Elizabeth Warren spent last weekend campaigning for president in Iowa, and because there is nothing else going on in the world, a large gaggle of reporters and pundits tailed her every move. What’s more, because Warren has apparently never expressed her views on any political issues—like, say, income inequality, Wall Street corruption or the character of Donald Trump—the media felt it had no choice but to engage in a round-the-clock debate about whether Senator Warren is “likable” enough to be elected commander-in-chief.
Predictably, Warren’s supporters—and women in general—made the utterly valid observation that only female presidential candidates seem to be asked this sort of question right out of the gate—and with some regularity thereafter—while male candidates tend to be asked very seldom, if at all. What’s more, since the 2020 Democratic primary process will likely be the first with multiple female contenders, perhaps this would be a good time to retire this inherently sexist act of punditry once and for all.
In the interest of political correctness and basic gender equity, this plea makes sense as far as it goes. As someone who is still slightly miffed at President Obama for informing Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough” in January 2008, I would be positively thrilled if America’s leading news organizations spent more time asking if a candidate is capable and qualified to be leader of what’s left of the free world, and less time treating her like a beauty queen contestant or a prospective member of a college sorority.
However, since nothing like that is going to happen before November 2020, I think the more fruitful conversation we ought to have concerns the meaning of the word “likable,” and whether it isn’t such a bad metric for choosing a leader after all.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because I found him more likable than John McCain. For instance, I liked Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, and the eloquence with which he argued for its end. I liked his optimism about America in general and our political system in particular. I liked his penchant for speaking in paragraphs instead of slogans, and for giving his opponents the moral benefit of the doubt. I liked his dry sense of humor and Ivy League education. I liked his seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch. I liked Michelle.
And yes, I would’ve preferred to have had a beer with Obama instead of McCain. Why? Because of the two men, Obama probably would’ve had more interesting things to say—and, unlike McCain, would’ve required a little loosening up before saying them.
Of course, for decades now, the concept of likability in a politician has been reduced merely to that final metric—“Would this person be fun to drink with?”—and for just as long, virtually every wannabe commander-in-chief has done his or her damnedest to be that very person—typically, by running into the nearest bar and ordering a local pint.
While the more sober-minded among us might dismiss this dynamic as silly and counterproductive to our political process—what, pray tell, does being gossipy and gregarious have to do with running the world’s largest bureaucracy?—it’s worth asking why we have such a shallow and limited conception of likability in the first place.
In short: Why don’t we “like” our leaders for their qualities as leaders, rather than just their qualities (or lack thereof) as regular Joes and Janes?
As a Massachusetts resident who has already voted for Elizabeth Warren twice, I find quite a bit to like about someone who effectively birthed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a decade ago and continues to spend every waking hour defending its core ideals. I like how Warren imbues every syllable she utters with a combustible, fiery passion, yet somehow always stays on point. I like how she is wholly unafraid to have her entire personal history gutted in the interest of full disclosure. I like how she defends the honor of her extended family and its complicated racial history, instead of throwing them under the bus for the sake of political expediency.
As with President Obama, I like how Warren is smart enough to be a law professor at an elite university, yet sensible enough to understand and communicate the needs of those who didn’t even graduate high school. I like her unabashed liberalism and her implicit belief in a more perfect society than the one we are currently bungling through.
I like how she is fearlessly and head-longingly running for president even as some of her would-be allies are advising her not to.
I like how she willingly makes herself a big, fat target of Wall Street, the GOP and even certain pockets of her own party, earning their hysterical, bottomless contempt, and yet, nonetheless (God help me) she persists.
Oh, and the words “Madam President”? I find those rather likable, too.