Elizabeth Warren was a registered Republican for much of her adult life—while not a secret, it’s a fact that, if one isn’t a rabid reader of political news, can be surprising. As a profile in Politico magazine makes clear, Warren’s shift from an academic who once decried the “quasi-socialist safety net to rival the European model” in a book she wrote in 2003 to a champion of Medicare for All and and a critic of the worst excesses of capitalism was an organic political evolution rooted in genuine concern for the suffering of American families, and one that occurred years before she entered politics. It’s a political transformation that feels distinct from other candidates moving left or right with shifting political winds.
As Politico magazine put it:
The story of Warren’s awakening—from a true believer in free markets to a business-bashing enforcer of fair markets; from a moderate Republican who occasionally missed an election to one of the most liberal senators in America vying to lead the Democratic Party—breaks the mold of the traditional White House contender and is key to understanding how she sees the world: with a willingness to change when presented with new data, and the anger of someone who trusted the system and felt betrayed.
Some people who knew her as a young woman, when she was, as a high school friend put it, a “diehard conservative,” are surprised by her evolution. “I remember the first time I became aware of her as a political person and heard her speak, I almost fell off my chair,” Rutgers law professor Gary Francione, who was a colleague of Warren’s at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s, told Politico magazine.
Francione added: “She’s definitely changed. It’s absolutely clear that something happened.”
What that something was, according to Warren, was seeing the real-world impacts of bankruptcy on American families, as part of a research project she began in the 1980s. As she told the Intercept in 2018, that work was eye-opening.
“Terry and Jay went into that with a pretty sympathetic lens that these are people, let’s take a look, give them the benefit of the doubt that they had fallen on hard times,” Warren said, referring to her co-researchers. “I was the skeptic on the team.”
It was a skepticism informed by her own family’s experience of financial struggle. “I had grown up in a family that had been turned upside down economically, a family that had run out of money more than once when there were still bills to pay and kids to feed—but my family had never filed for bankruptcy,” she told the Intercept. “So I approached it from the angle that these are people who may just be taking advantage of the system. These are people who aren’t like my family. We pulled our belts tighter, why didn’t they pull their belts tighter?”
Her research, however, turned her assumptions on their end. As she started digging into people’s bankruptcy files, the “world slowly starts to shift for me, and I start to see these families as like mine—hard-working people who have built something, people who have done everything they were supposed to do the way they were supposed to do it,” she said to the Intercept. She saw families who “had been hit by a job loss, a serious medical problem, a divorce or death in the family, and had hurtled over a financial cliff.” Warren continued: “And when I looked at the numbers, I began to understand the alternative for people in bankruptcy was not to work a little harder and pay off your debt. The alternative was to stay in debt and live with collection calls and repossessions until the day you die. And that’s when it began to change for me.”
As the law professor Calvin Johnson, who worked with Warren at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s told Politico magazine, “She really did have a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion when she saw the bankrupt consumers really were suffering—forced into bankruptcy by illness, firing or divorce—and not predators.”
Still, Warren remained a registered Republican, though not a partisan one, voting for Republicans and Democrats alike (though not, as she noted, for Ronald Reagan).
Her switch to the Democratic Party came in 1996, shortly after she was appointed to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission to study our nation’s bankruptcy laws. But it was in 2005, when President George W. Bush signed a business-friendly law that made it harder for people to declare bankruptcy and erase their debts, that Warren became the political person we know today.
“Then it becomes really partisan after that, because I realize ‘nonpartisan’ just isn’t working,” Warren told Politico magazine. “‘Nonpartisan’ means that families who have already been kicked in the gut over and over just get kicked a few more times so that a handful of giant institutions can boost their profit margins.”
She added: “By then it’s clear: The only allies I have are in the Democratic Party, and it’s not even the majority of Democrats.”