THE BLOG
05/27/2014 02:41 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2014

Elizabeth Warren and America's New Progressive Moment

Tom Williams via Getty Images

There are few people today that capture the moral conscience of the everyday American more than Elizabeth Warren. In what has become a corporate-governed society of the banks, by the banks, and for the banks, Warren -- a legal academic turned consumer watchdog turned United States Senator -- has become emblematic of a turning point in American life; one that will soon prove undeniable for the economic, political and social direction of this country.

This moment in time surrounds a deeper, philosophical debate about engineering a fair society. We've witnessed deep-pocketed interests aggrandize and infiltrate our political process, exacerbated from corporate-leaning Supreme Court decisions and lobbying regimes trading campaign donations for votes. We continue to experience systemic political corruption, the unlimited flow of untraceable money from corporations to Super PACs, and a host of discriminatory practices across the spectrum. Today's insider culture of Washington and State politics has disenfranchised the American public from political participation. Two in three Americans say they trust government less because big Super PAC donors have so much more influence than they do. One in four say they are less likely to vote as a result. Congress' pitiful 13 percent approval rating has normalized a stigma that is weakening our democratic values.

Yet we continue to do nothing meaningful about it.

As we head towards the 2016 presidential election, the same sequence of events is sure to take place: Large sums of money will pour in from outside special interests, advertising blitzes will encompass the airwaves, and brash political mudslinging will be in full effect. It appears that we have already crowned the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees -- still more than two years out -- and no one seems to think twice about it. Legacy political families have created an oligarchical interpretation of American democracy. A "wait-your-turn," unspoken manifesto in politics which says that only with a long and enduring insider career can you check the appropriate boxes to assume higher office.

This interpretation has prevented us from reaching real solutions within a host of issues. These include: shifting economic policy to reflect today's enormous income inequality and long-term unemployment, raising the minimum wage to a real livable income, curbing corporate wealth and instituting fair financial practices to reinvent a competitive marketplace, making real investments in infrastructure, research and development, and emerging industries, counteracting voter discrimination and civil rights abuses, truncating spiraling student loan debt and concentrating on climate change legislation.

This can change if Elizabeth Warren runs for president.

Senator Warren has the opportunity to invoke a precedent established in 1912 -- a moment in time when another reformer, this one named Theodore Roosevelt, broke rank from the Republican Party of William Howard Taft, ultimately creating the Progressive Party to fight for issues du jour.

Much like Roosevelt did to the Republican Party in 1912, a "fracture" of the Democratic Party is necessary for the greater public good. In 1910 at Osawatomie, Kansas, Roosevelt delivered his famous "New Nationalism" speech, a monumental address that argued for "the conservation of natural resources, a graduated income and inheritance tax on big fortunes, a judiciary accountable to changing social and economic conditions, workmen's compensation acts, regulating the labor of children and woman, safety and sanitary standards in the workplace, and public scrutiny of all political campaign spending, both before and after elections." The parallel between the issues now and then are uncanny.

This speech highlighted the divide between Roosevelt and Taft, igniting a restless electorate in the process. Similarly, Warren has the opportunity to excite the electorate by staging a challenge to presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. A fierce campaign primary would make abundantly clear the two leaders' differing methods towards a range of issues -- specifically financial regulation and reform.

A Warren candidacy will pit two wings of the Democratic Party against each other: the moderate, middle of the aisle, Wall Street-backed elites versus the minority, big reform, progressives. When Roosevelt and his top generals debated whether to break off and form their own party should he lose the Republican nomination -- an equivalent to political suicide -- the answer was unanimous: Do what was needed to be done for the greater public good. That brand of courage seems lost in today's day and age, but can be recaptured by electing a strong progressive candidate.

While many would say that Senator Warren running for president would brandish her own version of political suicide, the numbers suggest differently. Although Clinton has retained Wall Street executives as primary donors, the core of Bill Clinton's fundraising apparatus, and Super PACs from ex-Obama and Kerry teams, conversely, Warren has been able to boast a considerable feat, namely, that over 80 percent of her Senate campaign contributions were less than $50. Her 2012 campaign represented a vote of no confidence for the established political order.

The public has taken note of Warren's fierce progressivism. Analysts discuss her assertive and surgical tone against the banks and Wall Street executives coupled with her simplistic, yet professorial temperament in breaking down complex issues. Online activists point to the viral YouTube videos of her skewering top government officials in Senate Banking Committee panels on issues like mortgage-backed securities, derivatives and credit-default swaps, by asking simple, yet powerful questions such as: "When was the last time you actually took a big bank to trial?"

Put simply, Warren represents the strongest counterweight to the influence of moneyed interests over our political process. We saw this potential prior to her entrance into public office, when she formulated the idea for and crafted the charter of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the financial industry's first real regulatory check protecting the everyday American. We continue to see it today with the introduction of student loan reform legislation and her tireless advocacy on raising the minimum wage.

When Roosevelt "threw his hat in the ring," he shifted the tone and framework of debate towards social and economic reform, enlarging the growing enthusiasm and frustrations of the middle and lower classes. During this Progressive Era, we witnessed changes to our Constitution in the form of the 16th, 17th, and 19th Amendments, the establishment of antitrust legislation curbing corporate power, sweeping labor reforms to protect the American worker, and a move towards personal economic liberty. By the same token, a President Warren would present a moment in time to elect a progressive candidate and shift our policy debates to focus on income and opportunity inequality.

If Warren doesn't run, we risk electing another round of legacy politicians who have become engrained with corporate interests, kicking the metaphorical can down the road and deferring real action in reforming our government -- losing an opportunity to rethink national security, social services, the environment, education and urbanization, and poverty. With 47 million Americans currently living under the poverty line, we can't afford to wait another eight years to initiate genuine change.

Though Roosevelt was not elected in 1912, this did result in the election of then-New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Because Roosevelt attacked the status quo and forced a progressive crescendo throughout the country, we subsequently experienced the largest era of reform under Wilson's New Freedom, which carried on through FDR's New Deal, and culminated with LBJ's Great Society. The energy of reform injected from the late 19th Century to early 20th Century set a precedent for the following 60 years. We've now reached a similar moment in time where the accumulation of wealth and corruption has battered American democracy. With Elizabeth Warren running for president in 2016, we can begin to shift course and create a modern policy agenda the great reformers of American history would be proud of. Your call, Madam Senator.