Sunday, August 5, 2012

Elizabeth Warren

Amongst the people I met during my final days in Lusaka were three travelling soccer coaches working with an organisation called Coaches Across Continents.  Brian, Melanie and Emmy joined the crowd of regulars as we watched the Olympic Games in London get underway.  [On a side note, the British athletes are proving to be a great disappointment to the expat community for winning an insufficient number of gold medals, and one member of said community was heard to grumble during a kayak race, “If I had an air-gun I’d shoot the French boat!” There were, it must be said, several other words in that sentence, but they’re unprintable in what aspires to be a family-friendly blog.]

Two of the three coaches, who had been working with local soccer coaches in Cameroon and Zimbabwe before arriving in Zambia, were from the Boston area, and that made me think about the Massachusetts Senate race, where the stakes are high and the money is flowing as if from a broken spigot.  Long-time (and long-suffering) readers might recall that some two years ago your blogger had the good fortune to see Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren speak at UCBerkeley (at which event said blogger fell head over heels in love).

In the autumn of 2010, Warren was acting as godmother to the emerging Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  The Harvard professor had emerged from the turmoil and bad blood surrounding the botched bail-out of the financial sector as the most trenchant, articulate, and prescient critic of the “Wild West” financial regime that had been instituted by the Bush White House with the full-throated support of the Republican Party (and more than a few right-wing Democrats), and Warren has been fighting ever since, with a vigour unmatched by the Obama administration, for a set of standards in consumer relations that would protect ordinary citizens from predatory corporate industries.  The creation of more transparency and the dissemination of more information, with an aim to empowering consumers and checking predatory practises, seem elementary and uncontroversial, but they comprise a ditch in which the Republican Party’s corporate handlers have proved ready to die.

Many of us hoped that Warren would become the director of the CFPB, but it was not to be.  The rabid hysteria that characterised the Republican Party’s opposition to her appointment was a firm demonstration of just how much the GOP had become an arm of corporate America rather than servants of their constituents—the citizens.  The GOP’s unhinged attacks, then as now demonstrating an unshakeable commitment to learning exactly nothing from the financial crisis which devastated our country, should be all the evidence that we need of Warren’s suitability to carry the progressive torch in Washington, Massachusetts, or anywhere else.  But the Obama administration’s cave-in over the Warren appointment also demonstrated just how short in supply progressive voices in government are. 

Warren’s great strength is her ability to state the obvious in cogent terms.  Today’s Republicans, who have failed to heed long-time GOP stalwart (and environmentalist) Russell Train’s warning that “we will never achieve excellence in government by trashing it at every opportunity”, are on a search and destroy mission in the public sphere at the behest of interests which find moral regulations annoying in their pursuit of profit.  Democrats, increasingly craven and defensive, rush to proclaim their own mistrust of government institutions.  Warren manages to cut through this, reminding us that it is “seldom that we stop to think of what government has done for us through the quiet agencies that work on our behalf”.  She saw the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an opportunity to “show that government can do it right, can fix one part, can belong to the people”, and I think her Senate candidacy is best viewed in these terms, too.  Hers is the kind of voice which might begin to reinvigorate an ever-more archaic institution which has become an echo chamber for the most pathetic kind of conventional wisdom. 

Warren’s opponent is Scott Brown, a rather crude character who has made an art out of political opportunism, and who executes a dangerous dance through the increasingly dysfunctional Senate, casting votes on the basis of electoral arithmetic rather than moral calculus or even ideological coherency.  This kind of ‘moderation’ or ‘centrism’ is no virtue, shorn as it is of any affirmative purpose other than Brown’s own political survival.  Brown, embracing a typically noxious strategy of his party, has been working to label Warren an “elitist”, trying to turn her intelligence and the prestige that should accompany her work at Harvard into a liability.  Brown is basically openly telling voters to choose the less intelligent, less thoughtful, and more “average” candidate.  Stupidity and mediocrity are two things we could do with a little bit less of in the Senate, and her intelligence alone recommends Warren.

Don’t get me wrong.  Warren will inevitably disappoint the most ardent progressives in the country at some stage.  Both, I have little doubt, in some of the votes she will cast and in the effect she will be able to have in a Congress populated by morally stunted hacks.  But she brings a passion and sense of urgency to our national politics which are currently lacking.  She is an unabashed progressive, but hers is, at heart, a conservative progressivism, based on the reaffirmation of a lost consensus than on any kind of real radicalism, and her rhetoric fits accordingly, and forms part of her appeal to our country’s working class.

The financial interests which are in Warren’s sights have, after all, serially abused our nation’s social contract since around 1980 once they realised that they could make larger profits by betraying the public trust.  As they have wielded their economic weaponry, steadily losing all moral inhibitions, those interests have bought one party lock, stock and barrel, and are rapidly corrupting another.  They are hoodwinking the public into abandoning collective, democratic control over our economy, into taking our hands off the wheels, or, to use a more pedestrian-friendly analogy, into walking down a pot-holed street with our eyes firmly shut. 

Scott Brown’s party is asking us to trust our national economy—the economy that once belonged to the people and must belong to us again—to known economic gangsters, professional pillagers, people, interests, and corporate institutions with long and detailed records of anti-social where not outright criminal behaviour.  We’d be foolhardy to return anyone to office who wants to take us back to the bad old days, and in Elizabeth Warren, progressives have that rare opportunity—to cast a vote that doesn’t leave them with a bad taste in their mouths, or with the sense that they’ve compromised their values.  I certainly hope that voters in Massachusetts, for the sake of the rest of us, take advantage of that opportunity and elect Warren to the Senate.

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