DERRY, New Hampshire — Can we turn ourselves into memes? Do we have to turn into memes to get a point across in 2019? That’s worth considering in these nightmarish days on the platforms, where politics can seem like toxic fandom, with each day offering new data points for people to build up or tear down.
Consider Elizabeth Warren, the ascendant candidate, whom parts of the internet imagine working by candlelight to solve your problems, longhand on a legal pad. That’s the meme, right?
And whether it’s on purpose or not, the way she operates conforms to this idea of a factory, operating efficiently, to churn out plans. At a real-life Warren event, a phalanx of hyper-competent 25- to 35-year-old staffers and teen volunteers politely descend upon the voter: to get their name, to give them a sticker, to offer a raffle ticket, to hold the mic while the raffle ticket winner asks a question, to hold their bag, to take their phone, to pass the phone, to take the photo on their phone with Elizabeth Warren, who chats and hugs and holds hands and is game to pose prom-style, to return their phone and bag. It’s like being in one of those restaurants where glasses get silently refreshed just a moment before you even think, I’d like another.
This all took place, for hours, in a hot gym in New Hampshire on Saturday that somehow was purple and mint green, just like Warren’s campaign colors. The breathing machine greeted the people in purple-and-mint “Warren Has a Plan for That” T-shirts, and the ones carrying canvas “Warren Has a Plan for That” totes. In Chicago last month, they distributed a theater full of “Warren Has a Plan for That” signs with “PLAN” in bigger letters than anything else, including the candidate’s name. Online, you can buy the lawn sign version. Online, someone might joke about Elizabeth Warren’s PLAN for her love life, and Elizabeth Warren might call to work it out. Inside that middle school gym in the Elizabeth Warren colors, people referenced asking questions about Elizabeth Warren’s PLANS. Ahead of Tuesday night’s debate, the campaign printed up bingo cards with Elizabeth Warren catchphrases, including: “I Have a Plan for That.”
In the Warren campaign’s 46 posts on her Medium page, the word “plan” appears 180 times. You know those polls where they ask you to provide the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Hillary Clinton,” which then produces a word cloud with 80 tiny phrases orbiting the word “emails”? When that polling day comes for 2020, you know that “PLAN” and “PLANS” will register in the Elizabeth Warren word cloud. PLANS. Elizabeth Warren has them.
If you listen to her, though, she’s clear what comes first and what this big whirl of warmth and machine hurtles toward: serious changes to the way money works in Washington, and serious disruption to taxes and regulation, to address individual debt and wages in this immediate lifetime. That’s the priority. But it’s not like each moment of our lives is now devoted to debates about structural changes to the US economy through reorganization of the corporate tax code and regulatory action. Like, you might be having that argument. She might be. This does not seem to be precisely the mass reason for Warren’s growing success, however. Instead, the quality of having plans — an approximation for competence, seriousness, and coherence — is mostly supplanting quantitative consideration of the plans.
“This is what I’m beginning to perceive,” she told Businessweek recently. “For many people, they may not know the details of my plans, but they’re sure glad to know that the plans are there — that somebody has worked through this who they can trust, and who has their interests at heart, and will be in that fight and win that fight.”
Long before the current media environment, the presidential nominating process could flatten complex people into narrow qualities and narratives, sometimes cruelly; a candidate can become a fool or liar, forever. It’s an extension of the sort of nebulous alchemy of public perception, one that’s like two parts controllable by principle and press (how you act and what you say, how you manage the media and how the media covers you), and one part not. Sometimes people just love an athlete or find a musician dishonest, and it’s hard to trace back exactly how a disparate body of individuals reached a majority conclusion. Each of the candidates who has found some success the last few months registers a qualitative hue in their better moments, sort of like in a Greek play or Captain Planet. Kamala Harris is Strength; Pete Buttigieg is Calm; Warren is…Competence? Coherence? Zeal? Plans?
Becoming known as the candidate with the answers and the ideas — leaning into that narrative, premised on the thing that lovers and haters agree on, which is Warren’s intelligence — can’t really be a bad thing. Warren doesn’t obscure what her vision is, either, talking about taxes and influence. “My view is,” she said at an earlier event in New Hampshire on Saturday, sunglasses on, talking to 400 people mostly under a tent, “you wanna get something done, you better have a plan for it. And people have a right to know.”
Still, there’s something notable that the idea of having a plan resonates more with at least some of us than what a plan might entail. Because there is a slight tonal dissonance between her actual, core plans (on this priority of debt, wages, and restructuring, which, even if you’re on the same page with her, involves change and disruption) and the more generalist plans meme operating in the wild (fun and reassuring, like if you open the door real quickly, you might find Elizabeth Warren organizing your closet).
Before she headed off to the photo line in New Hampshire over the weekend, Warren offered one last comment on the subject. The riff ultimately becomes a call to action, referencing many American political movements over the years and extolling the values of organization and never quitting. But the setup seems to throw into relief how much she views the reorganization of the American economy as a historical cause.
“Folks tell me, yeah, but these plans are complicated,” she began. “They have lots of words and lots of moving parts and lots of pieces — they don’t fit on a bumper sticker. You should ease up on all this, you know, just get out there, do a few words, smile more,” she said (“boooo,” offered the crowd). “It’ll all work.”
“Here’s what I thought about the first time I heard that,” Warren said. “I thought, what do you think the naysayers said to the abolitionists?”