There’s nothing the political press likes more than a bandwagon. When a candidate is on the rise, reporters and pundits climb over one another trying to get on board. The effect is even more pronounced if the candidate is a progressive. Then the moral and cultural attitudes of journalists align with their professional interest in drama and hype. The result is the transformation of the most banal campaign activities into symbols of the candidate’s superiority, heroism, and indestructibility. Consider Elizabeth Warren’s photography habit.
Warren has been sticking around after the conclusion of events to take pictures with fans. It’s standard practice for candidates to pose for photographs with supporters, shake hands on a rope line, and find opportunities for impromptu encounters with voters. What Warren has done is apply her progressive principles of rationalization and centralization to a longstanding tradition. The press is entranced.
On September 16, for example, Warren held a rally in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Her campaign estimated the crowd at more than 20,000 people. That’s impressive, but not too surprising. If the princess of the new progressivism had drawn a similar audience in, say, Dayton, Ohio, that would be news. The fact that she was in Greenwich Village somewhat lessens the impact.
Not for the media. News organizations couldn’t contain their excitement. “Warren, before huge NYC crowd, touts herself as an heir to female pioneers,” read the headline in the Washington Post. “Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts brought her ascendant presidential campaign to New York City on Monday night,” gushed Thomas Kaplan of The New York Times, “unspooling a forceful argument for attacking corruption in government in a defining speech of her White House bid.”
Most reporters were less interested in the content of Warren’s remarks than in what followed them. “Elizabeth Warren took selfies for 4 hours after her New York rally,” read one headline. “It’s part of her plan.”
CNN’s Daniella Diaz and Gregory Krieg explained:
The Warren “selfies”—the photos she takes with voters, framed and snapped by a campaign aide as other staffers hustle supporters through, handling their bags and phones, so Warren can take as many photos as quickly as possible—have become a political phenomenon. It’s one that manages to be both savvy and kitschy, exhausting and exhilarating.
A lot, it turns out, like running for president.
It’s hard to tell what’s worse: the way the above passage attempts to endow a prosaic tactic with mythological meaning or the syrupy rhetoric that wouldn’t be used in a million years if the candidate had an “R” after her name.
The selfie line has become a metonym for Warren’s stamina. CNN’s MJ Lee called her pictures “pretty remarkable.” After the Washington Square rally, Astead Wesley of the New York Times tweeted, “Elizabeth Warren is still taking selfies. For context, I have left the rally, taken a train to Brooklyn, ordered uber eats, watched an episode of the Sopranos, and played two FIFA matches. An L train at that.”
Reporters use the selfie line to illustrate the devotion of Warren’s supporters. Heather Schwedel’s piece for Slate, “The Selfie Line Life,” carried the subtitle, “Hope and civic thirst among 4,000 people waiting for a shot with Elizabeth Warren.” Schwedel talked to several of the voters in line. “Warren is showing that ‘she’s truly one of us. She’s putting herself on the same plane as us,’” one woman told her.
“Far from the existential despair and rage that one usually encounters among people who are waiting in a very long line,” wrote Zoe Greenberg in the Boston Globe, “the people sticking around to meet Warren at Keene State were eager, rule-abiding, optimistic—matching almost perfectly the tone of the event.”
The better articles on the selfies emphasize that this friendly gesture is in fact a calculated means to enhance Warren’s presence on social media. Like the tent-pole rallies by which Donald Trump amassed a gigantic following in 2016, Warren’s selfie marathons generate online interactions. Her campaign, reported Charlotte Alter of Time, “has prioritized building individual connections with specific voters, and—more importantly—creating tiny pieces of organic digital content that those grassroots supporters then blast to their own social media networks to express their support.”
The New York Times tasked no less than three staffers to work on an eye-popping multimedia description of the process. Its article was headlined “How to Get a Selfie With Elizabeth Warren in 8 Steps.” These are the steps: An aide takes your bag, takes your phone, passes your phone to another aide, the second aide takes your picture with Warren, then passes your phone to a third aide, who returns it to you. Another aide thanks you for coming. And then someone else returns your bag. That’s it.
For the Times, such routinization of charisma is the equivalent of the Manhattan Project. And in this case, the Times isn’t the worst journalistic offender. The following is an actual headline from the Washington Post: “Frederick Douglass photos smashed stereotypes. Could Elizabeth Warren selfies do the same?”
Reporter Hannah Natanson noted at the outset that Douglass and Warren “look nothing alike.” Also, one is an American hero who lived more than a century ago. The other is a former law professor who lied about her Native American heritage when she was applying for jobs. “Still, experts say, their use of photography collapses the distance: Douglass sat for scores of pictures to normalize the idea of black excellence and equality, and Warren’s thousands of selfies with supporters could do the same for a female president.”
Experts say the darndest things. Natanson quotes three people willing, against all sense, to analogize Douglass’s use of photography to Warren’s: a professor of political communication at LSU and historians of photography at Columbia and Harvard. “Although in a vastly different context,” Natanson acknowledges, “Warren is today confronting another harmful myth, experts said: that a woman is not presidential and does not belong in the Oval Office.”
Natanson provides no evidence that supports the existence of this “myth.” Perhaps that’s because the myth is itself mythic. A poll conducted by the Daily Beast and Ipsos last June found that 74 percent of Democrats and independents are comfortable with having a female president. Whether they’re comfortable with left-wing professors from Massachusetts is another story.
The Post is more than comfortable. In August the paper’s theater critic, Peter Marks, penned an essay titled “Elizabethan: Warren knows the power of words.” This is the lead paragraph:
She enters in an ordinary blouse and slacks, not a toga. And yet, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes the stage of a music hall in this sweltering Sun Belt city, it is with a command of the occasion that might have “Julius Caesar’s” Marc Antony taking notes.
Antony, you see, “appeals to the crowd’s desire to control its destiny. So does Warren.” Marks went on, “A Warren performance is a polished act of seduction.”
Get a room.
Why do media personnel rhapsodize over Warren? Demographics. Elizabeth Grieco of Pew Research wrote in November 2018 that “More than three-quarters (77%) of newsroom employees—those who work as reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers in the newspaper, broadcasting, and internet publishing industries—are non-Hispanic whites, according to the analysis of 2012-2016 American Community Survey data.” That’s 12 points above the average across all industries.
“Guess who lives near a lot of liberals?” asks Harry Enten of CNN. “The press in DC and New York do. Washington has more self-described liberals than any state, according to Gallup. New York City Democrats are more liberal than Democratic Primary voters nationally by a fairly wide margin.”
White, educated, upscale, and progressive—reporters aren’t detached observers of Warren. They’re part of her base.