The word on Elizabeth Warren — the Democratic Massachusetts senator who fomented the opposition recently to a rollback of financial regulations in the bill funding the government — is that she’s the left’s answer to shut-’em-down Ted Cruz. In a perceptive column in the Washington Post, my colleague Dana Milbank concluded that Warren is more like former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, the Republican ideologue who left his elective office to better lead the far right to glory.
But these assessments miss one crucial difference between Warren and the right-wingers: She has crossover appeal. More important, so does Warrenism.
Cruz and DeMint can claim no allies within what remains of moderate Republican ranks. Warren’s war on Wall Street, by contrast, has enlisted colleagues on the right flank of the Democratic Party.
Although 20 Democratic senators joined Warren in voting against the funding bill as a way to protest its allowing publicly insured banks to trade risky derivatives, five colleagues joined her in the more emphatic gesture of voting against the cloture motion that brought the bill to a vote. They were three staunch progressives — Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Minnesota’s Al Franken and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders (an independent) — and two senators generally considered among the party’s more conservative lawmakers: West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.
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By the metric of social issues, the “more conservative” label fits those two. Unlike his Democratic colleagues, Manchin voted Monday against confirming Vivek Murthy as surgeon general to register his displeasure with Murthy’s advocacy of stricter gun control, a position that runs counter not just to Manchin’s beliefs but also to those of his West Virginia constituents. But when it came to rescinding regulations on Wall Street, Manchin and McCaskill were among Warren’s firmest allies.
At a time when Democrats are still dissecting the double disaster of last month’s midterm elections — losing working-class whites to Republicans in record numbers, and failing to motivate sufficient numbers of young and minority voters, the party’s base, to go to the polls — the Warren-Manchin concord suggests that there’s a way to reassemble the elusive emerging Democratic majority. Manchin represents the state with one of the nation’s highest share of working-class whites. Economic populism is alive and well in such states, as evidenced by the enthusiastic receptions that Warren received when she campaigned in the fall for Senate candidates in Southern states.
The breadth of support for the populist critique of the American economy is apparent in a range of surveys. In a Washington Post/ABC poll conducted just before the midterms, 71 percent of Americans said that our economic system generally favors the wealthy — a figure that included 59 percent of conservatives and 56 percent of Republicans. Andrew Levison’s book The White Working Class Today includes an analysis of a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center showing that 54 percent of working-class whites “strongly” believed that “corporations make too much profit,” while just 28 percent believed that those profits were “fair and reasonable.” By a margin of better than 2 to 1, those respondents also said that Wall Street hurts the economy more than it helps it.
The critiques and policies that Warren advances resonate with a far wider segment of the public, and more particularly the potential Democratic electorate, than those equating her with Cruz would have us believe. Economic populism is not a niche ideology, and here’s why:
At the request of some trade union officials, the Economic Policy Institute recently conducted an unpublished analysis of research on the past 100 years of income tax data compiled by University of California at Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez. Looking at income growth (excluding government payments and benefits) from 1935 through 1980 — the years of the New Deal economy and high union membership — the institute found that the bottom 90 percent of households claimed 70 percent of the income growth. The 90th to 95th percentiles claimed 11 percent; the 95th to 99th, 12 percent; and the wealthiest 1 percent claimed 7 percent.
Looking at the United States we live in now, however — from 1997 through 2012 (the most recent period for which tax data are available) — the institute found that the 90th to 95th percentile claimed 9 percent of all income growth and that the 95th to 99th claimed 19 percent. The wealthiest 1 percent saw its share balloon to 72 percent.
Do the addition, and you’ll see that adds up to 100 percent. The bottom 90 percent of American households got none of the income growth of the past 15 years, as income from work declined and income from investment soared.
That’s why Warren has legs — and why Democrats need her brand of populism.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.
The Washington Post