Make no mistake: One of the major themes at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) was invented by one of its keynote speakers. A little more than a year ago, Elizabeth Warren* told a supporter in a living room in Andover, Massachusetts, that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” What she meant was that American business thrived because it took root in a stable democracy that looked after the common good and invested in roads and education. She expanded that: Anyone who’s benefited has an intergenerational responsibility to pay the fruits of that investment forward.
That idea has been borrowed by nearly every speaker at the DNC, and Warren repeated it last night when she teed up for former President Bill Clinton. “I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives,” she said. “An America that created Social Security and Medicare so that seniors could live with dignity; an America in which each generation built something solid so that the next generation could build something better.” It was a refined, amped up version of the stump speech Warren has been giving since she launched her campaign last fall. She used her biography—the daughter of a janitor and a sister to military men, Warren rose to become a Harvard Law professor—to hammer home the the point that we build things together. In doing so, she repudiated the idea that celebrating individual achievement means we can’t acknowledge the help we've received. Her best lines last night were reprised from an Obama fundraiser in June.: “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people. And that's why we need Barack Obama.” That brought the convention to its feet.
Warren’s speech highlighted the casual personableness that made her famous when she started to appear on The Daily Show and on NPR as a bankruptcy expert but had struggled to translate to a larger stage. Going up against Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, she's had to learn how to do it with more attention and more criticism than most first-time politicians. One of the most striking things about Michelle Obama’s speech Tuesday was how much better she was than when she first appeared four years ago; Warren’s polished and smoothed her big-stage political speeches in less than a year.
The Democrats weaved the pro-business theme—they trotted out small-business owners who said, repeatedly, that no, they didn’t build that alone—while trying to reassure women that that the Democratic party is truly there for them. Sprinkled among the small businessmen speakers were the women who warned Democratic voters that Republicans want to dismantle women’s health clinics and redefine rape. Warren has always talked about the economy in a way that celebrates women as workers along with men. She’s been able to talk about economics in a casually feminist way, and represented a feminist ideal, even as she highlights her very traditional youth, Sunday School teacher-tenure, and three grandchildren.
At the outset, Warren said how honored she was to speak before a man who “had the good sense to marry one of the coolest women on the planet.” Hillary’s not the only Democratic spouse liberals have to look up to, though—a point Clinton hammered home when he said that Obama had the good sense to marry Michelle. Maybe soon there will be as many men clapping in the audience for their political spouses as there are women, but the Democrats are giving women a real platform at their convention. Speakers talk about a diverse, inclusive America, and then cameras can pan across a crowd that reflects a diverse, inclusive country. Last night's message continued the theme of middle-class populism. What’s new about this convention is how well the Democratic party is embracing that so explicitly—not identity politics as a sop for votes but a politics that is really driven by identities. The Democrats have decided who they’re trying to motivate. And they have Warren to thank for helping them figure it out.
*Full disclosure: Tyagi is chair of The American Prospect’s board of directors and is chair of the board of the magazine’s publishing partner, De¯mos.