Will Elizabeth Warren Purge American Politics of Corruption?

The senator from Massachusetts is taking up the old left-wing cause of campaign finance reform. Does her crusade to reduce the influence the rich have over American elections stand a chance?

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Feb 3 2014, 4:00pm

On its surface, the scene resembled an evangelical rally, the pews loaded with elderly white women letting out occasional chants of "Uh huh!" and "Yeah!" But standing at the lectern in place of a wild-eyed pastor was a wild-eyed Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate-turned-Massachusetts senator, urging her flock toward political salvation.

"Have we built a system where the rich and the powerful get all the attention they need?" she asked the 250 or so liberal activists who were crowded into St. Peter's Church in Midtown Manhattan on a bitterly cold Thursday evening in late January. "They get the rules they need, from the very biggest to the very smallest, the ones that always tilt in their direction, the ones that ultimately rig the game? Or are we an America that builds a better government that works for all of us? That’s the question people ask. And I think the answer right now is not a happy answer. We’ve got a government that works all too well for the rich and the powerful, and all too little for everyone else. We're here tonight because we're going to change that."

Warren wasn't saying anything new—American politics are pretty depressing these days. It’s still early in Barack Obama’s second term, but he’s so far found himself utterly unable to advance his agenda thanks to legislative gridlock—caused mostly by a House majority of stubborn, Tea Party-infused conservative Republicans—and the seemingly never-ending NSA scandal. Meanwhile, the money coursing through the political system with close to zero regulation is the core problem with our democracy right now, effectively wiping away the prospect of middle class prosperity for many Americans by placing corporate interests ahead of their own. Or at least that’s the story embraced by Warren and other left-wing Democrats who see the reform of campaign finance laws as the most important cause no one else is talking about.

The Supreme Court's famous Citizens United decision that brought unlimited money into elections isn’t getting reversed any time soon, so Warren seems to think state-by-state grassroots action represents the best hope for change. She may have been inspired by her old pal at Harvard, Larry Lessig, who spearheaded the New Hampshire Rebellion, a group that just staged a 185-mile march across the state intended to draw attention to corruption and honor the memory of Lessig's friend, hacktivist Aaron Swartz. The idea is to get legislators to spend less of their time soliciting donations from shady business titans and more of it at potluck dinners, perhaps thereby making them better attuned to the needs of the lower classes. Not groundbreaking stuff, as far as plans to change the system go, but after the orgy of spending in the 2012 election—the campaigns and outside groups combined to shell out $6.3 billion on state, federal, and local races—reformers are learning from previous failed attempts at instituting statewide public financing (Arizona is one disastrous example) to make sure this time is different.

So upon arriving to see the church bustling with lefty activist types that night, including some Occupy Wall Street veterans, I couldn't help but feel an inkling of optimism. One of the more popular—and potent—critiques of contemporary left-wing activist politics is that participants don’t engage with the electoral system enough, but actions like the New Hampshire rebellion seem to represent an answer: focus on local and state elected officials, and maybe the national pols in DC will have no choice but to take notice.

Unlike many other freshman lawmakers who keep their heads down when they get to Washington (looking at you, Hillary Clinton!), Warren has been making noise in committee hearings, defying decorum in order to tweak cozy elites ranging from Federal Reserve officials to banking regulators. But she hasn’t been reveling in her star power. In fact, during the warm-up section of the program, we were told that this was Warren's first public appearance in New York City.

She’s choosing an opportune moment to make her national turn given the desire of pundits in Washington to declare Wall Street vanquished by our heroic leaders. But as Mike Konczal points out at the New Republic, there's still a lot of work to be done before American economic policy stands a chance of being safe from the whims of financial giants. Warren drove that point home.

"People need to understand: too big to fail is still out there, and we are here to fight back," Warren roared at the meeting.

The big step toward fighting back that the New York state legislature is considering is a small-dollar matching system where contributions would be capped at a few thousand dollars and the first $175 of each donation would be matched at a 6-to-1 ratio, providing some underdog candidates a puncher’s chance against opponents relying on support from a few mega-donors and PACs. Such a system is already in place in New York City (and probably helped lefty Democrat Bill de Blasio win the mayoral race), which illustrates how these reforms are supposed to be enacted—first at the local level, then the state level, then who knows?

“This would be the first really substantive response by a state to the Citizens United decision,” said Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, which has been involved in the reform campaign. “As you saw with gay marriage, when New York does something, it gets national attention.”

Norden gets at the most compelling element to the Empire State’s campaign finance reform push: if New York can level the playing field somewhat even with Wall Street banks breathing down lawmakers’ collective neck, why can’t the nation as a whole?

“I love being in this room and I love being part of a movement,” Warren gushed to her throngs of progressive admirers. The question going forward is how hard she can push this cause in state capitols across America. For a woman who tends to be discussed either as a pesky financial scold or a liberal savior, Warren seems determined to strike the middle ground, leveraging her star power while remaining a policy innovator at her core. If in the process of doing so she emerges as an appealing alternative to Clinton among Democratic primary voters ready for the post-Obama era, so be it.

“It's hard to imagine somebody who's more plausible for the left wing of the party than Warren,” says Todd Gitlin, a social movement historian at Columbia University. “She must be intensely aware that she’s been anointed as the reform exemplar, the lady on the horse with the spear, leading the troops into battle. It suits her to remind people that she represents the larger world.”

Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose reporting about politics has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and New York. You can follow him on Twitter: @matthewt_ny

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