Addressing a crowd of more than 20,000 on Monday night in New York City’s Washington Square Park, Elizabeth Warren delivered a speech that was more than just a campaign rally — it was a description of the 2020 election as a life-and-death matter for the American people.
“Americans are killed by floods and fires in a rapidly warming planet,” said Warren. They are being killed “in our streets and stores and schools,” and they are “dying because they can’t afford to fill prescriptions or pay for treatment.”
And what’s the reason? According to Warren, it’s because huge fossil fuel corporations, the gun industry, and health insurance companies and drug companies have “bought off our government.”
Warren has already spent much of the 2020 presidential campaign focusing on the issue of corruption and the disproportionate influence of moneyed interests on Washington policy making. “I’ve got a lot of plans,” she said to great applause on Monday, “but they all come back to one simple idea: Put economic and political power in the hands of the people. We start by rooting out corruption in government.”
But even for a candidate who has embraced harsh, us-versus-them language in describing Washington, rarely has her message been as pointed and barbed as it was on Monday.
After all, it’s not often that a presidential candidate makes a charge as incendiary as accusing powerful and prominent industries of literally killing Americans. It’s even rarer for a politician to accuse her fellow senators of actively aiding and abetting the crime in return for campaign contributions.
The thing is, she’s not completely wrong here. Failing to put adequate restrictions on gun purchases has unquestionably led to America having one of the highest rates of gun violence in the developed world. Inaction on climate change – lubricated in part by campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry – has contributed to a warming planet and put millions of people, as well as whole communities, at risk. When it comes to health care, it’s probably more accurate to point the finger at the president, Republican members of Congress, and state legislators who have spent years trying to gut Obamacare and, in the process, restrict access to health care coverage for millions, but her point stands. A health care system that prizes profits above access to care is one that will inevitably shorten the lives of Americans — and cause needless deaths.
Moreover, Warren is hardly the first populist politician to portray big business and corporate interests as enemies of the American people. As historian Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University, pointed out to me, Warren’s rhetoric has antecedents in the language of the populist movement of the 19th and early-20th centuries – and of modern politicians like Ross Perot and Bernie Sanders. “We have always been a nation given to polarizing rhetoric,” says Kazin.
The rarer part, however, is to see it coming from a politician who is a reasonably good bet to be the Democratic nominee for president. The language Warren is using has historically been that of political outsider. Indeed, one of the most significant campaign challenges for Sanders has been making the transition from a candidate viewed as a protest candidate to one seen as a plausible president. Warren, in contrast, is the more mainstream political figure, but with language and ideas that have rarely before been heard from mainstream Democrats.
Just as Donald Trump has roiled the nation’s politics, a healthy segment of Democratic voters are glomming on to the kind of big, progressive ideas that Warren is pushing. More than a few Warren supporters I spoke to Monday night told me that Trump’s time in office has radicalized them and led them to support candidates — and policies — that they previously would have rejected as too politically extreme.
As a result, if either Warren or Sanders were to end up becoming the Democratic standard bearer — and they are running second and third in Democratic primary polling — it would provide Americans with as clear a political choice as any we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
On the one side we would have a president who has consistently catered to corporate interests, while utilizing deep cultural resentments and direct appeals to white identity politics and social conservatism. On the other, an uncompromising, anti-corporate populist, pledging to actually clean the swamp in Washington and calling for “big structural change” (a phrase Warren used five times on Monday night). Or, if it’s Sanders, for “a political revolution.” All three candidates are claiming to speak for the disrespected and downtrodden and offering rhetoric that seeks as much to divide Americans as it does unite, albeit in very different ways.
For two generations Democrats have hewed to the political center, even as Republicans moved more and more to the extreme right. That’s often worked for the party’s presidential candidates. After all, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. But this election has the potential to play out on very different terrain, one in which party voters support a nominee as much with their hearts as with their heads.
The fundamental question for Democrats in 2020 is likely to end up being whether they’d prefer a politically safe “change around the margins” nominee like Joe Biden or a candidate who, among other things, cheerfully accuses the other side of literally killing their fellow citizens.
It’s fair to ask whether nominating such a firebrand would be the best political option for Democrats, but a Warren/Trump showdown — or even a Sanders/Trump contest — would offer Americans a contrast the likes of which we’ve rarely witnessed in American politics. And in an age of extreme polarization, it arguably presents the kind of choice that Americans need to make if this country is ever going to chart a coherent path forward.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on twitter @speechboy71.