The inspiring, influential senator and bestselling author mixes vivid personal stories with a passionate plea for political transformation. Elizabeth Warren is a beacon for everyone who believes that real change can improve the lives of all Americans. Committed, fearless, and famously persistent, she brings her best game to every battle she wages. In Persist, Warren writes about six perspectives that have influenced her life and advocacy. She’s a mother who learned from wrenching personal experience why child care is so essential. . She’s a teacher who has known since grade school the value of a good and affordable education.. She’s a planner who understands that every complex problem...
Publisher: Metropolitan Books (May 4, 2021) Pages: 320 pages ISBN-10: 1250799244 ISBN-13: 978-1250799241 ASIN: B08QBBDNXD
About the author: Elizabeth Warren, the widely admired former presidential candidate and a longtime champion of working families and the middle class, is the senior senator from Massachusetts. A former Harvard Law School professor, she is the author of twelve books, including A Fighting Chance and This Fight Is Our Fight, both of which were national bestsellers. The mother of two and grandmother of three, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, Bruce Mann, and their golden retriever, Bailey.
You Don’t Get What You Don’t Fight For
At last: election night 2020.
The three of us—Bruce, Bailey, and me—were piled up on the couch. Husband Bruce on one side, golden retriever Bailey stretched out on the other, and me mushed in between with a blanket on my lap. We had a fresh supply of popcorn and plenty of beer. In memory of Sean Connery, who had just died, Dr. No was teed up on the television.
I was hopeful. But I’d been hopeful four years earlier, and we all saw what a dumpster fire election night 2016 had turned into. So tonight I munched popcorn and swigged beer with a mix of sky-high expectations and deep-down dread.
By the time the three of us had settled in to our eating-drinking-watching marathon and the movie’s opening credits were starting to roll, some results were already trickling in.
In came a text about the first presidential results. Actually, it wasn’t a text sent specifically to me—it was a text sent to a group of Democratic senators.
The very early news looked good, and one member of our caucus couldn’t wait to tell everyone about what was happening. The fact that exactly the same news was also on television/radio/internet/carrier pigeon and being shared with several hundred million people worldwide did not change the fact that senators were eager to tell each other what was going on.
Responses to the original text poured in. Emojis. Exclamation points. LOL and OMG and even a WTF. Everyone was a little giddy, but hey, it had been a very long four years.
And then more texts started coming in. Friends. Family. Former students. Folks who had been working for months in the trenches. “Have you heard?” “When will Katie’s results come in?” “Can we flip North Carolina?” “What the hell is going on in Miami?”
Bruce had to freeze the movie every few minutes so I could check the incoming messages. Not ideal, but I didn’t have quite enough self-discipline to turn my phone off. After all, what if the world came to an end while I was watching James Bond battle the evil Dr. No?
Besides, the pinging brought some good info. I learned about the behind-the-scenes fights to prevent ballots in Michigan from getting tossed out. I got the scoop on which parts of Wisconsin had already been counted and which were still outstanding. A friend described the timelines for getting the remaining uncounted votes in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Another explained the dynamics of the two Senate races in Georgia. Even my granddaughters were in on the action—our Bitmojis were getting a real workout.
Election night was long, but Sean Connery was terrific and the popcorn tasty. And by a little after midnight, two things seemed to be true. First, Joe Biden, a good leader and fundamentally decent man, would replace Donald Trump as president of the United States. (Thank you, Lord!) Second, at least for the moment, control of the Senate was uncertain.
It was a happy—but not a backflips-happy—ending to a tense night.
About two in the morning, I sent my last text. Bruce had been reading news reports out loud, but he gave up, too. We both brushed our teeth and switched off our phones. Bailey had passed out hours ago and was now lying half under our bed and half out. I stepped over him and got under the covers. But I couldn’t sleep. Change was coming—and I was making a plan.
In 2012, I was new to politics. In 2020, I was new to losing.
I had given my campaign for president every ounce of my energy. I’d laid out my plans and fought as hard as I knew how. And I’d lost.
I dropped out of the race on March 5. The next morning, Bruce and I bundled Bailey into our car and headed for a walk around Fresh Pond, one of Cambridge’s loveliest spots. I felt a little numb, not just because I’d lost but because for fourteen months almost every second of every day had been devoted to my campaign. Speeches. Team meetings. Airplanes. Town halls. Television interviews. Reading policy memos. Calling $3 donors. Writing plans. There was always something to do. Always.
And then—click—it was over. The curtain came down and my world instantly became quieter.
When Bruce and I got back from Fresh Pond, I noticed a message on the sidewalk in front of our house. In bright pink chalk, someone had written, “Thank you!” I smiled and went inside.
Our neighborhood is a bit of a jumble. Across the street is the oldest farmhouse in Cambridge—it was built in 1681. On either side of it are 1920s apartment houses. Down the block are rambling Victorians that have been cut into multiple units. The four houses on our side of the street date from the 1870s. The bumpy sidewalks are made of brick, so they don’t provide a great canvas.
But later that morning someone left a box of chalk outside, and more messages appeared on the sidewalk throughout the day. “Dream Big Fight Hard.” “Pinkie Promises Are Forever.” “Our Queer Family Loves You.” Children drew flowers and suns and ponies and rainbows.
Messages started overlapping and crawling up the driveway. Bouquets and notes piled up at our front door. Standing at our living-room window that afternoon, I teared up. So many people had been part of the campaign, so many people had worked so hard, and it always made me smile to know that millions of people had cheered me on from a distance. My race was over, yet I was feeling very loved. In fact, I thought I might just wallow in it for a while. I could nurse my wounds and think about all that might have been.
The next morning, I opened our kitchen door, which leads to a small porch on the side of our house. Out on the sidewalk next to the driveway was the biggest message yet. In two-foot-high letters, each letter heavily chalked in, was a single word:
I felt like I’d been hit with a bucket of cold water.
Yeah, I was bruised. Damn, I’d lost . But I had spent more than a year running for president because I cared passionately about making a lot of changes. And even though I’d dropped out, I still cared just as much about making those changes as I did when I was running.
I looked at the message on the sidewalk for a long time. As I did, I gave up any thought of wallowing. Then I said something to myself that millions of people have said to themselves after a painful loss: Suck it up and get back to work.
WHEN THE WORLD CHANGES
There was still plenty to work on. The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to hit our shores. The resulting economic pain would not be far behind.
Back in January, I had seen convincing evidence that we would soon be facing a dangerous pandemic. I’d issued a plan for immediately beginning to detect, treat, and contain COVID-19 outbreaks, and I followed it soon after with a second plan detailing the more advanced steps needed to address both the health and economic threats. Now, in early March, the coronavirus was taking off with a ferocity that was growing by the day. I gathered up those ideas from the campaign and began to push for an aggressive congressional response. I talked with then-candidate Joe Biden about the crisis several times, and he quickly embraced both a coherent public health response and a range of ideas for shoring up the finances of America’s working families, including providing student loan relief and expanding Social Security.
The challenges were enormous. Our government needed to dramatically improve access to masks and testing materials. We needed to funnel money to hospitals and small businesses. We needed to support state, local, and tribal governments. With hundreds of billions of federal dollars starting to flow, we needed oversight to make sure money went where it was intended. I teamed up with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a fellow member of the Massachusetts delegation, and we began thinking about how the government could determine whether communities of color were getting hit harder with COVID-19 and whether they were receiving the health care they needed. I also began working with Congresswoman Katherine Clark, another outstanding representative from Massachusetts, on how to keep day care centers open.
The need was expanding exponentially, but every attempt to mobilize Congress required a fight with Mitch McConnell and his Senate Republicans, who, typically, wanted to do nothing. Trump made everything worse by recommending quack cures and insisting that the virus would magically disappear any day. It was a big, stinky, dangerous mess.
So yes, there was plenty to do, but what kept echoing through my head was the financial crisis that had done terrible damage a little more than a decade earlier.
In 2008, I had been a professor at Harvard Law School, teaching my classes and minding my own business—at least most of the time.
I didn’t like politics, and my only real dive into that world had ended badly. Back in the 1990s, credit card companies started pushing hard to get Congress to pass a really ugly bankruptcy bill. I had poured my heart into trying to stop it, and in the end I’d failed miserably. But in the early 2000s, I saw a new problem brewing, and it was so big I simply couldn’t sit still.
For decades, banks and other financial institutions had been boosting their profits by tricking and trapping their customers. They’d used credit cards, payday loans, remittances, and overdraft penalties. Now they were making fortunes by misleading people about interest rates, fees, and other snares buried in home mortgage documents. Each year, these predators drove millions of hardworking people deep into debt. Black and Brown communities were prime targets, but the problem was spreading everywhere.
A number of federal laws were designed to rein in the bad actors, but responsibility for these laws was so spread out that no single agency felt any urgency about actually enforcing them. The Federal Reserve focused on monetary policy, not consumers. Banking regulators saw their mission as protecting banks, not regular people. Various federal agencies that should have gone after at least some of the predators chose to look away.
By 2007, the problem was getting so far out of control that I believed it might bring down our entire economy. If and when it did, tens of millions of families would get hammered. They would lose their homes, their jobs, their savings, their security. And none of this needed to happen.
So I had a plan: the government should create an agency with just one job—protect consumers. Using mostly existing laws, the agency could act as a watchdog to make sure that consumers weren’t getting cheated by financial institutions. Banks would be prevented from loading up on risk, and families would be safer. To me, the idea seemed as sensible as a good pair of boots.
But a lot of people saw it very differently. For more than a year, I taught my classes in Cambridge and then got on a plane to Washington, where I would knock on the doors of powerful people and try to warn them about the looming financial crisis. I’d talk about the idea of a consumer agency to members of Congress and staffers and heads of agencies, and mostly they would ignore me or pretend to listen and then do nothing. I vividly remember sitting in a congressman’s office in the spring of 2008; after I explained how the consumer agency would work, the guy laughed in my face. He literally leaned back and laughed out loud—and not in a nice way.
Then the world changed.
In the fall of 2008, the markets crashed. Lehman Brothers went bust, and a dozen other giant banks were poised on the brink of failure. Congress became so alarmed that a bipartisan group of lawmakers passed a $700 billion bailout for the big banks, and President George W. Bush signed it into law. The Federal Reserve started handing out money like a cafeteria lady slopping mystery meat onto plates as fast as she could. Not pretty, but plenty of it. Even so, markets continued to tumble, small businesses closed, and the unemployment rate doubled.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans lost their homes. Millions lost their jobs. And millions more lost their pensions or their life savings. Story after story came out about how Black and Latino homeowners had been targeted for the worst of the bad mortgages. There were stories about military families and seniors who had been cheated out of their homes, and stories about banks that made deliberate decisions to boost their profits by breaking the law.
The red-hot fury over how badly the banks had behaved and how poorly our government had policed those banks changed the mood in Washington. The banks suddenly had fewer friends, or at least fewer public friends. Various congressmen and senators declared that they were shocked—shocked!—to discover that banks were cheating. Gradually the idea of an agency that would protect consumers from financial predators took hold. But in a world that was still heavily influenced by Wall Street bankers and big corporations, the fight for real change was touch and go. More than once, the agency was left for dead.
We kept fighting, though, and in the end we won. In 2010, I sat in the front row of a crowd of people as President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank bill into law and, as part of that bill, created a brand-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An idea that had been laughable before the financial collapse became the law of the land. Now, a decade later, that tiny little agency has already handled more than 2.2 million consumer complaints and forced the banks to return $12 billion directly to the people they cheated.
A ONCE-IN-A-GENERATION CHANCE
The first lesson I took from the fight for the CFPB was this: you don’t get what you don’t fight for. That agency didn’t happen just because it was a really good idea. It happened because we fought for it.
The second lesson I learned was that during a crisis, the door to change opens just a crack. What had been impossible becomes hard-but-maybe-possib le. That’s the moment to fight with everything you’ve got.
I’m not naïve. I know that the headwinds will always be fierce and that change will always be hard. But a crisis like the financial crash in 2008 or the pandemic in 2020 shakes up the embedded order. In a crisis, people are forced to stop saying “This is how it’s always been” and consider a new thought: “This is how it could be.”
After four disastrous years, the election of 2020 was another one of those moments when the door to change opened. And what made change possible? An enormous, vital, incredibly powerful force: voters.
Turnout for the election was huge. Two-thirds of America’s eligible population voted in 2020, the highest percentage in more than a century. An estimated twenty million new voters turned out. Millions of young people voted. Millions of people of color voted. Millions of people—Republicans, Democrats, Independents—mailed in early ballots, found local drop boxes, showed up at the county clerk’s office, or stood in line on Election Day to vote. It was a massive outpouring of faith in the idea that voters—not a group of rich, distant power brokers—controlled this country.
And even after the main event—the presidential race—was over, people kept on voting. The Georgia runoff two months later brought 4.4 million voters to the polls, more than double the number who showed up for Georgia’s Senate runoff in 2008.
Voting is the beating heart of our democracy. When I learned a month after the 2020 election that more than 158 million people had voted, I felt a lot better about our country’s health. Each state’s final vote tally was heartening, but it was also the visible final step of a very long battle. The massive turnout—in the states and across America—was a victory for all the advocates, volunteers, and organizers who had busted their tails for years to get out the vote and fight for a better nation. And here’s the best part: I am confident that most of those who got in the fight in 2020 will stay in the fight for years to come.
And that puts us at this pivotal moment in history. The four corrupt and shocking years of Donald Trump’s presidency were topped off by a pandemic, an economic collapse, a national demand for racial justice, and a violent insurrection. For Trump’s entire tenure, crisis piled on crisis piled on crisis. Now we have a once-in-a-generation chance to build something new, to shake off who we were and decide who we want to become.
This remarkable moment is an opportunity for change but not a guarantee that it will happen. It is a rare chance to think hard about the policies we want to change, especially the policies that touch our lives every day and set the boundaries for much of what happens to each of us.
As a candidate, Joe Biden may not have looked like a progressive firebrand, but he and Kamala Harris ran a campaign promising the most aggressive economic, social, and racial changes in U.S. history. They won by more than seven million votes, receiving more votes than any presidential ticket in the history of the republic—and they accomplished this feat while running against an incumbent president. Measure their victory however you like, but there’s no question that it was a mandate for change.
Our country’s voters demanded a new approach to governing, and the most obvious power to make it lies with the new president himself. New administrative rules and executive orders can redirect significant parts of the federal machinery to work better for families. New cabinet secretaries and agency directors can use existing legal powers to put policies in place that will get our country moving forward again. With courage and determination, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and their team must use every tool available—administrative and legislative—to improve the lives of millions of people.
But change doesn’t stop there. For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats will have control of the House, the Senate, and the White House. When Republicans held a similar position in 2017, they delivered on one big promise: a $2 trillion tax cut that mostly benefited rich people. Democrats now stand at that same threshold, and we, too, can keep a promise—except instead of delivering more wealth and power to the already-wealthy and already-powerful, we can build on an America that works better for everyone else.
The 2020 election also proved that the country’s states are much more than helpless bystanders in a time of great upheavals. During Trump’s tenure, many states bucked his administration and enacted policies that made a lot of positive change. And on Election Day, several states quit waiting for the federal government and made some very progressive moves. Florida voted to raise the minimum wage to $15. Arizona voted to increase taxes on wealthy people to help fund public education. Colorado voted for twelve weeks of paid family leave for most workers. The values and plans that drive progressives at the federal level can also spark change locally.
The door to change is open. Now is the moment to act. Now is our chance to make the changes our nation so desperately needs.