The Problem With Massachusetts And Elizabeth Warren

It’s somewhat embarrassing, but when I think back to the evening Scott Brown captured Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat in my home state of Massachusetts, what I remember, above all else, is a Facebook comment. An old acquaintance took to the Social Network to congratulate Massachusetts on not becoming “Alabama in reverse.” The implication of this status update was that The Old Colony had devolved into a remorseless sea of dark blue; a prepossessed purgatory of obligatory taxes and unrelenting elitism, that was incapable of serving as anything other than a right-wing punch line. These sentiments were summarized in a 2007 book by local television analyst Jon Keller titled, The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster, “At one time, Americans thought of Massachusetts with pride.  It was the place where the charge against British oppression was incubated and first battle of the Revolutionary War was fought.  It was the intellectual center of the United States, the home of the country’s first university – Harvard – and the birthplace of some of our most famous writers — Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to name just a few. 

What do Americans picture when they think of Massachusetts today?  They think of taxes on everything that moves and a burning desire to tax what doesn’t.  They think of unctuous, doomed Presidential candidates from Michael Dukakis to John Kerry.  And, most of all, they think of “Kennedy Country” – not the moderate politics of JFK who backed supply-side tax cuts and saber-rattling foreign policy, but a place influenced by the ideology of his little brother, Ted, a punch line for bad political jokes and the relic of a dream gone bad.”

The dream was to be restored through the no-nonsense words and alluring visage of Scott Brown. The lawyer, politician, and former model declared that Massachusetts needed an independent voice, branded himself as a new kind of Republican, and continually referenced the fact he drove a truck. Curt Schilling, one of the principal heroes of the Boston Red Sox thrilling 2004 World series run, stood on stage with the candidate, at stops throughout the commonwealth, and recited the vintage conservative psalms of up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy, “He’s for smaller government, stopping the concentration of power in one political party, a strong military and vigorous homeland defense, as well as — and probably most appropriate and meaningful right now — giving all Americans health care, but not by creating a new government insurance program.” 

Brown stupefied the experts, raising over a million dollars in a day and clinging to the reputation of The Underdog. The elite, those running Massachusetts like their own personal piggy bank, weren’t taking an outsider seriously, just like they didn’t take the citizens of their state seriously. Any deviation from this script, any attempt to steer the debate away from emotion and into the sticky realm of facts was met with staunch GOP opposition. When the Democratic candidate, and Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Coakley ran a television spot criticizing Brown’s stance on emergency contraception, he accused her of running “attack-ads”, the disgusting inverse of dichotomous high-mindedness.

When he shocked the world and flipped the script on Massachusetts, the praise poured in from all quarters. The liberal Boston Globe identified Brown as the Bostonian of the Year for proving that “anything is possible” and producing “the tiniest rays of bipartisanship in a Senate dark with dysfunction.”

Like most seemingly spontaneous bursts of populism, the problematic specter of anti-systemic rightwing thought quietly hovered above the evening’s festivities. Kick over any bit of Brown’s stagecraft and find yourself face to face with grim realities. During a campaign stop, a supporter yelled that Brown should, “stick a curling iron up [Coakley’s] butt,” a horrific reference to a sexual molestation case that occurred while she was Attorney General. This call for a local female politician to be sodomized was met with a giggle and nod by Brown, the few bleats of protest shrugged off as political sniping. The Tea Party played their hand superbly, never officially tagging the Bipartisan Boy Wonder with the mark of the beast, but working fundraisers for him and running cable spots celebrating his candidacy. As for Curt Schilling, he continually expressed his opinions on personal economic responsibility while borrowing $75 million from the state of Rhode Island in order to fund a videogame company, a venture which left him over a million bucks in debt to the state. When asked by a journalist if the taxpayers of Rhode Island would ever see their money again, he told the inquisitive reporter to ask the Governor. How does Schilling, who made more than $60 million during his time with the Red Sox, cope with the financial loss he dealt to the state? “Faith. My faith in God.”

The ascent of Brown also highlighted a Massachusetts that is seldom dissected by America’s punditry. Content to use the New England state as a barometer to mark the tolerable height of liberal governance, the media fails to draw attention to its disturbing racial history and dynamics. Yes, as people frequently point out, Massachusetts is the only state that George McGovern carried during the 1972 election, but four years later local analysts identified it as a state George Wallace could potentially snag in the Democratic primary, with so many white voters enraged by the busing crisis. After Boston Celtics’ first-round pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, the era of draconian racial drug-policy was led by the beloved local statesman Tip O’Neil, Speaker of the House at the time, who bellowed at his staffers to write him “some goddamn legislation” and got his wish with mandatory minimums and new discrepancies in the cocaine laws; a tightening that led to what Michelle Alexander has called, “The New Jim Crow.”

By the way, Obama didn’t win Massachusetts, Hilary Clinton, who toured the white working-class areas hit hardest by the country’s economic collapse and rolled out the standard staples of Clintonian triangulation, snagged it. The unspoken underbelly of Massachusetts, predicated on philosophies spun by Archie Bunker, is always closer than the professors and students that pack Boston let on; walk into any number of local bars or tune into a Massachusetts talk-radio station and quickly realize that the thesis hatched by my FB buddy is a myth. If Massachusetts represents anything it’s the inability of liberals to fight for the interests of their base, thus allowing vociferous proponents of backlash politics to fill in the gaps. Just look at the career of Governor Deval Patrick, as an example: his campaign was backed by many of the same PR firms that helped Obama become a Senator, identified casino gambling as the way to push Massachusetts ahead economically. The day his plans were rejected by the state legislature, he was out of town plugging his autobiography, an optimistic view of public life that netted him a $1.3 million contract. When something resembling a controversy broke out over Mitt Romney’s time with Bain Capital, Patrick was quick to defend the company along with the wider concept of private equity.

Into this depressing morass skips Elizabeth Warren: reasonable human being, savvy economic mind, possible Native American, and liberal darling. By now we can all recite the Harvard Law School professor’s biography, we are aware of her books and articles, we know she oversaw the creation of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, and that she was instrumental in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Most importantly we know that, despite progressive pressure, Obama decided against allowing her to run the organization, due to the ire she generated in bankers, picking the strikingly non-feisty Richard Cordray to keep the agency relatively toothless. Warren also burrowed her way into our collective consciousness via her cameo in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, in which she effectively answered the question, “Where’s our money?” David Simon repeated her rudimentary explanation of economics in a speech (“You built that with help.”) and then, most recently, Obama aped it as a campaign piece, leading to predictable charges of Communism from the Fox News set. Her track record on standing up Wall Street is a pretty good one and anyone who upsets the American Right in the way that Warren does is generally a great bet. Shortly after announcing her candidacy, she was confronted by an irate audience member at a speech who accused her of being a “whore” aligned with the OWS movement. YES! This ringing endorsement solidified what any self-respecting leftist already knew: saying Warren was a better candidate than Brown was like saying it’s colder in January than it is in July.

Nonetheless, issues arise and, once again, our surface proves to be deceptive. Minimal digging into the political stances of Warren unearths a number of foreign policy positions that put her at odds with her base. Start with her staunch support for the economic sanctions against Iran, recently strengthened to unparalleled heights by H.R. 1905. “The United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I support strong sanctions against Iran and believe that the United States must also continue to take a leadership role in pushing other countries to implement strong sanctions as well. Iran must not have an escape hatch,” Warren said in April, before being questioned by a blogger at a meet-and-greet and claiming she would look into his assertion that no proof exists linking Iran with nuclear weapons. Warren quantified her statement by later explaining that, “careless talk of rushing to war is unhelpful,” but what can you possibly call sanctions designed to make Iran’s economy scream if not an act of war? According to the journalist Franklin Lamb, the new legislation is, “designed to prevent Iran from repatriating any proceeds from its oil sales, thus depriving Iran of 80 percent of its hard currency earnings and half of the funds to support its national budget for education, health, food subsidies and other needed public purposes.”

Another security staple of the current administration, that Warren feels passionate about, is Obama’s controversial “Kill List.” After the New York Times published an in-depth story detailing the President’s personal connection to the, possibly illegal, program, Warren declared, “These threats are not going away.  We must remain vigilant. Al Qaeda has operations or affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere around the world. We need to continue our aggressive efforts against Al Qaeda, and we need to continue to support the efforts of our intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and military professionals.”

Warren’s position on Israel may be the most craven of all, as she leaves little doubt which side she would have taken in the recent brouhaha, that erupted at the DNC, when a reference to Jerusalem was rammed into the party’s platform. Her website rolls out the usual platitudes (“steadfast, trusted, and reliable allies”) and identifies Palestine’s membership effort at the UN as a “unilateral step” that cannot be condoned. As for the United States assisting in a two-state solution, America “cannot dictate the terms” to Israel, regarding whether or not they should refrain from bulldozing houses or cutting off a population’s access to water.In an article, at Al Akhbar, Max Blumenthal took her to task on the question of Israel, before ending with an entirely sensible point, “ It is far better for progressives to grill her on her foreign policy positions before the campaign is over than after the next war begins.”

However, as we know, liberals aren’t always receptive to sensible points. Criticism of Warren’s warmongering has been virtually nonexistent and millions of dollars have poured into her campaign, without caveats. After Norman Solomon, the celebrated journalist and distinguished antiwar activist, lost his congressional bid in California, Dave Swanson, former advisory board member of Progressive Democrats of America, put things into a perspective that few dared to ,“You’ll see a lot of support for Warren, who’s perfectly fine with the wars but wants the bankers to help pay for them. Norman Solomon isn’t that kind of guy. This is someone who was attempting to infiltrate the party from the outside.”

Apologists like to shrug off the left’s ability to infiltrate the Democratic Party and talk about the constrictions imposed by modern politics, but history proves this position cynical. Shit, anyone who read Game Change knows how conscious of the antiwar movement the Clinton campaign was. One of the definitive examples of the left pushing Democrats to reckon with their demands is the case of Eugene McCarthy, the snobby Catholic politician from Minnesota, who sported all the standard pro-war characteristics of a Cold-War liberal before being propped up as a viable threat to LBJ by a fervent anti-Vietnam War movement. McCarthy turned out to be a fraud, disappearing when the smoke settled and, occasionally, resurfacing to vouch for the Reagan administration or plug a new book of poetry, his commitment to the people of Vietnam virtually nonexistent. Therefore, the enduring lesson of McCarthy’s impact should not be the beacon of hope that a courageous politician can represent, as the establishment would have you believe, but the power of social movements to push candidates on issues.

I asked Dominic Sandbrook, author of Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism, how he contrasts a political climate in which McCarthy was pushed to antiwar positions, with the current apologetics for perpetual Empire emanating from the left/liberal set. After mentioning the draft, he zeroed in on the current economic landscape, “My sense is that voters can only really concentrate on one or two issues at a time, and today that means the economy. Everything else is secondary, so any candidate planning to run on an exclusively anti-war platform would be misguided, in my view. The contrast with 1968 is glaring: Vietnam was then a transcendent issue, while the economy was in much better shape, which opened up space for an anti-war campaign.”

The transcendent issue is now the economy and, as good as Warren is on that, her blemishes on war factor into her perception of the dilemma. For instance, she recycles that tired liberal line about Bush sticking the Iraq War on a credit card. As Yves Smith brilliantly pointed out, on Naked Capitalism, “She seems to have fallen for the balance budget meme, when the proper role of government fiscal policy is to accommodate the actions of the private sector, meaning households and business. Households want to save for retirement and emergencies, and the tacit assumption is business invests household savings. Unless a country is running a trade surplus, and the US is not in that category, the government needs to accommodate the desire of the private sector to save by deficit spending. Otherwise wages fall and the economy contracts, and that makes the debt to GDP ratio worse.”

This is what makes the liberal silence on Warren’s international vision so disturbing. How can anyone truly work on reforming the economic system in our country without addressing the existence of a permanent-war economy? How can anyone tackle the issue of tax breaks without taking a look at the House Armed Services Committee and the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee defense bills? If the problem with the Iraq War isn’t the subversion of international law, or destruction of a country, but whether or not it impacted our ability to balance the budget, doesn’t logic dictate a war with Iran, with the potential of bailing out the economy, could easily be embraced?

When Obama campaigned for President, he made no attempts to conceal his positions on Afghanistan or Pakistan. Right before the election, the late Christopher Hitchens, an Obama supporter, argued that the joke wasn’t on him, an adamant War on Terror enthusiast, but on the young antiwar protestors lining up behind the promise of Hope and Change, “American liberals can’t quite face the fact that if their man does win in November, and if he has meant a single serious word he’s ever said, it means more war, and more bitter and protracted war at that—not less.”

He was right. If Elizabeth Warren becomes Senator, her critics stand to be correct as well, although her potentially toxic votes on war will be overshadowed by those enduring right-wing mantras: Massachusetts liberal, bluest of blue states…
Then what?

 Michael Arria writes for Vice’s

Michael Arria is the author of the new CounterPunch book, Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.