If you watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you know he’s been hard on Democrats since the 2014 midterms with pieces like “Obama and the Pussy’crats.” It cleverly lays out the fundamental frustration progressives have with Obama and the Democratic Party in general: they’re too timid to speak up for what they really believe in the face of elections. This weakness among Democrats is a common critique of the party and one the GOP has exploited over the past decade and a half by running on more united and streamlined platforms (though their message has become much more fractured in recent years).
At the turn of the 20th century, machine politics and the spoils system dominated public life. White conservatives ran unopposed in the south with single party domination. Republicans and Democrats gerrymandered into safe congressional districts and city wards ruled Congress and city halls unthreatened by public disgust. A small number of large organizations squeezed out competition and dominated banking, energy, and journalism. Voters eager for reform swung wildly from Democrat to Republican back to Democrat in statewide and national elections, looking for something other than what was available. Can you imagine such a scene today? Their answer, the tonic for their political delirium, was a reform movement championed by an unlikely elitist, who always needed a villain to be on the receiving end of his unquenchable energy.
Ideas we currently associate with the Democratic Party, specifically progressivism, were widely supported by politicians of the time. Theodore Roosevelt’s name became synonymous with progressivism as he broke from conservatives in his Republican Party, dividing large corporate trusts and speaking for the everyman. He successfully negotiated on behalf of anthracite coal miners in 1902 and passed legislation decreasing shipping rates by railroad for merchants. In sum, Roosevelt came to believe that the government should serve as a counterweight to large corporate interests, looking out for those who don’t have the leverage to do so themselves. This philosophy, articulated in his Square Deal proposals, benefited the lives of America’s growing middle class over an entrenched plutocracy, which made it a philosophy worth fighting for.
In recent years, however, pundits like Glenn Beck have retooled progressives and progressivism into terms synonymous with foolishness and stupidity. As Stewart points out, Democratic lawmakers, including Obama, further degrade the term by shunning their own legislative accomplishments in the face of the 2014 mid-term elections. So with such a noble example in our past, I’m left with the question, why has progressivism become such a dirty word in the current political environment?
There’s at least one former Republican turned Democrat who isn’t afraid to identify herself as a TR-era progressive and she’s exactly what reformists crave. Elizabeth Warren’s middle class message has been getting louder over the past two years; she stumped the battleground states railing against Wal-Mart for its “low wages and terrible employment practices,” writes Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger.
Standing up to the interests of large corporations like Wal-Mart defines Warren’s career. After attending law school in the mid-1970s she began teaching bankruptcy law at universities across the US. Together with Theresa Sullivan, current UVA President, she wrote As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America in the mid-1980’s, which focused on America’s increasing coziness with debt and its undermining of the middle class. Their thesis at the time seemed completely foreign in light of America’s economic prosperity, but seems all too familiar today.
The ideas formulated in her writing would later shape her role as a policy maker. Warren first served on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission in the Clinton Administration then later on a congressional oversight committee supervising the 2008 bailouts. Her frustration with the growing political influence of banks in Washington became the impetus for her Senate run in 2012.
As the junior Massachusetts senator she began making a name for herself as a politician by taking the banking industry head on over issues like student loan reform. She eloquently argued that at a time when student loan rates were doubling from 3.4% to 6.8%, banks enjoyed loan rates from the Federal Reserve Bank less than 1%. This observation later became the basis for her first piece of legislation as a senator.
Working to improve the lives of the middle class by taking on corporate welfare shapes her policy views on a variety of other issues including heath care, housing, and America’s energy future. Stumping for Mark Udall in Colorado, Warren said in October, “Republicans believe this country should work for those who are rich, those who are powerful, those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. I will tell you we can whimper about it, we can whine about it, or we can fight back.”
In spite of Warren’s meteoric rise within the progressive arm of the Democratic party, she maintains she has little to no interest in a presidential run in 2016, opting to complete her full term as senator instead. Yet, modern day progressives continue to crave old-school voices unafraid to speak out against large corporate interests for middle class Americans. Regardless of her presidential bid, Elizabeth Warren’s message has become the coxswain of modern progressivism; expect this message to shape the Democratic primaries leading up to 2016 whether she’s on the ballot or not.