Despite not winning anything approaching a mandate, all signs point to a Trump Administration and GOP that will attempt to ram their reactionary, unpopular agendas through Congress and fill Supreme Court vacancies with Scalia-like “Constitutional conservatives” at the first opportunity. Although Donald Trump, as is his wont, has sucked up most of the media oxygen, he is not the only threat. House Speaker Paul Ryan is determined to dismantle the welfare state by both taking an ax to domestic discretionary spending and “”reforming (read: privatizing) such beloved entitlements as Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.
Against this bleak backdrop, what progressive has the status, the institutional clout and political talent to stand athwart history and yell, “Stop?” What progressive can accomplish the dual imperatives of uniting the Democratic Party and holding the GOP accountable for its dangerous and unpopular policies? For now, at least, the answer is Elizabeth Warren. Before the Democratic primary, this would have been a no-brainer. At a time when the now-exalted name “Bernie Sanders” didn’t register far beyond Vermont and Marxist bookstores, Elizabeth Warren was the undisputed champion of the left, not only calling out Republicans, but shooting down Obama administration appointments she rightfully viewed as too cozy with Wall Street (remember would-be Treasury Secretary Antonio Weiss?). She disappointed some progressives when she opted not to run for president in 2016 and disappointed many more when she remained neutral in the Democratic Primary instead of endorsing ostensible fellow traveler Senator Bernie Sanders. By the same token, many Clintonites felt that Warren was insufficiently loyal to their candidate.
Despite some light criticism from the Sanders and Clinton camps, Warren boasts a 57% approval rating as of September 2016, making her one of the nation’s 25 top senators. More importantly, whether through design, circumstance or something in between, Warren has positioned herself as a bridge between the Democratic Party’s disparate factions. She is a plausible leader of a broad-tent party that includes such ideologically diverse politicians as Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard and, of course, technically independent Bernie Sanders. How Warren chooses to leverage her position may well help to determine whether the Democratic Party emerges from 2016 as a strong opposition party with a unified voice or a fragmented mess of aggrieved interest groups.
The role of diplomat might not come naturally to Warren. Up until now, she has been at her best when on the attack; witness her evisceration of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf or her memorable Twitter takedowns of Donald Trump. However, even Warren’s most caustic rhetoric has a certain unifying quality. Her broadsides double as forceful, unapologetic articulations of progressive values. She roots her critiques in such universal concepts as basic fairness and common sense. Thus, Warren coaxes the Overton window left without her audience even realizing what she’s up to. Her words seem straightforward, but are in fact subtle and subversive, upending years of conservative dominance of the public discourse.
Particularly impressive, in the context of the Democratic Party, is Warren’s seemingly effortless ability to balance identity politics and economic populism. Although decidedly more of an economic populist than a “social justice warrior,” Warren has repeatedly demonstrated that she can address identity politics in a way that feels honest and authentic without losing sight of a broader populist message. In her first speech following Donald Trump’s victory, Warren articulated both the need to defend against bigotry and promote economic solutions for all Americans. Tellingly, she condemned the latter not just as a symptom of economic injustice or class conflict, but rather, as a distinct phenomenon in and of itself. Following her assurance that she recognized the unique challenges faced by marginalized groups, Warren deftly pivoted to economic populism.
The American people sent one more message, as well. Economic reform requires political reform. Why has the federal government worked so long only for those at the top? The answer is money – and they want this system changed. The American people are sick of politicians wallowing in campaign contributions and dark money. They are revolted by influence peddling by wealthy people and giant corporations.
Of course, a party leader’s message isn’t everything; they can have all the right rhetoric, yet lack credibility to effectively mobilize supporters in and outside of government. Warren’s willingness to “play the game” opens her up to criticism that she has been compromised by the system. This way of looking at politics – applying litmus tests and elevating necessary compromises to the level of ideological heresy – is flawed and myopic. This stance, if undertaken with the enthusiasm of Jill Stein, may well exile the left to the political desert for a generation. As long as progressives maintain their core principles, the left should not condemn them for working within institutions. A look at Warren’s record should dispel any notion that she has “sold out.” First of all, it’s hard to question the progressive credentials of someone who created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In the years since, Warren has been no less of a dedicated progressive warrior, in the trenches unapologetically fighting an uphill battle for Wall Street regulation, strongly defending Medicare and Medicaid from GOP cuts, finding innovative ways to maintain fiduciary standards imperiled by Trump, and championing legislative assistance for victims of the Boston marathon bombings. She has taken actions, large and small, in line with the very priorities that the left claims to value. Without her tireless work from, yes, within “the system,” programs dear to progressive would be in greater danger, fewer protections would exist for consumers and Wall Street regulations would be even more toothless. If Warren is good enough for Bernie Sanders (the two often work together, most recently in backing Keith Ellison for DNC Chair), she should be good enough for the left. If anything, she should be lauded, not attacked, for proving that it is possible to play a constructive role in Washington while adhering to progressive principles.
Regardless of the precise role she plays in the Democratic Party moving forward, one thing is for sure: Elizabeth Warren will have her voice, a singularly potent progressive instrument with the capacity to cut through the Washington noise and punch Americans in the gut. And she will use it to keep the focus on Wall Street malfeasance and the dangers of the Trump-Ryan agenda. What remains to be seen is whether that same voice can calm and soothe tensions in a Democratic Party poised to fly apart under the stresses of competing visions and priorities. Warren can articulate a vision of progressivism as not just about activism for the sake of activism, purity for the sake of purity. Rather, in her formulation, progressivism channels grassroots energy to compel institutional changes for the benefit of the people.
A left that deliberately shuns participation in an imperfect system may think it is sending a message, but it is a message that few, especially those directly imperiled by a Trump-Pence Administration, will hear or appreciate. Devoid of the capacity to help real people and solve real problems, the left devolves into an insular movement full of sound and fury that signifies nothing but self-righteousness. And it is easy to be self-righteous and irrelevant. The left and progressives must not fall into this trap. Elizabeth Warren, through her words and example, embodies the importance of working within institutions in general and the Democratic Party in particular as a necessary condition for progressive reform, even when neither political party perfectly aligns with the purity of an activist’s most heartfelt principles.