President Obama gave a terrific State of the Union speech last night. His message was broadly progressive in a wide variety of ways, really focused on economic issues which will help low and middle income families, which was great to see.
I was especially delighted by his announcement of a new executive order raising the minimum wage for workers who work for federal contractors, which is an issue that the organization I chair, American Family Voices (AFV), has helped champion. This is long overdue, but I am so happy the President has made this decision. It will improve those millions of low wage workers’ lives, it will improve the way government operates, and it will boost the economy because those workers will have more spending money.
Because everyone else in the political world will be writing about the SOTU today, I am going to write about another political leader, Elizabeth Warren, who I think is creating a new kind of progressive politics that will have a major impact on American politics for years to come.
Most politicians spend most of their speeches telling people all about themselves: the bills they want to sponsor, how effective they are, how courageous they are in standing up to somebody or another. It gets old pretty fast. But some political leaders follow a different path, wherein they turn from talking about “me” and instead talk about “we”. They believe in building a movement that will change things rather than just bragging about themselves and furthering their own careers, and because of that they do actually start changing things.
That’s what Elizabeth Warren does; that is who she is. Long before she became a Senator or public official, she was a fierce advocate for consumers and working families who had been chewed up and spit out by the financial (and political) system. She came up out of the movement of activists who wanted to help rebuild the middle class, and make it easier for young and poor people to climb the ladder into that middle class. And she still believes in that movement.
That passion for advocacy was on full display last week at an event in New York that AFV proudly hosted. This was the first big event Warren has spoken at outside of MA or DC since her election, so we were excited she agreed to come to New York for us. But we wanted to do an event that wasn’t just about helping one organization. We wanted an event that would help strengthen the entire progressive cause. Our co-hosts included a wide array of national and New York community organizations, online groups, unions, and issue advocates, and we were delighted to have them all involved. It was the breadth and depth and diversity of the progressive world fully on display, and the crowd was rocking: a sold-out, overflow-seating, people hanging from the rafters, boisterous, excited audience thrilled to be there. Other speakers included our MC Rashad Robinson from Color of Change, New York City Public Advocate Tish James, The Nation magazine’s publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, and NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. With a great band playing early and late, it was a progressive party done up the way it should be.
As you can see from the video below of the highlights of her speech, Warren gave an incredibly powerful and passionate speech, focused on the progressive movement and helping middle and low income Americans who are getting squeezed economically by the powers that be. She begins by talking about winning our battles together by building a movement, and she ends by showing her commitment to the issues and for struggling working families that gets the crowd on their feet in response. In her incredibly powerful closing, Elizabeth shows as much emotion as I have ever seen her show in a public speech, as she talks about how much it hurts her to think and talk about the people she has met who are being crushed by the economic forces they are facing. But, she says, it also “makes me madder than hell”. And then she talks about how “our time has come” and “we have found our voice”. It is powerful stuff.
The kind of politics Elizabeth Warren represents is at its heart a moral kind of politics. She doesn’t worry about party politics, as she has always taken on the powers-that-be of both political parties. She doesn’t shy away from a tough fight, instead she has always been willing to push for what is right no matter how powerful the lobbyists on the other side are. And it was fitting that the event we did with her was in a church, because the politics she preaches are deeply moral - the politics not of right and left, but of right and wrong.
She has become an icon for an important new kind of politics, a political movement focused less on the size of government than on, as she talks about in her speech, which side is our government on, everyday people or the rich and powerful. Her willingness to hold both big business and government officials accountable when the playing field is tilted in favor of wealthy special interests is something that has been all too rare in modern American politics, and it is the reason so many people are responding to her the way the crowd in that New York City church was.
And it isn’t just activists who are responding: she is remarkably effective, especially for a first year Senator. It is clear that her calls for tougher Wall Street prosecution drove the bigger, tougher settlements JP Morgan and other bankers have had to agree to in the last year. Larry Summers would be the Fed Chair if it wasn’t for her. Her speech on Social Security was a major factor in taking discussion of Social Security cuts off the table for the time being. And her passionate pursuit of a higher minimum wage have helped create the atmosphere that led to President Obama’s executive order and focus on the issue in his SOTU.
What AFV is seeking to build is a broad national movement around this brand of politics. We want to help Elizabeth Warren and other progressive allies take on the powers that be and fight the good fight for the American people no matter who is on the other side. When she said that “our time has come”, I believe she was right, but only if we join her in the battle. When she said “we have found our voice”, she wasn’t talking about her being the voice of progressives, she was saying we all have to find our voice and join this movement. Join is in that fight by signing up on our website, and enjoy watching Elizabeth Warren at her best. Watch to the end, it is amazing: