There’s really a storybook quality to Elizabeth Warren. How did this cookie-baking housewife from Oklahoma end up staring down the most powerful financial powers on Planet Earth, causing them to tremble in their wingtip shoes?
Seemingly conjured up from the fabled town of Mayberry, a place of bake sales and heart-to-hearts with Aunt Bea (she actually had an Aunt Bea), Sen. Warren seems aware of her mythic dimension: at one point in her new memoir, A Fighting Chance, she refers to herself as “Alice in Crazyland.” As Alice/Elizabeth heads down the rabbit hole to navigate the money-papered halls of Washington, she uses words like “vile” and “shameful” to describe the evildoing of bankers and corporate predators: she’s an outsider from a realm of truer American values who looks upon the upside-down goings on with outraged astonishment, frequently peppering her narrative with her favorite term for disbelief at human folly, an emphatic, “Really?!?” This Alice among the evil wizards of Wall Street is full of homespun charm and Midwestern wisdom, but in this cynical age, the truly fabulous thing is that her story is true.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren really did grow up among ordinary, struggling people in Oklahoma, and she really did try her very best to content herself with baking brownies and tending her young family before deciding to go to law school. She really did become a crack expert in bankruptcy law and a Harvard professor, and used what she’d learned to challenge the bankers who spent billions purchasing their own facts and unleashing armies of lobbyists to make victims of hard-working, law-abiding Americans.
You get the feeling that Warren’s fight against these financial predators is deeply personal. And from her memoir, you can see why: she’s fighting for the people who raised her, the neighbors she grew up among, the students in her classes, and the people she has met along the way who have lost their homes, jobs and savings through the deliberate traps set by people who measure their income in human suffering.
When Warren goes to Washington to fight for bankruptcy protection for American citizens and later to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she meets a lot of puzzling creatures along the way, including the man who currently presides over Crazyland, Barack Obama. In her telling, Obama is a well-meaning but conflicted man who chose an economic team that backed Wall Street, but one who also believed in her vision for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, despite his failure to secure her leadership position there.
One of the most memorable scenes in the book is a dinner with Larry Summers, the very image of the power elite, who leans back in his chair to offer his guest some friendly advice: She could be an insider or she could be an outsider. Outsiders, he warned, can say whatever they want, but insiders don’t listen to them. Insiders, on the other hand, have access and power, and powerful people listen to them. But insiders understand one rule: they don’t criticize other insiders. Appalled, Warren rejects his advice. Interestingly, Summers is now on the outside, having faded away like the Cheshire Cat.
Warren explains that she is by nature an outsider. As a woman, she has never been part of the “club” of the financial world, which is why she never “drank their Kool-aid.” Unburdened by the instinct to obey the rules of a crazy game, she charges ahead, unafraid to call things as she sees them and speak the truth to the most important men in the room (and they are usually men). Going toe to toe with the CEOs of giant financial companies, tax-dodging billionaires and bankers who rip off homeowners and students and military families just seems to be second nature to our Alice.
So what if you don’t believe in fairy tales? Well, it’s true that a single senator doesn’t have much power. But she does if she can take others with her. Thus far, Warren has proven extremely effective in using the bully pulpit and bringing issues like student debt to national attention. Quite obviously, she drives bankers and other predators crazy. They didn’t want her consumer bureau, but now they’re stuck with it. They didn’t want her to be senator (and poured millions into the effort to defeat her), but they’re stuck with that, too. They hate the issues she has raised, such as who they pay as lobbyists, or why we should expand Social Security, yet they can’t shut her up.
There are a few others in Washington, like Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who are willing to stand between you and total bank domination, but you can count them on one hand. But Warren is unlike any other politician of this particular moment. She carries echoes of some we’ve had in the past, like the Nebraska Congressman George Norris, whom Franklin Roosevelt referred to as “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals” or Robert LaFollette, a progressive Republican from Wisconsin who fought the domination of corporations over the government. But Sen. Warren has a charisma and astuteness all her own.
Some complain that unlike, say, a Huey Long, Warren is a bit narrow in her focus. After all, Americans are getting screwed over by everyone from healthcare executives to telecom companies, not just bankers. But having expertise in financial issues is much needed at this particular moment, and if Warren had been broad rather than deep, she likely wouldn’t have been able to do the very valuable things she has done, like setting up the CFPB.
It’s true that in fighting the financial sector, Warren seems to be fighting a mythical creature, in which she cuts off one head and another grows back. But reading her book will make you grateful we have someone is in the ring with the stamina, moral values and clear sense of purpose to keep on fighting. That’s about as good as it gets.
The big banks sure don’t like the senator from Massachusetts. What’s not to like about that? If there is hope for a better America, Elizabeth Warrne might just be it.
Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.