Saturday, June 29, 2013

The (Early) Case for Elizabeth Warren in 2016

Going on three years ago, I fell hopelessly in love.  It was an October night in the Pauley Ballroom at UC Berkeley.  I was sitting near the back of the room.  She was on stage at the front, unaware of my existence.  And though in the personal sense my devotion—and that of the several hundred other people in the room—goes unrequited, Senator Elizabeth Warren delivers with inspiring regularity on the relationships she has built with we besotted members of the public across the United States.

Then, she was in the process of helping President Obama set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her brainchild which, as she put it that night, should be responsible for “looking out for people as they interact with the financial system”.  These remarks came in the wake of a national financial crisis which had gone global, driven by deliberately deregulated greed.  People, Warren remarked memorably, had been “mugged by contract”, and she was doing her best to do something about that.

In the end, her agency was created against the intense opposition of a Republican Party which tugs its forelock to financial and other moneyed interests, and gives the cold shoulder to the public.  In an effort to sabotage the CFPB’s work on behalf of the public, however, the GOP threatened to turn Warren’s confirmation as the agency’s chief into a pyrrhic victory for Obama’s administration, which was already showing signs of spinelessness.  Barred by the intervention of corporate America from serving the public from within the administration, Warren did not back down.

Instead, she ran for the Senate in Massachusetts, unseating Scott Brown, whose surprise victory over the Democratic candidate after Ted Kennedy’s death had made him the darling of the commentariat who believed that moderation and compromise were required to address the gross inequality—of income, opportunity, means, and of access to democratic institutions—which has been allowed to emerge in the U.S. in the past several decades.  A self-serving opportunist, Brown’s shine was soon sullied, and Warren, who speaks with an old-style progressive accent many of us had forgot existed in the United States, won a convincing victory in 2012.

For progressives, in a year when a warmongering candidate who had knuckled under to the financial sector won a victory over an equally blood-thirsty candidate who was a product of that sector and swore fealty to its valueless credo, Warren’s triumph was one of the few bright spots in the election season.

For she has been fearless and unflinching in pointing out the double standard in the government’s handling of the financial crisis, which saw citizens turned out of their homes, lose their jobs, and fall through the gaping holes in a social net shredded by years of bipartisan zeal for deregulation, all at the same time that those who committed financial crimes walked free, or bailed out of the wrecked plane, drifting to safety, security, and obscene profits on golden parachutes and federal funds. 

No other public figure has managed to make former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner squirm quite so uncomfortably, question the logic behind financial profiteering quite so convincingly, hammer regulators for their dereliction of their duties quite so passionately, or articulate the premise behind our national social contract in so movingly eloquent a manner.  And she has been consistent in a way that is almost baffling given the contortions and spinning of the poll- and money-driven Congressional and Presidential pygmies, morally-stunted almost to a member, to whom we have become accustomed.  Warren actually warned that the fundamentalist economics embraced by Reagan, Clinton, and two Bushes would ultimately lead to the very socioeconomic earthquake that wreaked such havoc in our nation just a few years ago.

What this means is that Senator Warren now has the toughest job representing the largest constituency in the country.  Because in contrast to the regressive Republicans, financial criminals, market fundamentalists, and the top 1%, all of whom have a seemingly-inexhaustible reserve of Congressional representatives and administration officials to do their bidding, it very often seems that those of us who would call ourselves progressives or social democrats, or who believe that the whole point of associating as a nation is that we have some responsibility to use democratic institutions to look after one another, have exactly one representative in government—Elizabeth Warren.

And it is for these reasons that I hope to see Elizabeth Warren on the presidential ballot in 2016.

True, it is early.  But an assortment of ideologically-indistinguishable Republican sociopaths are already jockeying for position.  And Democrats will undoubtedly hope for a coronation of Hillary Clinton, with senior party members already urging her to run. 

But for anyone who believes that this country needs peace rather than war, that prosperity needs to be defined by the health and welfare of our public, that we need strong institutions to protect that public, and that fairness and equality are values worth fighting for, the prospect of a Clinton-GOP competition is chilling.

Hillary Clinton is a practising neoconservative, whose judgment has helped to plunge us into, and then keep us mired in, wars in the Middle East and South Asia while expanding our involvement in less visible but equally violent and counterproductive conflicts across Northern and Sahelian Africa and the Arabian peninsula.  I have not the slightest doubt that the massive expansion of the security state we have seen under President Obama—with its attendant abuses and violence—would have been replicated on an even larger scale had we the misfortune to experience a Clinton presidency.

During the last two decades, Clinton has also completed one of nature’s more spectacular metamorphoses, from a professed progressive to a nasty neoliberal, signing up to the economic consensus that Warren is working to shatter before it fractures our society.  Whether Big Banks, Big Pharma, or Big Weapons, Clinton has grown solicitous of the corporate powerbrokers who roam our economic highways and byways, behaving like so many economic gangsters as they plunder the public’s coffers, abuse the public good, and undermine public institutions. 

Hillary Clinton might be intelligent for all I know, but she does her best to cloak any thoughtfulness beneath the crudest and least productive kind of jingoistic populism, one which yields none of the benefits to the larger community that the word suggests.  Can you imagine Clinton grilling Geithner  and Holder about financial crimes the way Warren has?  Can you picture Clinton—who has perfected her husband’s amoral strategy of political triangulation—waging an unashamed campaign based on establishing the primacy of the community over the well-being of moneyed interests, in a year when Democrats were running for the hills and proclaiming their conservatism?  Clinton is no kind of progressive.

And then there will be the Republicans, who are churned out of a 24-hour factory, cookie-cutter men and women, full of anger at the government, spitting vitriol at the community, and preaching hatred against diversity.  Some of them do a slick line in political moderation, but when in office, they so zealously implement the will of their corporate backers that one could almost imagine them to be actually inspired by some evangelical belief that inequality and exploitation are the markers of a virtuous society, instead of being merely motivated by the pay checks and marching orders they take from the Koch Empire and its detestable ilk.

I can hear the nay-sayers in the discredited Democratic Party already.  Warren, they will whisper, is unelectable—a word meant to send a chill down the spine of the political witch-doctors who groom acceptable candidates and send them out to the voters, where they converge on a point around the economic and military theories which are currently taking our country to pieces.

But maybe we need a better metric than “electability”.  After all, everyone from Joe Biden to Harry Reid told us that Obama was ‘electable’.  He was, of course.  And he’s waged war with frightening vigour and more frightening consequences on half a dozen fronts, whilst turning the cheek to bankers, going cap-in-hand to the energy lobby, and for all of his fiercely urgent rhetoric, declining to lift a finger to help America’s working class.  Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly be electable, and would be no better than Obama, and perhaps much, much worse.

Elizabeth Warren promises the same kind of inspiring politics that President Obama did in 2008.  But unlike the President, she has demonstrated, both on the campaign trail and in government, the kind of consistency (in itself inspiring) and steel spine that would be prerequisites for taking on the interests which have so vigorously undermined the foundations of our society.  We need someone who is proud to speak a progressive language and set a social democratic pace, not the fumbling, lackadaisical, quiescent president eviscerated in Timothy Egan’s superbly on-point Thursday column in the New York Times.

Moreover, Warren offers a heartening vision of the role of government.  Where Obama’s deployment of government power—whether it’s the drone strikes and murder memos or the NSA spying and the NDAA—has generated mistrust of government and done grievous harm to the public interest, Warren’s version is predicated on the maintenance of institutions which have as their raison d’être the public welfare, and which never act without first inquiring how their policies will contribute to the public good.

Perhaps it’s time we did something really outrageous, like backing a candidate we’re told us unelectable.  Unelectable because she might just do something as outlandish as standing up for the public, for the rights and welfare of citizens, and for economic inequality and the health of our democracy.

Because in spite of Obama’s words denying the existence of two separate Americas—words which catapulted him to prominence—the fact remains that our country is deeply divided between those who have wealth and those who do not.  Between those with security, and those who live on the economic brink.  Between those with access to political power and those without.  And between those who are committed to some common, collective endeavour, and those who are not.  We need to address these deficits—democratic as much as budgetary—with honesty and clarity and force.  And I’m convinced that Warren could do so.

For the time being, I hope that she continues with her lonely labours in the Senate, toiling for transparency, accountability, and fairness—increasingly alien values in the United States of the twenty-first century—on behalf of an otherwise-largely neglected citizenry. 

But should she declare for 2016 on a progressive platform—which I sincerely hope she does, for the good of our country—I can promise Senator Warren that she will have the goodwill, support, and labour of this mwananchi. 

1 comment:

  1. Except until we reform the filibuster, any change she will attempt to make will be filibustered the way it has been in this administration.