Be it Bernie or Warren, left populism is on the rise

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U.S. politics is the most inherently dramatic politics in the world. It's also the most inherently meaningless: one probably because of the other. Strangely, that isn't the case this year: dramatic -- yes; meaningless -- no. But let me start with the drama. This season, it's about the race for the Democratic nomination.

The inciting motive, as they sometimes say in theatre class, is that candidate Bernie Sanders might win and threaten the power of the Democratic establishment, which includes the Clintons, the Obamas, Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

That's because Sanders, the protagonist (i.e., central figure, though neither hero nor villain) is a socialist. By his definition, that's pretty mild: nothing like nationalizing the means of production or the dictatorship of the proletariat. He's a democratic (or worse, Democratic) socialist, like his model, FDR. That means social programs like health care and free university, thus undermining the wealth of insurance companies, etc., which routinely provide the money that underwrites the power of establishment Dems.

So -- plot complication -- they enlist a rival to Sanders as a radical candidate. Enter Elizabeth Warren. She's a feisty Harvard prof critical of corporate wealth, but no socialist. She loves markets, when they're good. When Sanders fails to fade in the early going -- he's behind only Joe Biden in polls, and equal to him in besting Donald Trump -- they rally behind Warren. Suddenly there are bulky profiles in the New York Times and New Yorker ("In person, Warren is animated and folksy.") She rises mildly in polls. After the first big TV debate this week, the Times says she aced it and runs many pro-Warrren columns.

But since this isn't melodrama, or perhaps, since it is, they don't plan to have her win. She's far too left for them. Her objective is to erase Sanders. Once she's served that purpose, they'll ease her out and crown Biden, former Obama veep and eternal slave to credit card companies (based in his native Delaware) or, if he too fades, pliable others like Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose idea of adventure is working for McKinsey consultants, or Kamala Harris.

What keeps this interesting and not merely formulaic is that Warren is a character in her own right, with her own trajectory. She began as a mom, teacher and budding academic, who decided to study U.S. bankruptcy laws in the Reaganite 1980s, to prove that people lose everything because they're greedy or shortsighted. But she found the opposite: they usually crash because some unforeseeable disaster, like illness, leaves them destitute.

This turned her into a radical economic reformer. So she's that rare type: a true naif, ready to learn from experience. There are such people, like my friend from the Vietnam years, an army brat who decided to prove her college mates wrong by showing the righteous cause of that war. But she found there was no good reason, and became radicalized. Some journalists are like that: they believe, unlike many scornful sophisticates, in journalistic objectivity and practise it. These people keep life interesting and unpredictable.

Let me say, as a politics fan, that I'm rooting for Bernie. I get him, he's familiar. I consider his crankiness a political asset: it has an edge, versus cheeriness, which wears you (me, anyway) down. I dislike Warren's loquacious posturing to prove that she's a feisty older person (golly, darn, etc.) when she already is one. It's an unnecessary play-within-a-play.

But I may be wrong. Bernie could be a bridge too crotchety. Warren might be better placed to sell the anti-corporate stuff, which is where a progressive majority resides: on basic issues like health or housing. That's shown by the polling. She certainly won't collapse before the establishment and their choice, Biden. She hates Biden, the candidate from Visa/Mastercard. And the U.S. would be inestimably better off with her as president. Basically, she's not a fake.

At the least, the similarity between her and Sanders means this race is, abnormally, about something: a populist response from the left, to the right-wing populism of Trump and other -- to quote Canadian bard Stan Rogers -- smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go. Populism is clearly the zeitgeist of our time. It's just a question of whose version. So: Curtain up! Light the lights!

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star, where this column originally appeared.

Image: Senate Democrats/Wikimedia Commons

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