Elizabeth warren official portrait 114th congress1

Warren is still left’s best bet

Elizabeth Warren has faded lately in the polls, but she still offers the best model of progressive change for Democrats.

By Peter McDermott

In the category of Oldie but Goodie, Netflix live-steamed in 2019 “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Directed by Martin Scorsese, this 1974 feature is about as far as you can get from his gangster-themed films. For “Alice” think Elizabeth Warren, while “Goodfellas” brings to mind Donald Trump and his administration.

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At the beginning of the movie Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is a woman in New Mexico in a difficult relationship with her truck driver husband. When he dies in a road accident at work, she sets out with their 12-year-old son for her hometown of Monterey, Calif., hoping to resume the singing career she gave up upon marriage. She works as a lounge singer in Phoenix and later as a waitress in Tucson, and she tentatively finds love with a divorced rancher David (Kris Kristofferson),

It’s true that Scorsese’s central characters here are more blue-collar than the politicians cited. And none has had hundreds of millions of dollars funneled to them by parents, by fair means and otherwise, as in the case of Trump.

Warren was born into a Republican family in Oklahoma City (and her older brothers who served in the military are still GOP voters and she was registered as such for years). But her father, a flight instructor with the U.S. army and later a salesman, had a heart attack when she was 12 and the family struggled for years with medical bills and other financial issues. At 19, the former Elizabeth Herring dropped out of college to marry Jim Warren, an IBM employee. That was in 1968. She did, however, resume her studies and for years she balanced those with being a stay-at-home mom and sometimes with being a paid employee. A New Yorker profile reported last summer that after her first marriage ended in the late 1970s, “Warren would have given up on her career if her aunt Bee hadn’t flown in [to New Jersey] from Oklahoma City to help out.”

Warren’s is a great American’s success story. I won’t summarize her extraordinary resume here, but suffice to say that with intelligence, courage and hard work she has broken most of the glass ceilings she’s come up against so far.

Even her showing in the Iowa Democratic caucuses should have been notched up as a relative success, but Bernie Sanders was perceived to have won an unofficial progressive primary, one that gave him momentum going into New Hampshire. In some countries, however, Sanders’s Iowa result would be reported as 26.5 percent of the popular vote, with the next column reporting “- 25.1%” (from 2016), whereas Warren’s would be 20.2 percent with the next column as “+ 20.2%”.

Conservative incumbency historically has had the effect of suppressing progressive confidence; still, the resistance to Trump has helped mobilize the opposition generally. Both factors were seen in the New Hampshire Democratic primary where there was a 20 percent increase in turnout; but Bernie’s support dropped from 60.14 percent in 2016 to 25.6 percent this time and Warren got a disappointing 9.2 percent.

Polls additionally showed that 50 percent of Democrats were worried that Sanders was too liberal to be the standard bearer in November and 40 percent felt the same about Warren.

One can understand the stakes involved in winning or not winning in terms of an electoral contest and getting momentum; but Sanders taking New Hampshire with the smallest percentage of the popular vote ever is hardly a harbinger of great social change. One couldn’t be very comfortable anyway with the idea of “the most” being enough to win or award momentum in the absence of a proper run-off.

The “most” is so often not enough, as we saw in the French presidential election of 2017. In the Socialist primary, a very commendable and impressive candidate, Benoît Hamon, emerged victorious from a second round of voting in January. He hoped this was the first phase of his campaign to succeed party colleague Francois Hollande in the Élysée Palace. But he slumped badly with 6.4 percent in the first round of the presidential election itself, whereas leftist defector Jean-Luc Mélenchon came fourth with 19.6 percent and centrist defector from the same party Emmanuel Macron was in first place with 24 percent. Macron won the run-off against the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, 66.1 percent to 33.9. That presidential cycle in France just about sums up the electoral fragmentation and volatility that we’ve been experiencing in Western democracies of late.

In this regard former Governor Michael O’Malley, an also-ran in the 2016 primaries, said earlier this month that Sanders “has I believe demonstrated his inability to forge a governing consensus, let alone hold a governing consensus.” And it certainly seems that some of the Vermont senator’s most ardent supporters view the primaries almost as a civilizational battle, with some of them denouncing the perfidy that is “incrementalism.” Against that and in a plea for greater cooperation between the party’s different strands of opinion, veteran Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has recently invoked Democratic Socialist of America founder Michael Harrington’s phrase “visionary gradualism.”

Another left-wing Democrat of Irish Catholic heritage Pete Hamill wrote about the perceptible lurch to the right in his 1969 article for New York magazine, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class.” It was read with considerable interest in the Nixon White House. Hamill had worried about the increasing “alienation and paranoia” among the people he’d grown up with and Nixon’s strategists saw opportunity in the defection of so many white ethnics from the Democratic Party.

That moment is the starting point for Joan Walsh’s part-memoir, part-political commentary “What’s the Matter with White People?” She told the Echo in 2012 that in the late 1960s “even Bobby [Kennedy] was saying ‘we might have to give up on the unions because they’re too pro-war and anti-civil rights.’”

Future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote to him saying: “Bobby, don't turn your back on your people.”

Kennedy’s friend Hamill (he was by his side at the moment of his assassination) had no answers other than listening. And that, Walsh believes, was the correct approach. The Democrats, she said, might have heard more clearly that there was a “misconception about who is getting help and how much help they’re getting.”

The CNN analyst and writer for the Nation added that the Democrats “didn’t spend that much time helping them, and the government did spend a lot more time making rich people rich no matter who is in power.”

In 2020, Warren listened — particularly about people’s concerns that the health-care reforms being proposed were perhaps too far ahead and too fast for some voters. But her putting brakes on was seen as a stumble, one that handed an advantage to her fellow progressive Sanders and her more moderate colleagues to the right. Ultimately, though, the Massachusetts senator’s tack to Harrington’s visionary gradualism will be seen as the correct move for the party long-term.

Warren is a fighter and thus still viable. It might be as a “unity” candidate, or maybe as a vice-presidential pick. She’s certainly electable; so are Sanders, Bloomberg and the rest. And any of those who dropped out could take Trump on a good day. Where one might have to disagree with Bernie is the optimistic idea that the “energy and excitement” generated by his campaign will be enough to win in November.