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Commentary Politics

Elizabeth Warren Understands Political Power. And She Intends to Use It.

Jodi Jacobson

Elizabeth Warren came to San Francisco. But she didn't come to play. She came to fight.

Elizabeth Warren came to San Francisco to speak at the California Democratic Party State Convention.

But she didn’t come to play.

She came, she said, to fight. For big ideas. For systemic change. For democracy. For the people.

In a speech to a raucous and welcoming packed hall on the home turf of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Warren’s fellow presidential contender California Senator Kamala Harris, the Massachusetts senator threw down the gauntlet. She boldly made the case that structural inequality and concentration of power are corrupting our democracy, preventing us from solving virtually every problem we now face. She argued strenuously that “beating Trump is not enough.”

“We need to win up and down the ticket everywhere,” Warren declared. “To do that, we need to show what it means to be a Democrat.”

Warren’s vision of what “it means to be a Democrat” might best be summed up in her call to “Dream big. Fight hard.” She’s not running on any single issue. She’s running on all of them. She’s running, she told Rachel Maddow earlier this year, on the question of “how do we think government should work, and who do we think government should work for?”

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“In our country,” Warren said, “if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to be able to take care of yourself and the people you love. That’s a fundamental premise of the American promise. That should be true for everyone. I’ve spent my career getting to the bottom of why America’s promise works for some families, but others who work just as hard slip through the cracks into disaster and what I found is terrifying. These aren’t cracks that families are falling into, they are traps. America’s middle class is under attack.”

“I want to be in this fight because this is, in my view, the fundamental question that faces our country,” Warren told Maddow. “Washington is working great … fabulously! … for the wealthy and the well connected. They have bought the government they want; they have bought the rules that they want.”

“I think,” she continued, “that Washington ought to work for everybody else. We’re talking about a system that is fundamentally corrupt. That the money that flows through Washington is how it is that this whole system just stays rigged. And the folks at the top? Doing great! And everybody else just sliding further and further [into the trap].”

Warren has focused on the “trap” throughout her career. “For decades, the entire structure of our system has favored the rich and powerful,” Warren told the California convention delegates. “Pick any issue you care about and it’s painfully obvious,” she said, listing tax loopholes that favor the richest people and the biggest corporations; lax environmental oversight giving polluters free reign over the environment; the racial wealth gap and intergenerational poverty that prevents families from accumulating wealth and passing it on to their children. Meanwhile, Warren said, “gun violence, healthcare, and housing costs are piling up around us.”

“These are enormous problems,” Warren said. “But they are all connected to one thing: power that is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and well-connected who help themselves at the expense of everyone else.”

If Warren’s platform seems audacious, it is only in relation to the lack of leadership evinced by a Democratic Party that has fallen into a decades-long pattern of governing by half- and quarter-measures, and, sometimes, not governing at all. The majority of elected Democrats appear to be mesmerized by the idea of “centrism” (whatever that really means), by fear of wielding power, and by their own deep ties to the corporations and the wealthy donors that have captured Washington writ large. As a result, we are all being driven further and further into an ultimately inescapable trap set by fascist right-wing forces that ignore facts and science, respect no norms or laws, and are openly racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and misogynistic. It’s only in comparison to the passivity of current Democratic party leadership that Warren’s desire to fight, to pull us all upright and push us forward, may appear to be … well, radical.

In her speech, Warren also unapologetically called out Democratic leadership for this timidity. “Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream at all, they dream small. Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses.”
 
“But our country is in a time of crisis,” Warren said. “The time for small ideas is over.” 

“Here’s the thing,” Warren continued, “when a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible, about how political calculations come first, about how you should settle for little bits and pieces instead of real change, they’re telling you something very important: They are telling you that they will not fight for you.”

“Not me. I’m here to fight.”

“Big problems call for big solutions. If we are going to save our democracy… build an inclusive economy… clean up the corruption in Washington, we need big, structural changes,” Warren said. “And yes, I have a plan for that.” 

And if Warren seems fearless, it is because from all evidence she is. In Pelosi’s backyard, she took on Democratic leadership. In San Francisco, the home of Big Tech, Warren’s campaign put up a prominently displayed billboard calling for the breakup of the biggest technology companies. In a state dominated by “Big Ag,” she called for the breakup of Big Ag because “consolidation is choking family farms.” She is authentically who she is and always has been.

“When I am president,” Warren promised: “We will pass the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate.  We will end lobbying as we know it.  And we will make everyone who runs for federal office post their tax returns online. We will break up Big Ag. We will break up big banks. We will break up big tech. We will make it easier for workers to join a union. And yes, we will pass a wealth tax. That’s 2 cents on the dollar for people with fortunes worth more than 50 million dollars. That’s the top one-tenth of one percent. They can afford two cents!”

While several of her male counterparts in the race for the Democratic nomination—former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg—each received fawning coverage from the national press corps for simply launching campaigns built on platitudes, not platforms, Warren is persistently criss-crossing the country and rolling out specific plans that, while not all perfect, provide people with a concrete sense of what her fight will look like. And in doing so, she is drawing larger and larger crowds and moving upward in national polls.

The night before the convention, for example, an estimated 6,500 people came to an outside rally at Laney College in Oakland. The rally, slated for 7:30 pm, was still underway after midnight as Warren stayed to answer questions and take photos. In Iowa last week, Warren spoke to overflow crowds wherever she went.

“When I lead the Democratic Party,” Warren told convention delegates, “we will not be a party that nibbles around the edges. Our Democratic Party will be a party of bold, structural change.”

Such change “doesn’t happen on its own,” she said. “We dream big and we fight hard. Because the rich and powerful aren’t giving up anything without a fight.”

As she campaigns, Warren will almost certainly face pushback from other powerful Democrats for her critiques of their lack of leadership. To realize her vision, she will need to invest further in the progressive movement and bring along many constituencies that have been conditioned for a long time to stay in that safe, mythical center lane. She will need to focus on helping elect fearless partners in both the House and the Senate. And she will need to rally people to stay engaged in the democratic process long after the votes for president are cast.

These are not easy tasks. But as we already know, Elizabeth Warren persists.

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