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The rise of Elizabeth Warren, the dust bowl radical

As the Democrats move left in response to Trumpism, few doubt that the Massachusetts senator will run for president. But who is she and what does she want? 

Sceptics who think Elizabeth Warren cannot be nominated or elected as president of the United States tend to make three arguments. First, she is too left-wing. Second, she is too much of a preachy, “schoolmarm” college professor to appeal to regular Americans. And third, after the fiasco of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, it’s too soon for Democrats to nominate another woman, much less one from liberal Massachusetts.

The best rejoinder to these contentions is to observe Warren in action.

In August she attended the Netroots Nation convention in New Orleans, the most important annual gathering of young grass-roots activists on the left. Warren talks with a slight Oklahoma twang, the antithesis of Brahmin Harvard. Her speech had the crowd on its feet, repeatedly interrupting with cheers and whoops. There were also moments when the audience was rapt, as when Warren recounted what happened after her father lost his job, and the political connections she eventually drew from this. Before her father’s heart attack, she explained, her parents had managed to buy a three-bedroom house in a decent school district. Now all of that was in jeopardy.

“At night, after my parents thought I was safely in bed, I could hear them talking. I could hear words that sounded like they weighed a million pounds, words like ‘mortgage’, words like ‘foreclosure’,” she told the crowd. “One morning I walked into my parents’ bedroom. My mother had laid out her best black dress – you know that dress, the one for weddings, graduations and funerals. And she was standing there in her slip, she was crying, and she was saying, we will not lose this house, we will not lose this house.”

Her mother at the time was 50 and had never had a paying job. “But,” Warren said, “she wrestled on that dress, she washed her face, she blew her nose, she put on her lipstick, she pulled on her high heels, and she walked down to the Sears and she got a minimum wage job.”

It saved their home and their family.

It is a story she has often told, and it never fails to move audiences. But the political inferences she draws get more and more powerful. “For a long time, I thought that was a story just about my mother, about her courage, her grit, about what women will do to take care of the people they love, maybe even a story about the American spirit; about pulling up your socks when the going gets rough,” Warren told the crowd.

It wasn’t, though. Warren explained her gradual realisation that the story was really about government, and politics, and the power of corporations.

All great politicians are storytellers, and more than any other on the American scene today, Warren has a capacity to connect the lived frustrations of ordinary working people to a compelling story about what’s wrong with the country’s political economy. It’s a brand of leftism that attracts rather than repels ordinary voters, as well as pumping up the party base. And it is why the sceptics are wrong about Warren – this is precisely the message and passion that could make her the next American president.

Who is Elizabeth Warren? On paper, she is a Harvard law professor turned politician. But her recent biography doesn’t even begin to capture her true appeal. “I was not born at Harvard,” Warren reminded me when I asked her in a recent phone conversation about the role of Harvard in her success. “I grew up in post-dust bowl Oklahoma, on the ragged edge of the middle class.”

Officially, of course, she is not even a candidate. Nobody declares for president this early in the cycle. Warren first needs to win re-election to her Senate seat on 6 November. But because she is running against a weak Republican and is expected to win by a margin likely to exceed two to one, Warren is spending the midterm election criss-crossing the country. Ostensibly this is to help campaign for Democrats, but her path is taking her to the key 2020 primary states of Nevada, Colorado and Iowa, as well as high-visibility issues-based stops, such as detention centres on the Texas border.

A recent Washington Post article detailed the formidable political machine she has already built in preparation for a run. She has raised close to $8m for other Democratic House and Senate candidates and has personally telephoned 172 of them to offer support, calling every single primary winner of a House race. She has met with candidates one-on-one 61 times. Just as revealing as the details of the Post piece is the fact that it was obviously written with Warren’s close co-operation. She meant to send a signal: Warren is a pro, and is dead serious.

Few close observers of American politics doubt that Warren is running for president. But if she becomes the Democratic nominee, it will mark an epochal event in American politics. She would embody and energise the unmistakable progressive shift in the Democratic Party, as well as giving it cogent definition. As much as any other possible Democratic candidate, she can offer a vivid contrast with the false populism of Donald Trump – and the failed centrism of the Clintons. For the world, Warren would again demonstrate the hopeful face of the American experiment they glimpsed in Barack Obama. And since the 2016 election, she has shown that she is not gun-shy or afraid of a scrap. In fact, few other Democrats have demonstrated such a consistent knack for getting under Trump’s skin.

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In 2012, Warren, who is now a youthful 69, seemingly came out of nowhere to win back the Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy. It had been snatched in the special election in 2010 that followed Kennedy’s death. The winner was a pickup truck-driving Republican called Scott Brown, whose crude appeals to suffering blue-collar voters presaged those of Trump. Warren won the seat two years later by offering voters a much more credible version of pocketbook populism than Brown’s. She raised $43m – an all-time state record – mostly in small donations, from an electrified party base. After the election, which she won by seven points in a year that was disastrous for Democrats nationally, Warren became the de facto leader of the Democratic Party’s progressives in Congress.

Elizabeth Ann Herring, known to her family as Betsy, was born in Norman, Oklahoma on 22 June 1949. Her father Donald, a janitor, suffered a heart attack when she was 12, and couldn’t return to work. Their car was repossessed because they couldn’t make the payments. At 13, she was working part-time as a waitress to help support the family. Her three older brothers all joined the military. What launched Betsy Herring into a whole other life was her skill at debate. She was a state champion – and so good that she won a debate scholarship to George Washington University in the US capital. She married her high-school sweetheart, Jim Warren, at 19, had a baby at 22, and managed to complete college and law school as a working mother, whose husband was mostly away on business. The two divorced when she was 28. As a junior professor initially at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Warren became an expert in bankruptcy law, which gave her an illuminating view of the underbelly of American capitalism.

She was soon recognised as one of the leading authorities on the subject. She wrote a popular book, The Two-Income Trap, co-authored with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, on how the ravages of a two-class economy were leading to an epidemic of personal bankruptcies. From Rutgers she was recruited to the University of Texas Law School, then to Penn in 1987, and finally to Harvard in 1995.

At a time when large corporations were lobbying Congress to make it easier for them to walk away from debts – and harder for individuals to use the bankruptcy code – Warren was one of their most diligent and best-informed opponents as well as a leading scholar on the subject. Close observation of how corporations destroyed the lives of ordinary families, through what Warren calls “tricks and traps”, radicalised her.

But nothing contributed to the leader Warren became as much as the 2008 financial crisis. She immediately understood what had occurred in terms of bankruptcy and corporate corruption enabled by lax government policies. The biggest banks had dissipated their capital in fraudulent schemes, and were now insolvent. In a bankruptcy, shareholders lose everything.

In the autumn of 2008 and the winter of 2009, the real policy choice was whether to break up the big banks, recapitalise them with public funds and bring in new management – or to just bail them out. Warren was teaching a course on bankruptcy at the time, and she recalled to me that her students grasped the point even if few politicians did. When Congress reluctantly enacted the $700bn bank recapitalisation known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in October 2008, while George W Bush was still president, Democrats insisted on adding an independent oversight panel. Warren was appointed its chair, a position that she used to resist the bailout policies pursued under Obama by chief economic adviser Larry Summers, Treasury secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.


Warren lecturing a class at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s

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When the crisis ended, bailout had won. Public funds and Federal Reserve loans had gone mostly to the biggest banks, which ended up more concentrated and more profitable than ever. While Wall Street banks were deemed too big to fail, hundreds of community banks were sacrificed as too small to bail. Billions of dollars intended to save small homeowners from foreclosure went unspent or ended up with the banks.

Warren’s ringside seat was a further source of indignation. Her panel served as a relentless critic of the administration’s course. Yet so deft was Warren that she managed to stay on cordial personal terms with Obama while publicly and privately excoriating his economic team.

One of her most remarkable successes came in the summer of 2013, when Warren’s old nemesis, Summers, was leaning on Obama to name him chairman of the Federal Reserve. Obama had all but made the commitment to Summers, but Warren organised fellow Senate Democrats to warn Obama that they would refuse to confirm him; she also worked to drum up grass-roots opposition. Warren’s choice was Janet Yellen, a respected labour economist who had served in a number of Fed posts.

Thanks largely to Warren, Yellen got the job, becoming the first woman and the first progressive to chair the Federal Reserve since Marriner Eccles in the Roosevelt era. Nobody could remember another occasion when Senate Democrats had mounted a public campaign to deny a Democratic president his first choice and pressure him into naming their preferred candidate for a major position. She had simply outmanoeuvred both Summers and her president. “There is nobody in American politics who is so good at both the inside game and the outside game,” says Damon Silvers, a senior union official who served as Warren’s deputy chair of the oversight panel.

Warren navigates the shoals of identity politics better than most Democrats. In the same way that Barack Obama ran not as a black candidate but as an outsider candidate who happened to be black, Warren runs as a radical reformer who happens to be female. By contrast, Hillary Clinton emphasised identity politics partly to divert attention from her closeness to Wall Street. The formula backfired; Clinton lost male voters by three to one. Black turnout fell. She even narrowly lost white women.

When Warren tells the story of her mother sobbing and then marching off to Sears to get a job, her affinity for what it means to be a woman is so palpable and natural that she doesn’t need to wear her feminism on her sleeve. Even better, she uses the story to make a point not about gender but about class – to which any economically vulnerable American, male or female, can relate. “Elizabeth gives speeches like this,” says Silvers, “not because some pollster told her to, but because it’s who she is.”

Warren’s capacity to make connections between the personal and the political also serves her well when it comes to race, one of the Democrats’ major challenges going into 2020. Donald Trump has used race to heighten divisions. When I interviewed the then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in August 2017, a too-candid conversation that cost him his job, Bannon told me, “I want the Democrats talking about race every day… I got ‘em.”

As many as five black or mixed-heritage candidates have indicated that they may seek the Democratic nomination in 2020. One likely candidate, Kamala Harris, a 53-year-old first-term senator from California, is the daughter of a Tamil Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Speaking at the same Netroots gathering, Harris declared, “If it wasn’t clear before Charlottesville, it is clear now – racism is real in this country, and we need to deal with that. Sexism is real in this country; let’s deal with it. Anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia are real in this country; let’s deal with it.”

But is this an appeal likely to unite Democrats and win back some defectors who voted for Trump?

The difference between Harris’s emphasis and Warren’s was telling. Warren declared: “In Trump’s story, the reason why working families keep getting the short end of the stick isn’t because of the decisions he and his pals are making in Washington every day. No, according to Trump, the problem is other working people, people who are black, or brown, people born somewhere else… It all adds up to the same thing – the politics of division. They want us pointing fingers at each other so that we won’t notice that their hands are in our pockets. That stops here. That stops now. We say, no, you will not divide us.”

In 2016, race was one factor that prevented Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination. He is from a state, Vermont, with hardly any black people. Though Sanders reliably supported civil rights legislation, he displayed little leadership on race and had few black allies or supporters. As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of black support in crucial primaries went to Hillary Clinton. Warren is another story. Like Sanders, her main emphasis is progressive economics. But her extensive work on the dynamics of the financial collapse gave her a deep grasp of applied racism. The fraudulent mortgage products that crashed the larger economy were disproportionately marketed to black homeowners, and were devastating to the black lower middle class. “Do you think that was an accident?” Warren says. “They drew a special target on the backs of blacks and Latinos, selling them the worst of the worst.”

One other potent strength is the intellectual and political coherence of Warren’s reform agenda. It’s a testament to the progressive shift of today’s Democratic rank and file, and Warren’s leadership in shepherding that change, that the entire potential Democratic presidential field is trying to rebrand itself as left wing.

But while the positions of many others are a grab-bag of trendy progressive causes, Warren’s focused priorities reflect her deep study of American capitalism.

Warren is doing the intellectual and political work of inventing a New Deal for the 21st century. But her programme plays a dual role. She aims not just to overhaul capitalism, but to turn that radical reform into winning politics, too. This is a serious populism of the left – not populism in the sense of rabble-rousing, but progressive reform that rallies ordinary people against economic royalists in the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt. It’s precisely what’s been missing from Democratic policies.

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How would Warren do against Trump? Trump claimed he would clean out Washington special interests, but came to epitomise the “swamp” he had promised to drain. Warren wants to drain the swamp for real. When Hillary Clinton was running against Trump, her ability to call out Trump’s grotesque history with women was blunted by the obvious angle of counter-attack: the serial womaniser to whom Clinton is married. Her capacity to challenge Trump’s corruption and ties to plutocrats was marred by the troubled Clinton Foundation, and Hillary’s large speaking fees from Wall Street.

Far from being Hillary Redux as some commentators fear, Warren is both the anti-Hillary and the antidote to Hillary. She has been married to Bruce Mann, a historian of bankruptcy at Harvard, for 38 years and they have a close, mutually adoring relationship. (She proposed to him.)

One potential vulnerability, that Trump has tried to exploit over and over again, is a controversy about whether Warren used her possible Native American ancestry to further her career. Scott Brown, in the 2012 Senate campaign, tried and failed to make that an issue, ridiculing the fair-complexioned Warren as “Pocahontas”. The jibe has been taken up by Trump in repeated tweets. An exhaustive Boston Globe investigation in late August found that Warren had indicated mixed ancestry in responding to a single obscure questionnaire, but had never used that identity to advance her career.

Some commentators felt that Warren then committed a rare blunder in early October in producing the results of a DNA test, which showed that she did indeed have a bit of Native American heritage. Whether to take and release such a test was the subject of extensive debate among her staff. It should have ended the matter. Instead, it rekindled an issue that had already been dispatched by the Globe report. After the DNA test some Native American leaders took offence at the appearance of a politician trading on a minimal ancestry. This was the opposite of Warren’s intent – she was merely documenting that she had been truthful. The story faded after a few days. In a serious campaign, it will get little attention compared to the real issues that divide Warren from Trump.


Warren with Hillary Clinton in 2016

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It is, of course, very early days. The primaries do not begin until January 2020. Official candidacies will not begin before 2019. As many as 20 Democrats have signalled an interest in running. In September, a CNN tally of the Democratic field ranked Warren most likely to win, up from second in August and third in July. In the latest ranking, Harris was second with former vice-president Joe Biden third. If the Democratic nominee were selected by political commentators, Biden would prevail hands down. But Biden will be 78 in 2020, and when he has contested primaries in past elections, he has fallen flat.

There are other possible candidates of the centre and centre left, but none seems to be generating much grass-roots excitement. After the financial collapse, the recession that followed and the Republican political use of it, centrism as a winning political strategy or economic template for Democrats has lost its lustre. Indeed, a Warren nomination would end the reign of neoliberal Democratic candidates and administrations that stretches back from Obama’s economic team through the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Warren does face one major obstacle. There’s an old, bitter joke told by the American left. Question: what do you call two leftists in a room? Answer: a split. Compared to the British left, American progressive politics is relatively free of doctrinal or sectarian schisms. But what the American left does have in 2020 presidential politics is an embarrassment of riches. And that could splinter the progressive electorate.

Bernie Sanders will be 79 by election day 2020. Many people think that’s too old. But what matters is what Sanders thinks, and he isn’t saying. Despite the appeal of Warren, some portion of the 2016 Sanders base would be loyal if he chooses to run. He has been sending mixed signals. He did not even show up at Netroots.

Another resolute progressive, 65-year-old Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, has told friends that once re-elected to the Senate in November he will consider a 2020 run. In a state that votes Republican as often as Democratic, Brown has shown a formidable ability to be liberal on social issues such as abortion or gay rights, but maintain support among socially conservative blue-collar voters by being populist on economics. For those who think a white guy from the Midwest is the safer strategy for winning back Trump voters, Brown is the man.

The nightmare scenario, however, is that Warren, Sanders and Brown all decide to run. That would fragment the progressive field, and open the door to a more centrist candidate. In modern American politics, there is no committee of elders, no smoke-filled-room process to winnow down the field. On the contrary, the most recent Democratic Party reforms, enacted by the national committee in late August, reduce the power of party officials known as superdelegates that drew the ire of Sanders supporters and weakened the party in the presidential election. Under the new rules, they can vote only if the elected delegates deadlock on the first ballot. The last time that happened was in 1952.

However, another rule change actually makes it more likely that the 2020 convention will take more than one ballot to pick a nominee. Before 1992, Democrats used a winner-takes-all system. If you won a state by even a single vote, you got all of that state’s delegates. Now all delegates are awarded proportionally. In a large field, this could deny the leading candidate a first-ballot victory. However, unlike in 2016, when most superdelegates were locked up in favour of Hillary Clinton, in 2020 even the superdelegates will be more to the left.

For the party’s progressive base, the hope is that after a few primaries, the weaker left candidates will drop out in favour of the strongest. Two candidates might even combine forces and stand as a ticket: Warren-Brown, for example, would represent a radically progressive ideology, with the added bonus of being difficult for a candidate such as Trump to beat.

In the endgame at the convention, the centrists in the party are likely to unite behind one candidate and progressives behind another. In a year when the progressive wave is ascendant, Elizabeth Warren is likely to be that progressive – and likely to be the nominee.

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect and a professor of political economy at Brandeis University. His latest book is “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?”

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash