As Warren Receives the Frontrunner Treatment, Democrats Need to Be Able to Forgive

With Warren surging in the polls and recently challenging Biden as the front runner according to Real Clear Politics, it is clearly time to start vetting Warren like the front runner she wants to be. Of course, most politicians have dirt in their past that they would rather keep hidden. Warren is no stranger to controversial claims that have come back to haunt her. By now most Americans who follow the primaries are aware of her infamous claims to have Native American heritage, a claim which turned out to be less robust after genetic testing revealed she has only 1/1024 Native American ancestry. But as the vetting process ramps up, Democrats should be prepared to uncover other unsettling inconsistencies in Warren’s characterization of her background. After all, if she has stretched the truth on one issue, she may have stretched the truth on other issues as well. Warren seems to have a penchant for turning molehills into mountains by inaccurately representing herself as a member of an oppressed group in order to win political points and then bungling her response to the scandal when her mischaracterization is inevitably discovered. For instance, a report by Politico revealed that, while Warren used to be a registered Republican as she herself has freely admitted, she was more conservative than she has let on. According to Politico, “Warren’s conservatism centered not on social issues like abortion or gay rights, friends say, but on economic policy, the dominant focus of her academic work and now her presidential candidacy.”

Democrats clearly need to learn a lot more about Warren before they nominate her next year. But as they begin the vetting process, Democrats should also be wary of fraudulent representations of Warren’s past. For instance, a recent right-wing media campaign sought to spread the dubious claim that Warren lied about being fired from a teaching job for being pregnant in the early 1970s. Warren has repeatedly claimed that she was fired by the principle of the school she worked at because she was pregnant and that this incident put her on course to starting a career in politics. In a not-so-slick bit of partisan overinterpretation, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative media outlet, claimed that “The Riverdale Board of Education approved a second-year teaching contract for a young Elizabeth Warren, documents show, contradicting the Democratic presidential candidate’s repeated claims that she was asked not to return to teaching after a single year because she was ‘visibly pregnant.’” This is, of course, a blatant attempt to stoke outrage by intentionally failing to think through how workplace discrimination of the sort Warren experienced actually works. The easy explanation for this circumstance is that Warren was offered a second-year contract before the school realized she was pregnant. Then, when they realized she was pregnant, they pushed her out of the position and forced her to resign. But the right-wing media has been acting as if the only way Warren’s story could possibly be confirmed is if the documents from the Riverdale Board of Education stated in no uncertain terms: “We fired Elizabeth Warren because she was pregnant.” That is not how workplace discrimination works, as anyone who has experienced it can attest. Democrats must be on the lookout for such disingenuous provocations while they do the very real work of evaluating Warren’s character and fitness for the highest office in the land.

The challenge of Warren’s candidacy for Democrats is that her handling of these controversies will continue to test the Democrats’ ability to forgive and move on from potentially career-ending scandals. We are in an era of outrage, where snap judgments and half-baked news stories make it far too easy to get angry and dismiss each other for the smallest transgressions. And when larger transgressions come to the fore, such as Warren’s tenuous claim to Native American ancestry, the heightened reactivity of the new cycle distorts our ability to assess the moral and political significance (or insignificance) of the injustice. Add to this the revenge-seeking nature of contemporary Leftwing political activism and it is hard to see how the Left could ever be open to forgiving their luminaries, like Warren.

And it’s not as if Warren has not acknowledged her mistakes. Warren has asked for forgiveness repeatedly and some Native American leaders have accepted her apology. “I want to say this: Like anyone who’s being honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for the harm I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned a lot,” she said recently in Iowa at a meeting with Native American leaders. After she spoke, the Native Americans embraced her, and one even called her “Madam President.” All appeared to be well at the forum at least, although it is not clear whether the wider Native American community felt the same way.

Of course, the main reason why Democrats are having trouble moving on from it is that Trump has put his finger in the wound. He was dubbed Warren ‘Pocohantas,’ a racially charged epithet that the wider right-wing media has gleefully adopted. Every time the Republicans bring up the controversy, Democrats are immediately reminded of Warren’s mistakes. So long as the Democrats themselves hold onto the anguish her comments caused them, this will be an easy weakness for the GOP to exploit. But as soon as the Democrats close the wound, they can refocus on the blatant racism behind Trump’s attack, which is, after all, the bigger story. 

So given that the Democrats are now moving closer and closer to supporting Warren as the front runner for the nomination, and acknowledging that the vetting process could reveal more unsettling comments that Warren has made in the past (she was a Republican for many years, remember, and her statements from that time are sure to cause problems as the 2020 race heats up), how can Democrats forgive her and move on? The answer is far from clear, but a good start would be to foster a culture of forgiveness. The Democrats have shown a tenacious zeal for taking down bad actors via the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements, and there is more work to be done on those fronts to be sure. But there is also a deep need for a way to forgive people for their past transgressions. So far, such forgiveness has been largely absent. Elizabeth Warren might just be the catalyst for a discussion about forgiveness and redemption that the Democrats have needed to have for a while.

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