Elizabeth Warren Showed How Democrats Can End Their Civil War

In a normal week, Elizabeth Warren’s speech at Netroots Nation last weekend would have driven several days’ worth of news and opinion pieces. Unfortunately, it was not a normal week: few weeks are in these days of Donald Trump and white supremacy marches.

The events in Charlottesville drowned out what should have been a dramatic turning point in the left’s ongoing feud between its liberal and progressive wings. Some writers and politicians (including yours truly) had been moving toward a similar unifying principle in recent weeks, in which each faction came to a greater respect and understanding of the concerns of the other side. But Elizabeth Warren provided the essential roadmap.

It didn’t wholly escape notice: the New York Times wrote up a piece on it, as did CNN and many other media outlets. Unfortunately, however, most of these publications framed Warren’s speech as a broadside on one side of the divide, when in reality it was a message of unification.

The key to ending the war between the sides, ironically, isn’t to widen the tent but rather to narrow it in selecting acceptable candidates. Social liberals worry that Sanders-aligned progressives are willing to sacrifice civil rights around race and gender in the service of economic goals. Democratic socialists counter that Democrats have sold them out on corporate and Wall Street issues for the last several decades, and worry that basing an electoral coalition on minorities and wealthy educated urban liberals will result in a lack of action on wealth inequality and corporate consolidation. The answer, as Warren says and as I wrote two weeks ago, is for both sides to reassure the other that each side’s priorities will be taken seriously:

But here’s what’s interesting: instead of lots of lots of ferocious back-and- forth and piling on, this time, no one cared. Big yawn. Why? Because the Democratic Party isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill. It is NOT going to happen.

We’re not going back to the days of being lukewarm on choice.

We’re not going back to the days when universal health care was something Democrats talked about on the campaign trail but were too chicken to fight for after they got elected.

And we’re not going back to the days when a Democrat who wanted to run for a seat in Washington first had to grovel on Wall Street.

This includes understanding that there is no contradiction between winning back some of the white working class that defected to Trump, and achieving social justice on the issues of important to Black Lives Matter activists:

wilderness and lead our country out of this dark time, then we can’t waste energy arguing about whose issue matters most or who in our alliance should be voted off the island.

We need to see each other’s fights as our own. And I believe we can.

In the wake of the last election, I’ve heard people say we need to decide whether we’re the party of the white working class or the party of Black Lives Matter.

I say we can care about a dad who’s worried that his kid will have to move away from their factory town to find good work – and we can care about a mom who’s worried that her kid will get shot during a traffic stop.

The way I see it, those two parents have something deep down in common—the system is rigged against both of them—and against their kids.

The war within the left is based on false choices and straw men. There is no need for conflict if both sides are acting in good faith. Leftists who dismiss “identity politics” as an irrelevant distraction need to be sidelined, as they are not dependable allies of the Democratic Party’s true base. Center-leftists who eschew economic populism and worker empowerment in defense of the Wall Street-dependent donor class in the dream of an identity-blind faux meritocracy of oppression must also be sidelined.

Both the newly disempowered and the long-disempowered in American society need to credibly see themselves as part of the Democratic coalition.

The balance of power is shifting in other parts of our economy, too. In industry after industry – airlines, banking, health care, agriculture, tech – a handful of corporate giants control more and more and more. The big guys are locking out smaller, newer competitors. They are crushing innovation. Even if you don’t see the gears turning, this massive consolidation means prices go up and quality goes down for everything from air travel to broadband service. Rural America is left behind, dismissed by corporate giants as fly-over country.

This concentration of power strikes at the heart of our democracy. Our government is supposed to be the one place where everybody gets the same fair shot, no matter how powerful or powerless they might be. But thanks to the revolving door between Capitol Hill, K Street and Wall Street, powerful people have more and more influence in Congress. Thanks to Citizens United, corporate money slithers through Washington like a snake. Washington works great for the rich and powerful, but for everyone else, not so much.

Yes, the system is rigged – and if you don’t feel like anyone in politics is doing anything to un-rig it, well, that’s how a lot of folks who should have been with us last November wound up voting for Donald Trump.

For many Americans, it isn’t news that the balance of power in our country has seriously tilted away from them. African Americans. LGBTQ Americans. Immigrants. Muslims. Women. Poor people.

No, I have not personally experienced the fear, the oppression, and the pain that many of my fellow Americans endure every day. But I do know this: For a lot of our fellow citizens, the system is rigged now and it has been rigged for a long, long time.

Finally, it’s not just about whom Democrats include on the inside of the tent, but whom they fight against. As I wrote many months ago, one of the key mistakes of the Clinton campaign in 2016 was the failure to portray a compelling villain.

And, by the way: it’s time for us to up front about whose side we’re not on.

We’re not on the side of big Wall Street banks that break the law—we think everyone needs to be accountable. When bank CEOs break the law, they ought to go to jail just like everyone else.

We’re not on the side of the giant companies that want to twist government rules for themselves.

We’re going to slam shut that revolving door, and we say enough is enough with corporate money that is drowning our democracy.

We’re not on the side of the bigots and the misogynists – and unlike the so-called Republican “leadership” in Washington, we’re not afraid to say it to their faces.

And we’re not on the side of foreign governments that hack our elections or politicians whose fragile egos put our national security at risk.

Folks, we don’t have to tip-toe. We don’t have to hedge our bets. We don’t have to ask permission from the pundits or the corporate CEOs – and we sure don’t have to ask permission from Mitch McConnell. 

If Democrats listen to Warren, they can quickly and easily bury the hatchet, advance in unity toward common goals, and win back power at the state and federal level. Hopefully her advice didn’t go entirely unnoticed.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.