Earlier this week, Politico ran a header casting insurgent liberal leader Elizabeth Warren as “a well-off voice for the poor,” and musing about how “her financial well-being will likely hand conservatives a new line of attack,” and could potentially hurt her reformist credibility.
Wealthy advocates for the poor are not exactly a new phenomenon in American politics. From Jefferson to Jackson to Bryan to Edwards — the latter despite his flaws — grassroots, financial populism has always found its clearest expression in sympathetic elites. That’s the way it has to be, since the poor will, by definition, lack the kind of access necessary to make their case to the nation. What’s much stranger, and really should provoke confusion, is the new politics of wealth where the poor, as a function of social politics, somehow come to defend the very systems that perpetuate inequality of both opportunity and result. Absent such distortion, I suspect we’d see a unity of purpose between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street… but I digress.
The identity of advocates like Elizabeth Warren should be besides the point, because the 99% Movement isn’t (and shouldn’t be) about who you are, the luck you’ve had, and the wealth you want for yourself. Rather, it should be about the kind of world you would wish for anyone in America, regardless of your particular luck and the successes you’ve had. It’s not a movement defined by personal goals (“I should be rich”), but by a society-wide ambition (“We should all have a fair chance, and government has a role in that mission”). Consequentially, individual life stories — and especially those defined by exceptional talent, luck, or sacrifice — aren’t really probative of the movement or its goals, because nothing exceptional generalizes to a national solution. Individual success stories (like Andrew Carnegie, say) speak to the achievability of the American dream on a case-by-case basis, but they don’t offer a solution for poverty, or for rebuilding a sustainable middle class, because how many Andrew Carnegies can there really be in each generation?
It is not surprising, I suppose, that this distinction eludes so many. In a national dialogue defined by individual need and selfishness — who we don’t want to pay for, who doesn’t “deserve” what — a movement defined by mutual obligation and shared destiny strikes a dissonant note. But that’s precisely why it’s so important.