Elizabeth Warren’s Radical, Scary Conservatism

The Democrats have made a controversial choice by selecting Elizabeth Warren as a convention speaker. We know this because Nathan Daschle says “her anti-Wall Street message is powerful but limiting,” and because “centrist Dems” who are either retiring or have been primaried tell Luke Russert that “moderates and centrists” might be spooked by her.

Why would they be spooked? Republicans tell us that her viral 2011 speech about social interconnectedness and paying fair shares of taxes – the inspiration for Barack Obama’s Roanoke speech – is controversial. How do we know? Because Scott Brown’s press guy released a statement saying so. You could point out that since giving the speech Warren has consistently tied or led Brown in polls, and that she managed to weather a one-month controversy over her claims of Cherokee heritage.

Or you could just go to the candidate’s actual policy. That’s rarely done in pieces about why a candidate’s controversial. News items about candidates are colored by the fact that they’re, well, running for something, and that some people want them to lose. But back in August 2011, before Warren was a candidate, Christopher Caldwell actually read her work and determined that her critiques of modern economics were, essentially, conservative.

Working mothers “ratcheted up the price of a middle-class life for everyone, including families that wanted to keep Mom at home,” Warren wrote. As a result, she showed, two-income families have less disposable income than one-income families did in the old days. What is more, today’s families are deprived of a safety net​—​a spare worker​—​of the sort her own family was able to lean on when she was a child. If anything goes seriously wrong in your average two-earner family today, they are in grave financial jeopardy.

You can euphemize this account any way you like​—​and God knows Warren tries​—​but Michele Bachmann would find nothing to object to in this narrative. It is a straightforward telling of the Tragedy of Feminism, tinged with populism. Warren’s explanation for exploding real estate prices involves white flight: “As families saw urban centers as increasingly unattractive places to live,” she writes, “the range of desirable housing options began to shrink and parents’ desire to escape from failing schools began to take on new urgency.” She complains that the federal safety net “serves only one segment of the population: the poor. .  .  . But what about the middle class? What is their safety net?”

Obviously, you can read texts for whatever meanings you like. Since Warren became a candidate, Caldwell’s Weekly Standard has found ways to argue that – one example – Warren is sympathetic to Communism, because she points out that China spends more on infrastructure than America does.

But Warren hasn’t much shifted her beliefs or rhetoric since moving from academia to politics. The leaps she has made – like opposing the medical device tax in the PPACA – have been sops to the market. She’s making observations about taxes and middle class spending that, 5 or 10 years ago, would have been uncontroversial. Republicans, who want to defeat her, claim that these observations are radical. Their hope is that people fall for it, in the service of objectivity.