On Sept. 14, Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Warren’s most recent contribution to U.S. public policy has been the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) last year. The bureau is tasked with promoting fairness and transparency for mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer financial products and services. Warren believes that the CFPB should be an integral part of an effort to help middle-class American families, whom she believes have been “chipped at, hacked at, squeezed, and hammered for a generation.”
Proponents say the bureau can even help spur growth by helping middle-class families make more informed (and therefore sound) financial decisions.
But ever since Warren first suggested the creation of the agency in 2007, she has drawn the ire — and fire — of the Right. Why? Many conservative policy-makers and business figures believe that adding a new regulatory agency with substantial oversight will hinder the invisible hand of the free market. They argue that the free market system has ups and downs, but ultimately rewards those who are personally responsible, hard-working, and morally straight. In other words, further regulation will slow growth by attempting to fix an economic model that needs no fixing.
National debate is certainly needed. In this time of economic hardship, the nation is beginning to crave an honest discussion of the basic role of our federal government. This discussion is an important exercise in any functional democracy, and the best solution will likely strike a balance between rugged individualism and communitarianism.
The upcoming Massachusetts Senate election will surely serve as a forum for this debate. Scott Brown (the Republican incumbent) will frame himself as the fiscally responsible conservative with a strong independent streak, protecting the people of Massachusetts from higher taxes and increased government spending.
Warren will position herself as a champion of the middle class, arguing that agencies like the CFPB are necessary and that the rich should play a larger role in deficit reduction by letting the Bush tax cuts expire.
When Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the January 2010 special election, conservatives rejoiced. Citing Brown’s victory in a firmly blue state, they claimed that a new wave of desperately-needed conservatism was finally sweeping the country. Warren poses a serious threat to that claim, and chances are good that the conservative media, in concert with GOP operatives and PACs, will now do anything in their power to stop her. What must be guarded against over the coming months is a personal assault on Warren by the conservative media, replete with the kind of distortion that now mars too much of our political discourse.
Warren is, without a doubt, a liberal. She believes that some components of our federal government can be competent and helpful. But she will almost certainly be portrayed as a totalitarian, seeking to place complete control of the economy, and her constituents’ personal lives, in the hands of government. Look for phrases like “nanny state,” “socialist,” and even “fascist” to constantly be associated with her. Ultimately, after mind-numbing repetition on right-wing talk radio, TV and websites, the idea that Warren is, in Michele Bachmann’s words, “anti-American” will become legitimized. The fact that she is a professor at Harvard Law School will immediately qualify her as an “elitist” who is out of touch with the values of “real America.” In fact, all of this has already begun.
This rhetoric is not only unproductive — it’s poisonous. Deliberate misinformation should be resisted. It is the same reason why so many Americans currently believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that he is not American-born, or that the Affordable Care Act includes death panels and will increase the deficit, or that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, one can go on.
But this isn’t just a “conservative” plague. Sarah Palin was unfairly blamed for the attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January. And, as a New York Times op-ed recently observed, the current cycle of rabid-attack politics may have begun in 1987, when the Democrats and their associated PACs and interest groups launched a no-holds-barred assault in defeating the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork.
Outright lies thrust our politics into a state of perpetual polarization and vitriol. We must agree to reject this approach; we must insist that candidates — starting with Brown and Warren — pledge to dissociate themselves from such tactics. Both candidates can say that they will remain above the fray and make sure that their campaigns are only about the issues. But they can also stand back in silence while their respective political machines do the dirty work. In order to truly make a difference, the candidates must go beyond this hollow pledge. They must renounce deliberately misleading rhetoric not for the appearance of civility, but out of a self-imposed moral obligation to their country.
If neither candidate can do so, then we might as well all get ready. The firestorm will be here in no time.
Jacob London is a member of the Class of 2015.