“I wrote this book out of gratitude. Gratitude to my mother and father, who worked hard all their lives, and who died with very little. But they died knowing that their four kids were doing better than they did. And to them, that made them a success. I wrote this book out of gratitude to an America that invested in kids, that invested in building a future, a future through education, through infrastructure, through research, through making those investments, through having a level playing field. And I wrote this book out of determination that we can build an America again that gives all our kids a fighting chance. For me, that’s what this is all about.”
Elizabeth Warren wrapped up the reading of her new book, A Fighting Chance, with these words at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles on Friday. This sense of gratitude runs throughout the book, not only for Warren herself, but also for those of us who feel Warren speaks on our behalf, because the reader can see all the switches where she could have been derailed. What if she had not received a full ride—including federal loans—to George Washington University? What if, after dropping out of GW to marry and still owing on those student loans, she couldn’t get forgiveness by completing her degree at University of Houston (at an affordable $50 per semester) and getting a job as a teacher? What if, during her first year of teaching, her Aunt Bee had not stepped in to provide child care for Warren’s two children?
The book is about Warren, and she stood alone on the stage Friday night, but her message is about us. Her vision of America is one that recognizes our interconnectedness, that can reward initiative and grit (which Warren has), but can also give a hand up so those not born into wealth can achieve, at the least, security, and at best, fulfillment. I got this chance, she is arguing, so why can’t every American have it, too?
Warren attributes her success to specific conditions available while she was growing up, but that are no longer available to working families in the U.S.—for example, a minimum wage that was also a living wage. In response to the question, “How do we get the minimum wage increase passed?” she replied: “This one is personal for me. My mother worked a minimum wage job in the sixties, when in the sixties, working full-time minimum wage supported a family of three. By the nineties, it supported a family of two; today, it will not support a mother and a baby to keep them out of poverty.” She noted that 14 million children would be lifted from poverty if the minimum wage was raised to at least $10.10/hour, then asked, “What kind of America says no to that?” “That’s right!” said a man behind me.
The minimum wage is the perfect case for Warren’s central argument: “We have a government in Washington that is not working for us. A government that is causing more and more tilt in the playing field, a tilt against regular families, a tilt against working people, a tilt against the future for our children.” After all, three-quarters of Americans are in favor of an increase in the minimum wage, but it can’t get past the Senate, much less the House. And Warren is blunt about why: “Washington works really well for those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. For everybody else? Not so much.”
The original title of Warren’s book was Rigged, and while she changed the title of the book, she hasn’t given up on it as a theme: “The game is rigged, it is rigged, so that the rich and powerful can take care of themselves, and Washington is not looking out for much of anyone else.”
Warren’s policy proposals—raising the minimum wage, lowering interest rates on student loans—do not tackle the rigged system head on, although she did confess that, to counteract Citizens United, “I think we’re going to have to move towards a Constitutional Amendment.” The Democrats are already going forward on federal student loans, and on the Tuesday before this event, Warren had introduced a bill to lower the interest rates to below 4 percent, which would be offset by implementing the Buffet Rule, increasing taxes on the top 0.3 percent.
If some of these policies sound familiar, it’s because they also comprise the Democrats’ “Fair Shot Agenda,” a slate of proposals intended to draw a sharp distinction between Democrats and Republicans during this midterm election season. (Oddly, Warren didn’t mention another component of the Agenda that undoubtedly concerns much of her base: pay equity.) So it’s unsurprising that Warren’s language throughout the book and in her reading sounds a lot like campaign speech, a quality that fuels continued speculation that Warren is considering a run for president in 2016.
Whether or not Warren is campaigning for herself is still being debated. (She says no.) Crystal clear, however, is her call to action. “We have got to do these things from the outside. How do we do it from the outside? They’ve got money and power, what we’ve got on our side is our voices and our votes. And if we don’t make them count, then shame on us.”
Towards the end of chapter 3 in the book, reflecting on her time on the Congressional Oversight Panel, Warren writes, “I … learned an essential truth: When you have no power, go public—really public. The public is where the real power is.” Warren has plainly decided to take the fight to overturn the current power dynamics in Washington to the public. She is trying to make a distinction between “Washington,” shorthand for the current state of politics, and “government,” which, she argues, can be a force for fairness, equity, and community. “We have to be willing to make a defense for government. Now, does government get everything right? No. Should government have a limited role? Yes. But there are things that only government can do…. [It helps] us make the investments together that none of us can make alone… Government is just us. It is us. And if it’s bad, it’s because we made it bad, and it’s our responsibility to make it good. That’s what we have to do.”
I’m ready, I have been ready, to sign up, as are many progressives. There was just one troubling moment during the Q and A that could indicate a snag in the Senator’s strategy.
Before the start, ushers invited audience members to submit questions to the Senator on index cards. After her talk, Warren was able to answer nine of them, including one submitted by my friend and assistant for the evening: “Issues of inequity have a major impact on communities of color, yet most of the people sitting here today are white. How can we better engage communities of color in the discussion?”
Warren began her response with, “I want to do a little bit about wealth in America. We had a long period in American history of redlining…. The consequences of that are huge, and they echo through the economy and through generations because for America’s working families, for America’s middle class, being able to buy a home has been our principle saving device.”
Her answer wended through the ways home ownership facilitates saving, paying for college, retirement, and passing down wealth through generations, then described how, when banks could sell subprime mortgages, they sold them disproportionately to African-American families. Now that solid credit is required for a mortgage, however, the total number of African-American families able to get a mortgage last year was a dismal 16,000.
Her reply culminated, a bit bizarrely, in an impassioned defense of regulation. “We have to be honest about what it means when we don’t have regulators that hold large financial institutions to account and don’t enforce rules about equal credit opportunity, who don’t enforce rules to make sure that everybody is playing on a level playing field. No wonder there are people who feel disengaged from this process, because they have been shut out repeatedly.”
This is important information to have, and I understand why regulation is vital, but it’s hardly a rallying cry for communities of color. She insists that African-American families getting shut out of home ownership are problems for “all of us,” but the “us” reveals a subtle but profound divide. Warren doesn’t yet grasp how people of color uniquely experience inequality and frustration with the political process, perhaps because her grandchildren of color are still quite young.
Strangely, her answer seemed to address half a question I had submitted in the same bundle with my friends’, which was, “Can you talk about how growing inequality specifically affects communities of color and LGBT communities?” As a queer woman of color, I had a personal investment in this question, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was passed over because the Senator wasn’t quite prepared for the second half. And yet, it presented a golden opportunity for Warren to bring up pay equity, as women in same-sex relationships are doubly disadvantaged, and many of them are also raising children.
I share most, if not all, of Warren’s concerns, but I know that the kind of change she envisions will not get done without the support of people of color and other marginalized communities. Republicans know this, too, which is why they have been mobilizing to enact restrictive laws to further obstruct people of color (as well as women and trans folk) from voting. If all we have left is our votes, then Republicans will do their utmost to strip us of those as well. Warren, or her allies, need to work fast to enlist our communities in this cause.
To make this happen, Warren needs to consider the idea of an interconnected, interdependent America with an identity politics lens. She wants us to look honestly at the havoc that large, unregulated financial institutions played with our economy and our democracy, but in turn, she needs to look beyond the bare facts of how financial and political inequality play out in communities of color, LGBT communities, and immigrant communities. Identity divisions have been deployed to thwart the same populist messages she is trying to deliver today, and Republicans will try to use them again to alienate voters and keep them from the polls. But at the same time, the histories that underlie identity politics are real, potent, and relevant, and she needs to confront them head-on in order to genuinely connect with these communities and make the issues at stake resonate with them.
Warren speaks only the truth when she says, “This is the fight of our lives. This is the fight that will measure who we are.” Our nation has arrived at a crossroads. Can the many pull together to displace the few? Senator Warren is banking on it.
Anoosh Jorjorian is a freelance writer, a blogger, and a mother of two. She blogs on parenting and politics at ArañaMama.com. She has also published with Salon.com, AlterNet, Racialicious, and Black Girl Dangerous. Tweet her @aranamama.