Rebels with a Cause
The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Struggle for a New American Politics by Joshua Green. Penguin Press, 352 pages. 2024.
Among the many derangements that have lately besieged the American republic, one of the most stubborn and hazardous is the simple failure to make sense of what’s become of what’s laughably known as our political order. Ever since Donald Trump’s fateful seizure of maximum executive power in 2016, pundits, consultants, and social critics have strained themselves to explain the seemingly overnight transformation of American public life into a rolling guignol of grievance, vengeance, bigotry, and unhinged conspiracy-mongering. Single-bullet theories of the Trump phenomenon have run the gamut from the mythic civic outrage of a yet-more-mythic white working class to the Confederate choreographing of a retrograde culture war agenda to the recondite forces of tech-enabled disinformation and social media squalor.
Amid all this frantic and overcharged speculation, it seems somehow fitting that it’s taken a Bloomberg Businessweek political correspondent to point out the obvious truth of our historical moment: Americans have turned away from elite consensus politics because that politics grievously failed them, particularly in the aftermath of the great financial meltdown of 2008. As millions of working Americans suffered the disastrous fallout from the Great Recession, they saw the federal government move with all deliberate speed to rescue the banks and Wall Street financiers who’d engineered the fiasco. The result, as Joshua Green writes in The Rebels, was a desperate wave of mass disenchantment: “The sweeping totality of the financial collapse, and politicians’ failure to engineer a recovery for all but the best-connected Wall Street financiers, generated an intense anger among those who wound up on history’s receiving end,” he writes. “The great onrushing force of that anger upended American politics in a way that disfavored established politicians in both parties, whom voters understandably blamed for the crisis, and instead created an explosion of interest in outsiders with unorthodox ideas.”
Green charted the right-wing fallout from this abrupt realignment in his 2017 book The Devil’s Bargain, which chronicles the opportunistic alliance between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Now, in The Rebels, he takes up the resurgence of economic populism in and around the Democratic Party, focusing on the trio of party figures most forcefully identified with an expansive and principled distrust of financialized neoliberal politics: Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But to his credit, Green doesn’t ground his narrative in these three sagas of populist political celebrity; rather, much of The Rebels is taken up with the longer tale of how the Democratic Party became aligned with the forces of finance capital in the first place. That origin story takes Green back to the Carter administration and its failed effort to unrig the tax code in the interests of working Americans. Carter’s plans were laid low by the familiar obstacles to reform in Washington: the lobbying and donor class, and its retainers at the head of influential congressional committees. But more than that, Carter succumbed to his own political irresolution and ideological drift, ultimately electing to sign a 1978 tax measure he should have vetoed, endorsing a $20 billion tax cut, including to capital gains and corporate tax rates, as well as the first adoption of 401(k) retirement plans—all innovations that undercut his long-advertised goal of bringing fairness to a regressive tax code. The impact was immediate and stark, Green writes: “If you go back to the Great Depression and trace the share of wealth held by the richest 1 percent of Americans, it falls steadily until 1978, whereupon it reverses and begins a steep ascent that continues to this day.”
As Democrats sanctioned these investor-class giveaways, they rallied to meet the rise of Reaganism with a new stratagem to court big-ticket donors in order to erase major GOP fundraising advantages. The prophet for this new model of finance-friendly Democratic politics was California representative Tony Coelho, who was the finance chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Coelho argued that creating a new mega-donor base for the party would eventually free Democratic campaign professionals to create a long-term funding infrastructure based on smaller donations, and thereby restore Democrats as the party of the working class, consumer rights, and economic fairness.
Things didn’t turn out that way, to understate modern Democratic Party history. Both Coelho and the Democratic leadership caste were instead captured by big-money interests—Coelho in the sadly predictable manner of feathering his own nest and resigning from his congressional seat ahead of an ethics inquiry. (He then, yet more predictably, moved on to a lucrative career as an investment banker.) As for Democrats writ large, they came to regard the investor class not merely as a reliable sluicegate of ready cash but also the foundation of the emergent “New Democrat” ideology. Party leaders now brandished corporate credentials as proof of their savvy economic realism, rushing to craft self-styled entrepreneurial, market-based policy measures to reassure voters and donors alike that they were clued into the mystic workings of business innovation. Neoliberalism, in other words, became the calling card of up-and-coming Democratic politicians and policy hands like Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Barack Obama, and Tim Geithner.
Buoyed by the paper economy’s boom in the Clinton era, the neoliberal consensus soon became the Democratic Party’s ideological north star. With a terminally incurious political press egging them on, neoliberals became confident omnicompetent luminaries; the height of their influence came in 1999, when Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Larry Summers graced the cover of Time magazine under the stupendously oafish headline “The Committee to Save the World.”
Nine years later, when the Western capitalist world stood in desperate need of rescue, the Obama White House and a Democrat-controlled Congress worked in sync to prop up the now-toxic investment sector at the expense of everyone else. As Green writes, these top-down initiatives—pretty much the polar opposite of the FDR White House’s coordinated moves to reorder the banking industry and punish Wall Street malefactors—had by then become the taken-for-granted orientation of beltway Democrats. “For the better part of a generation, the leaders of Wall Street financial firms had held outsized influence in policy circles, often cycling in and out of government, as Rubin did, to implement their ideas. They inhabited an insular, close-knit world of almost unimaginable wealth and privilege.” Small wonder, then, that when the 2008 crisis cried out for serious reckoning with that high-flying policy world’s legacy of steepening inequality, Democrats completely missed the moment. “With no handbook for dealing with the collapse of an economy built on easy credit,” writes Green, “Democratic lawmakers turned to the bankers for help and produced a recovery that helped the bankers.”
At the peak of congressional negotiations over the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bailouts, Green notes, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded chiefly with a request to rebrand the giveaway in the most cursory image of past Democratic worker advocacy: “Even as [Treasury Secretary Hank] Paulson and [Fed Chair Ben] Bernanke explained to the emergency gathering in the Speaker’s office why Congress needed to bypass the middle class and give hundreds of millions of dollars directly to failing banks, Pelosi had insisted that political leaders mask their true intention. ‘We have to position this as a stimulus and relief for the American homeowner,’ she told Paulson, even though that was plainly untrue.”
As the 2008 bailouts proved to be a political calamity for the Obama administration, the stage was set for the long-deferred neoliberal reckoning. The Occupy Wall Street movement on the left assailed the bailouts as the heightened version of a labor-soaking, debt-driven status quo, while Tea Party partisans of the right derided them as the corrupt and plutocratic self-dealing of the Obama-connected power elite. The new prophet of real economic equality in the house of liberalism was Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, whom Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had tapped to lead a TARP oversight commission in Washington. In a series of high-profile hearings, Warren punctured the hubris and callousness of financial industry mavens and their D.C. retainers like Obama Treasury head Tim Geithner.
Warren used her perch to lobby for her appointment to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, instituted under the newly passed Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. But Geithner and other Obama allies blocked her path, which ultimately led to her entering into electoral politics, where she challenged the GOP senator Scott Brown, who’d won the special election to fill out the late senator Edward Kennedy’s term in the 2010 cycle of Tea Party rancor. The seat was an essential target for Democrats, and Warren took it handily in 2012, winning back many of the union and working-class voters who’d broken for Brown two years earlier.
Warren’s economic populist outlook gained a potent new platform in the Senate, where she worked to derail reported (and typically tone-deaf) moves by the Obama White House to name Larry Summers the new head of the Federal Reserve, as well as a bid to install Lazard Brothers banker Antonio Weiss as the undersecretary of domestic finance at the Treasury Department. These battles pointed the way forward for a new Democratic approach to issues of political economy, Green writes; even as Obama apparatchiks bristled at Warren’s attacks, they also recognized “they were working”:
Voters paid attention to them. This produced a big psychic shift in what people cared about, a kind of consciousness-raising that awakened them to arrangements and behavior they hadn’t noticed before but now objected to, a development no Democrat with political ambitions could ignore. . . . In the war between Warren and Wall Street, hers was the advancing army.
Party activists also took note; MoveOn.org launched a campaign to draft Warren into a presidential run in 2014, and an allied “Ready for Warren” movement took hold on the party’s left flank. But Warren, like much of the rest of the party’s power structure, ultimately deferred to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—which in turn opened the path for Green’s next dramatis persona, Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. Green, who has written long Businessweek profiles of Warren, finds his reformist ardor cooling in taking up the Sanders 2016 campaign. Warren’s decision to bypass a 2016 presidential run meant, in his telling, that “Sanders moved from understudy to lead actor in a national drama that was already in progress.”
In point of fact, Sanders already had claimed a leading role: in 2010, he delivered an eight-and-half-hour filibuster speech on the Senate floor, protesting the Obama administration’s craven extension of the George W. Bush tax cuts. The speech attracted a massive online audience that crashed the Senate servers and prompted a hurried and shamefaced public response from Obama and his last Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton. Green mentions none of this background, since it complicates the tidy chronology placing Warren at the unexplored frontier of Democratic populism. (Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, another long-standing critic of Democratic-brokered trade accords and a supporter of labor militancy, also only gets cursory mention in The Rebels, apparently on similar narrative grounds.)
Where Warren consistently comes off as a deft and pragmatic master of populist messaging, Green depicts Sanders as a quasi-religious, other-than-rational political leader. Early on in the 2016 primary cycle, he writes, Sanders commanded a cohort of “messianic followers” and delivered stump speeches steeped in “Old Testament fury.” The indictment of corporate greed in such appearances followed a standard “Sanders catechism.” The revival took hold most firmly among college-age supporters of the Sander insurgency “as millennials turned each other on to the ecstasies of Sanders’s progressive politics.”
It’s not just that such characterizations of the Sanders movement were already hoary cliches as political reporters dilated on them in real time during the 2016 primaries—though they are certainly that. They are, much more consequentially, a way of distancing the movement politics that fueled the Sanders candidacy from serious discourse. This, indeed, is the greatest analytical shortcoming of The Rebels: since Green’s chronology is mostly grounded in the shifts of tactics and opinion in the Democratic leadership caste, the mass politics of populist resistance tend to be consigned to the margins of the main action. Labor unions are treated as sources of voter mobilization, rather than policy directives, just as they’ve been throughout most of modern Democratic Party history. In their place, Green assigns vanguard status to media-driven messaging and tech-propelled organizational initiatives. He devotes a chapter, for example, to Mobilize, the liberal donor-and-activist software app developed by Silicon Valley VC mavens Allen Kramer and Alfred Johnson. He isolates key political inflection points in cable TV programing, such as an early Warren sit-down with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. He also argues that “the emergence of MSNBC as left liberalism’s cable news flagship and Rachel Maddow as its chief advocate-chronicler . . . gave shape and direction to the emerging left.”
If so, God help us all. It’s not just that solutionist life hacks like Mobilize, valuable as they are as time-saving and info-sharing breakthroughs, are not a substitute for face-to-face organizing, or that the Maddow-MSNBC mindset is counter-activist in its institutionalist deference and penchant for recondite conspiracy-tracking. It’s simply that cable TV and net-based data harvesting don’t really register in the formation of a mass politics; such a politics must instead meet the struggles for economic fairness that shape most Americans’ lives where they cut deepest—in workplaces, schools, homes, and the battle to extinguish the predatory debt and labor practices that disfigure the prospects of Americans on all those fronts. It’s telling in this regard that Green doesn’t track the Occupy movement’s later iteration as the Debt Collective, or that group’s crucial role in moving the issue of student debt onto the national political agenda; in the narrative logic of The Rebels, Occupy is there chiefly as a prophetic foretaste of the national political careers of Democratic populist leaders.
For all the book’s telescoped treatment of the Sanders phenomenon, the third figure in its subtitle triumvirate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off a stunning primary upset against Pelosi’s heir apparent Joseph Crowley[*] in 2018 and then became a new-generational left Congress member, is something of an afterthought, the subject of a scant twenty-seven-page chapter. Ocasio-Cortez, the only non-senator representing a reformist-populist future for the Democrats in The Rebels, experienced the fallout from the 2008 meltdown directly, with her family home facing possible foreclosure and her post-college employment options narrowed to a Manhattan bartending gig. But her role in Green’s account is once more that of the outsider prophet—a figure who adapts to new technology and nimble messaging mandates.
The moral of her rise, Green writes, served mostly “to widen the aperture of left-wing politics and introduce a kind of conceptual grandeur that others in the party, including many top presidential contenders, soon took up and amplified.” Green stresses AOC’s timely endorsement of Sanders in the 2020 cycle at a moment when a heart attack raised renewed questions about the candidate’s age and health, demonstrating that the charismatic new congresswoman “had more influence in the presidential race than in Congress.” Green also applauds AOC’s decision not to force a (predictably doomed) vote on Medicare for All legislation in exchange for her vote to keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker in the narrowly Democrat-controlled 117th Congress.
These are of course noteworthy moments in any reformist lawmaker’s evolution, but again, the problem is that they’re leadership-driven maneuvers rather than substantive policy and legislative moves. The leaders-first focus here is especially puzzling, since AOC and the other members of the “Squad” worked to advance key oversight and antitrust initiatives and kept a great deal of the ambitious climate-mitigation measures of the Inflation Reduction Act in play.
Then again, this represents another long-standing malady of Democratic Party strategizing. In addition to serving as a clearinghouse of neoliberal policy, the Democratic Leadership Council was founded with the mission of reversing the GOP’s long run of presidential wins in the post-sixties electorate. By focusing so intently on prevailing in presidential balloting, Democrats casually forfeited the congressional majority that served as the party’s principal source of power since the dawn of the New Deal. The Rebels furnishes a rich and compelling account of how leading Democrats veered away from the party’s prime mandate to advocate for ordinary Americans against moneyed interests. But Green’s book would have delivered a still more urgent clarion call for a dangerously listless Democratic Party if it had stressed how the cults of neoliberal managerialism and top-down executive power worked hand in hand over the past four decades of Democratic drift. It’s typically the job of rebels, after all, to deliver more power to the people.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly identified who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat in the 2018 primary. It was Joseph Crowley.