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Elizabeth Warren’s Theory of Everything

The Massachusetts senator is pitching her campaign as a war on corruption in the broadest sense.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

How a presidential candidate announces their bid can speak volumes. Hillary Clinton unveiled her 2016 campaign with a well-crafted video that showcased a diverse slate of ordinary Americans. President Donald Trump descended a golden escalator in Trump Tower to give a freewheeling speech where he referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. His audience, which consisted of hired actors, did not get paid by the Trump campaign until after the firm that booked them filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts took a different tack on Monday when she announced the formation of an exploratory committee for her 2020 bid, a move that’s tantamount to declaring one’s candidacy. Warren is the first major Democrat to make the move, and she won’t be the last. Her video announcement begins with standard fare—a recap of her life story and her career arc—before switching to her vision for governing the country.

Most candidates offer bromides about American greatness, or describe in vague terms the issues they’d tackle as president. But Warren went a step further, offering a grand unified theory for how things went awry in modern American democracy and framing her entire agenda around a single issue.

“Today, corruption is poisoning our democracy,” she says in the video, as footage of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders scrolls by. “Politicians look the other way while big insurance companies deny patients life-saving coverage, while big banks rip off consumers, and while big oil companies destroy this planet. Our government’s supposed to work for all of us, but instead it has become a tool for the wealthy and well-connected.”

Anti-corruption is familiar ground for presidential candidates trying to position themselves as outsiders who will fix Washington. Trump argued that his prodigious wealth made him incorruptible, empowering him to “drain the swamp.” The truth turned out to be quite the opposite, of course, but it was an effective campaign message against an established political force like Clinton.

But Warren tied her anti-corruption message to Democratic talking points on progressive issues. “How did we get here?” she asks at one point. “Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice. They crippled unions so no one could stop them, dismantled the financial rules meant to keep us safe after the Great Depression, and cut their own taxes so they paid less than their secretaries and janitors.”

Warren isn’t the first Democratic candidate to rail against insurance companies or fossil fuels. Her pitch, however, is that what ails modern American democracy is not just about policy, but power. “The whole scam is propped up by an echo chamber of fear and hate designed to distract and divide us,” she says over footage of Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, as well as Trump officials like Stephen Miller. “People who will do or say anything to hang onto power point the finger at anyone who looks, thinks, prays, or loves differently than they do.”

For two years, Democrats have debated how best to confront Trump. Should they highlight relatively esoteric matters, like his potential violations of the Emoluments Clause? How much weight should the Russia investigation—and Trump’s campaign to hinder it—receive? Should more attention be given to meat-and-potatoes policy issues like healthcare and economic growth? Warren answers with a broad brush, essentially casting the modern Republican Party as an outgrowth and a contributor of the self-dealing forces that elevated Trump to the presidency.

In a New York magazine profile in July, Warren said that opposing corruption “is becoming a much more defining part of my work.” The next month, she introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a sprawling bill that would impose new lobbying requirements, rewrite campaign finance rules, and tackle a wide range of other good-government reforms. In her speech announcing the bill, Warren argued that corruption was not just a by-product of Trump’s rise, but enabled by it as well.

She cited polling that found only 18 percent of Americans have confidence in the government’s ability to do the right thing. “The way I see it, a loss of faith this broad, and this profound, is more than a problem—it is a crisis,” she said. “A crisis of faith. This is the kind of crisis that leads people to turn away from democracy. The kind of crisis that forces people to stop believing in what we can do together. The kind of crisis that creates fertile ground for cynicism and discouragement.  The kind of crisis that gives rise to authoritarians.”

Fueling this problem, she argued, is the disproportionate wealth possessed by a shrinking number of Americans, as well as the outsized influence it allows them to wield in the American political system. “Our national crisis of faith in government boils down to this simple fact: people don’t trust their government to do the right thing because they think government works for the rich, the powerful and the well-connected and not for the American people,” she said. “And here’s the kicker: They’re right.”

The term “corruption” typically evokes government officials, but one of Warren’s most intriguing legislative proposals focuses on remedying it in corporate governance instead. Her Accountable Capitalism Act would require big businesses to obtain federal charters and make decisions based on public interests as well as those of shareholders. Its central proposal may be its most radical one: The bill would require corporations to let workers elect 40 percent of the board members, and give them a voice in determining when the corporation spends funds for political purposes.

What’s at stake here isn’t corruption in its most cartoonish form, like Thomas Nast cartoon characters passing burlap sacks of cash to one another. Instead, Warren casts the Trump era (and what led to it) as a crisis for civic virtue. Her goal isn’t just to limit obscene self-enrichment in everyday life, but to channel American political and economic life toward improving the public welfare. It’s an audacious goal that may be beyond any president’s ability to accomplish in a four-year term. But it certainly seems like it’s worth a shot.

Whether Warren can actually win the Democratic nomination is uncertain. More than a dozen other top contenders are mulling bids, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. Warren’s highly publicized use of a DNA test to prove her distant Native American ancestry also sparked concerns among supporters that it amounted to a self-inflicted political wound. Even if she’s not the party’s standard-bearer in 2020, however, she’s put forward a strong case for what a unifying message for Democrats should look like.