Elizabeth Warren Persisted. Now, She’s Driving Change.
Katrina vanden Heuvel/The Washington Post
Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)04 november 21
As the debate rages over President Biden’s social spending bill, with several long-sought progressive ideas tantalizingly close to reality, there’s been little attention paid to the woman who’s helped lead the push for them throughout her career: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Warren (D-Mass.) is familiar with the history of progressive advocates being consistently dismissed until their visions become realized. At the height of her 2020 presidential campaign, she delivered a remarkable speech putting her ambitious plans in powerful perspective: “Over and over throughout our history, Americans have been told that big structural change just wasn’t possible: They should just give up. … They didn’t give up. They organized. They created a grass-roots movement. They persisted. And they changed the course of American history.”
Soon after, Warren’s groundbreaking proposals netted her only 63 of the necessary 1,991 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination. Then, she was passed over for both the vice presidency and the Cabinet.
And today, despite her tireless work for progressive priorities, she remains out of the spotlight. Yet we see the fruits of her labor in policies that have become the backbone of the Democratic platform — some of which may now become the law of the land.
During her presidential campaign, when Warren introduced her wealth tax on ultra-millionaires as a solution to widening wealth inequality and failing social services, several other Democratic candidates sharply rebuked her.
Just a couple of years later, a different story is unfolding. As Democrats seek to salvage Biden’s Build Back Better plan, a billionaires’ tax now has overwhelming support in the Democratic caucus, though with the notable — and crucial — exception of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). While Manchin’s opposition means the billionaires tax may not make it into the final agreement, another idea championed by Warren will likely be a key component. That would be the “corporate minimum tax,” which would require companies with more than $1 billion dollars in revenue to pay at least 15 percent of their profits. This idea has been waiting, as economist Robert Kuttner put it, for “the right moment to rendezvous with a political need” — and the social spending bill negotiations provided it.
Warren has also been a fiercely consistent advocate for universal child care and pre-K, even before it seemed politically possible. In 2019, she proposed a plan to guarantee child care and early education for all American children — urgently necessary, as more than half of Americans live in child-care deserts. Manyopposed the policy, calling it misguided and unserious.
But now, increased child-care subsidies are wildly popular, so much so that even many skeptics have finally come around. (One skeptic? Biden himself, who as a senator in the 1980s worried that child-care tax credits would subsidize “the deterioration of the family.”) Even after trillions of dollars in cuts to the social spending bill, child care has thus far been spared. Meanwhile, universal pre-K, which has been tremendously successful in cities such as New York, is a similarly uncontroversial element ofthe reconciliation bill. Even Manchin doesn’t want to cut it.
The trend is clear: Warren has fought ceaselessly to make progressive visions a reality — because she understands that throughout history, persistence has made change possible.
Warren delivered that campaign speech on big structural change just half a block from the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where, in 1911, a corporation’s negligence toward its workers cost 146 lives. (That event particularly resonates in a year in which we’ve seen strikes against at least 178 employers, and Americans are demonstrating the most public support for unions since 1965.) After the 1911 fire, female factory workers across the city protested and went on strike. They were routinely ignored until one witness, Frances Perkins (then executive secretary of the New York City Consumers League), successfully pushed for labor reforms in New York state. Perkins went on to become labor secretary for President Franklin D. Roosevelt — the first woman ever to hold a U.S. Cabinet position — and the reforms she pushed for in New York became part of the blueprint for the New Deal.
“So what did one woman — one very persistent woman — backed by millions of people across the country, get done?” Warren asked. “Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big. Structural. Change.”
She’s right. Change comes from people like Perkins and Warren: those with the moral clarity and the tenacity to continue the fight for progress, through losses and long odds — until that “right moment to rendezvous with a political need” finally arrives. And for her efforts, Warren hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves.