With around 250 in attendance, the event room at Civic Hall is packed. I’m actually part of the overflow, watching Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig’s presentation on massive closed-circuit TVs in the foyer, in merciful proximity to the hors d’oeuvres and wine (an unostentatious but delicious spread, including good cheese and reasonably priced champagne).
The breathless cadence of a TED Talk is unmistakable, and Lessig’s impassioned case for Elizabeth Warren is fraught with urgency. There is no mention of electoral strategy or political details, but the presentation is highly visual, with a powerpoint on the monitors behind him that opens with a clear blue sky and rolling clouds. It looks a desktop wallpaper for Windows 98. Words and phrases flash on the monitors behind him for emphasis--”standup,” “most powerful” and “brand,” to name a few, while Lessig expounds on inequality, money in politics and the forgettable neologism, “Tweedism,” a reference to Boss Tweed’s manipulation of politics. To his credit, his jokes get laughs.
Lessig’s emphatic-but-never-antagonistic oratory stylings were in fact forged in the fires of TED, an origin betrayed by an overly-earnest tone, an unchallenging vocabulary and an anti-elitist denunciation of “wonks.” “It is a moral challenge, not a nerd’s challenge,” he proclaims--a strange sentiment at an event in celebration of Elizabeth Warren, a brilliantly wonky nerd herself. As a legal activist Lessig first made his name fighting onerous copyright law and co-founding Creative Commons, a groundbreaking open-source initiative that allows users to license and share media. In 2007 he switched gears, refocusing on “money in politics”--campaign finance and corporate lobbying.
Before Lessig spoke, it was Van Jones at the lectern, emphasizing how Warren would ameliorate the primaries by sharpening her opponents. “She would improve the country just by being in the debates! You don’t debate Elizabeth Warren without eating your Wheaties!” he proclaims, and I can’t help but reminisce on his political journey. It's an age-old story. One minute you're a simple Maoist Third-Worldist, dutifully recording every minute of your 18-person organization (for revolutionary posterity), the next you're a disgraced environmental czar. Eventually, though, you find your home, carrying water for truant politicians and posing for photos at the White House Correspondents Dinner with a jowly, starched golem of bad ideas and his strange bird-wife.
Before Jones, Zephyr Teachout spoke. She’s charming, and taking a much more optimistic view, she skipped over the primaries entirely, instead envisioning aloud all the promise of a Warren presidency. We need Warren “so we can free our politicians from the cages that they are trapped in now--cages built by their donors.”
The poor dears.
The atmosphere was warm and positive--very positive for a pressure campaign held in absentia for someone who has, in no uncertain terms, refused to run. Adding to the confusion is Lessig and Warren’s barely mentioned collegial friendship and political collaborations. The two have been featured at the same speaking event as recently as 2013. So, where is Gatsby?
Warren’s advocates appear undisturbed by her absence, and while the applause sometimes vacillates in enthusiasm, there are clearly some die-hard Warrenites in the crowd. Even the less expressive audience members--a group that ranges from chic to dapper to even a little crunchy--at least look genuinely hopeful, and it’s not as if there’s no institutional support for a Warren run. Backed by MoveOn.org and the Howard Dean founded PAC called Democracy for America, Run Warren Run aims to “draft Elizabeth Warren to run in the 2016 presidential race.” The Working Families Party has also called on Warren to run, and scores of Op-Eds cry out for her bid, but what has inspired her fan base to such quixotic loyalty?
The substance of Elizabeth Warren’s political rhetoric is dominated by banks and corporations--obvious and odious targets, to be sure. She speaks positively, but vaguely about labor unions. In 2013 she advocated for a minimum wage increase to $10 an hour over the course of two years--tragically modest in the time of Fight for $15. She’s helped make some mild reforms to student debt, but nothing so great as to be noticeable for a young person debilitated by loans. She’s made no great stink about socialized health care or higher education. Aside from financial regulation, it’s actually quite unclear what a Warren presidential program would be (again, especially since she’s decided not to run).
In face, in the same interview with Fortune where she said she’d not be running for president, she made her No. 1 priority perfectly clear:
“Guess who my favorite President is."
"Correct. Teddy. He was the trust buster.”
So Warren wants to take on the banks--fantastic. But so did slave-baron Andrew Jackson, one of the most bloodthirsty architects of indigenous genocide (a fact of which I’m sure Warren is aware). Lessig likens Warren to FDR--the most gracious of compliments for any Democrat--but Warren’s talking point is not the revitalized welfare state bolstered by heavy public investment. Anyone looking for a New New Deal would find her pronouncements both meek and mild, and it’s not as if there’s no prominent alternative.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a longtime, fairly involved member of Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that’s been pushing hard for a Bernie Sanders run. Though I personally haven’t endorsed Sanders in any formal or informal capacity, I wanted to ask the Warren enthusiasts: why not Bernie?
The crunchy contingency seemed to be the most likely Sanders fans, but I found them remarkably difficult to track down. (I assume they skipped mingling at the after party in order to render maple syrup or make their own Chapstick from beeswax or something). Regardless, more than one person quietly admitted to me that they found Sanders a more substantive candidate, but that they still felt Warren was a better star on which to hitch their wagons. A few said that Warren is more “presidential” than Sanders, “on a personal level.” I suppose by this they mean Warren has that sweet face and a neutral accent that belies her Harvard pedigree, while Bernie’s a confrontational and obvious Brooklyn Jew currently residing over the People’s Republic of Vermont. So sure--it’s possible that Warren reads less “foreign” to Middle Americans, but I’m not convinced Sanders is so off-putting. If anything, it’s just as likely that “Real Americans” would respect an assertive righteousness in a politician. And who isn’t charmed by a furious filibuster?
Democrats might also prefer Warren to Sanders because feel they need a woman candidate to invigorate progressives. It’s true that certain high-profile feminists have sworn to vote for Hillary--even if she’s not the most feminist candidate--but this is hardly a sentiment shared by most women, or even most feminists. The credibility of representational identity politics has also taken a pretty hard blow after our last two elections; Barack Obama has not yielded material gains for black Americans, because like wealth, power does not trickle down.
This did not stop Lessig from fawning over Hillary during his talk. He even felt compelled to say, “to be pro-Warren is not to be anti-Clinton,” as if the presidency is no longer a zero-sum game, and we will be given the option of an electoral limbo--a “Schrödinger's Vote,” if you will. (Since there can only be one president, should not voters be at least a bit sectarian about their candidates?) Before (finally) arriving at the conclusion that Warren is the woman of the hour, Lessig praised Clinton’s qualifications, mentioning that she aided his uncle in prosecuting Nixon (rock-solid ethics, that one). He describes her as a “Job-like” victim of sexism--but what of we feminists who hate Hillary for the right reasons? Is the sisterhood too tenuous for the grim-faced scrutiny of actual politics?
As the night wound down and the after-party thinned, I was introduced to Ben Yee, vice president of Young Democrats of America. He’s tall, boyishly handsome and ebulliently friendly--especially for New York. Highly animated, he speaks rapidly, while the rest of us succumb to wine-induced lassitude. “I want to start a hashtag,” he declares through a 100-watt grin, ”No #CoronationNation!” It’s clever, really--a simple denunciation of the dynastic precedent that a Hillary win would fortify. When I am introduced as a socialist, he is amused, but unphased, and says with a sympathetic shrug and even more amplified smile, “Oh yeah? I’m a Democrat because we only have two options.”
Normally I’d be insulted, being implicitly accused of Utopian idealism by a guy campaigning for an unwilling candidate, but Yee’s so unpretentious, I just shrug and smile right back.
As you may have guessed, I don’t find the case for a President Warren to be a particularly ambitious one, nor do I find the likelihood of her running a campaign particularly promising, but I don’t really think her advocates do either--aside from perhaps the delightfully tipsy Eastern European woman I ran into in the the elevator. This doesn’t mean there is nothing strategic about public support for Warren. A stylish event organizer actually described the night as “screwing with the Democratic party,” and from a left-of-Hillary perspective, there is value in anything that might push Democrats toward a more radical platform. (It's even possible that Warren already haunts Clinton’s campaign, a chipper apparition of financial regulation; the very next day saw Clinton’s people branding her in a way some felt portrayed her as “the original Elizabeth Warren.”)
Fighting for a legitimate (and therefore competitive) primary means fighting the intimidating Clinton political machine, and it’s heartening to see people actively resisting Hillary fatalism, even if it’s for Warren. Hopefully the Warrenites will become just as enthusiastic about debunking the two-party system boogeymen as they are about their presidential Godot; Nader was not actually a “spoiler,” and we cannot let our fear of a paleoconservative Supreme Court Justice produce a paralyzed, deterministic politics--there’s nothing that says we can’t change the Supreme Court.
It is early, and we are not doomed to a “coronation nation.” I don’t believe a “good president” is any substitute for mass politics or a strong labor movement, but I really do believe we can do better than Hillary, and that we can find a challenger better than Warren.
At the very least, I think we can find someone actually willing to run.