Politics

What Kind of Populist Is Elizabeth Warren?

Six months ago, with the 2020 Presidential race barely within view, Elizabeth Warren mentioned a new political theme on which she intended to concentrate. Opposing corruption, she told a reporter, “is becoming a much more defining part of my work.”

Corruption has a common-sense definition, one that is quite stark: “The seizure of governmental authority by special interests at the expense of the general welfare,” as Richard L. McCormick, a historian of political corruption in America and a former president of Rutgers University, put it to me this week. By early fall, when Warren introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act in the Senate, she seemed to have something broader in mind. In a speech at the National Press Club, Warren said, “Our government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate, and we need to call this what it is—corruption, plain and simple.”

Populists, even radical populists, often deploy the passive voice, speaking of inequality or a rigged game. Warren’s talk about corruption was bracing and direct. Someone was to blame. At the National Press Club, Warren mentioned Mick Mulvaney, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who is now the acting White House chief of staff. Warren said, “After he left Congress, Mulvaney told a roomful of bankers that he had a rule in his office: if a lobbyist didn’t give him money, the lobbyist didn’t get a meeting.”

Warren went on to tell the story of Billy Tauzin, the former Republican congressman from Louisiana. From within Congress, Tauzin helped to engineer the passage of Medicare Part D, which authorized the government to pay more than a hundred billion dollars in prescription-drug costs. He then got hired to lead the pharmaceutical lobby in Washington. “Billy delivered,” Warren said. She continued, “Sometimes the payoff comes upfront. Goldman Sachs handed Gary Cohn over a quarter of a billion dollars on his way out the door to become the head of President Trump’s National Economic Council. A quarter of a billion dollars to help quarterback a tax package that included giveaways worth just over a quarter of a billion to Goldman—in the first quarter of 2018 alone.” The Trump Administration, Warren said, “has given us the most nakedly corrupt leadership this nation has seen in our lifetimes. But they are not the cause of the rot—they’re just the biggest, stinkiest example of it.” She had recently introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill to reform the largest American companies, in part by requiring that forty per cent of the seats on their boards of directors be selected by employees. In business, as in government, she had noticed “a pervasive culture of soft corruption that colors virtually every important decision in Washington.”

From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, Richard McCormick, the historian, noted, anti-corruption was a theme of every major political movement. During the financial crisis of 2008, it returned, with the Occupy movement, and, during the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s swamp and Bernie Sanders’s rigged game rapidly brought it to the center of American political life. Warren, a Harvard bankruptcy scholar and the engineer of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has the habits and authority of an expert; even so, for her, the idea of corruption seems to hold broad explanatory power. Last Wednesday, appearing on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Warren mentioned the word “corruption” or alluded to it seven times. When asked how she saw the President, Warren replied, “I see him as what happens when corruption invades a system.” Two days later, when she arrived in Iowa to advance her case for the Presidency, she also seemed to introduce a new approach to American populism.

Warren’s tour of Iowa last weekend began in Council Bluffs, just across the Missouri River from William Jennings Bryan’s old political base, in Nebraska. The crowd was overflowing, as it would be at her other events, and she mentioned the President only in passing. Warren dwelled instead on her childhood, in Oklahoma, not poor but not steady either, and the moment when she saw her mother, past fifty and a lifelong homemaker, pacing her bedroom, her one fancy dress laid out on the bed, preparing for an interview for a minimum-wage job and repeating to herself, “We will not lose this house.” She got the job, minimum wage was enough, and the house was saved. Warren said that she had long understood this as a story about the tenacity of ordinary people but had come to see that it was a story about government, about what it had once made possible.

The popular take on Warren when she began her political career was that she was awkward on stage, uncomfortable with the performative parts of the job. The solution turned out to be projecting grit, wielding her awkwardness as a signal of her determination. Her stage presence is full of punctuations: the left fist thrust upward, the ostentatious “woo-hoo!” While the Sanders and Trump campaigns shared a certain shagginess, a Warren event is a clockwork operation. The candidate arrives and leaves as scheduled. Her Presidential stump speech, which she débuted, in Iowa, this week, lands at fifteen minutes, with only a few seconds of variation. The biographical section, with which she opens, takes almost exactly five minutes. A staffer or friend, pulling ticket numbers from a bucket, selects audience members to ask questions. After each event, there was a line to take a selfie with the senator, at the end of which you handed your phone to an aide, who passed it to a second aide, who held it over her head and snapped a half-dozen photos before handing it to a third aide, who gave it back to you. The Warren campaign is a populist undertaking, in that it seeks to organize rage at Washington and the elites, but it does so with expert efficiency.

A woman of about sixty, with long hair and a slightly ethereal bearing, had her number called, and she walked up to the microphone and read her question from a phone. Her name was Catherine Nicholson, and she said that, even though she is a conservative, she supports Warren, whose advocacy on behalf of families she admires. Her son had recently died of brain cancer, at twenty-two, and the event had sharpened her sense of the frustrations of the health-care system. The atmosphere between the two women was inexplicably tense. “Catherine and I know one another,” Warren said. Nicholson, it turned out, had been a student and research assistant of Warren’s, at the University of Texas School of Law, and later worked for her, before converting to Catholicism and homeschooling her children. Nicholson kept going. In “this part of the country,” she said, too many people who might otherwise find Warren appealing would write her off because she was pro-choice. (Nicholson had a point: last May, Iowa’s governor had signed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the nation, the so-called fetal-heartbeat law.) Nicholson urged her old professor to rethink her position on abortion, suggesting that it might win her the support of conservatives. There was a quiet moment, and then Warren said, to a burst of applause, that “the role of government is to back out” and allow women the right to choose.

I found Nicholson after the event. She said that, of course, she hadn’t really expected Warren to become pro-life, but that “any sensitivity would be most welcome.” Nicholson is now a caregiver for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s; she spends her days listening to Fox News, her mother’s preference, and her nights speaking with friends. Some of them have dismissed Warren with one word, “Pocahontas,” and Nicholson urges them to take another view. She seemed to have in mind the person she had known, rather than the more partisan figure on the stage in Council Bluffs. When Warren was asked, by a reporter, how she might appeal to Trump voters in Iowa, she said evenly that she was not a professional politician. She mentioned that, of her three ex-military brothers, just one was a Democrat, and she let that hang in the air. Nicholson had wondered, in part, how the cultural gap between her old friend and her new ones could be bridged. But conservatives seemed far from Warren’s mind.

The word “corruption” rarely appears in Warren’s academic work, but the seed of the idea is present there. The work that made Warren famous began at the outset of the Reagan era, when she and two colleagues at the University of Texas—the demographer Theresa Sullivan, who would become the president of the University of Virginia, and the Texas law professor Jay Westbrook—decided to study why more Americans seemed to be going bankrupt. The use of credit cards had exploded, and mortgages had grown more complex, and the line from politicians and the financial industry was that Americans had become imprudent, taking on more debt to buy more things than they could really afford. Warren, Sullivan, and Westbrook spent years travelling to bankruptcy courts across the country to retrieve case records. They found, Westbrook told me, “files filled with these agonizing letters. ‘This is so embarrassing.’ ‘I’m so upset.’ ‘I hate myself.’ ” The vast majority of the “bankrupts” turned out to be middle-class people who were victims of health-care calamities or job loss.

I asked Westbrook whether, as young law professors, they had understood the credit industry to be corrupt. He said it took them a while to come to this conclusion. In 1995, when Congress was considering a revision to the bankruptcy code, Warren, then at the University of Pennsylvania, was appointed to assemble an expert analysis on bankruptcy. But the process was usurped by the credit-card industry, which drafted a bill that eventually became the core of a law, signed by President Bush, in 2005. Among other provisions, it held that debtors are required to continue to pay the courts even if they have no assets to liquidate. “The tide of blame-the-unlucky combined with relentless lobbying and campaign contributions finally overwhelmed Congress,” Warren wrote of this experience. She had become a Democrat by then, and a credit-debt expert, both in Washington and on “Dr. Phil,” where she talked about the “tricks and traps” by which the credit industry manipulates its customers. When the housing bubble burst, in 2008, it had some of the same dynamics that she, Westbrook, and Sullivan had pinpointed almost thirty years before.

The morning after the Council Bluffs event, Warren spoke to another big crowd, in the restored atrium of a theatre in downtown Sioux City, and then travelled to the small meatpacking town of Storm Lake. There was a minor disruption outside that event: a single anti-Warren protester, an older man in a motorcycle jacket, got into a confrontation with someone in the long line awaiting Warren, and had hit the person with a selfie stick. (He was quickly arrested.) I found myself standing outside of the event with Art Cullen, a lanky newspaperman in his sixties with a wispy salt-and-pepper mustache. Cullen, the editor of a twice-weekly paper called the Storm Lake Times, won a Pulitzer Prize, in 2017, for editorials attacking secret payments from the agriculture industry to Iowa county governments. Cullen had a short audience with Warren, during which she described the themes of his book back to him. “Mind like a steel trap,” Cullen said.

Cullen’s account of the decline of rural western Iowa turned out to have quite a bit in common with Warren’s, in that his neighbors had felt the effects of corporate influence and consolidation but had not been able to do much about it. Cullen grew up in Storm Lake, and he started out as a reporter in Iowa during the farm crisis of the nineteen-eighties, when credit was stretched and there was a spate of farmers committing suicide by hanging themselves in barns. The meatpacking industry, which dominates Storm Lake, had consolidated, and the local union collapsed. The pork farms were taken over by mass producers. The hog, Cullen said, had once been called the “mortgage-lifter” for Iowa farmers, but “there just aren’t any independent pork producers left.” Corn farmers, in an international market, were chasing unsustainable yields, and so they pumped their ground full of chemicals and sent the runoff into the Raccoon River. “The farmers I know know that is giving them M.S. and Lou Gehrig’s disease, but there is no way out of it that they can see,” Cullen said.

Meanwhile, Storm Lake, in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, had sent the notorious racist Steve King to Congress and helped elect Trump. Cullen insisted that the people of the district weren’t racist—seventy-five per cent of its voters, he said, citing polling by the Des Moines Register, supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, and the numbers were higher for Dreamers. The problem, he said, was that they had been presented with the wrong kind of populist. King’s message, Cullen said, is “ ‘I’m here fighting against S.F. and N.Y. and all the centers of power that have been fucking you over for the last a hundred and fifty years.’ Even though he doesn’t do anything about that.”

Art Cullen’s story of what had happened to his hometown echoed Warren’s story of what had happened to the country in many ways—rural Iowa, in his telling, had itself been transformed for the worse by unchecked capitalism. Part of what has distinguished Warren’s story is that it has a different frame of reference, in which politics is not an argument over the cultural aftermath of the sixties but over the influence won by wealth in the eighties, which from certain vantage points—the consumer-bankruptcy courts, Art Cullen’s Storm Lake—can seem the only American story worth telling.


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