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The Warren-Brown Race: Progressive Populism vs. Conservative Populism

David Callahan

With Elizabeth Warren preparing to run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, an epic -- and telling -- electoral battle is shaping up that will pit one of the most eloquent voices of progressive populism against a star of conservative populism.

A common explanation of why mainstream Democrats like Obama have struggled to win public support is that they are too close to Wall Street and are clueless about how to channel Main Street's anger toward the nation's financial elites. None of this will be a problem for Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged as the arch nemesis of the big banks over the past few years. Warren has gone after Wall Street, moreover, not in some fire breathing left-wing way, but by repeatedly invoking the values of fairness, decency, and common sense -- all with a faint Oklahoman twang. It's powerful stuff.

But Scott Brown also has had a great rap, which is that he's an ordinary guy who is tired of all those liberal elites telling Americans how to live their lives. This anti-elitism has been drawing voters to the Republican Party for a generation and, in recent years, has been as strong as ever. Unfortunately for Warren, right-wing populists have scored big successes bashing her two most recent employers -- Barack Obama and Harvard University. Moreover, with Orwellian deftness, the right has cast the financial industry as yet another victim of over-reaching bureaucrats who want to wrap everything that moves in red tape -- with Warren, a high-handed Harvard know-it-all, dispensing the red tape.

But Scott Brown has a huge liability, namely his voting record. It turns out that he's been servicing Wall Street and other powerful interests even as poses as a friend to the little guy. His hypocrisy here speaks to the broader contradictions within the conservative movement: it plays to Main Street even as it works for corporate America.

So it is that the most exciting thing about Warren's candidacy is that she could expose the charade of conservative populism.