If you’re looking for someone to tell you everything is going great, Elizabeth Warren is not your candidate. On Monday night, the senator painted an appropriately grim picture of inequality, greed, and corruption in America as she stood before a crowd of 20,000 supporters in New York City’s Washington Square Park, against the backdrop of an American flag and the iconic arch.
Warren, as always, presented tangible solutions to these ills, in this case using the speech to announce her plan to fight corruption and curb the influence of corporate money in government with, for example, a lifetime ban on lobbying for ex-presidents and members of Congress.
This was not a “hope and change”-type speech. She began by telling of the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, when 146 garment workers, most of them young women and immigrants, perished just a block away from where Warren stood at her podium, as a result of being trapped because their bosses locked them in, afraid they might steal from the factory. She described women who jumped to their deaths and “hit the ground with a sickening thud. They died on impact. So many, so fast that the women’s bodies piled up on the sidewalk. Their blood ran into the gutters.”
Warren used the fire as a metaphor for all the plagues she says are killing Americans today as a result of greed and corruption: climate change, guns, lack of healthcare. “The tragic story of the Triangle Factory Fire is a story about power: A story of what happens when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people,” Warren said. “But what happened in the aftermath of the fire is a different story about power — our power, about what’s possible when we all fight together as one.”
That Warren told it like it is, the way she didn’t talk down to the crowd or placate them with promises, seemed to appeal to much of the overwhelmingly young audience. It was a risk to go there, to paint our world in such stark, apocalyptic terms. There is a belief among some political pundits that a negative tone in campaigning (although, it should be said, Warren turned it around and ended on a hopeful note) can alienate and polarize voters. But this generation — worse off economically than their parents, and faced with the reality of climate change — doesn’t want things sugarcoated for them. The mood these days is not one of false optimism, and Warren’s refreshing negativity coupled with specific solutions worked on them.
“The doom and gloom actually made me feel comforted, because this is gloomy,” Hannah Leffingwell, 26, a PhD student at New York University, told Refinery29 after the rally, gesturing as if to show she’s talking about everything around us. “Like, tell me it’s terrifying and then tell me you know what you’re going to do to fix it. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, you’re just lying to me.”
At the same time, Warren’s supporters don’t want to give up fighting either, and neither does Warren. Throughout her remarks, Warren wove in the story of Frances Perkins, “one very persistent woman” who led a march of half a million people for workers’ rights down Fifth Avenue after the fire, and whose work gave our society everything from fire safety laws to “the very existence of the weekend,” as Warren said. Perkins went on to become the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, as Secretary of Labor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Leffingwell said she loved that Warren talked about Perkins, one of her personal heroes — who attended Mount Holyoke College, just like she had.
“She’s an icon and should be more of an icon than she is. So when [Warren] brought it back to Frances Perkins, I was so moved,” Leffingwell said. And, just like Warren, Perkins didn’t spend her entire life in politics. “That’s something a lot of us want right now.”
Tell me it’s terrifying and then tell me you know what you’re going to do to fix it. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, you’re just lying to me.
Hannah Leffingwell, 26
Warren elaborated on her decision to talk about Perkins as she spoke with reporters after a NARAL town hall for reproductive rights on Tuesday. “I had a chance last night to talk about the importance of women who organized after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and how they changed American history, a chance to talk about Frances Perkins and how she led that fight,” Warren said. “And how together, one determined woman with millions of people to back her up, changed the course of American history.” It was clear that Warren saw herself as picking up Perkins’ torch of fighting for the rights of women and workers. At the NARAL event, she continued to emphasize inequality and corruption while answering questions about reproductive rights, underscoring the disparity between rich and poor women when it comes to abortion access each chance she had.
Young people at the rally said they aren’t as likely to be moved by the positive, hopeful rhetoric of many establishment Democrats as generations past. After all, they know what's really going on: Kids who can’t even vote yet are walking out of their schools to call attention to climate change. And in 2018, a Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that 59% of young Americans are more fearful than hopeful about the future.
“Generation Z has grown up in a world where we have seen so many of our institutions let us down dramatically, so rhetoric that celebrates our existing systems doesn’t quite resonate with us,” Ziad Ahmed, CEO of JUV Consulting, a Gen Z marketing agency that examines trends among young people, told Refinery29. “We are looking for candidates that validate the real fear that we have about tomorrow, but that don’t respond with defeatism.”
For a lot of the attendees, including Leffingwell, seeing Warren in person helped solidify their support of her. Rather than having tons of diehards from the beginning of the race, she seems to have won over supporters of other candidates, as evidenced by her steady climb in the polls throughout the summer. (The recent national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of Democratic primary voters found Warren in second place, after Joe Biden, at 25%.)
“Elizabeth Warren definitely grew on me,” Arielle Gironza, 23, told Refinery29. She voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, but decided not to support him this time around. “I love Bernie and all, but I think that even though he’s been this stable presence and kind of always really set in what he’s been saying since the beginning of time, I felt like it was time for something a little bit different.” She's not the only ex-Sanders supporter switching to Warren; Warren recently received a surprising key endorsement from the Working Families Party, a progressive grassroots organization that backed Sanders in 2016.
Gironza’s friend Eli Salazar, 23, who also supported Bernie in 2016, said she was moved after watching Warren in the September 12 Democratic presidential debate. “I think because America has been historically so focused on capitalism and developing that as a nation, her ideals and goals are more practical than Bernie’s are,” she said. “Bernie, I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, but it’s more of an ideal than something that can be put into practice. And I can see, for example, the two-cent rule, it would make a lot of sense to the future of America now, not 10 years from now. Right now, we’re super-divided and this makes sense for a broader audience.” Warren has proposed a two-cent tax on assets over $50 million, with which she says the government could pay for many of her plans, including universal child care and free college tuition.
After the rally, Naava Ellenberg, 20, a student organizer for Warren at Barnard College, was dancing to Lizzo and waving her “I’m A Warren Fan” fan as she got ready to stand in Warren’s famous selfie line — which reportedly lasted around four hours.
Ellenberg, too, became a Warren convert after watching her performance on TV.
“At first, I was full-on Buttigieg because of his intelligence and that he’s young,” she said, but then she watched back-to-back CNN town halls with Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Warren. “I went in like, ‘Here we go Pete, let’s crush it!’ And then I was like, ‘Liz? I’ll watch her. She’s kind of old, like, I don’t know her deal.’ But then I watched her and she had this excitement. She had this intelligence. What she had on Pete was experience. And what she had on Pete was a gender that I wanted to vote for.” Ellenberg had always hoped she would be able to vote for a female president. Besides, Buttigieg may have inspiring visions — but Warren, she has a plan.
If there’s still any doubt at all that Warren inspires enthusiasm, the huge crowd, one of the two largest this primary season along with Sen. Kamala Harris’ kickoff in Oakland — and the very long selfie line full of very patient people winding around the park until nearly midnight — should serve to dispel it. Frankly, Ellenberg could do so single-handedly.
“I think the way to win in 2020 is not flipping back moderate voters or winning back Trumpers," Ellenberg said. "I think it’s expanding the electorate, like Obama did in ‘08 and 2012. It’s about reaching people who haven’t voted before, and they are getting hyped about Liz. She is able to excite a base in a way that I have not seen another candidate do. I mean, I have not seen someone like me acting the way I'm acting about Joe Biden! … I 100% think she can win.”