Among a handful of candidates, the Democratic primary has tightened into an “arms race to the left,” as one libertarian policy analyst put it to the Washington Post following last month’s debates. Senator Bernie Sanders, on Wednesday, delivered a major address articulating his support for Medicare for All — a policy that his fellow candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren says she supports. But as Sanders leans into his consistent record on Medicare for All, which distinguishes him from others in the race, Warren is leaning into her own reputation as a fierce critic of Wall Street.
In June, Warren announced her “economic patriotism” agenda. As part of it, she proposed the creation of a Department of Economic Development, which would — as Robert Kuttner noted for The American Prospect at the time — replace the Commerce Department, and direct research and development resources toward the creation of jobs. But on Thursday, Warren turned up the rhetoric. The latest installment of her plan, released on Thursday morning, has a more adversarial tone. It’s focused on her traditional enemy: Wall Street.
“For decades, Washington has lived by a simple rule: if it’s good for Wall Street, it’s good for the economy,” she writes in a Medium post. “Rich Wall Street donors have pumped millions of dollars into the political system to enforce this rule. And the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government ensures that Washington follows the rule on decisions big and small.” But that logic doesn’t hold, she argues; in actual fact, Wall Street’s golden days “come at the expense of the rest of the economy. Wall Street is looting the economy and Washington is helping them do it.”
Warren reserves special and specific ire for private equity, and portions of Thursday’s plan are based on a bill she helped introduce in the Senate the same morning. Along with senators Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders, she introduced the Stop Wall Street Looting Act, which targets private equity’s abuses. In her Medium post, which includes the act’s provisions in a broader proposal to rein in Wall Street, she recommends placing private equity firms “on the hook for the debts of companies they buy, making them responsible for the downside of their investments so that they only make money if the companies they control flourish.” Warren singles out Alden Global Capital for buying, and then devouring, local and regional newspapers, an example of a practice she calls “legalized looting.”
Warren also plugs other bills that she’s already tried to pass — like the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act, which she has repeatedly introduced in the Senate. If it became law, the bill would reinstate portions of Depression-era legislation that separated commercial banks from investment banks, a measure “aimed more at eliminating a previously common ripoff than at making banking institutionally safer,” as The New Yorker explained. And she plugs her Accountable Capitalism Act which would, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained, force corporations with revenues of over $1 billion to formally apply for “a federal charter of corporate citizenship.” The act’s provisions include a requirement that 75 percent of a corporation’s shareholders and board members would have to agree to authorize any political activity that the corporation undertakes.
These proposals wouldn’t just rein in Wall Street’s greedy excesses; they would restrict its political power, and make it more accountable to the government and to the public at large. To that end, she says that as president, she’ll appoint regulators that would finalize and enforce the rules governing executive compensation for bankers. Trump’s regulators, she said, haven’t just “chipped away” at those rules, they hope “that nobody understands these technical rules well enough to push back.” Her next sentence essentially sums up her entire approach to the primary race. “Well, I do understand them,” she writes. It’s a clear statement of purpose. Warren knows the rules. And if she is elected, she will be the regulator-in-chief.
Warren’s other proposals are, she asserts, intended to make the finance sector work for households that aren’t wealthy. She recommends postal banking, which would allow people to open up bank and savings accounts at their local post offices and thus expand banking access to underserved households.
In a field of candidates jockeying for the progressive moniker, the lavish detail of Warren’s war on private equity and banking establishes her as one of the most authentically left-wing options in the race. Whether her proposals will mollify all voters on the left is another matter entirely. Some, for example, don’t just want a regulator-in-chief. They want someone who will try to tear down Wall Street instead of simply keeping it in check, who is opposed to capitalism in principle, not committed to its salvation. But this is further than even Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, has indicated that he is willing to go. Warren’s plans might not bring on the revolution, but they would make American democracy more fact than aspiration — and that’s not a bad place to start.