This riff Elizabeth Warren went on at Re/code's recent conference is, according to Lauren Miller, Warren's digital director, "officially the most watched [Elizabeth Warren] video ever."
The clip is short, and focused; it cuts into Warren delivering an impassioned rant to the audience, telling them Washington is run for the benefit of rich and the powerful, and that it can only stay that way because the raw deal ordinary Americans are getting is hidden in the wonkish language of technocracy:
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is mad as hell. #codeconPosted by Re/code on Tuesday, May 26, 2015
If you are not able to see the video, you can watch it on Facebook here.
It's perhaps not surprising that this particular video went so viral, as it is, as much as any clip I've ever seen, a perfect introduction to Warren's political style and mission:
- Warren's message here will be familiar to anyone who's followed her career, but what's interesting about it is how much it sounds like a presidential stump speech. Warren doesn't talk like a senator. She talks like a presidential candidate. And as my colleague Matt Yglesias recently noted, she's refining a message fit for a presidential candidate.
- Does that mean Warren is running for president? No, she's not. In fact, the "Run, Warren, Run" draft campaign is suspending its operations. But that's left Warren in an interesting position: she talks like a presidential candidate, but she's unburdened by the compromises and concessions most politicians make when they're running for president.
- There are roughly three kinds of presidential candidates. There are the candidates who talk about what they're going to do if they win office. There are the candidates who talk about all the problems that are motivating them to run for office. And then there are the candidates who talk about why no one who wins office actually seems to do anything — this is the kind of candidate Barack Obama was in 2008, and it's the kind of non-candidate Elizabeth Warren is now.
- My theory is that it's that last kind of candidate who resonates most deeply with the electorate right now, because that's the question most voters can't actually figure out: they keep voting for, and electing, people they like, but they keep ending up with a political system they loathe. There's a disconnect there.
- In this clip, Warren blames the villain Americans most want to see blamed: "the rich and the powerful." Nobody likes the rich and the powerful! We may like particular rich and powerful people, like LeBron James or Elon Musk or Warren Buffett or The Rock, but in the abstract, the rich and the powerful are the worst. No one likes them.
- I think the argument Warren makes here is roughly half-right. Her point that Washington listens more to the rich and the powerful than they do to the average voter is completely true. Here's some evidence on that score, or, if you're a visual learner, you can watch this video about the scariest chart in the American political system:
- But while the hammerlock that the rich and the powerful have over democracy is definitely a problem, I don't think it's actually behind some of the specific issues Warren names — or much of the frustrations voters harbor.
- Warren calls out Congress's failure to pass a major infrastructure bill, for instance, and I think a lot of voters would agree that the failure to pass something so obvious is a big part of the problem with Washington. But a lot of rich people and powerful groups support a big infrastructure bill! You should hear them complain about JFK airport and marvel at the roads in China. The Chamber of Commerce has actually partnered with the AFL-CIO to push Congress to pass major infrastructure investment.
- The problem there isn't billionaires or special interests. It's the consuming nature of political partisanship. Republicans don't hate spending money (just look at George W. Bush's administration), and they don't hate infrastructure (just talk to Republican senators about ports), but they don't trust the Obama administration to spend money, and they don't want to give the Obama administration a win. I would argue that this kind of zero-sum partisanship is much more core to Washington's dysfunction than special interests are right now.
- An analogy I like is that Washington is a bit like physics: it has different rules for big and small things. The kind of political conflict that leads A1 — the question of whether Obamacare will pass, or whether the debt ceiling will be breached – tends to be driven primarily by raw partisan incentives. In many cases, that partisanship often ends up frustrating the interests of the rich and powerful, as has happened, to some degree, on infrastructure. But when you get down to the level of text — the specific provisions of those big bills, not to mention the smaller bills and amendments that take up much of Congress's time — the rich and powerful have a wildly outsize voice.
- Many of Warren's proposals — like her idea to tie student loan rates to the Federal Reserve's discount rate — are about dramatizing this particular problem in American politics. There's no particular reason student loan rates should track the Fed's discount window, but tying them together lets Warren make a powerful point about how much quicker Washington is to bail out banks than to bail out student borrowers.
- She also chooses policy fights that force attention on corners of the political process where lobbyists dominate because the process is exceptionally complex or opaque: that's been the core of her attack on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for instance, and her focus on the Department of Labor's fiduciary rules. She's using these policies in part as teaching tools to make broader points about the way certain processes systemically favor players with the resources to master their complexity.
- This gets to something that makes Warren interesting: she's a wonk who is deeply mistrustful of wonkery. "You have to make these issues salient and not just wonky," she says in the video. Warren believes that retreating into wonkery fails on two levels: first, the more complex arguments always give special interests an advantage, because they can take the time and buy the experts necessary to master complexity and ordinary Americans can't; and second, making issues of justice and fairness into arid, boring policy debates drives voters away, and leaves only the people who are paid to care about those issues. So Warren talks policy, but mainly when she thinks talking policy will help her get people interested in how American politics is failing them. Her policy campaigns are often a means to an end, where for most politicians they're the end itself.
- In the video, Warren strikes an unusual emotional pitch for a national politician: she's frustrated, angry, annoyed. She's talking so fast that she's almost running out of air. And it works. It works because Warren actually comes off as if she cares, as if this isn't a game to her, and so it's more persuasive when she tells other people that they should care, too. Warren isn't a great orator in the way Obama is; but she's a great speaker in a way he isn't. Obama is most at home giving speeches before 50,000 people. Warren is most at home shouting to a group of 5 people, or 10 or 20. It's one reason she plays so well on YouTube and Facebook — the small screen is like a small room, and so her tendency to speak and even to yell actually plays to the format, which rewards people talking like, well, people.