I stopped planning my future when Donald Trump won the Presidency. I didn’t realize it at the time—it wasn’t a conscious choice to begin living day by day as I stood in the Javits Center and watched the returns come in on the jumbo screen. I didn’t realize it the next day, when Hillary Clinton conceded, or on the day that Trump was sworn into office. You don’t always notice your lack of hope, your downshift into survival mode brain, until someone calls you out on it.
In late 2019, I decided to support Elizabeth Warren for level-headed reasons. I have an affinity for methodical women with earnest energy, and she impressed me with her comprehensive plans on issues ranging from disability rights to rebuilding the State Department. I respected her lifelong transition from “pro-business” Republican to a stalwart defender of the working class, reflecting her willingness to look at data and realize when she is wrong. As a youngster I watched her on The Daily Show as she patiently explained the recession to Jon Stewart, and her competence and attention to detail left a lasting impression on me.
The most common attack on Warren, that she’s an elitist Harvard professor, held less weight the more I learned about her life story. Born in Oklahoma City, Warren grew up on the “ragged edge of middle class.” Her family struggled economically after her father had a heart attack; their station wagon was repossessed, and they nearly lost their home. She speaks frankly about dropping out of George Washington University to marry her first husband, and about her time as a special education teacher. In one gut-wrenching exchange with a young supporter, Warren reflected on telling her mother that she was getting divorced. She speaks openly about some of the most “shameful” experiences in American culture: divorce, bankruptcy, layoffs, discrimination. Then she connects them directly with policy.
From her mom sneakers to the gradual evolution of her political views, Elizabeth Warren is both normal and exceptional.
Scarred by Clinton’s loss in 2016, I tried not to get invested early in any of the candidates in the Democratic primary. I gave them all a fair shake, donated to several, and briefly considered myself a Kamala Harris supporter, and then a Pete Buttigieg supporter. In the end, Elizabeth Warren won me over. If I can use the dreaded “e” word for a moment, I think she’s the most electable contender. She makes a powerful case against the most corrupt President in modern history. Her economic policy proposals score well with Democrats across the spectrum — and even with some conservatives. If Donald Trump is a pompous, impatient, selfish mess, Warren is a composed, intentional and selfless empath. Elizabeth Warren does the math and considers the consequences. As President, she will be a bold and thorough fighter who understands the gravity of her office.
In September I was one of the 20,000 New Yorkers who turned out to see her speak in Washington Square Park. Elizabeth Warren isn’t a soaring orator like Barack Obama, and as a former employee of TED Talks, I find that refreshing. Pizazz doesn’t necessarily mean expertise or honesty. Her speeches are grounded in American history, usually crafted around activist women who changed the country and haven’t gotten their due in our collective memory. If I think of Warren as “professorial,” it’s because I am hungry to learn from her and to see our country through her eyes. Take me to class, Elizabeth, I joke to myself. Make us do our homework.
In her New Year’s Eve speech at Boston’s historic Old South Meeting House, Warren told the story of Phillis Wheatley, the first Black woman to publish a book of poetry in America. Wheatley’s voice was questioned and attacked, as it was inconceivable to the white male power structure of the 1700s that a Black woman could be so talented and intelligent. In 1772, she was forced to prove her authorship in court, and she won.
“Phillis Wheatley’s spirit is the American spirit,” Elizabeth Warren said in her NYE address. “It’s the enduring spirit of imagination fortified by courage. Patriotism infused with the dreams of the great country we can be.”
Inspired by Wheatley, Warren asked us to harness our own imagination. She asked us to set aside our fear and picture the America that could be. “Imagine who you could be if America worked for everyone. Imagine how you could thrive if America was safe for everyone.”
I was watching her speech from my cluttered desk. I quit my job three months ago and my tiny bedroom was still in chaos, littered with laundry and office supplies and insurance paperwork. My fingers were covered in Band-Aids after a stressful holiday spent chewing my cuticles until they bled. My WiFi stuttered occasionally and my waffles were getting cold, but I couldn’t look away from Warren’s face on my laptop screen.
“If you were no longer tied to your job in order to pay off student loan debt, where would you go?” Warren asked. I watched, riveted, my breath caught in my throat. “Try a different job? Move back to your hometown? Start your own business?”
Then, the kicker:
“If you were no longer paying half your income in rent, what could you do? Pay off your credit cards? Put money in a savings account? Get a dog? … If you were no longer stretched to make ends meet, who would you be?”
I tried. I tried to imagine who I would be if I didn’t live in fear of a medical emergency eating through my savings like a weevil. If I didn’t live most days in a roiling state of anxiety. If I wasn’t scared for a sick family member and our $8,000 deductible. If I didn’t worry endlessly about the erosion of worker’s rights and the normalization of exploitation in my industry, digital media. If I didn’t dread the fall of Roe v. Wade and having my reproductive rights slashed into tatters by Donald Trump’s Supreme Court. If I didn’t worry at the end of each night out with my transgender friends and my friends of color that they wouldn’t get home alive. If I didn’t wake up to new headlines about flagrant misogynists succeeding professionally, if I didn’t wake up to texts from my friends about the latest instance of harassment they’ve experienced, if I didn’t wake up to frantic phone calls about them being raped.
I tried to imagine what I would do if money and fear were no object. I tried to imagine the person I would be without that dread on my shoulders. Would I stand taller? Would I take more risks?
That was when I started to cry.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it; in my imagination I would get a dog, and put a down payment on a house, and throw myself into a career as a romance novelist. I would provide for my parents as they get older, and have kids without worrying about bankruptcy. It wasn’t impossible to fantasize.
What disturbed me was that it had been so long since I’d imagined my future beyond the next few days, the next few weeks. It’s a struggle to imagine thriving when you’ve been so focused on merely surviving.
Realizing that—that at some point in the last decade I stopped looking forward and started to aim to just get by—broke my heart. I’m twenty-seven years old, I’m far more financially secure than most of my millennial peers, and I’m white, cisgender, and fairly healthy. I live with anxiety and depression, but I can afford my prescription anti-depressants and I have a support system of friends who understand. I am privileged in more ways than I can count. If even I have forgotten how to imagine what I can do and who I can become, what does that say about everyone else?
We’re all scared. We’re shocked and disgusted and afraid every day that Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. There is so much riding on the 2020 election, so many lives on the line, so many lives already lost under this administration. Now there is the threat of a war that will cost countless lives, all to distract from the impeachment of a rampantly corrupt and selfish President. It is difficult to look past our abject terror and think about what we want this country to be. That’s by the design of Republicans who understand despair’s power to keep people silent.
We need to hold our fear, our purely rational fear, and at the same time imagine life beyond it. We can’t rely on fear to flip red districts, especially not when we face flagrant voter disenfranchisement. We can’t motivate new voters to turn out in November and pull that lever or punch that ballot for a Democratic candidate who doesn’t inspire them. Pragmatism doesn’t motivate people to arrange carpools to the polls, or to wait for hours when lines are long and voting machines go down. We need to imagine what we’re voting for, not just who we’re voting against. We need to vote for the country we could be, the people we could be, if America worked for everyone.
Warren asked an important question. Imagine the day after election day. What future do you want to face? Whose America do you want to live in, heal in, plan in, thrive in? Who could you be if you had health insurance, a livable wage, access to education and childcare?
Who could you be if you weren’t afraid? Who could you be if you could focus on what matters to you?
“If you can imagine that something better lies on the other side of the chaos and ugliness of the last three years, then you are more than halfway there,” Elizabeth Warren said on New Year’s Eve. “The first step is to see it. The next step is to fight for it.”
I’m fighting for Elizabeth Warren. I hope you’ll join me.
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