Elizabeth Warren is affiliated with the Democratic Party of the United States and is the current senator of the state of Massachusetts. Prior to her political career, she was a prominent academic — teaching law at several prestigious universities such as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Her great interest in bankruptcy and corruption began in the late 80’s when her and two other colleagues began to investigate why more Americans were going bankrupt. Her experience in this study accompanied with her failure to prevent the passage of an act, in 2005, which forced debtors to continue to pay the courts regardless if they did not have assets to liquidate sculpted her as a Democrat and a champion for the end of government corruption (Wallace-Wells, 2019, paragraph 11). In early February of 2019, Warren announced her candidacy for the 2020 Presidential elections. With her inclusion in the Presidential election came about critics of her being a left-wing populist. In this blog post, I intend to define the term populist and explain the various reasons as to why senator Warren should be considered a populist herself.
Before classifying senator Warren as a populist I must first briefly define the term populism. The overall accepted definition for populism is that it “is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people (Mudde, 2004, p. 543).
One of the reasons that make Warren a populist is her attempt to portray herself as part of a silent majority, in this case being part of the abandoned industrial workers of the Midwest. Warren first attempts to establish this connection by announcing her candidacy for presidency at an old mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts — the setting for the Bread and Rose strike in 1912, which was a strike composed of immigrant workers combating shorter working hours for women and additional pay cuts for all workers.(Brannon, 2019, paragraph 1). This is a perfect allegory for her presidential campaign against the political elite. To solidify this connection, when performing rallies in the Midwest Warren’s focus is not so much about her political policies as they are of her rural childhood in Oklahoma (Wallace-Wells, 2019, paragraph 6). In her story, Warren explains how she recalls her mother nervously pacing around the house saying, “we will not lose this home”, before attending an interview for a minimum-wage job. This story is the resemblance of the terrible economic hardships that surely many industrial workers in the Midwest are facing today. By sharing her story, Warren affirms to the industrial workers that, in fact, she is one of ‘them’ and truly understands what they are experiencing. To finish the story, Warren agrees that it is a story about the determination of the common people, but highlights that it in reality it is about the failure of government (Wallace-Wells, 2019, paragraph 6). All in all, the result of this is a political candidate that shares a personal experience with the objective of relating with their perceived electorate, in order to blame the institutions of government and illustrate themselves as their prime exponent because they have experienced what the electorate is going through.
If Warren’s attempt to resonate with the “common people” then surely her aggressive anti-elitist rhetoric provides proof of her populist character. Since the beginning of her campaign, due to her expertise in credit debt, Warren has been an outspoken critic of corruption in the United States. Unlike many politicians which are usually more passive on the topic, Warren takes a direct approach and exclusively blames the government for the inequality present in the United States (Wallace-Wells, 2019, paragraph 3). In fact, when talking about the families that have fallen through the financial cracks of the United States, Warren says:
These aren’t cracks that families are falling into: they are traps America’s middle class is under attack. How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice. They crippled unions so no one could stop them. They dismantled the financial rules meant to keep us safe after the Great Depression, and they cut their own taxes so they paid less than their secretaries and janitors. Our government is supposed to work for all of us, but instead it has become a tool for the wealthy and well-connected. (Cassidy, 2019, paragraph 8)
Furthermore, at a speech in the National Press Club Warren states, “Our government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate, and we need to call this what it is—corruption, plain and simple” (Wallace-Wells, 2019, paragraph 2). These public and deliberate harsh allegations towards the U.S government further instills anti-elitist rage amongst the electorate, specifically her followers, and delegitimizes government. Warren, by only faulting government corruption for financial inequalities and not stressing other factors such as globalization creates polarization amongst the electorate. The result is a situation of duality in which an “us” vs. “them” scenario occurs, where the ‘cheated’ working middle-class is the “us” and the government and corporate elites are the “them”. In effect, like all populists, Warren uses this polarization to create a moral justification for her to condemn corruption in the U.S government and position herself as the protector of the common people’s interest.
Ultimately, senator Elizabeth Warren is a left-wing populist due to her unreserved anti-elitist sentiment that with her unchecked criticism of government creates an “us” vs. “them” situation, in which she pins the American middle-class against the government elites. In addition, she tries to resemble with the middle-class by trying to prove that she understands their experiences and, for that reason, is the ideal candidate to help them solve their problems. Lastly, she uses the economic inequalities present in the United States as leverage in order to provide herself and the electorate a moral justification to battle the “corrupt” government elites.