vision 2020

Should the Left Unite Behind Elizabeth Warren?

She’s running. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In 2016, Bernie Sanders didn’t launch his bid for the presidency until Elizabeth Warren nipped hers in the bud. And, by most accounts, that wasn’t a coincidence.

The Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis — which prioritized “stability” for Wall Street above relief for underwater homeowners — combined with its embrace of fiscal austerity, had seeded demand for a populist challenge to the president’s heir apparent. But at the time, Warren looked like the most logical standard-bearer for such a cause. After all, she had been the most prominent — and effective — Democratic critic of Wall Street throughout the Obama years. The Goldman Sachs wing of the party was unanimous in its hatred for Warren, and she welcomed that hatred. Activists began building her the presidential campaign she never wanted. It was only after she turned them down, that a sizable grassroots campaign to “draft” Bernie Sanders took shape.

In 2020, Warren admirers will need no substitute. This week, the Massachusetts senator announced that she is exploring the possibility of a presidential bid. But so is Bernie Sanders; albeit, less officially. And this time around, it’s the Vermont senator who boasts the higher national profile, and larger army of door-knocking cadre.

All this has forced those in the left corner of the Democratic tent to confront the question: Now that Warren is (all-but) officially running for president, should Sanders stand down in the interest of uniting the party’s populist forces against the BidenBros and BetoBots — or is Sanders the superior vehicle for chasing the moneylenders from the Democratic temple?

I have no confident answer to that query. But here are few points that progressives (and/or socialists) might want to consider before picking sides in “emoprog” America’s impending civil war.

The fact that Warren is a “Brandesian liberal” — while Sanders is a “Debsian socialist” — (probably) doesn’t matter.
Bernie Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, spent his formative years making documentaries about Eugene Debs, and believes that there is far too much competition in America’s deodorant industry. Elizabeth Warren identifies as “a capitalist to my bones,” spent her formative years as the (now nonexistent) kind of Republican who believed that markets couldn’t be truly “free” unless they were well-regulated, and has evinced zero interest in nationalizing Old Spice.

These are significant ideological distinctions. They’re also (probably) of little-to-no practical importance.

Understandably, many on the left think otherwise. Here’s how the venerable progressive reporter David Dayen framed the stakes of “Bernie vs. Warren” late last year:

In the simplest possible terms, Warren wants to organize markets to benefit workers and consumers, while Sanders wants to overhaul those markets, taking the private sector out of it. This divide—and where Warren or Sanders’s putative rivals position themselves on it—will determine the future of the Democratic Party for the next decade or more.

Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara takes a similar (if far less neutral) view:

[Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act] would require the largest businesses to engage in “codetermination” with their employees, giving workers more say in management, and limit corporate political activity and what executives could do with their company shares.

But it relies on notions of “corporate citizenship,” and it’s clear in her Wall Street Journal op-ed promoting the act that Warren sees neoliberalism as an ideological shift that can be corrected while retaining many of the existing parameters of capitalism…But it wasn’t a moral failing that brought about neoliberalism, but a structural shift: corporations in the 1970s couldn’t keep up with militant wage demands from unions, the after-effect of the Opec oil shock and increased international competition…Without a broader ideological agenda, capital knew that it had to restructure itself and saw labor regulations and unions as impediments. Neoliberal mantras and ideology followed these developments.

The only way to undo that U-turn is to rebuild the trade unions and leftwing political movements that could actually bring about a different sort of political economy…It will be easy for Sanders supporters to spread their vision to people who feel unrepresented by establishment politics. With his relentlessly disciplined messaging, Sanders has communicated to millions exactly what he is about. It isn’t “corporate citizenship”, it’s creating a “political revolution” to get what’s rightfully ours from “millionaires and billionaires”.

Neither of these arguments seem persuasive. If Americans were electing an absolute ruler in 2020, then the ideological distinctions Dayen spotlights would be of real consequence. But in a world where Joe Manchin will likely have veto power over the next Democratic president’s entire domestic agenda, they’re irrelevant — if not incoherent.

As Dayen acknowledges, Warren’s reverence for markets hasn’t prevented her from endorsing the nationalization of the insurance industry, or a public option for banking. And Sanders’s thirst for decommodification hasn’t stopped him from championing a wide variety of regulatory reforms aimed at advancing “market fairness,” including reforming labor law and breaking up major Wall Street banks (notably, there are many American socialists who argue that “breaking up the big banks” is a poor substitute for nationalizing them; Bernie Sanders isn’t one). Furthermore, the notion that Sanders’s emphasis on expanding the welfare state makes him the socialist candidate — while Warren’s focus on increasing worker control of firms makes her the pro-market reformist — is somewhat counterintuitive.

All of which is to say: Warren may view the economy through a Brandesian lens, while Sanders sees it through a Debsiasn one — but after four decades of perennial defeat in the one percent’s class war, the left is a long way away from the point where that distinction begins to matter. Warren’s economic platform is virtually identical to Sanders’s. One might posit that they would prioritize different legislative goals once in office. But it seems unlikely that their priorities on that front would be wildly different. There is enormous activist energy, congressional enthusiasm, and public demand for health-care reform. That is not true of worker codetermination, or any of Warren’s other idiosyncratic ideas. And while Medicare for All is sure to attract the fierce opposition of the health-care industry, Warren’s Accountable Capitalism bill will antagonize all of corporate America. She’s not going to make it her top priority in 2021. The next Democratic president will try to do something on health care, and John Tester will probably have more agency in determining what that something is than said president will. What the other agenda items will be is unclear. But there’s little reason to believe that we can derive Warren and Sanders’s hypothetical legislative priorities by studying their disparate theories of political economy.

Sunkara’s argument — that Sanders’s socialist rhetoric and theory of change will make him a more effective catalyst for a radical mass movement — is harder to refute. But it’s also difficult to substantiate. Sanders’s 2016 campaign was immensely influential, and dramatically expanded the horizons of political possibility within the Democratic Party. But exposing a national audience to his disciplined class-war message did not prove sufficient for sparking mass political mobilization. Sanders mobilized — and radicalized — a significant number of college-educated millennials. But he didn’t come anywhere close to assembling the revolutionary movement Sunkara envisions.

What’s more, Sunkara overstates the difference between Warren and Sanders’s rhetorical modes. It is true that Sanders puts more emphasis on the necessity of mass mobilization. But it isn’t actually the case that Warren preaches corporate responsibility, while only Sanders condemns the billionaire class, and champions trade unions — as the former made clear in her announcement video this week:

America’s middle class is under attack. How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie. And they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice. They crippled unions so no one could stop them…Politicians look the other way while big insurance companies deny patients life-saving coverage, while big banks rip off consumers, and while big oil companies destroy this planet….Our government is supposed to work for all of us, but instead it has become a tool for the wealthy and well-connected. The whole scam is propped up by an echo chamber of fear and hate, designed to distract and divide us.

Socialist intellectuals might discern a crucial difference between this message and Sanders’s. But it seems unlikely that ordinary workers will.

All that said, the two senators’ ideological distinctions on foreign policy could actually matter quite a bit.
It is easier to define Sanders and Warren’s ideological differences on domestic issues than their disagreements on foreign affairs — not least, because neither had all that much to say about the latter until recently. Nevertheless, there’s some cause for thinking that Sanders has a more coherent, and radical, vision for American foreign policy than Warren does. And since the next president will be able to make profoundly consequential foreign policy decisions without Joe Manchin’s permission, even small ideological distinctions between Warren and Sanders on geopolitical questions could have major consequences.

Although Sanders was conspicuously reluctant to discuss foreign policy in 2016, he was a vehement critic of American imperialism in his younger years; in 1974, he called for the abolition of the CIA. More recently, Sanders has established himself as the Senate’s most passionate defender of Palestinian rights (admittedly, a title somewhat akin to “the world’s largest chihuahua”), led the opposition to U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, voted against increasing the Pentagon’s budget (even as Warren voted for it), and launched an international leftist alliance with radical Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis. Warren, by contrast, saves her sharpest elbow-throwing for the domestic realm. Her formal speeches on foreign policy are broadly similar to Sanders’s, but she hasn’t been nearly as aggressive in challenging Democratic orthodoxy on Israel, defense spending, or the Saudi alliance during her time in the Senate.

Elizabeth Warren understands financial regulation extremely well, and the president has a lot of authority over financial regulation.
This point is fairly straightforward. It is very hard to pass legislation in the United States — but, for that very reason, it’s also quite hard to take laws off the books. Thus, presidents can make an awful lot of policy simply by stepping up enforcement of — and/or reinterpreting — existing federal statutes. But first, they need to have a detailed knowledge of said statutes. And Warren is a leading authority on American consumer protection and bankruptcy law; Sanders very much isn’t. It’s possible, then, that a president Warren would be more effective at curbing financial predation than a president Sanders would.

The one-time Trotskyist fellow traveler — and CIA abolitionist — might actually be the safe, “electable” option.
Bernie Sanders once served as an elector for a Trotskyist political party —which called for abolishing the Pentagon budget, and extending solidarity to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. He is nearly 80 years old, a self-professed socialist, and is on the record as an opponent of criminalizing computer-generated child pornography (for sound, civil-libertarian reasons). And yet, there’s reason to think he’s the more “electable” left-wing option.

The Vermont senator’s national approval rating hovers around 57 percent, while Warren’s lies under 40. Sanders’s favorability numbers in Vermont (which is to say, with the constituents who know him best) are far higher than the state’s partisan breakdown would predict; Warren’s home-state favorability, by contrast, is roughly equal to what one would expect a generic Democratic senator to boast in Massachusetts — and her approval rating is also decidedly lower than that of her colleague Ed Markey. And although they have relatively little predictive value, in polls of hypothetical 2020 matchups, Sanders reliably performs better against Trump than Warren does. And then, of course, there’s that whole DNA thing.

Warren and Sanders will compete for the same pool of small donors and volunteers — but not necessarily for the same bloc of voters.
Finally, it’s possible that there will be room in the 2020 primary field for two enemies of Wall Street. Sanders and Warren will divide their party’s small contingent of deeply ideological left-wing activists and donors. And that faction might be overrepresented enough in the primary electorate to be significant as a voting bloc in a multi-candidate field. But it’s worth noting that the vast majority of rank-and-file Democrats don’t have strong feelings about their party’s internal ideological disputes — or, at least, don’t vote on the basis of an informed understanding of said disputes. For example, a recent Morning Consult poll found that Democrats who considered Bernie Sanders their first choice for president in 2020 ranked Warren as their fifth choice — behind Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Joe Biden.

It’s conceivable then, that Warren and Sanders won’t actually occupy the same “lane” in the primary, at least in the eyes of the electorate. And if they don’t cannibalize each other’s constituencies, then having two separate candidates on the primary stage calling for war on the billionaire class could do more to advance the left’s cause than uniting behind a single standard-bearer would.

On the other hand, if Warren or Sanders stepped down early — and threw all of his or her energy into electing the other — that would presumably give the left its best shot of keeping a centrist off the party’s ticket. But as of this writing, neither the progressive populist nor the democratic socialist appears interested in such collective action.

Should the Left Unite Behind Elizabeth Warren?