Fifteen years after the death of legendary liberal populist Paul Wellstone, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren came to Minneapolis to tell a story about a time in the late 1990s when credit card companies lobbied hard to make it more difficult for people to file for bankruptcy.
As a nonpolitical Harvard Law professor, Warren had been trying to answer why more than one million American families were going bankrupt each year. So she assembled a team of researchers, who contacted people across the country, asking what happened.
They found most were ordinary, middle class folks living standard lives when, suddenly, someone lost a job, got sick, or divorced. They'd start borrowing money from friends and family, cashing in their 401(k)s, holding garage sales, and pawning their wedding rings. After a while, interest rates would start levitating, and they'd end up with more debt than they could ever pay off.
Credit card companies wanted to make it a little harder for those people to get out of that debt. They crafted a theory that despite the public humiliation of bankruptcy, the surrender of all their assets and the eternal mark on their records, too many Americans were taking advantage of this safety net just to avoid their obligations.
While a bipartsian majority in Congress accepted this version of events, Warren recalled, Wellstone sided with her against weakening bankuptcy laws.
Twenty years later, the system has only become more sharply rigged against regular people, she told an overflow crowd Sunday at the University of Minnesota.
"These people see corporate profit and CEO pay shoot through the roof, while their own wages haven't budged in decades. Unions are under attack, and workers are pressed to give up more and more rights. Investment advisors want to rip off retirees to line their own pockets. Employers reclassify workers so they don't have to pay overtime."
The Democratic Party needs to "step up and pick a fight" on issues of economic justice, she said.
Warren's speech was a message of hope that insinuated, but ultimately circumvented, a direct diagnosis of the Democratic Party's problem. Which was that the Democrats had lost more than 1,000 seats in state legislatures since the Great Recession, then in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House.
You'd expect the nation's increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth to result in a revival of the Democratic Party, said cold pragmatist Thomas Frank, author of "Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?" But Donald Trump swept in and stole the script.
He pledged himself to the working class left behind by the recovery. He said he'd visisted the laid-off factory workers crushed by unfair trade deals, the "forgotten men and women of our country, people who work hard but no longer have a voice."
He reversed age-old criticism of the Republican Party and used it against Democrats, accusing Hillary Clinton of being the puppet of big business, bought media, and major donors.
"He was right when he said the sytsem is rigged. He's right when he pointed out huge parts of this country have been de-industrialized, and that is a terrible thing," said Frank. "What drives me absolutely crazy the day I heard that speech, and what drives me crazy every day since then, is those are things our side used to say."
He expected Barack Obama to make the banks hurt in 2009, after Wall Street had poisoned the world's economy and the American people wanted to see bankers in jail. But Obama continued Dubya's bailout, and blew the opportunity of a century to tackle economic inequality, Frank said.
That reflected a steady makeover in the former party of farmers and laborers, he believes, to what is now the party of the professional class that looks in the mirror and sees bankers, big pharma, and Silicon Valley, whose prosperity comes at the disadvantage of old allies.
"Many of our modern Democrat leaders falter," Frank said. "They cannot find the conviction and the imagination to do what is necessary to put this thing in reverse. Instead, what they do is they give us the same kind of high-minded policy platitudes they have been dishing up since the 1980s. ... There's nothing anyone can do about technology, about globalization."
Purge those Democrats who support corporations over people, advised Congressman Keith Ellison, recently elected vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
"The Democratic Party has allowed itself to be the every-four-year party when it should be the every-day party. The Democratic Party has allowed itself to become a battleground-state party instead of a 50-state party," he complained.
Reverse that, and the differences among modern Democrats won't seem so vast, Ellison said.
"We don't have to make choices between the rainbow coalition and the white working class. We can engage everyone. It doesn't matter if we're going to the inner city of Minneapolis or if we're going to Ely. If we say we're empowering you, the grassroots activsits, then you may be of any color, you may be of any sexuality."
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