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Joanna Weiss

The right way to get heard

Elizabeth Warren’s rant has gone viral. Elizabeth Warren’s rant has gone viral. (Reuters)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / September 27, 2011

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THE GOP gets all the credit for angriness these days, what with those Tea Party folks shouting for death at Republican debates. But last week, the left spent a lot of time dealing with anger of its own - or, more specifically, ways to overcome a lack of sufficient anger from the president.

Now, in fairness, Barack Obama was elected amid hopes that he would usher in a novel age of peace.

No matter; progressives have been actively seeking a source of fury. And in Massachusetts, they now have senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren, whose mini-rant about fair taxes for the rich, filmed at a pre-campaign event in August, went suddenly viral last week.

The point Warren makes in the video is hardly new: that even entrepreneurs couldn’t do what they do without a government providing infrastructure and public safety. It’s the delivery that makes it sing. Warren injects just the right amount of conversationalism and sarcasm - “You built a factory out there? Good for you!’’ - guaranteeing herself a fanbase and a fundraising tool for the MoveOn.org set. (“THAT is how it is done. THAT is how you fight back hard,’’ one liberal website gushed last week.)

How you don’t do it, apparently, is by attempting to flood Lower Manhattan with furious young protesters, some of them wearing masks and climbing flagpoles. The “#OccupyWallStreet’’ movement, a collection of several hundred of the nation’s self-described “underemployed and overeducated,’’ launched on Sept. 17 and has taken a slow road to public recognition. The whole affair only went viral on Saturday, when someone uploaded video of a police officer calmly pepper-spraying a group of female protesters - who were shouting loudly but nonviolently, having already been herded into a pen.

That was attention-getting and appalling, to be sure. Before then, the lack of notice seemed to baffle the protesters and their backers - including Current TV’s Keith Olbermann, who posited that a similarly sized Tea Party protest would have gotten blanket coverage. Some YouTube commenters seemed surprised that the police, as working folks and union members to boot, wouldn’t set aside their weapons and join the protesters inside the pens.

This is the problem with overstated expectations, and with confusing high emotion with effectiveness. The protesters’ stated goal was to turn Wall Street into Tahrir Square, but too many Americans do have jobs to make an Arab-Spring-style uprising even possible. It’s hard to take a protest fully seriously when it looks more like a circus - some participants seem to have taken a chute straight from Burning Man - and when it’s organized by a Canadian magazine and a computer-hacking group. (Also, organizers first declared that they would draw 20,000 protesters, but only 1,000 showed up. That’s not a media conspiracy. It’s math.)

All of which explains why, when it comes to channeling liberal rage - or liberal sarcasm, which sometimes works just as well - Elizabeth Warren has a much better shot. Indeed, in a race that’s getting national attention, she may have found the perfect medium for her corporate-accountability message.

She gets an extraordinary bully pulpit, a chance to inject the national conversation with franker, starker language than she could get away with as head of a D.C. consumer-protection agency. She can be angrier, as a candidate, than Obama can be as president. If her campaign is about ideas, and not about Brown per se, then she becomes the de facto national spokeswoman for middle-class angst.

Yes, winning is hardly a guarantee, given a long primary fight, an unpredictable electorate, and the fact that Scott Brown is a champion campaigner. But Warren doesn’t have to win this race - or even the primary - to gain victory, overall.

If she loses, she has Harvard to go back to, or maybe her own show on cable news. In the meantime, she has amplified her argument, without the need to shriek or climb a flagpole for effect.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.