There’s a lot of chatter today about this video of an unemployed man and Tea Party heckler calling Elizabeth Warren a “socialist whore” at a campaign event, all because she embraced Occupy Wall Street. But the really interesting thing here is what she took away from the episode, after spending some time thinking about it:
After the event, Warren reflected on the man’s outburst, which she said was her first such encounter. “I actually felt sorry for the guy. I really genuinely did. He’s been out of work now for a year and a half. And bless his heart, I mean, he thought somehow it would help to come here and yell names,” she told HuffPost.
The assault stuck with Warren, and she continued to think about it throughout the night. Hours later, she said she wasn’t upset with the man himself, but rather with those who attempt to channel his anger in a malevolent direction.
“I was thinking more about the heckler. I’m not angry with him, but he didn’t come up with the idea that his biggest problem was Occupy Wall Street. There’s someone else pre-packaging that poison — and that’s who makes me angry,” she said.
This is someone who really grasps the larger political, economic, and historical context within which this is all unfolding. Wall Street excess nearly destroyed our economy, and helped land us in a financial crisis that’s inflicting suffering on millions of Americans. For all of the protesters’ excesses, the sentiments underlying Occupy Wall Street — anger at the lack of accountability for the crisis, profound concern about rising inequality and the doubts it casts on our future — are thoroughly mainstream in nature. Similarly, Elizabeth Warren’s case for raising taxes on the very wealthy — that they got rich in part because of a functioning society that enabled it, and that they can afford to chip in a bit more to keep that functioning society afloat — is also a perfectly appropriate and not at all radical response to rising inequality and our serious fiscal plight.
The conservative response to this critique has been remarkable to behold. Figures on the right have transparently used Occupy Wall Street’s theatrics to distract from its message, in an effort to play on the cultural instincts of struggling blue collar whites and turn them against the economic populism embodied by the protests and Warren’s candidacy. They’ve screamed “class warfare” and “socialism” at even the most modest of proposals designed to reverse trends that have badly exacerbated inequality for decades, with untold consequences for the future. They’ve tried in every every which way to push the cultural buttons of voters who are responding favorably to the political conversation’s increased focus on inequality, economic unfairness, and what we should do about them. They have hauled out the old cultural playbook that’s been in use since the late 1960s, in an all out effort to persuade working class and moderate voters to oppose any and all efforts to impose a modicum of accountability or to reform the indefensible status quo.
I don’t know if those tactics will work or not, or what motivated that heckler to call Warren a “socialist whore.” But I can see why she labeled the larger atmosphere “poison,” and why she’s so angry about it. Indeed, you couldn’t ask for a moment that more perfectly captures the pathologies of this political moment, and how high the stakes have become.