November 12, 2013
Elizabeth Warren, (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Elizabeth Warren, (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Senator Elizabeth Warren is delivering a sweeping speech today on the financial crisis’ aftermath and plight of the middle class that will be widely interpreted as a kind of blueprint for the aggressive new economic populism so many in the Democratic Party are apparently yearning to see.

By now you’ve read Noam Scheiber’s big piece arguing that Warren is well positioned to capture the passion of Democratic activists who want the party to focus on runaway inequality and the need for more Wall Street accountability as top priorities – and by extension, is well positioned to be Hillary Clinton’s “nightmare.”

I doubt Warren is running — her statement to the Boston Globe yesterday seemed pretty definitive. However, Warren’s speech to the Roosevelt Institute is definitely worth noting as a touchstone in a larger Democratic Party argument that may well unfold right through 2016. In it, she calls for a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall (by the way, do you remember which Democratic president presided over the repeal of that law? He’s a Clinton, too) and frames the big story this way:

I spent most of my career studying the growing economic pressures on middle class families — families that worked hard and played by the rules but still can’t get ahead. And I’ve also studied the financial services industry and how it has developed over time. [...]

We should not accept a financial system that allows the biggest banks to emerge from a crisis in record-setting shape while working Americans continue to struggle.  And we should not accept a regulatory system that is so besieged by lobbyists for the big banks that it takes years to deliver rules and then the rules that are delivered are often watered-down and ineffective.

What we need is a system that puts an end to the boom and bust cycle.  A system that recognizes we don’t grow this country from the financial sector; we grow this country from the middle class.

Powerful interests will fight to hang on to every benefit and subsidy they now enjoy.  Even after exploiting consumers, larding their books with excessive risk, and making bad bets that brought down the economy and forced taxpayer bailouts, the big Wall Street banks are not chastened. They have fought to delay and hamstring the implementation of financial reform, and they will continue to fight every inch of the way. That’s the battlefield.  That’s what we’re up against. 

The key to the speech is that it amounts to a sweeping indictment of the whole economic system that unapologetically deprives the financial sector for all the credit for economic growth. In this, Warren goes farther than many Democrats, who support progressive taxation and nominal Wall Street regulation, but “still fundamentally believe the economy functions best with a large, powerful, highly complex financial sector,” as Scheiber puts it.

In Warren’s telling, rampant inequality and middle class stagnation are not simply unfortunate excesses of competitive capitalism, which can be regulated against. They are the product of a rigged game that has rendered the system anti-competitive and less socially mobile, and deeply dysfunctional for the middle class, while increasingly transferring the benefits of the economy “to an increasingly tiny sliver at the top,” as economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it in “The Price of Inequality,” which tells this larger story.

Among politicians, Warren may be uniquely positioned to make the big picture — and yes, class-based — case many Democratic activists seem to crave: That only accountability for those who are directly responsible for rigging the game in their own interests can begin to make the system work for the middle class again. As David Dayen puts it, many Democratic pols give lip service to the idea of “tougher rules for Wall Street,” but Warren is talking about a much deeper level of reform designed to address inequalities resulting from the upward transfer of “a giant share of the money flowing through the system,” reform that gets to the core question of “what kind of economy we want for all of our citizens.”

Scheiber’s piece has kicked off a whole debate among liberal writers over whether the Democratic Party will actually divide along Warren-versus-Clinton lines. See Dave Weigel and Francis Wilkinson for skeptical takes, and Ed Kilgore for the counter-argument that Warren really could represent a spokesperson for a new economic populism.

But as I understand Scheiber’s argument, his primary point is that Warren’s popularity and appeal reveal the presence of larger political forces within the Democratic Party that Clinton should take very seriously, whether or not Warren runs. Warren’s speech today is a good marker for understanding the potential for tensions among divisions among Democrats on these issues, which look very real.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.