Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Two Paths for the American Left
This past week was perhaps one of the most important weeks in one of the most important election seasons in the history of the Democratic Party. Elizabeth Warren is on the rise. Coverage of her array of policy proposals and hard campaigning has put her in second place over Bernie Sanders in at least one national poll and a few state polls. Sanders, meanwhile, delivered a major address this past Wednesday defining “democratic socialism,” a self-applied label that sets him apart from Warren, who has called herself “capitalist to my bones.” Each putatively offers a different tack for the Party’s reinvigorated progressive wing to take against the current front-runner, Joe Biden, and President Trump in the general election.
But since Sanders entered the race many commentators have expressed the view that the substantive differences between Warren and Sanders don’t extend very far. “Why would Democratic voters choose Sanders when Warren is running?” the writer Moira Donegan asked in the Guardian earlier this year. “The two are not ideologically identical, but the differences between their major policy stances, on regulation of financial services and the need to extend the welfare state, are relatively minor, especially compared to the rest of the field.”
This is mostly true, particularly on domestic policy. A Sanders Administration may well pursue many of the proposals Elizabeth Warren has put out, from a progressive wealth tax to large new investments in affordable housing. Warren has backed Sanders’s criticisms of Amazon’s labor practices, and both candidates support the Green New Deal. There is a key difference, however, on one of the race’s key issues: Warren is a co-sponsor of Sanders’s Medicare for All bill but has yet to state whether she supports its call to eliminate private health insurance, a provision that other candidates who nominally support the Sanders plan have waffled on or rejected.
Can, or should, one draw broader abstract distinctions between the two, beyond these specific points of contrast? Donegan and others advocate for Warren over Sanders partly on the basis of Sanders’s tetchiness on identity politics. In February, for instance, he drew criticism for his comments on the political representation of women and minorities. “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age,” he said in an interview. He has also voiced concerns about adopting an overly permissive immigration policy and has declined to endorse reparations for the descendants of slaves, which Warren has said that she supports.
It should also be said that Sanders and Warren talk about foreign policy differently. In an address at American University in November, Warren suggested that, at some point during the nineteen-eighties, American foreign policy had been captured and derailed by the same moneyed interests that she argues have rigged the economy, further bloating the country’s military-industrial complex and fuelling reckless, expensive, and counterproductive interventions. “The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table—but they shouldn’t get to own the table,” she said. “It is time to identify which programs actually benefit American security in the twenty-first century, and which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors—then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts.”
Sanders’s critique of American foreign policy generally runs deeper and goes back farther. In his foreign-policy speeches, Sanders refers to decades’ worth of failures and moral disasters—including American support for the Iranian coup of 1953 and the overthrow of the democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, twenty years later—to make the case that American foreign policy has long been destructive, under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. “Far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm,” he said in a speech at Westminster College, in 2017. “Yes, it is reasonably easy to engineer the overthrow of a government. It is far harder, however, to know the long-term impact that that action will have.” He has also been increasingly critical of Israel, going so far as to say that it is now run by a “right-wing, dare I say, racist government” during a televised town hall in April. “I am not anti-Israel,” he added. “But the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu is a right-wing politician who I think is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly.”
But the starkest apparent point of contrast lies in how the two candidates describe themselves ideologically. Sanders calls himself a socialist; Elizabeth Warren identifies as a capitalist. The two ideologies, as traditionally conceived, are, on paper, diametrically opposed. You either believe that the productive constituent parts of the economy should be controlled by workers themselves or the state or you do not.
But Sanders has complicated things. His campaign is reportedly contemplating proposals that would expand worker ownership and management in the United States, and Sanders has sponsored legislation aimed at providing worker-owned firms with financial assistance and guidance. But worker ownership has not, as yet, figured largely into the descriptions of socialism Sanders has offered on the Presidential campaign trail.
The vision of socialism that Sanders has offered instead, in his speech this past Wednesday and elsewhere, amounts to a resurrection of New Deal liberalism. “By rallying the American people, F.D.R. and his progressive coalition created the New Deal, won four terms, and created an economy that worked for all and not just the few,” Sanders said on Wednesday. “Today, New Deal initiatives like Social Security, unemployment compensation, the right to form a union, the minimum wage, protection for farmers, regulation of Wall Street, and massive infrastructure improvements are considered pillars of American society.” In his speech, Sanders also offered a “Twenty-First Century Economic Bill of Rights” inspired by the “Second Bill of Rights” that Roosevelt proposed in his 1944 State of the Union, which includes the right to a job paying a living wage, quality health care, affordable housing, education, a clean environment, and a secure retirement.
Perhaps the bulk of the speech was pitched as a rejoinder to criticisms from the right. “Let me be clear. I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur,” he said. “But I should also tell you that I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades—and I am not the only one.” He went on to list a selection of those attacks, including Al Smith’s claim, in 1936, that the Democratic Party’s platform had come to resemble the Socialist Party’s platform, as a slur against Roosevelt and the New Deal. This was, remarkably, Sanders’s only reference to the American socialist movement. “Socialism” certainly was deployed as a slur by Smith, but Sanders said nothing to suggest that there might have been something good or admirable about the Socialist Party’s platform. There was praise for the programs of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Eugene V. Debs, a man Sanders once wrote an audio documentary about, was not mentioned once.
Sanders instead described socialism by dichotomy—on one hand, he said, there is “democratic socialism,” a system of social provision for ordinary working people. “We must recognize that, in the twenty-first century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights,” he said. “That is what I mean by ‘democratic socialism.’ As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.’ ”
On the other hand, there is “corporate socialism,” in which tax benefits, subsidies, and regulatory deference are offered to major corporations and the wealthy. “The truth is, corporate America receives hundreds of billions of dollars in federal support every single year, while these same people are trying to cut programs that benefit ordinary Americans,” Sanders said. “If you are a fossil-fuel company, whose carbon emissions are destroying the planet, you get billions in government subsidies, including special tax breaks, royalty relief, funding for research and development, and numerous tax loopholes. If you are a pharmaceutical company, you make huge profits on patent rights for medicines that were developed with taxpayer-funded research.”
Trump, Sanders posits, is the ultimate corporate socialist. “That is the difference between Donald Trump and me,” he said. “He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful. I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.”
On Twitter before the speech, Sanders’s political adviser Winifred Wong wrote, “Here’s what #DemocraticSocialism looks like in action: Medicare (& Medicare for All), Free public college, The US Postal Service, Public libraries, The VA, The polio vaccine, National parks, Fire departments. These are the basics of a decent society.” One might surmise from this list that the United States is already a mostly socialist country, absent a couple of items. In fact, in both America today and under the policy regime that Sanders has campaigned on to date, a particular class of private citizens owns and controls most of the firms in the economy and has an outsized say in the economic decision-making—albeit, in Sanders’s preferred world, with more social supports for workers, wealth redistribution, and regulatory control. This is capitalism.
It is probably worth revisiting, for clarity’s sake, Roosevelt’s own views on the New Deal and the American economic system. “It is following tradition as well as necessity,” he said in 1938, “if Government strives to put idle money and idle men to work, to increase our public wealth and to build up the health and strength of the people—and to help our system of private enterprise to function again.” In other words, Roosevelt argued that his policies would repair capitalism, restoring its capacity to fulfill the needs of the country. This is precisely the approach that Elizabeth Warren has taken with her campaign. “I believe in markets,” she told CNBC this past year. “What I don’t believe in is theft—what I don’t believe in is cheating. That’s where the difference is. I love what markets can do. I love what functioning economies can do. They are what make us rich. They are what create opportunity.”
Capitalism, of course, doesn’t make everyone rich and inevitably leaves some less able to avail themselves of opportunities than others—there will always be winners and losers, as much as reformers might work to dull the pain of losing. The American left, the true socialists, who are mostly aligned with Sanders, are growing in numbers. Young Americans, in particular, have been prompted, by the recession, by rising inequality, and by looming ecological collapse, to consider whether a system in which the owners and managers of capital make the lion’s share of economic decisions is just in principle. That’s a higher-level debate than we can expect to see play out over the course of the race, given that Sanders, at least so far, seems wary of posing this question directly.
Given this hesitance, some have suggested that the divide between Sanders and Warren can be framed as revolution versus reform, with Sanders encouraging a mass movement against a set of enemies rigging the economy—“a political revolution, where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy,” he said this past Wednesday—and Warren more interested in working within the system. “Nearly everything Sanders says and does leads back to this core belief in the power of ordinary working people to take on capitalist elites themselves,” the author Meagan Day argued in the socialist magazine Jacobin in April. “As he puts it, ‘Real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up.’ ” But Warren—and many other Democrats—often speak with similar language about the need for public action. “I can’t do this on my own,” she said in a recent campaign stop in Michigan. It’s going to be all of us. But here’s the deal: We have this chance. We have this time. We have this opportunity, together.” She also names many of the same antagonists Sanders does—the big banks and Wall Street, Big Pharma, companies like Amazon and Walmart, and the wealthiest Americans in general. “America’s middle class is under attack,” she said in her campaign-announcement video. “How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie. And they enlisted politicians to cut ’em a fatter slice. They crippled unions so no one could stop them, dismantled the financial rules meant to keep us safe after the Great Depression, and cut their own taxes so they paid less than their secretaries and janitors.”
It would be easy to end the comparison here and conclude that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are, after all, roughly comparable progressive politicians with only a handful of differences and disagreements for progressive Democrats to ponder. It would also be wrong. For as much as Sanders and Warren make similar diagnoses of our collective challenges and offer similar prescriptions, they could not be more different as people. The policy platforms and rhetoric their campaigns have offered are ultimately less significant than who they are and who they have been.
Warren, a longtime law professor, is a former Republican whose analyses of bankruptcy policy in the nineteen-eighties and nineties drew her toward a liberal understanding of the stressors and strains burdening the American middle class. The precarity she studied was a sign that the American economy was no longer working as well for ordinary families as it was for the bankers she went on to confront in shepherding the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and after her election to the Senate, in 2012. “I followed theory and tried my hand at what all academics did then in our field, and that was theory,” she told Politico Magazine in April. “I pretty quickly discovered not only that the theory was wrong, but it was deeply misleading.” Her goal is restoring a perceived balance. She is a progressive for whom the system’s flaws had to be proved—in studies, in data—before her crusades began.
Sanders, by contrast, is a man of political faith who has been on the left for seemingly as long as he has been politically conscious. He has been driven, from the beginning, by a particular moral vision of how the world ought to be. For much of his life, the version of that vision that he shared and promoted was true democratic socialism. “We do know a direction in which we should be moving,” he told the University of Vermont student newspaper The Gadfly in 1987. “Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production, it means decentralization, it means involving people in their work. Rather than having bosses and having workers it means having democratic control over the factories and shops to as great a degree as you can.” He said, too, that, as a student at the University of Chicago in 1960, he had been disgusted by John F. Kennedy. “Kennedy was young and appealing and ostensibly liberal, but I think at that point, seeing through Kennedy and what liberalism was was probably a significant step for me to understand that conventional politics or liberalism was not what was relevant.”
It’s hard to imagine that the Bernie Sanders of 1960 or the Bernie Sanders of 1987 would have much patience for the Bernie Sanders of 2019. But that more strident and more radical Sanders may very well be who he still is privately and deep down. It is very difficult to understand his attachment to the word socialism or his insistence on remaining an independent outside of the campaign season otherwise.
The Democratic primary campaigns have been remarkably policy-driven so far. As a consequence, there has been a little less talk about the matters that have often dominated Presidential politics, or at least coverage of Presidential politics—character, temperament, and personal history. These aspects of a candidate’s identity can be rendered superficially, but they can also be illuminating. An election sends a person, not a platform, to the White House. And politicians are ultimately more than the promises they make. One cannot understand how candidates might behave in office—how they might respond to unexpected situations or thorny problems, how hard they might push for what and why—without some sense of the passions that they carry in their hearts.
All that said, those who would like to see a President who has spent much of his life outside of and at odds with conventional politics, and who care deeply about advancing socialism in the United States—or, at least, are beginning to doubt that we can continue to patch and repatch capitalism into sufficiency—have ample reason to support Bernie Sanders, a candidate who was once a dedicated proponent of true socialism, even if he says little about it now. If you are opposed to or ambivalent about socialism or would prefer a President from a technocratic or academic background or a woman in the White House, you might give some thought to supporting Elizabeth Warren, a candidate with a deep and righteous conviction that the wrongs of the current economic system can be righted.
The nomination of either would represent a major shift leftward for the Party. That shift would ultimately be a restorative one, returning the Democrats to roughly the same ideological space they occupied not only during the New Deal years but as recently as the nineteen-seventies. Back then, wholly mainstream Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey were advocates of expansive government initiatives such as single-payer health care and a job guarantee. The victory of Clintonian neoliberalism has been, until now, so total that the most one typically hears about this period in Democratic politics are cautionary tales about the proud liberal George McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide, in 1972.
Fortunately for Sanders and Warren, they will be facing a candidate substantially less popular than Nixon was at the time and pitching themselves to an electorate that, according to figures recently released by the political scientist Jim Stinson, is more liberal than it has been in nearly seventy years. Whether the electorate is ready to appreciate or deeply consider distinctions within and between liberalism and leftism is another question.