Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Elizabeth Warren and the Democratic Party

As regular readers will know, I’m a big Elizabeth Warren fan.  The Massachusetts Senator, both in her short time in the Senate, and as a consumer advocate before that, has proven herself to be a committed progressive in a party increasingly dominated by neoliberalism.  She has done more than our President to inject a dose of progressivism into our national debate and would, I think, be an excellent President.

However, detractors are crawling out of the woodwork to assail Warren, demonstrating the threat she poses not only to the fundamentalists on the political right, but also to the corporate-minded core of the Democratic Party.  She’s been accused of being too “noisy” and of behaving like a “feckless demagogue”.  


In the article Vaishampayan asked, “Is Elizabeth Warren Helping or Hurting the Democratic Party?”, citing her espousal of more progressive policies than either the President or the Senate leadership.  I think this question misses the point altogether.  The fact is that toadying to the rather cowardly Democratic leadership, and endorsing a series of regressive “compromises” might help to maintain party discipline, but it doesn’t do the Democratic Party any favours in the long run.  By “hurting” the Democratic Party—which has become a party defined by bloodstained warmongers like Hillary Clinton; proponents of crippling and socially irresponsible austerity like Jerry Brown; and authors of a dangerous economic accord with financial and corporate interests like President Obama—Warren is helping it. 

And more importantly, Warren is helping the public by ensuring that their interests are vocalised.  Under Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party decided that it needed to ape the GOP in order to win elections, marginalising the political left and creating a bipartisan consensus around deregulation, immoral market economics, and growth at all costs.  The party cosied up to financial interests, and made its support of most social welfare programmes contingent on getting a nod of approval from corporate backers.  The seeds of the recession were laid during the Clinton years, and were tended even more solicitously by George W Bush and a Republican Party which thanks to the influx of money into politics became ever more fundamentalist in its economic outlook. 

President Obama declined to challenge that consensus, and Hillary Clinton, the most popular potential presidential candidate for 2016, is committed to its maintenance, having abandoned the progressive mantle she once wore uneasily in order to present herself as a friend of finance, an ally of big business, and one of the most powerful proponents of U.S. imperialism and the national security state.  In any Democratic primary she will undoubtedly seek to tack away from the right towards the centre, but her actions speak louder than her hollow words.

Vaishampayan attacks Warren as a “left-wing ideologue”.  If being a “left-wing ideologue” means suggesting that students have as much a right to well-being as banks, that consumers deserve as much attention as the financial institutions which sabotage our economy, and that regulations should serve to protect the public rather than enrich private interests, we could use a lot more such ideologies in the Senate! 

Vaishampayan misses the point once again when he equates Warren with the Tea Party.  Speaking personally, my problem with the Tea Party was never that it was ideological or divisive.  In fact, although its founders and funders were corporate Astroturf organisations, many of the people who came to make up its grassroots did help to breathe life back into a moribund political debate (even if only because the threat that their backers’ ideology posed galvanised progressives) that was threatening to turn terribly technocratic.  My big problem with the Tea Party was that its claims were so divorced from the material conditions of the people that the “party” purported to represent.

It was a finance-friendly, corporate-supporting, anti-welfare, pro-war, regulation-averse ‘institution’.  And the people it claimed to stand up for were amongst those hardest hit by the recession caused if not engineered by a deregulated financial sector, a sector which is part of a broader corporate world which on the one hand resented being asked to look after its employees, pay its fair share, or temper its greed, and on the other benefited from a series of un-ending wars driven by sick profiteering and a twisted ideology which made cannon-fodder of the very people who waved the flag.  Its membership was incited by the dog-whistle politics of its leadership to question the President’s citizenship instead of his military policy, and to criticise agencies which sought to protect the middle class instead of interests in the Republican Party which worked hard to shield financial and war criminals from justice.

And so if Warren represents a similar kind of ideological groundswell, the benefit is that not only is her economic analysis based on the deteriorating material conditions of the overwhelming majority of our public, but that it is an argument that erstwhile Tea Partiers should be able to buy into.  All of us would benefit from life in a social democracy.  Europeans might pay higher taxes, but these are more than off-set by cheap where not free higher education, free healthcare, good infrastructure, and better working conditions.  These social provisions and institutions introduce a degree of stability over an individual’s life which is simply not present in the United States.  Social democracy might be brought about by increasing revenue, but I suspect that in the context of a regulated market it also helps to bring down costs by removing the incentives that exist in immoral market economies for healthcare providers, to take one example, to deliberately inflate the costs of goods and services.

So while the centrist commentariat might see Warren as introducing division into politics, I see her narrative as actually offering a vision which is much more unifying than anything coming out of the right wing of the Democratic Party or the GOP.  Students of all classes would, after all, benefit from just loan rates.  Anyone who is not attempting economic robbery would stand to gain from tougher regulation designed to protect the middle and working classes.  A majority of citizens in the U.S. would profit from a fairer distribution of wealth and equitable access to services. 

Legislators in D.C. obsess about compromise, partly because of the structural demands of an undemocratic Senate.  But too many of the deals they hammer out are either bad at face value, or contain some kind of ticking time bomb which paves the way for further profiteering, exploitation, and inequality down the road.  Warren represents a commendably uncompromising voice from the left, and her words illustrate not only the hollowness of the Democratic party’s creed, but the moral bankruptcy of a Republican Party which for too long has been able to build a base in the very working and middle classes that its corporate paymasters exploit.

When faced with an impassive wall of indifference, progressives have circumvented established parties in the past to drive political and economic reform, forcing those parties to change direction in order to survive.  We can do it again today if we choose.  Although they would hate to admit it, the Democratic Party needs Elizabeth Warren more than she needs the party.

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