “Victor the Assassin” series.
This past weekend, I got to interview both of these figures, who together make up Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts and presidential hopeful. We had breakfast together in New York on Friday. Sometime during our breakfast, Senator Warren’s campaign publicly dropped her latest track, which is a plan to break up Amazon, Google, and Facebook, as part of a larger proposal to intensify antitrust scrutiny of Big Tech.
Then, on Saturday, I interviewed Warren onstage at the Texas Tribune’s daylong political chat fest at South by Southwest in Austin, a business and technology conference. It is the kind of place where it is safe to refer to yourself as an influencer. As in, that is your job. Like your actual job. Not everyone who attends South by Southwest currently works for a monopoly, but not a lot people seem opposed to their startup becoming one. Which is to say, proposing to break up the big tech companies and then flying to South by Southwest is sort of equivalent to Nietzche doing a “God is Dead” book panel at the Vatican.
I asked those in the audience who work for the tech giants she proposes to break up to stand. “Can you explain to them why you want to break up the place they work?”, I asked. A smattering of people rose.
Her answer surprised me. “Because it will be a lot more fun to work there,” she said. It was as if she was making a startup pitch to the startup-pitch people: “It’s like Google meets an ax.” She wanted to distinguish the billionaire monopolist owners and investors from the rank and file of Big Tech, whom she said would benefit from more competitive markets. It offered a clue to Warren’s philosophy — she is a reformer, not a revolutionary. And it revealed something about the culture of our age of capital, which requires even its most strident critics to seek to persuade those whose clout is being challenged that it’s good for them.
We talked about a recurring theme of her own life and her work studying other people: the way in which people mistakenly, in her view, blame themselves for problems that are systemic, structural, engineered through policy. We feel bad that we can’t keep to our diets, not realizing what Big Food is doing behind our backs. We feel bad that we can’t shake our iPhone addiction, not realizing how Big Tech has thousands of people investigating our psyches to render our willpower defenseless against its creations. If there is a motif of Warren’s life — first as a young woman making her way in the world, let go from her job teaching special-needs children after her first year because she got pregnant; then as a scholar of bankruptcy; and now as a policy maker — it is a quest to help Americans grasp that what they might interpret to be their fault is often a more complex story about systems they cannot see and powerful interests they can’t easily fight alone.
We talked about race. I asked her, coming off the well-worn controversy about her ancestry (when she took a much-criticized DNA test to prove she had a small percentage of Native American blood), what she has learned from that episode and from her life more generally about being white — in a moment in our history when whiteness is losing its place as the default setting of Americanness and as yet trying to find its new place in shifting sands. I would have liked to hear even more about her answer: “The differences that protect us are often unseen.” I think she was, in her way, pushing back against something you often hear from white people challenged about racism: saying you don’t see race is hardly proof that racism is not at work.
She embraces Marie Kondo’s tidying approach. She doesn’t embrace democratic socialism. She is a capitalist who celebrates markets that are fair and well-policed (“Markets without rules are theft,” she told me), if not a capitalist that capitalists invite to dinner. When I asked her if she agreed with the statement by Dan Riffle, a senior policy advisor to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, that “every billionaire is a policy failure” — or with the argument by Ocasio-Cortez herself that a society that allows there to be billionaires is immoral — Warren again surprised me. She gave a long answer about how it depends on the context. If there were a society that had in place the policies she advocates for — universal childcare, accessible education, well-regulated markets — and that society produced billionaires, good for them. No “Abolish Billionaires” for Warren. She is down with billionaires, as long as they are Norwegian.
And she can be quite funny. When I asked her whether she would vote to impeach President Trump today, based on what she already knows, she deferred to the coming Mueller report. Which prompted this from me: “I feel Mueller’s like this guy who keeps taking you to a weekend away, and you think he’s going to propose every weekend, and it’s like, Is this guy ever…? He puts his hand in his pocket, and you think the ring is definitely in the pocket. And then there’s no ring.”
“That said,” Senator Warren replied after letting me process my complicated feelings about the special counsel, “You should remember he has produced 34 indictments and guilty pleas already. I don’t know about you, but I never had a boyfriend that good.”