A 70-year-old, twice-elected Senator from Massachusetts might not sound like the biography of a transformative presidential candidate. But Elizabeth Warren is not your traditional White House aspirant, and her ascension in the Democratic primary represents, for better or worse, a tectonic shift within the Democratic Party.
Those who have run for the party’s nomination in the past have largely hailed from one of two perches: insurgents or establishment types. Warren’s candidacy is a synthesis of the two. She has spent decades operating in elite institutions from Harvard to the Obama administration to the halls of Congress. But she is also the first true candidate of the Netroots era of the Democratic Party, in which wonkiness and unapologetic progressivism are both regarded as unimpeachable political virtues.
That Warren is occupying this role makes eminent sense. She was, after all, once a member of the Netroots community herself, and behind the scenes she and her team have put in years of work working this community and courting its luminaries.
The extent of that work, and the ways in which it has boosted her rise, have gone largely unappreciated. Warren’s ascendance and the increasing likelihood that she will be her party’s nominee is, in no small way, the purest illustration to date of how the Democratic insurgents of the Bush era have come to occupy the positions of power in the days of Donald Trump. In Warren, they have found their pied piper.
“Warren uses this progressive, in-your-face language more naturally today than any Democrat has done,” said Peter Daou, who as a staffer on John Kerry’s 2004 campaign helped pioneer online political activism as a presidential prerogative. “She is literally the embodiment of what the Netroots was 15 years ago.”
The Democratic Party has had candidates closely associated with online activism before. Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign was fueled by a nascent Internet culture that was, in retrospect, the first true iteration of the so-called blogosphere. Barack Obama took concepts of community organizing and applied them to emerging social media channels to fuel his rise. And Bernie Sanders built a small dollar online donor network that has far surpassed anything previously constructed in electoral politics.
But for varying reasons, none of these candidates was firmly a creature of the Netroots. Dean admitted that he was a “luddite” when it came to the technological capacity his campaign had built. His anti-war message may have had perfect resonance for online Democrats and future fixtures of the progressive online community may have worked on his campaign (Vox’s Ezra Klein was a staffer as was Joe Rospars, who went on to run digital for Obama). But he was largely unaware of how his operation was actually working.
Obama’s operation was aided by the internet. But the online voices of that era were not, at least initially, all that closely aligned with him. In fact, it was John Edwards who made the most notable inroads with that community before those relationships—and then his candidacy in general—blew up. Sanders, meanwhile, has revolutionized small-dollar giving. But he’s always been a divisive figure among the Netroots, because of his approach (or lack thereof) to issues of race, and his refusal to associate as a Democrat.
Warren is fundamentally different. Before she was a presidential candidate, or a United States Senator, or a consumer watchdog serving in an official government capacity, she was blogging at TPM Cafe, a since-defunct subsite of the long-running Talking Points Memo. It was here that Warren opined about everything from credit-card company documentaries to racial issues inherent in home ownership. One would be hard pressed to find another presidential aspirant who enthusiastically wrote about the case of a family buying a house in a foreclosure sale only to discover “stacks of dead animals and mountains of animal poop.”
Of course, Warren had no idea at the time that she was writing about foreclosure home poop that she’d end up running for president. But in many ways, that platform and experience served her well. She made inroads with people who would go on to play significant roles in the progressive media ecosystem, from the site’s publisher Josh Marshall, to fellow bloggers such as David Sirota, a longtime pugnacious progressive activist and reporter. She also began cultivating a national audience by doing things that bloggers tend to do: taking to task those with different worldviews.
Warren, in particular, criticized Democratic lawmakers who sided with industry over consumers, doing so in a reasoned but brusque style that foreshadowed the tones of her current campaign. The pieces are deeply researched, written from a position of immense knowledge, but there is a self-assuredness to them that doesn’t convey much patience for the pace or nuance that often comes with governance.
Despite posts like these—or, perhaps, because of them—Warren was tapped by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to serve on the congressional oversight panel for the Bush administration’s bank bailout. It was there that she began putting the skills she’d honed as a blogger to some practical political use.
She and her staff shot YouTube explainers on their TARP oversight report findings—a bit of digital experimentation that seems positively quaint now but was politically avant garde back then. Her team also leaned on progressive online media outlets to exert influence within the Obama administration. Her office was on the internal White House distribution list for daily news clippings, from which they inferred that liberal-leaning publications were getting under Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s skin. Where some administration officials saw a nuisance, Warren’s office saw opportunity. They began working closely with sites like The Huffington Post to try and force their pet projects to the forefront of the administration’s agenda.
By then, Warren was becoming a fixture in the broader progressive universe—granting interviews to non-traditional outlets and appearing at liberal confabs. In the summer of 2010, she went to Las Vegas for the Netroots Nation conference to talk up the project most closely associated with her name: the creation of a consumer protection bureau.
While there, she met with Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of Daily Kos and the person most often tied to the rise of progressive online blogging and activism. Over the course of 30 minutes, Moulitsas recalled, he kept imploring her to run against Scott Brown for the Senate seat in Massachusetts while she kept bringing the conversation back to the moral imperative for accountability in the financial services industry.
“We were having two parallel conversations, neither with any relevance to the other,” said Moulitsas. “Finally, at the end of it, I said, ‘I’m going to be respectful of your time. But right now, I want you to run for senate in Massachusetts. If you have zero interest, tell me right now and I will never speak of it again. Just tell me straight up though.’ And she looks up at me and says, ‘anyway, back to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.’ Her assistant dropped his pencil, literally.”
The CFPB would ultimately become operational, but Warren would not be there to run it. Convinced that her nomination would fail in the Senate, Obama passed her over. And in September of 2011, she did what Moulitsas had hoped: she announced that she would run for Senate.
The rest of Warren’s political trajectory is well-known. She beat Brown in 2012, gave a keynote speech at the 2016 Democratic convention, won re-election in 2018, and launched a presidential bid shortly thereafter. Through it all, she tended to the roots she’d built among the progressive online universe. Warren attended Netroots Nation six times after that initial 2010 venture to Vegas, including this year’s meeting in Philadelphia (which few other candidates chose to attend, convinced that the crowd was hers to keep).
“I’m almost 100 percent certain that no other elected/candidate has spoken at Netroots more than Warren,” said Mary Rickles, who now organizes the conference. “Certainly no one has spoken on a keynote level more than she has.”
She also has continued working closely with progressive media and experimenting with new media in ways that other politicians have either feared or shunned. Her signature selfie line on the presidential campaign trail is, in no small way, an illustration of her innate understanding of how social media can work politically—in this case, taking the simple act of posting a photo and using it as an advertising and organizing tool.
But while Warren can lay claim to being the first presidential candidate from and of the Netroots, her rise also underscores the degree to which that Netroots community has itself become the establishment it once derided. Klein has gone from being a staffer on Dean’s presidential campaign to running one of the most powerful progressive media companies in the news ecosystem. Rospas now is a chief strategist for Warren herself. Sirota is a top adviser to Sanders. Moulitsas is operating one of the most innovative polling projects in progressive politics.
And the list goes on from there. Ilyse Hogue, who cut her teeth working for the most notable progressive activist movement of the Bush era, MoveOn, now runs one of the most important pro-choice groups in the country, NARAL. Faiz Shakir, who ran the now-defunct progressive reporting and blogging site ThinkProgress, is Sanders’ campaign manager. Stephanie Schriock, who was a finance operative on Dean’s campaign, now heads the most influential women’s candidate group in Democratic politics, Emily’s List. And even bloggers like Matt Stoller—who is, perhaps, the epitome of anti-establishmentarianism on the left—have become major players on the political scene; in his case helping run the influential think tank Open Markets.
Warren may not be the preferred candidate for all of these individuals or others whose roots are in the era of blogging. Indeed, many veterans of the early Netroots era have gone on to work for other presidential candidates or media outlets or political entities that simply won’t play in the 2020 primary. But her rise does represent the remarkable degree to which Democratic politics has shifted from a place where insurgents were seen as pesky naifs and political outsiders to one where they run the show.
-- With reporting by Gideon Resnick