Elizabeth Warren and the "controversy" that never was

Conservative attacks attempt to draw our attention away from what's truly important.

You may have noticed a pattern in American politics. Whenever conservatives have no answer to pressing social and economic issues, they change the subject, usually by attacking opponents in such a way as to draw our attention from those pressing issues. It happened to Martin Luther King Jr., and, absurdly, it is still happening. Every year on the February day commemorating the life and legacy of the civil-rights hero, white nationalists come out of the woodwork to calumniate his memory by claiming that he was a drinker, philanderer and plagiarist.

White nationalism continues to influence mainstream views of President Barack Obama. He can't be a legitimate president, because he wasn't born in the US (false). He won the presidency, because he was black (ha!). He isn't American, because he was born a Muslim (huh?). He's weak (um, cf. Osama bin Laden). He isn't smart because he needs a Teleprompter (ugh). And the most ridiculous of all: He's a socialist (Oh yeah; the fact that he's done more to shrink the federal government than Republican Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Bush II defines socialism!).

We saw something similar happen to Elizabeth Warren last week. She is the Democratic rival of US Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who won a special election in 2010 after Edward Kennedy died. Warren rose to become a candidate after working with the Obama administration on financial reform legislation (known as Dodd-Frank) and on the creation of a federal agency to protect consumers against Wall Street chicanery. As a result, Warren has become a folk hero of sorts, especially to those sympathetic to the Occupy Movement, because of her plain-spoken way of talking about money, power and how they distort American ideals. She may be best known for a viral video in which she explains why asking the rich to pay their fair share is not class warfare but instead part of the social contract:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. ... You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. ... Part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that [wealth] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Yet for the last month, Warren has been dogged by questions about her Native American lineage. At issue: Why did Harvard University, where she has been a professor of law since the mid-1990s, list her as a minority when the New England Historic Genealogical Society has no evidence that she is or is not descended from a Cherokee ancestor? The implication on the right is that Warren lied about being a minority to advance her career, thus discrediting and casting a pall of doubt over the economic populism.

Warren believes she is part Cherokee because her family told her she was. On Wednesday, she told the Boston Globe: "My mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family's Native American heritage." Yet her explanations raised suspicions. She said she didn't know Harvard identified her as a minority until a reporter told her. Later on, she said she'd discussed her ancestry with Harvard after being hired. That apparent discrepancy was enough to fuel one of two suspicions: 1) that she is political novice unprepared to run with the big dogs or 2) that she is an opportunist using affirmation-action laws to get ahead, thus mocking the ideal of equal opportunity that she says all Americans deserve.

But, as Timothy Noah points out, this is a canard. Warren denies that her minority status had anything to do with her hiring and Harvard Law confirms this. Even if she had benefitted from affirmative action, it wouldn't have been because she is Native American. It would have been because she's a woman. At the time of her appointment, almost all faculty at Harvard Law were men, and its priorities, in terms of race, were to hire African Americans. And besides, Noah writes, Warren wasn't covering up anything. She just didn't remember what she said: "You ask me what I ate for breakfast. I say I don’t remember. You point out that I have a stain on my tie that looks like fried egg. Oh, right, I say. I had a fried egg. Is that 'coming clean'?"

Even so, this appeared to ding her credibility. To her conservative and Republican adversaries, she is the affirmative-action candidate just as Obama is the affirmative-action president, which according to the absurd logic of white nationalism means that neither had to earn success. Instead, it was given to them.

Perhaps bigotry like this inspired a writer for the National Review, a conservative magazine, to dash headlong into accusations that Warren is a plagiarist (recall that MLK got the same treatment). The writer charged that a book Warren had co-authored, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Money Lifetime Plan, was copied from Getting on the Money Track by Rob Black. Some passages are identical, but, as Alex Pareene of Salon wrote, Warren didn't plagiarize Black. Black plagiarized Warren. His book came out months after hers.

You'd think with all this whipped up worry about Warren's credibility that Massachusetts Democrats might have reconsidered their support for Warren during the Democratic Convention on Saturday. And you'd think that Warren might have toned down her message of economic populism. But you'd be wrong.

In a speech that night, she blasted Brown, and called into question his reputation as a moderate. "Whoever he once was, I can tell you who he is now," she said. "Scott Brown is a Wall Street Republican. A big oil Republican. A Mitt Romney Republican."

That's why Republicans are worried. Not only is Warren an expert in financial law; not only does she express herself in populist tones; her rise comes as Americans are unsatisfied with talking about "opportunity." Instead, they want to talk about "fairness." The American Dream is powerful, perhaps doubly so in reverse. If people feel the game is rigged, they get mad, and when they get mad, watch out.

With the delegates tallied, it was official: Warren had won the most delegates in Massachusetts history, with almost 96 per cent of the vote. The margin of victory was so wide it obviated the need for a primary, and it seemed to put to rest the counterfeit controversy over her Cherokee ethnicity. A new Globe polls shows Warren in a dead heat with Brown, with 72 per cent saying that the Cherokee thing is over.

Not so for Brown.

After the Democratic delegates were counted Saturday, he told reporters that he expects questions of Warren's ancestry to continue due to her "patterns" of lacking credibility. But that's not the pattern we should be watching for. Instead, what we'll see is Brown bringing up Warren's background any time he doesn't want to talk about economic justice. As conservatives have since the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond, he will attack in ways that draw our attention away from what's truly important.
 

Elizabeth Warren. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.