Why Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg’s Late-Night TV Cameos Are So Cringeworthy
The former Dem candidates have turned to late-night television for image rehab in the wake of dropping out. Cassie da Costa on what this practice says about the state of politics.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced on Thursday that she was exiting the Democratic presidential primary race—after a disappointing Super Tuesday showing, including a third place finish in her own state—some thought that her next move would be to endorse the only candidate with progressive policies still running, Bernie Sanders, ahead of the next round of do-or-die primary voting. Instead, Warren told the press that she may endorse Sanders, Biden, or no one at all; and online, her most fervent supporters insisted to Sanders’ that, as a woman, the senator had no obligation to anyone to do anything at all.
On Saturday night, Warren did the thing she felt obliged to do: She appeared in the cold open of Saturday Night Live alongside comedian Kate McKinnon, who usually plays her. In the sketch, Warren emphasized what she had been through during the campaign and spoke about the R&R (with her now-famous dog, Bailey) she was looking forward to now that she was out. As for the rest of us, the senator made a quip about The New York Times’ dual endorsement of her and Amy Klobuchar, saying that perhaps she’d do the same and endorse both Sanders and Biden.
This primary, Democrats have jockeyed for the cultural spotlight, most notably with former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s campaign developing a dance to Panic! At the Disco’s song “High Hopes,” which was lampooned on the social media video app TikTok (and elsewhere) by various Gen Zers. Now there’s Warren’s SNL appearance as well as Buttigieg’s co-hosting gig this week on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (On Monday, in response to the announcement about Buttigieg hosting, former Jimmy Kimmel writer Jack Allison tweeted about the homophobic and sexist work culture he witnessed in the writers’ room, as well as discrimination he personally faced by Kimmel and his other bosses on the show, even posting screenshots of e-mail exchanges between him and Kimmel. Allison supports Bernie Sanders’ campaign.) The ghost of presidential election past, Hillary Clinton, has also been on the late-night TV circuit to promote her PR stunt of a docuseries, Hillary.
For Democrats who like to distinguish themselves from the new Republican poster boy Donald Trump with calls for decency and dignity, mugging for the late-night cameras can come off as either understandably strategic or ghoulishly opportunistic, depending on the timing and circumstances. Even Sanders has appeared on SNL during his 2016 primary against Clinton, opposite his impersonator Larry David. But to appear on these shows after you’ve lost or dropped out seems like a sneaky career move: Slink onto late-night TV to prove you’re not a robot; win the public back over for your future political maneuvers.
Warren’s SNL appearance also came on the eve of International Women’s Day, a holiday that’s become increasingly depoliticized, but was established as International Working Women’s Day in 1910 by German Marxist Clara Zetkin, a revolutionary who later fled Germany when the Nazis came into power (she was a well-known member of the Communist Party and had once been married to and had a child with Russian revolutionary Ossip Zetkin, a Jew). Zetkin herself was often asked to serve as a kind of token woman in Germany’s and Russia’s revolutionary leftist parties. But she took on this role with aplomb, insisting that socialists and Communists not relegate women’s issues to a bottom rung. And when the Nazis were on the brink of supremacy in 1932, Zetkin used her seniority in the German legislature to insist that all workers come together to beat back fascism:
“The most important immediate task is the formation of a United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism in order to preserve for the enslaved and exploited, the force and power of their organization as well as to maintain their own physical existence.”
She went on to say that “[t]he United Front of workers, which is also constituting itself in Germany, must not lack the millions of women, who still bear the chains of sex slavery, and are therefore exposed to the most oppressive class slavery. The youths that want to blossom and mature must fight in the very front ranks.”
The U.S. certainly isn’t Germany on the eve of Nazi rule. We don’t even have functional leftist parties—our electoral system is mainly comprised of Democrats and Republicans, parties filled with politicians who (somewhat alarmingly) profess to have the same values, but just different strategies for codifying those values into law. And in most states, independents and the unaffiliated see their votes suppressed through primary voting laws that require you to be registered as either a Democrat or Republican.
Zetkin, like Sanders, believed in the electoral system and government participation despite her strong leftist political orientation, which is why she made appeals to more moderate legislators as well as her Communist comrades. She played the game to a degree but stuck to her most fundamental set of beliefs even when it would’ve behooved her to forsake them all. This is an especially rare quality in mainstream U.S. politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, who tend to be careerists willing to throw away any set of policies—no matter how desperately needed amongst the public—in order to please the various powerbrokers that prop them up. And they get away with it by collaborating with showbiz heavyweights to sway the sentiment of their constituents, who find it increasingly difficult to make sense of what these politicians actually believe (they’re all making the same PR rounds, after all).
As a result, in the U.S., unity on the more left end of the Democratic Party spectrum is a muddied affair that often requires coalitions between people who are only very abstractly fighting for (some of) the same things. Try going up to any stranger on the street and asking them about the major policy differences between Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Klobuchar and Warren, Warren and Biden. While the very-online and purposefully informed among us may be able to come up with a list of differences, much of the public seems to be voting based on a vague notion of electability—that is, who seems to them, in manner and public image (and media coverage), to be the most agreeable, powerful candidate to take on Trump.
During her campaign, Warren did focus on policies, and consulted activists and professional advocates in building plans that she believed could reorganize society and lift certain people out of their miseries. But just as prominent as her capitalism-friendly plannism was her image as a brilliant professor who “knows her stuff”—an image that’s likely most comforting to those who value the order of pedigree over the uncertainty of struggle. The Sanders campaign, on the other hand, represents the urgency of struggle and not the folksy fun of so-called Democrat unity. But shows like SNL and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, like The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon and more, are ultimately centrist programs, designed to appeal to the liberal sensibilities of the upper and upper-middle classes. They are designed to comfort mainly well-off professionals who would be desperate to believe in their own goodness if they weren’t already so sure of it. So, when they see their favorite war criminal laughing along with whichever Jimmy, it’s a confirmation of their unshaken worldviews.
When Trump appeared on SNL as a Republican primary candidate in 2015, it felt like an aberration to many not exactly because of his policies, but because of his manner—his unwillingness to apologize or to care about how he came off. But if you look at the policies he’s put in place since he took office in 2017, what he’s done is not uniquely awful, just flagrantly so. In fact, during his eight years in office, Obama detained and deported more asylum seekers than Trump, and carried out several drone strikes that resulted in the deaths of civilians—but he’s a Democrat, and seems cool. The late-night TV appearance confirms and enables surface-level U.S. politics—if it was purely policies and records under scrutiny, this would be a very different country.
No matter that Buttigieg perfunctorily served in the military in a non-combat role to polish up his résumé, that Amy Klobuchar has been credibly accused of abuse by former staffers, that Kamala Harris was a ruthless prosecutor who threatened to jail working-class parents if their kids missed school, that Joe Biden—whom all of the above have endorsed—was an ally to segregationists and has sought to cut social security for nearly the last half-century. Americans feel like they know these people, and that’s good enough.
Throughout her campaign, Warren has even offered beers to people who donate, a clear play on the cliché that Americans want to vote for someone they feel they can grab a beer with. A woman leader who will buy you a Michelob Ultra! What could be better? Sanders, for better or worse, refuses to play the image game. (His campaign slogan, after all, is “Not me, us.”) After an incident last week where a Trump supporter brought a swastika flag to a Sanders rally and shouted a slur at a black Sanders supporter, the Vermont senator spoke up about his Jewish heritage, but in the same statement emphasized the collective nature of his campaign, saying, “Whoever it was, I think they’re a little outnumbered tonight. And more importantly they’re going to be outnumbered in November.”
Anyway, these days, the image game may be fruitless for an old white man like Sanders whose black friends—unlike Biden’s beloved Obama—are leftists whom establishment Democrats scorn, like Jesse Jackson and Dr. Cornel West. And throughout the primary race, pundits have seemed to forget (or ignore) that Bernie Sanders is Jewish in the first place, and if he were to win the nomination would be the first Jewish presidential nominee. These pundits have even demanded that the senator denounce so-called anti-Semitism in his campaign which, for them, amounts to protesting the Israeli occupation.
Trump, on his part, coasts on image, bluster, and antagonism that, in 2016, Republican voters loved and the Republican Party was willing to coalesce around as a result. It’s clear that whoever the Democratic nominee is in November, a successful united front against Trump will depend not on Democratic voters feeling obliged to support party leaders, but the other way around.
Instead, it seems more likely that the Democratic Party and their late-night TV allies will champion their own performatively civil bourgeois optics, which it seems are more worth protecting for them than the lives of the poor.