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Heather Digby Parton
Heather Digby Parton
Heather Digby Parton writes the liberal political blog Hullabaloo.
A voice of reason amid the madness
Elizabeth Warren, a US Senate candidate, has a way of speaking about progressive values that makes people listen.
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2011 16:53
More than 40 per cent of employed Americans are working in the typically low-paying service industry [GALLO/GETTY]

"I hear all this, 'well, this is class warfare, this is whatever'. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear:

You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

- Elizabeth Warren

With those words, Elizabeth Warren cemented her reputation as a person who knows how to speak to Americans about progressive values in a way that seems to have eluded almost every other public figure in America. There's just something about the way she talks in plain prairie English that makes people listen - and scares even the most hardened businessman and compromised politician into paying attention.

Now she's declared her candidacy in Massachusetts, hoping to parlay that ability into a seat in the most powerful big money club in America, the US Senate, and make them listen too.

Her pitch is a modern day populism, aimed at the struggling middle class, the people who are dazed and confused by 30 years of conservative cant and free market policy that hasn't worked for them as its been put into practice. She's refined a story line about how this happened that's both erudite and approachable, using her own history and scholarly work to weave a narrative about America's economic crisis that speaks to people's yearning to understand what happened - and feel some optimism that it can be turned around.

Warren likes to tell the story of her grandmother as a way of illustrating what the conservatives think of as the "good old days" were really like (before Franklin Roosevelt turned America into a socialist paradise). She tells the tale of a young woman driving a covered wagon with her younger brothers and sisters all the way to to Oklahoma during the land rush to meet their father, who had staked out a parcel for the family.

She married and she and her husband built one-room schoolhouses and modest homes, and as Warren calls it, "stretched and scratched" to succeed, only to have it all wiped out in one of the many busts of the early 20th century.

So they started all over and built their lives up once more only to lose it all again in the Great Depression. That's how it was in America in the good old days, boom and bust, no security, no solid middle class, no upward mobility for those who lose on the downside of the cycle.

She points out that it was three specific laws that came out of the Great Depression that changed all of that and set the stage for the longest run of uninterrupted prosperity in the nation's history: FDIC Insurance, Glass-Steagel and the SEC.

Full blown unraveling

When government regulations erode, productivity and wages begin their great divergence [GALLO/GETTY]

And she points out that when those regulations began to erode, productivity and wages started their great divergence and the middle class began to fray around the edges. By 2011, that fraying has become a full blown unraveling. Here are just a few random statistics compiled by businessinsider.com:

- 61 per cent of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 per cent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007

- 66 per cent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1 per cent of Americans

- 43 per cent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement

- 24 per cent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age

- Only the top 5 per cent of US households earned enough to match the rise in housing costs since 1975

- In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1; since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 and 500 to 1

- The bottom 50 per cent of income earners in the US now collectively own less than 1 per cent of the nation's wealth

- More than 40 per cent of Americans who are actually employed are now working in service jobs, which are often low paying.

You can google dozens of similar statistics from sources all over the political spectrum. Until very recently, politicians in both parties have been very slow to address this problem beyond the early inadequate stimulus programme, instead spending months drawing up plans for further "shared sacrifice" on the part of the people, only stopping to argue about whether the rich should be required to kick in some insubstantial tip money or nothing at all.

In the midst of that mess, Elizabeth Warren has arisen as an unlikely lone voice speaking out on behalf of the shrinking and increasingly desperate American middle class, first fighting against an army of financial lobbyists to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and now as a candidate for the US Senate.

There was a lot of chatter among the political insiders about her day job as an academic being a huge liability and pedictably, her opponent Scott Brown ostentatiously refers to her as a "Harvard professor".

Warren responded by pointing out that she's proud of her job and worked hard to get there, but says, "I wasn't born at Harvard." She then tells the story of her lower middle class roots in Oklahoma in words that evoke the struggle of many millions of Americans today:

"I grew up hanging on to the edge of the middle class by my fingernails ..."

"My family lived one pink slip, one bad diagnosis away from falling off the economic cliff..."

"I've been there ..." 

If there is one thing people consistently say about her it's that despite her lofty academic position, she seems almost preternaturally real. Political pros were also concerned that her lack of name recognition and political experience would be hard to overcome, especially in light of the fact that her opponent, incumbent Scott Brown, seemed to be reasonably popular.

Chills down their little pin-striped spines

But in one week, Warren vaulted beyond all other aspiring Democratic candidates to a 46 point lead in the primary. And to the shock of just about every political observer in the nation, she also beat Brown in the first polling done since June, erasing a 15 point deficit to take a 46-44 point lead.

Nonetheless, Brown is a formidable opponent around whom the Republican party is rapidly coalescing despite his occasional deviation from the Tea Party approved line. If there was any thought to launching a primary against him, it seems to have vanished. 

However, according to the New York Times' most recent poll, people who identify themselves as Tea Party members are more likely to vote for someone they believe is electable than one who hews to their so-called principles, so perhaps this isn't surprising.

Still, Massachusetts is a Democratic state and if Warren can maintain the current enthusiasm among the voters, she could win. And that will mean far more than just another Senate seat for the Democrats. It will mean that one of the highest profile enemies of the moneyed elite in America was able to get elected by the people with a populist message.

"You built a factory and it turned into something terrific? ... part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along."

- Elizabeth Warren

In times like these that sends a chill down their little pin-striped spines.

They aren't going to make it easy. It goes without saying that huge sums of money will be deployed to stop her. The Republican party will pull out all its dark oppo magic to try and sully her reputation and sadly, the mainstream press will launder their dirty work for them as they obligingly did this week by ginning up a psuedo-scandal about her salary when working for the government on the CPFB. (Evidently, one had to cross reference a couple of different reports to find out that she made the astonishing sum of 64,000 dollars over the course of 2009 and 2010)

The election is over a year away and there's no way of knowing how well Warren will fare over the long haul. Electoral politics is a very tough business and none are tougher than Massachusetts.

But Warren's message is a potent one, expressing progressive values in terms that are almost intoxicating to the base of the Democratic Party, hungry as they are for someone to take up the cause of the American middle class, workers and families who are being unbearably squeezed and yet asked to give even more - even as the wealthy fatuously declare themselves to be "job creators" and therefore absolved of any duty to pay their fair share.

Warren ended the comments I quoted at the beginning with these words:

"Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific? Or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

The last thirty years of free market fetishism and crony capitalism have perverted that bedrock American ideal to something twisted and perverse. Warren is clearing out the cobwebs for a lot of people and giving them a different way of thinking about this problem.

Win or lose the Senate seat, she is doing a service to the country by having the guts to face down the powerful and say what needs to be said. And it's inspiring progressives all over the country, including, some say, the president himself.

Heather Digby Parton writes the liberal political blog Hullabaloo. You can read her blog here.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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