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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

One Way to Tell Elizabeth Warren's Story

[This began at a Facebook comment Monday morning, and now it's a Politico article. The version below is the one I wrote before it was edited down. One way or another, I hope someone gets it to Warren's hands, because I'd like to believe she might this helpful, or at least food for thought.]

Elizabeth Warren’s formal announcement last Saturday that she was running for President of the United States was not, if the world of online activists was any indication, accompanied by an excited rush of progressive speculation. Not that there was a complete absence of such–that was hardly the case. Warren has long had her fans, and campaign consultants, strategic advisors, and fund-raisers on both sides of the political aisle see her as a serious, credible candidate for the highest office in the land. But the overarching narrative of her announcement, the feel it had as the news broke, was not what some once imagined it would be.

Part of this is simply that times change. Warren’s 2014 book A Fighting Chance fervently attacked the rising inequality that, by the end of Obama’s time in office, increasing numbers of Democrats were being forced to admit their president had done little to alleviate, and made her–someone whose ideas were central to Dodd-Frank, one of the very few financial reforms Washington passed in the wake of the Great Recession–the de facto star of what was called, just four years ago, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” Paul Krugman ruefully admired her “enlightened populism”; she was labeled “the most recognizable leader of a resurgent progressive movement” by The New York Review of Books, and compared to Louis Brandeis in The New Yorker. But that was then. Today, it is failed (and maybe once-again) presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, not former President Obama, whom most Democratic presidential aspirants are modeling themselves after, and proposals for Medicare-for-All, minimum wage hikes, and wealth taxes abound among the declared nominees. That’s not to say that Warren’s mix of serious wonkery and "save-capitalism-from-the-oligarchs" ideology wouldn’t be able to distinguish itself from the positions staked out by Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, or anyone else; it probably could. But at the very least, like Sanders himself, she now finds herself occupying some very contested space.

But for all that, the real reason for the perceived lack of mojo for Warren among some of the loudest members of the activist left was the news, which broke just days before, that she had described herself as “American Indian” on her application to the Texas bar in 1986. This wasn’t a bombshell. It has long been known that Warren had for years, on and off, identified herself as Native American, in keeping with family legends about Cherokee and Delaware ancestors. Yet for some, actually seeing that seemingly bizarre claim in Warren’s own 32-year-old handwriting was the end of the line. In the middle of a desire to exorcize the Democratic Party’s racist past, as well as the need to find a presidential candidate whose mistakes won’t provide Trump with a ready-made script of mockery (one that, in Warren’s case, is already much-practiced by our president), more than a few Democrats seem prepared to declare her candidacy prematurely over. She’s damaged goods, this line of thinking goes, no matter how great her ideas are.

In response to this skepticism, some suggest that Warren’s best (and perhaps only) option is to stay away from her past and lock away her family stories, and instead focus her campaign entirely on her attacks on the 1 percent and her proposals for structural economic reforms. But there is, I think, a better alternative. It is risky, and the odds of Warren being able to pull it off are, I admit, not very good. But still, the rewards--both for her candidacy and, for those of us who mostly agree with her diagnosis of American capitalism in 2019, for the country--would be great. I think Elizabeth Warren, an intellectual white female lawyer, a bankruptcy expert and U.S. senator and an emeritus professor at the most prestigious university in America, should tie her Oklahoma history and her life story and her ideology all together. I think she should give her version of “The Speech.”

I refer, of course, to Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union,” the speech he gave in March 2008 when the Jeremiah Wright scandal threatened his run for the Democratic nomination. It was beautiful and audacious, a speech that talked about racial resentments and divisive Christian traditions and the mysteries of faith and the legacy of lynching and the burden of history and the idea of a national community that can include all of the above while still remaining whole. It is the speech more closely associated with his campaign and his vision of politics than any other, and more than a few believe he wouldn’t have been elected president without it. (I was personally blown away by it, as this blog post made clear.)

Now, I am pretty confident that Warren wouldn’t be able give a speech that good. She doesn’t have Obama’s rhetorical gifts, and the context from which she would give it—a 69-year-old white woman discussing her own ethnic appropriation, as opposed to a 47-year-old black man discussing his pastor’s anti-American language—isn’t nearly as open to charitable understanding. Still, it be worth it for her to try.

Why? Because while the story she could tell in such a speech would be even harder--because it would be more personal, more embarrassing, and more complicated--than the one Obama took on, it might, with the hindsight of the past decade, be an even truer one. It would be a story about economics and class as well as race. It would be about Warren growing up aspiring and ambitious in lower middle-class Oklahoma in the 1950s and 1960s. There she was, a smart young woman, a talker and a thinker, far from the easy routes to social acceptance and financial power, working from when she was 13 to help keep her family from falling into poverty. And it would be about--because it would have to be--how a resurgent Native American population unavoidably complicated the question of where an ambitious lower middle-class young white woman in the small city that was Oklahoma City in the early 1960s could socially find herself.

Seeing Warren, the daughter of white Oklahoma, alongside the assimilatory Indian termination policies imposed by the federal government during the years while she grew up would be educational in itself. Those policies led to the end of much of tribal sovereignty and the cutting of funds to reservations. They complemented the well-meant but deeply troubling Indian foster systems that numerous white churches (including my own) set up through these decades. And they helped to flood mostly white urban public schools with Native American children and teen-agers, most particularly in her own home state--Oklahoma having been born, after all, as essentially a glorified holding cell for tens of thousands of Native Americans defeated in America’s genocidal wars against them.Warren could use the speech to ask both herself and her audience: How would all that affect the way you might have received the (apparently mostly fictitious, but treasured all the same) stories of Native heritage which your beloved aunts passed down to you? And what might that history tell us about who was able to use the tools that postwar American capitalism provided to change their fortunes--and who wasn’t?

But that’s just the beginning. Because it’s also a story about growing up a somewhat liberated (going to law school while a young mother, and raising children as a single law professor after her divorce) but nonetheless mainstream Republican in the 1970s. It’s about finding success through that ethic, mastering the arcane topic of bankruptcy law and ambitiously job-hopping, building a new life for herself bit by bit. Yet during these same years, her party was rebuilt along small-government and Christian conservative lines--mostly, as an interesting parallel, by the descendants of white farmers who fled the bankruptcy, poverty, and near starvation they faced in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and built new lives for themselves in California, a generation before Warren was born.

This could be a striving middle-class story as rich as any John Updike novel. Someone from the edges of the establishment--an Okie, no less!--gets to the center, to the big cities of the East Coast, to Harvard Law School itself. No one could show that kind of determination without being willing to leave behind a lot. And yet, did she nonetheless feel kind of guilty (or maybe kind of defiant) about succeeding? Sometimes did she feel out of place in this social and economic and intellectual world, so very distinct from the one she sacrificed so much to escape from?The centers of elite academia are for the most part racially and economically homogeneous, nothing like the congenially low-rent, mixed-ethnicity, public school Oklahoma world Warren was born into. Once again, Warren could pose a crucial question about America to herself and her audience: What are the costs of an economy that rewards the strivers (sometimes, anyway), but also deepens the gaps between the lives they build and the lives of those they left behind?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren co-wrote two important academic books, As We Forgive Our Debtors and The Fragile Middle Class. Both showed in great detail how the loosening of banking regulations and the shift away from an industrial economy made consumer spending and debt central to middle-class life, and how damaging the effects of this change were to those who simply wanted to hold on to the sort of life which, 30 years before, Warren was raised to believe was expected. (The book she co-wrote with her daughter, The Two-Income Trap, makes this comparison even clearer.) All these writings were informed by Warren’s own choices, as well as by the shifting ground beneath others as they sought to follow a similar path. Which presents more hard, yet revealing, questions to ask and answer. How much did her obviously conflicted feelings about her Oklahoma (and, yes, her folkloric Native) heritage, about the distinctiveness of her early years and experiences, and about how (or if) she should express that in an environment filled with trust-fund children and Phillips Exeter or Deerfield graduates, play out in her mind? What did it have to do with her eyes being opened and seeing the real social and familial implications of the data she was researching? And finally, the real political heart of this exploration: how did her life and her life’s work combine to lead her to the political change she went through in the late 1990s?

The progressives of today--and Democrats in general, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat--have little interest in the politics of Clintonian triangulation. But Warren could take that era and present it as a turning point. It may be that this nearly 70-year-old woman, exactly because of where and when she came from, exactly because of the rungs of the ladders she clumsily (and, yes, in some cases wrongly) grabbed at and found comfort in as she moved upwards and away from where she started, was able to see what was wrong not just with the Republican Party she was leaving, but also with the Democratic Party she was joining. That was a Democratic Party which, for the most part, couldn’t present its ideals or its candidates without complicated and, in retrospect, often damaging compromises. Warren’s story could, perhaps, model a new path, in a way that Hillary Clinton’s story never fully could.

At least, that’s a story I imagine Warren might be able to tell. Many wouldn’t find it persuasive, and many others, even if they found it coherent and powerful, couldn’t accept Warren as the vehicle for it. But still, it’s the sort of story that, were it packaged into a campaign speech, could bring the dreams and resentments and hopes and fears of tens of millions of white American middle-class women along with it, exposing their concerns and desires to a probably discomforting light--but also, perhaps, casting them in a new one.

To be honest, I don’t expect this to happen. I expect, instead, that Warren will stick with bashing the billionaires. Heaven knows they deserve it! But if she never thinks enough about her own story, her own choices, and her own mistakes, in order to show us a way of seeing her, at this moment, as someone who could be president, and someone who could make the structural changes she’s promising personally meaningful—well, that would be a loss. Because in following her career, and her scholarship, and maybe most of all her embarrassing mis-steps, I’ve come to suspect that she really does have a story like this in her. My hope is that she, and her speechwriters, suspect she does too.

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