The forgotten reactionary Elizabeth Warren
The so-called horseshoe theory of politics, according to which the right and left inevitably converge on various questions, is pervasive largely because it is true. When Dennis Kucinich was asked whom he would consider naming as his running mate if his quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination succeeded, he named Ron Paul, his endearingly bizarre Republican counterpart. During his long tenure in the House, Paul was also known for his good working relationship with Massachusetts' Barney Frank, founded upon what Frank referred to as their mutual status as "conspicuous non-worshipers at the Temple of the Fed and of the High Priest Greenspan." Reactionaries and progressives both reject the consensus as rotten. Their views on what should replace it will not be wholly dissimilar.
This is why it should come as no surprise that Elizabeth Warren has her fair share of conservative admirers, The New York Times' Ross Douthat among them. It would be difficult to think of any American politician not named Rick Santorum who has made a more reactionary argument than the one at the center of Warren's 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap. Its wide-ranging conclusions are too numerous to summarize here, but the central one is that, generally speaking, the exodus of women from the home into the workforce that began in the 1970s has been a disaster for women, who find the infinite responsibilities of child-rearing compounded with the drudgery of wage labor; for families, who are now twice as vulnerable to the pitfalls to unemployment — a disaster for everyone, in fact, except corporations who have benefited from the vast pool of cheap and readily exploitable labor provided by women over the last four or so decades: "As millions of mothers poured in the workplace," Warren writes, "it became increasingly difficult to put together a middle-class life on a single income. The combination has taken these women out of the home away from their children and simultaneously made family life less, not more, financially secure. Today's middle-class mother is trapped: She can't afford to work and she can't afford to quit." The book, which is full of practical advice for families looking to transition to a single income, ends with Warren and her co-author, her daughter Amelia, arguing on behalf of a generous financial subsidy for stay-at-home mothers, a policy that might have been dreamed up by the Catholic heterodox economist E. F. Schumacher.
But Warren's incidental affinities with right-wing paternalists goes much further than the points made in this book, which was quietly reissued in 2016. On trade, for instance, she is far more radical than President Trump, arguing in 2018 that the opening of Chinese markets has been a bad thing for both the United States and China. She has argued for a fundamental renegotiation of NAFTA, one that would protect the rights of workers both here and abroad and shore up environmental protection. "I am not afraid of tariffs," she said last year, insisting that they were a normal component of any sound trade policy. She is also, like many social conservatives and unlike the mostly libertarian base of the young emerging GOP, opposed to legalized gambling. She has been a resolute opponent of American involvement in Syria on the same grounds as most so-called paleo-conservatives.
The fundamentally reactionary nature of Warren's appeal is also bound up in her personality. Warren is many things, but an East Coast coddled exquisite is not one of them. She has the grit and toughness of a prairie housewife, which, in a way, is what she remains at heart. Her offhand references in her writings and speeches to peach cobbler and frying pork chops with a baby under one arm are not moronic affectations like those unreasonably demanded of so many female politicians these days but simply a reflection of who she is. She once wrote that she had done more good appearing on Dr. Phil's show for a few minutes than she had in an entire year teaching at Harvard — perhaps the greatest popular triumph for redneck populism since Gretchen Wilson.
Warren's vision of human flourishing is fundamentally a conservative one — or at least it would be if the family were still at the center of the conservative conception of politics. What she argues for is the right of families to thrive, not be the slave of financial interests, corporate power, housing monopolies, the educational establishment, or any other external force. She believes, radically, alas, in 2018, that we all have a right to food, water, housing, education, and medical care. The idea that hard-working Americans should be able to raise their children in comfort and with a sense of dignity is not, or at least should not be, the exclusive purview of any one politician or party. The fact that Warren very frequently does seem to be among the only elected officials in this country who both affirms these things and has taken the trouble to think carefully about them is a reminder that the centrism rejected by her and fellow travelers on the left and the right alike is not only noxious but omnipresent.