If your idea of a populist is an Ivy League law professor fresh from the DC bureaucracy, then you might not get out among “the people” much. Or you could just be from Massachusetts.
The Bay State has imported an Okie to rescue the dynastic “Kennedy seat” from a Republican who redubbed it “the people’s seat.” The local Democrats, habituated to the likes of technocrat Michael Dukakis and brahminesque John Kerry, imagine Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren as a fiery pitchfork populist. Harvard’s Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law does nothing to dissuade them of that belief.
Warren boasts in a television advert that she “grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” She allied herself with the 99 percent against the one percent by claiming to serve as an inspiration for Occupy Wall Street. “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do,” she said of OWS. “I support what they do.” She remarked on the “Left Ahead” podcast, “I’m going for the hick vote here. I just want you to know. Maybe we could start wearing stickers that say ‘Hicks for Elizabeth.’ Could we do that?”
Massachusetts Dems, who live in the third most densely populated state, don’t encounter too many genuine hicks. Perhaps in Concord or Wellesley, living in a $1.7 million home qualifies one as sort of hayseed. But the appeal of populism in a state where the main industries are health care, biotechnology, finance, and academia—not steel, farming, or automobiles—isn’t entirely clear. Like folk music reemerging in Greenwich Village, populism finding a second life in Harvard Square is one of those cultural oxymorons ridiculous to all but those falling for it. It is hard to overstate the hypnotizing effect of a twang in the non-rhotic land of the missing “R”s. To the blue voters of the bluest state, Elizabeth Warren is salt of Harvard Yard’s earth.
Warren’s opponent officially launched his reelection bid in working-class Worcester’s historic Mechanics Hall on Thursday night. As the venue suggests, Scott Brown is running a populist campaign, too. His iconic pick-up truck, no-frills barn jacket, and hard-luck story made for a compelling narrative two years ago. But that was in the days of Tea Party, not Occupy Wall Street, populism.
One more frequently comes across the “p” word in connection to Elizabeth Warren. The _Washington Post_’s Greg Sergent speculated at the outset of her campaign that “Warren’s run could test the electoral limits of true populism in a way other Dems haven’t been willing to venture.”
This is certainly true at the top of the ticket. As Elizabeth Warren channels her inner-William Jennings Bryan, Barack Obama focuses on the votes of wealthy suburbanites.“Preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class,” reported the _New York Times_’s Thomas Edsall last fall. Blue-collar workers, once the party’s base, will be bypassed in favor of a main coalition of “professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists.” Siding with environmentalists over workers in jettisoning the Keystone oil pipeline is just the latest example of this plan in action.
The Harvard Law graduate’s presidential reelection strategy runs counter to the Harvard Law professor’s strategy of throwback populism. Should the Democrats’ most high-profile Senate challenger succeed and its national standard bearer fail, the party may undergo yet another identity crisis. Today’s progressive always becomes tomorrow’s populist, and vice versa. Relabeling is an important marketing tool for products rejected by the market.
But Warren’s run is crucial to the future of the party for another reason. With Democrats forced by their outstanding performance in 2006 to defend 23 senate seats in 2012 to just ten seats for Republicans, Harry Reid’s hopes of retaining his slim Senate majority hinges on picking off vulnerable Republican incumbents to offset the inevitable. But as it stands, only one seat currently held by Republicans appears in play: Scott Brown’s. The latest Boston Herald poll shows Warren ahead by seven points.
If the Democrats can’t make it here, they can’t make it anywhere. Wyoming, Texas, Tennessee, Utah, Nevada, Maine, Indiana, Mississippi, and Arizona are the other states where Republican seats go before voters. The long odds elsewhere—not just Warren’s rock-star credentials on the Left or Brown’s sudden celebrity—best explain the national interest in Massachusetts.
Politicians who play man of the people usually are above rather than of the people. The People’s Party’s Sockless Jerry Simpson not only wore socks, but he capped off a career railing against the railroads by going to work for them. Huey Long’s lavish homes and designer suits suggested that he may have undertaken a personal “share the wealth” crusade before he conducted a public “share the wealth” crusade. Pat Buchanan’s McLean, Virginia manse, Ross Perot’s stock portfolio, and millionaire Elizabeth Warren’s oversight of the banker bailout fit the paradigm of caviar crusaders fueling political ambition with red-meat rhetoric.
Last fall, the Harvard Law prof from Oklahoma quipped: “I’m a new category, an elite hick.” But in politics, the “elite hick” is nothing new.
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