Yesterday was a strong day for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for President. Having received the Working Families Party endorsement for her candidacy, Warren proceeded to deliver a blockbuster speech before a packed crowd (estimates reach 20,000) in Washington Square Park in New York City.
In the press release announcing the endorsement, Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell stated that: “We’re lucky to have two strong progressive candidates leading in this race. Senator Warren and Senator Sanders have both shaped the ideological terrain on which this campaign is being waged. They have proven an effective team on debate stages and in the polls, and we hope that partnership continues. We’re proud to call both of them allies in the fight for a more just America.” This seems right to me. And it seems wrong to me that some Sanders supporters on the left are now disparaging the Working Families Party — the same party that was eagerly embraced when it endorsed Sanders in 2016 — because of its endorsement of Warren. It would appear that it is difficult for some to believe that some people might honestly prefer Warren to Sanders, and others might simply believe that what was true in 2016 is not true in 2020, a very different presidential race, and a different kind of candidate best suits the present.
A few days ago the editors of Jacobin declared that “Elizabeth Warren is Thirty Years Too Late.” Warren’s speech, introduced to a rousing crowd by Maurice Mitchell, indicated that the Jacobin headline was perhaps at least a few days premature. For the Warren campaign is very much present and energized, and Warren’s speech demonstrated why she is both a compelling candidate and one who is only beginning to hit her stride (in contrast to Sanders, who seems to be to topping out).
Warren both began and ended her speech with the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, which took place within a block of Washington Square. The deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, the fire killed 146 garment workers and, by symbolizing the awful injustices of unregulated capitalism, it sparked worker activism that led to important workplace health and safety legislation, and major reforms of labor law, at the local, state, and national levels. Warren spoke powerfully about the fire and about the struggles of the labor movement to remedy the injustice that it represented. In narrating this historical episode, and in linking it to a range of current issues, Warren made clear that the plight of working people, working families, and especially working women, is central to her campaign.
This centrality cannot be doubted by anyone who has paid attention to Warren’s very public career over the past 20 years. At the same time, Warren is admittedly not a socialist and surely not a Marxist–something that some in the left decry — and her rhetoric is not the rhetoric of “class struggle.” And what was most brilliant about her speech was the way that it linked questions of class, and corporate power, and justice broadly, to questions of citizenship.
Warren’s speech was a bravura performance of the rhetoric of radical civic republicanism that has played such an important role in the history of democratization in the U.S., whether in connection with abolitionism, female suffrage, the labor movement, or the civil rights movement — all movements to which she appealed in the speech.
Warren’s speech centered on the theme of “corruption.” In doing so, it also centered on the importance of civic equality, the antithesis of corruption, in every domain. Warren talked about worker health and safety, a living wage, civil rights, criminal justice, public education, environmental stewardship, the historical injustices associated with racism, and the need to close the pay gap for women of color. And she linked these themes to public financing of political campaigns, and strict limits on lobbying, and efforts to end the corporate capture of regulatory agencies. The Warren campaign has released an elaborate plan to end corruption and create a more transparent and responsive government. But what was most notable about her speech was not the policy detail but the overall theme linking together a wide range of concerns and policies: “democracy is not for sale.”
Warren closed her speech by returning to the Triangle fire, this time narrating it as a story about Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire, became a leading activist for workplace safety and labor law reform, and eventually was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, a position in which she served for 12 years. Perkins, in Warren’s telling, “had a plan.” She was “One very persistent woman . . . backed up by millions of people across the country . . . ” And she was above all a savvy politician who understood how to get things done, working the system from the inside in response to concerted pressure being exerted by trade union activists from the outside.
The parallel could not be lost on listeners. Warren was promising just this: to draw energy from social movements pressing for a renewal of American democracy and an expansion of public policies to address the felt needs of ordinary citizens, and to represent these movements and these concerns at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
This was a very powerful speech, designed by Warren to articulate a compelling vision for a broad left, and clearly to differentiate herself from Trump, from Biden and also, gracefully, from Sanders. I believe it is a more compelling vision than Sanders’s class-based and emphatically socialist vision (though it is important to note, as John Nichols does in his excellent The S Word, that socialist discourse, in conjunction with civic republicanism, has played an important role at key moments in U.S. history). How compelling it will be remains to be seen. But what is beyond doubt is that Warren is deliberately situating herself within an established discourse of civic republicanism that has deep roots in U.S. history and has the potential to resonate widely among Americans horrified by Trump, demoralized by Biden, and looking to support a Democratic presidential candidate who speaks to them about justice and democracy in a language with which they are more or less habitually familiar and thus can easily understand. Warren comes by this language honestly. She knows that if she is the nominee she will be red-baited by the Republicans every bit as much as Sanders. This does not stop her from saying what she thinks, or from believing that her way of speaking about the challenges of this moment in American history can resonate with a broad majority of voters.
The contest for the Democratic nomination just got a lot more interesting.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. From 2009-2017 he served as Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, which he branded “A Political Science Public Sphere.” In 2017 he was awarded the American Political Science Association’s Frank J. Goodnow Award for “public service” in the profession for the work he did on the journal along with his excellent staff and editorial board.