The first time I ever saw Elizabeth Warren—or at least the first time she ever made a real impression on me—was in a two-minute amateur YouTube video from 2011, recorded at a Massachusetts house party in anticipation of Warren’s first run for the Senate.
In the clip, the then-Harvard Law professor and architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau railed against the national debt accrued during the Bush administration through such unnecessary expenditures as tax cuts and the Iraq War, before offering up her own vision for how the American economy should function.
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” Warren intoned. “You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory […] because of the work the rest of us did.”
“Now look,” she concluded, as only she could, “You built a factory and it turned into something terrific […] God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Here, in embryonic form, was the Warren Doctrine in a nutshell. Here, indeed, was the entirety of Democratic Party economic orthodoxy distilled to its purest essence—namely, that American society is an ongoing give-and-take between individual enterprise and collective responsibility. That everyone must pay his or her fair share to participate in our capitalist system. That even in a nation as large, diverse and complicated as ours—however powerful and enduring the myth of the rugged individual might be—we are nonetheless bound by common ideals and a commonweal. In the words of David McCullough—biographer of no less than Teddy Roosevelt—“There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.”
For all the ideological firepower baked into this worldview, Warren’s 2012 challenge to Senator Scott Brown was no sure thing. Having shocked the world in 2010 by winning a special Senate election to succeed the late Ted Kennedy, Brown—a genial, moderate Republican who wore a bomber jacket and drove a pick-up truck—remained a popular figure in this supposed bastion of liberalism, while Warren had attracted a fair share of notoriety for her harsh rhetorical treatment of Wall Street executives in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown and subsequent bailout.
Indeed, I briefly entertained the possibility of voting for Brown myself—largely out of gratitude for his vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which Warren also praised—until it became plain just how much of an intellectual dynamo Warren truly was.
Throughout that race, Senator Brown made a point of referring to Warren as “Professor,” which many viewed as a subtle skewering of his challenger as an elitist, egg-headed know-it-all. I must say, I never quite got that impression myself. Considering that she was teaching law at Harvard at the time, the “Professor” moniker made perfect sense and, if anything, conferred more respect than merely addressing her as “Ms. Warren” or “my opponent.”
In any case, now-Senator Warren is very much an elitist, egg-headed know-it-all, and has never made the slightest effort to hide it. Prior to entering the public arena in the late 2000s, she spent virtually her entire adult life in academia, from which she accumulated an almost dizzying amount of expertise on matters highly relevant to both the Senate and the presidency—perhaps none more so than the ability to mount a sophisticated argument and express it in the form of a story that ordinary people can appreciate and understand.
In Warren’s case, those arguments almost invariably relate to how big banks, multinational corporations and the like are able to fleece millions of Americans of their hard-earned money without giving them any realistic means of fighting back. Hence the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was specifically designed to empower citizens to assume control of their livelihoods without drowning in lawyers’ fees, exhaustion or despair.
Since joining the Senate and the presidential race, of course, Warren’s portfolio of policy proposals has expanded exponentially, and while the sheer volume of ideas she has offered on the trail over the past year is enough to give even the most diligent Democratic primary voter a migraine, in her telling they all flow organically from the lived experience of those—like her, at one point—who are teetering on the cusp of economic ruin and are in desperate need of relief from the only entity equipped to provide it: the federal government.
As such, her plan to soak the rich—specifically, to tax all wealth above $50 million—is a moral crusade as much as a means of generating revenue and balancing the budget. As she expressed in that video nearly a decade ago—and at regular intervals ever since—Americans have a shared stake in how this whole experiment in self-government shakes out, and it is to no one’s long-term benefit for 99 percent of the nation’s wealth to be held by just a handful of people, however industrious they might be. Non-billionaires ought to be able to buy a house, raise a family and occasionally eat out at a nice restaurant without going bankrupt, and the government has every incentive to ensure that this is so.
Elizabeth Warren believes in her bones that a more equitable society is both desirable and achievable, and while she is under no illusions that redistributing that wealth will be simple or without profound institutional friction, she will fight like hell to bring that society about. For all her faults, when faced with an enormous bureaucratic challenge, she does not—and will not—give up.
Speaking of her faults, they are manifold. Like so many high-profile academics before her, she is a little too sure of her own theories for how to solve the world’s problems and a little too dismissive of those who think differently. She is too quick to react to trolling by the likes of Donald Trump, as when she felt compelled to submit to a DNA test to establish her Native American bona fides following the whole “Pocahontas” kerfuffle last year. In her zeal to level the proverbial playing field, she is more openly contemptuous of the world’s financial fat cats than is strictly necessary, as though picking fights and making enemies were an end in and of itself. There is a fine line between a brawler and a bully, however just one’s cause might be.
But Warren’s cause is just—exuberantly so. It’s the cause of the common man and woman. It’s the cause of the underdog who’s been screwed over by the system for decades and is just looking for a square deal. It’s the cause of reforming institutions from within rather than blowing them up from without. It’s the cause of ensuring that every American has a fair shot at happiness and success, that his or her fate is not sealed at birth, and that not every outcome in life is determined by who has the most money.
With her tireless fervor, unmatched intelligence and uncompromising resolve in agitating for that cause, Elizabeth Warren has earned my vote. On Super Tuesday, she will get it.