written by Valerie Morales
Elizabeth Warren is a crusader who doesn’t suffer fools. She attacks with venom the capitalistic structures that anchor generational wealth. She holds in contempt financial predators who prey upon the ordinary. Her message has not changed over the past few months but Elizabeth Warren has a slightly different architecture than when she began her quest, as if to acknowledge running for president is sweaty and exhausting and often a sexist business. It’s about managing the middle while keeping your light bright.
Adored by educated whites, her poll numbers have exploded, particularly in Iowa, but for the most part it is a cliquish love. Joe Biden and his juggernaut coalition of working class whites and African Americans are blissfully Elizabeth Warren ignorant.
Warren just received the endorsement of the Working Families Party to the shock of many; the endorsement itself is revealing. Warren has usurped the Bernie Sanders message of the last four years and has crafted her own version of the moral working class in a battle with the selfish elitist class. She’s not quite the voice of vulnerable people but neither was Sanders. She is a messenger who is very effective at getting the point across that marginalized groups are not going to be paralyzed by another administration.They won’t be patronized and ignored.
Before her national profile put her on the campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren was an underappreciated bankruptcy hawk with a sensitive bullshit meter. She seamlessly slid into agitator mode, a champion for those who had been marginalized, manipulated and taken advantage of by the banking class. She was an in your face savior, a bright light who identified financial victims. So, it was peculiar and even a little odd when a defender of the working class and a warrior for economic justice decided in the midst of her popularity arc not to run for president in 2016. In her words, she “wanted to stay buckled down and keep doing her job in the Senate.”
Consider that in 2015 Elizabeth Warren had momentum. She was a cult figure within the progressive movement after that first Jon Stewart late night appearance. She did not have fans. She had followers who evangelized for her. To not run for president when night after night she offered a sartorial soundbite about what the country needed and how the country was slipping off the rails felt like she had been prepping us for something big and now she was not interested. It felt like she had cheated us all this time, making us want her and then snatching herself away.
When she backed off from the presidency and watched another progressive take her place-Bernie Sanders did everything Elizabeth wouldn’t do- she deserved the second guessing. She should have run against Hillary.
Bankruptcy was Elizabeth Warren’s descent into the murky, shadowy, filthy world of money and suffering. She was once a conservative Republican and thought bankruptcy was for people who didn’t know how to use money, spend money, save money. Either they were cheaters or they were stupid. But her research educated her and she wrote a book about it in 1989. Her co-authors, a fellow lawyer and a sociologist, (Jay Westbrook, and Teresa Sullivan), studied the data of 1,500 bankruptcy filings and published “As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America.” It was a watershed work that exposed the lie that those who file bankruptcy are feckless spenders who shop until they drop and then use the system to pay their debts. The opposite was true. The working class, particularly mothers, file bankruptcy because of financial struggles when an unexpected circumstance like family illness, death, loss of a job hits them with a right cross.
She wrote a second book fourteen years later with Amelia Warren Tyagi, a financial consultant who is also Warren’s daughter. “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke” made the case that bankruptcy’s causation is correlated to raising children. Women in the workforce increase the likelihood of financial devastation for middle class families. Rebuking the political hypocrisy that incentivizes the problem, Warren who at the time was the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard, wrote “Senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening.”
Elizabeth Warren is not a mean girl. But she does have a way of interrogating powerful men whose financial crimes have mostly gone unchecked and whose empathy for those who have less hovers around zero. She humiliates them surgically by digging and prodding and shooting holes in their testimony. Intent on taking away the privileges they deny they have, when Warren is finished with them they are murky silhouettes, grim faced and bitter. And yet, despite her violent responses to the evasiveness of CEO’s, like Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan who Warren said should be fired- she hasn’t been successful in getting them to change policy, in a macro or micro formulation. Her nightly harangue on cable news about tellers who steal money get jail while CEO’s doing the same crime get a vacation is beautiful theater. It is dramatic. It is television. But what are you going to do to fix it Elizabeth besides be a critic? Who are you going to befriend? Who are you going to ruin?
Fighters rarely believe in compromise. They have blind spots. They want to do it their way because they know when you compromise you have to give something up. Elizabeth Warren didn’t immediately blow up Trump. She said early on “when President-elect Trump wants to take on these issues, when his goal is to increase the economic security of middle-class families, then count me in.” Then she sat back and looked at who he was taking advice from, all of her enemies, and Trump became a frequent target and vice versa. He refused to stop his Pocahontas slurs. Warren kept talking about his stupidity. “if he were a reality show, he’d be cancelled by now” was her comedic line.
What has shaken Trump is that Warren hasn’t faded to black. She hasn’t disappeared under the weight of glamour candidates like Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. If it’s Monday, she’s on attack. If it’s Tuesday, she’s on attack. If it’s Wednesday, she’s on attack. She is the most consistent candidate running for President. She hasn’t succumbed to the Trump pejoratives and in fact it is what has made her so formidable. Trump went on his attack, spewing his venom directly at her, and Warren took it like a boss. Now here she is gaining strength and momentum when everyone thought she would be irrelevant, overwhelmed, and overshadowed. They expected Warren, and not Bill Blasio, to drop out the race.
At her disposal is a message and a strategy for a Warren presidency. There’s a plan for corporations to pay more, students in college to pay less, a tech regulation plan, opioid addiction common sense, something she calls “Economic Patriotism” for the working class, and she wants to pass legislation so a sitting president can be impeached. She’s relentless in her energy and her belief that it is government’s responsibility to intercede on behalf of those who are getting hosed. And she never gives up. There is never a day off.
Born in Oklahoma, her father had a heart attack when she was 12 and her older brothers in the military. It thrust the family into a tailspin. Warren began working at the age of 13, waiting tables. Her father had to take a custodian job. Her mother worked at Sears so the house wouldn’t fall into foreclosure.
“Because when my mama walked off to Sears and got a minimum-wage job, a minimum wage job in America would support a family of three. It would pay a mortgage, keep the utilities on, and put food on the table. Today, a full time minimum-wage job in America will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty. And that’s why I am in this fight.”
At 70 years old, Elizabeth Warren is older than Donald Trump was when he decided to fancy his worst instincts and run for president. Unlike private sector Trump, Warren has spent a career warning us about capitalism excesses. It hasn’t translated into policy. Not much has changed except we are listening to her more and more now that the economy is giving dangerous hints that a recession may be around the corner.
Her campaign doesn’t take donations from wealthy donors. The fairy tale liberalism of it was talked about but with little sympathy. Her eventual demise was expected to be sharp, quick, cutting and bloodless. The opposite has happened. She is ascending.
The optics are the optics however. Another tough talking woman running against a misogynist. But Elizabeth Warren isn’t Hillary Clinton. She fights on a totally different level, more street and less penthouse, less cerebral, more in your face, and she attacks the institutions that generated wealth for the Clintons. Her bluntness is badly needed but it also may be true that America still isn’t ready for a woman president. Women vote for men overwhelmingly when a woman is on the ballot. Our Pavlovian triggers are rooted in penises, stuck as we are in gender roles and biases.
So that’s one problem. The other problem with Warren is Warren herself and this myopic belief she has about why people vote. While issues matter, and change can be a powerful motivator, what a candidate looks like hangs like a fugue over every single voter. Do I really really like you is the real presidential test. In that, Warren is still an unknown commodity. She will fight for us but would she sit around the bar and play drinking games with us.
Whatever her popular culture flaws may be, she is romantic in her idealism. “People all across this country understand that government works for the rich and powerful and isn’t working for them. We’ll get organized. We’ll fight for working people. We’ll build a grassroots movement. And that’s how I’ll be the first woman elected President of the United States.”
It was Barack Obama who encouraged Warren to run for the Senate and continue her work on behalf of ordinary people. They needed an ally. They needed a street fighter. If she wins the nomination, Obama gets credit for seeing Warren’s future before she could see it herself. And yet, running for president is one more rung up the ladder.
Warren is doing it differently than almost every candidate before her. She is attacking the insanely rich and has proposed a wealth tax that would target families of $50 million or more by assessing a 2% tax on their assets. Assets would include real estate, financial holdings, retirement assets, trusts. Some experts believe the tax would generate nearly $3 trillion in revenue over a decade which Warren would use to pay for infrastructure, student loan debt, childcare. She justifies it as egalitarian. Others dispute that enormous number. Warren isn’t fazed.
“Remember you built that fortune in America where the rest of us helped pay for the roads and the bridges so you could get your goods to market, where the rest of us helped pay for the police and the firefighters who were there to keep you safe. We were all glad to pay. We understand that’s how American works. But when you build one of those great fortunes, just take a little and pitch it back in the kitty so every kid gets a chance in this country.”
The tax sounds great on the campaign trail, a message for the masses who are struggling and need to grab on to something even if it is a gimmicky idea that will never, ever happen, kind of like Trump’s promise to bring coal back. Often, we hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe. You cannot reshape capitalist wealth without killing capitalism’s function. Here’s what Warren does not say. A market economy is by definition egocentric and self-absorbed. I have money. I made money. This belongs to me. Hands off. Just as people don’t want health care taken from them, they won’t allow Warren to steal what they have earned or inherited. Money is personal.
Warren believes that the wealthiest among us are part of an elite club and that club has dues to pay that she can enforce against their will. Therefore she is a threat to the economic elite which makes for grand tension. They will do whatever it takes to make sure she is not just defeated but destroyed. She threatens their ability to make money without restraint and to pass that on to their children. She is reviled, not for her gender, but for her economic populism. It is a financial civil war.
The thing Elizabeth Warren wants voters to understand though, despite her detractors, is she’s not corrupt. She sees her 7% tax proposal on corporate profits as compassion for the American worker who, unlike Netflix, has to pay taxes. It is fair. She’s a throwback really because of all the candidates on the trail she is talking about America being a fairer place, because when you are financially fair you are better. When you are better everyone has the ability to thrive. But fairness isn’t justice. Just as equality isn’t freedom. She has yet to tackle injustice as an institutional threat to us all. That is a huge hole in her platform.
In a country that loves a good fable, Elizabeth Warren has become an option to boring, traditional Joe Biden who has hung around a little too long. She carries the progressive goals within her platform but does she only care about adjusting wealth? Immigration, amnesty, over incarceration, a two tier educational system, all need to be addressed with the same compulsiveness she talks about sending corrupt CEO’s to jail. From time to time, Warren rolls out her plan(s) to bastardize racial and gender pain but she doesn’t have the same passionate desperation. In those moments, she’s a Hillary Clinton clone, a politician saying what she has to say. It feels rote and contrived. Until money enters the conversation. Then, she’s the Elizabeth Warren you know. The Elizabeth Warren educated whites love.
Angry. Focused. Determined.