Nathan J. Robinson: The Prospect of An Elizabeth Warren Nomination Should Be Very Worrying

(Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)

By Nathan J. Robinson
Current Affairs
September 23, 2019

Elizabeth Warren is leading the polls in Iowa, and I’m not surprised. You can make a seemingly airtight argument that Warren should be the Democratic presidential nominee: She has all the popular policies of Bernie Sanders, with none of the “baggage.” She’s capable of “unifying” the party—she is no less bold in her plans than Sanders, but doesn’t scare off moderates with the “democratic socialism” label. She’s got good ideas, performs well in the debates, and has a strong track record as a progressive legislator. Sure, some people might be personally loyal to Bernie, but, if you’re on the left and there’s not much of a difference, why not support Warren, who is younger and female and less alienating? And if you’re somewhat more towards the center, Warren is clearly a pragmatist at heart, someone who can be reasoned with and who even people on Wall Street can respect. Let’s just forget Bernie, a relic of 2016, and all settle on Warren.

Why, then, does the prospect of a Warren nomination make me deeply worried? What is it that makes me instinctively feel it would be a very bad idea? Why does it feel to me like there’s something so wrong about the “airtight argument” that’s difficult to articulate?
I think leftists have not always done the best job articulating what the difference between Warren and Sanders is. Okay, so he calls himself a democratic socialist and she doesn’t. But they’re still both talking about Scandinavian social democratic policies. If you look on their websites, you’ll see a lot of the same ideas. Warren is no “moderate”—if implemented, her plans would “remake the economy.” And given the political constraints operating on the president, are they really going to be able to govern much differently? Matthew Yglesias of Vox says:

“[T]here is no difference between them that is worth worrying about for even a minute of your life and… it’s frustrating how many people are committed to making things up about this.”

Personally, I feel that the difference between Sanders and Warren is gigantic, and that it could have substantial consequences for the future of the world. But I realize why this almost sounds crazy: On the debate stage, they mostly say the same things, and for a progressive they’re clearly the two best Democratic candidates. I understand that, if Sanders is the leftmost U.S. senator, and Warren the second leftmost, it seems nitpicky and fringe to disparage Warren. In fact, I’ve tried to refrain from criticizing Warren too much, because I think the difference between having either her or Sanders as the nominee and having someone else as the nominee is substantial, and if Sanders isn’t it then by God it had better be Warren. Yet I think it is necessary for Sanders supporters to fight hard to make sure he is the nominee. Settling for Warren should be a last resort.

Oftentimes, gut feelings express important information, even before you can articulate what was giving you the feeling. In 2016, something felt very wrong to me about the consensus that Trump would lose, even before I was able to articulate why it was wrong. For the last few months, I’ve felt very uneasy about Warren’s candidacy, but not quite sure how best to express what was giving me the feeling. I worried that I was just biased by my attraction to Bernie. But I think I know what I’m fearing. I fear this is going to be Obama all over again.

Let me see if I can sum up the differences that matter.

Strategy: Building The Labor Movement vs. ???? 

The strategy might actually be more important than anything else. One of the most important things Bernie Sanders has ever said is this: “I’m going to run the Presidency differently than anyone else. I’m not only going to be Commander in Chief. I am going to be Organizer in Chief.” What does that mean? It means that Sanders is not going to stop speaking on picket lines when he becomes president. (Trump did not stop holding rallies. This was smart.) This was a critical mistake that Barack Obama made: He stopped organizing when he got into office. If you do not organize, if you are not constantly out in the country helping get candidates get elected at every level, you will hold the White House and nothing else. I have previously discussed the way Warren focuses on “plans” while Sanders focuses on “power.” Everyone knows that Elizabeth Warren has a “plan for that.” But if those plans are going to go anywhere, you need what Sanders is talking about: a “political revolution.” You need to overthrow the existing Democratic party leadership in the DNC and in Congress. You need to threaten to run primary candidates against anyone who doesn’t support your agenda. You need a giant on-the-ground operation of people who will lobby for your agenda and convince Americans that anyone who opposes it needs to be ejected from office.

What I see in Elizabeth Warren is a law professor: someone who focuses on devising good plans, and then tries to get elected to carry out those plans. What I see in Bernie Sanders is a movement-builder: someone who understands that unless the president has millions of people behind them, ready to take to the streets, they won’t be able to cajole Congress into passing anything. And I think one of the fundamental problems with Barack Obama was that he was a law professor: He came up with a plan, and if he didn’t have the votes in Congress to pass it, that was that: The plan was dead. The law professor accepts political reality as “fixed,” while the movement-builder tries to get millions of people to act politically in order to alter that reality.

It’s very clear that Bernie Sanders thinks the “political revolution” he’s talking about involves building the power of unions. His “workplace democracy” plan contains a dozen ways of making it easier to join unions and giving unions more leverage. This is because once a much greater percentage of working class people is unionized, unions will once again become an important political force. Their endorsements or non-endorsements will matter, which will give the left greater power to reward or punish Democratic politicians based on whether they support a left agenda. This is critical to actually getting our plans through.

It’s not clear to me that Warren has a theory of how to build power. While her website says she wants to put power “back in the hands of workers and unions,” there is no plan for union-building, suggesting she considers it secondary. If you have released a plan for “promoting competitive markets” before a plan for making unionizing easier, your priorities are woefully skewed. At every turn, I see worrying signs that Warren isn’t thinking about how to build a “mass movement.” Bernie’s slogan “not me, us,” and his constant use of “we” language means he understands that political power isn’t about electing a single person president. It comforts me that Bernie’s website says: “This is your movement. No one candidate, not even the greatest candidate you could imagine, is capable of taking on Donald Trump and the billionaire class alone. There is only one way we win — and that is together.” It troubles me that Warren’s does not. These seem subtle differences, and are often just slight changes in emphasis—both candidates talk about mobilization, organizing, etc.—but my feeling is that we would eventually find out they are huge differences in approach. As Matt Huber ofJacobin concluded: “ Sanders has spent his lifetime embedded in civil rights, labor, and other mass struggles, Warren is a lawyer-academic and a policy wonk. She would be more likely to seek compromises than side with mass popular demands in the streets.”

This is not trivial. It is not quibbling or nitpicking. It is everything. A central lesson of Obama’s presidency is: You cannot succeed without a movement behind you. The approach of getting the “best and brightest” in a room together and having them make good plans will inevitably fail. We cannot elect the best policy wonk. We have to elect the best organizer. And once we accept this as a crucial criterion for selecting a candidate, Sanders and Warren start to look very different in ways that could well mean the difference between political success and political failure, even if their policies were identical.

One of the problems here, though, is that I do think a lot of this comes from hunches and can’t be satisfactorily proven. I am sure Elizabeth Warren’s supporters will point to the A-grade she got from New York magazine on her plans for labor, and her promise to In These Timesthat she will be a stalwart supporter of unions. This does often feel like picking at small differences. But even when you look at thatNew York magazine piece, you can see it: It says that Warren “doesn’t have a pro-labor record stretching back decades” but has recently been putting forth “innovative, pro-worker ideas” including: using trade agreements to raise labor standards, “leveraging federal R&D to spur investment and job creation,” a tenfold increase in apprenticeship programs, and her Accountable Capitalism Act. She has also “done far more on social media than other candidates to go to bat for unions” and invokes labor history in her speeches. These are good things, and I hesitate to be too critical. But there is a difference between this and Sanders’ plan to double union membership in four years, and I think that difference actually affects whether there is going to be the political muscle necessary to push through a left agenda.
Perhaps I would feel less troubled if I really felt like I could trust Elizabeth Warren. But I can so easily imagine her compromising away critical parts of the left agenda. There are just so many troubling signs. The New York Times reported that Warren “wooed wealthy donors for years” but stopped for her presidential campaign. She’s only forgoing big money donations for the primary, but not the general election, which suggests that it’s just a temporary ploy to appease the left. Questioned by Chris Hayes about her decision, Warren said she doesn’t believe in “unilateral disarmament” when the Republicans take so much corporate money. But Bernie Sanders understands that there is no alternative: It’s a matter of principle, non-negotiable. You need to win the election by mobilizing people, and working as hard as you can to collect small donations. It’s actually good to “tie your hands” this way, because it means that there is no alternative but to build huge popular support—money from rich people is cheating, and if you cheat this way, it will bite you in the ass when you get into office and have failed to build a giant network of supporters.

I don’t like to say that I can’t trust Elizabeth Warren, but I can’t. I can even see her appointing Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris as her VP instead of Bernie Sanders. She has done so many things that make me suspect she won’t follow through on her radical rhetoric, or will shift to the center in a general election, or won’t be willing to fight as hard as necessary. Look at that moment in the State of the Union where Donald Trump promised that America would “never be a socialist country.” Warren stood up and applauded, as Bernie sat and fumed. This was a very clear “Which side are you on?” moment. She was asked whether she was with Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, and she said Trump. Warren faced another test in 2016: She had the opportunity to endorse Sanders, giving him a significant boost in his attempt to overthrow the corporate Democratic establishment. She chose to sit out the race. This might well have put Trump into office. I think it’s completely indefensible: It suggests a failure to appreciate how high the stakes are, and a lack of commitment to the left agenda. It was a chance to take a stand against the Democratic establishment, and it could have made a huge difference. She didn’t do it.

In an election, every politician will tell you what they think you want to hear. So it will often be difficult to decide who will actually follow through. Everyone in the Democratic primary says the words “Medicare For All,” because they know it polls well, but often it’s not clear what they actually mean by it or whether they’d really make it a priority. In order to assess candidates, it’s better to look at their records than their rhetoric. This is one reason I trust Bernie Sanders so much: He’s been saying the same thing since he was 18 years old, when he was getting dragged away by police for participating in civil rights protests. For decade after decade, he has championed his vision of democratic socialism, condemning cuts to the welfare state, sticking up for LGBT people, and loudly demanding justice. It’s because he’s spent a lifetime doing this that I feel I can be somewhat confident in him.

Elizabeth Warren does not have this kind of record of activism. She spent decades at Harvard Law School, which should be viewed with the same skepticism that we should view someone who spent decades working for Chevron. Harvard Law is the training ground of the American ruling class. Warren could have chosen any place to work, she chose to train corporate lawyers. She was also a Republican until her mid-40s (a “diehard conservative” in her early years, according to a friend). I think this matters quite a bit, because it means that during the Reagan years, she was a member of a racist organization. Certainly, people evolve, and I believe strongly in forgiveness. But we would be dubious of the newfound progressivism of a longtime corporate lawyer who had spent many years in a Confederate sympathy society, and we should be equally dubious of a former Republican from Harvard Law School. It shows a lack of commitment to justice for many, many years. That negative presumption can be overcome, of course. But the burden of proof is heavy. I would want to make sure the candidate didn’t give any signs of wavering, any suggestion that they would fail to fight hard for a left agenda.

Unfortunately, there are warning signs. Conventional wisdom is that Elizabeth Warren’s plans and Bernie Sanders’ plans are pretty similar, but the seemingly small differences matter in very big ways. So, for example: The first five sections on Bernie’s “issues” page are Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, College For All, Workplace Democracy, and Housing For All. I’ve already mentioned that there’s a huge difference between Bernie’s union-building Workplace Democracy plan and Warren’s plan. But the differences don’t stop there. On Medicare For All, Warren has been evasive about what it would actually mean, and details are noticeably lacking on her plan-packed website. As Abdul El-Sayed has written for this magazine, we should be wary of any Democrat who won’t be specific about Medicare For All, because the insurance industry is going to want to water it down and not implement a full single-payer system. Dylan Matthews of Vox, who has examined Warren’s healthcare plans, has suggested that Warren is “not serious about single-payer.” This is a giant difference. (Also: I realize this might not persuade many people, but to me it’s an important piece of evidence. Warren’s daughter, with whom she collaborated on The Two-Income Trap and an unfinished novel about Harvard Law School, is a former health industry executive and McKinsey management consultant. There is a hesitation to hold people accountable for the deeds of their family members—any child can turn out to be an Alex P. Keaton—but I think Warren moves in a world where it is not considered shameful to be an insurance executive or McKinsey consultant, and I worry that nobody from such a world will ever have the guts necessary to fight the insurance industry to the death. I would bet a considerable amount of money that Warren will never make a real effort to abolish the industry that her daughter and co-author is so closely tied to.)

There are serious differences, too, with the college plans. Bernie Sanders has promised to cancel all outstanding student debt. Elizabeth Warren says that “my plan would provide at least some debt cancellation for 95% of people with student loan debt (and complete and total student debt cancellation for more than 75%).” She explains further:

It cancels $50,000 in student loan debt for every person with household income under $100,000. It provides substantial debt cancellation for every person with household income between $100,000 and $250,000. The $50,000 cancellation amount phases out by $1 for every $3 in income above $100,000, so, for example, a person with household income of $130,000 gets $40,000 in cancellation, while a person with household income of $160,000 gets $30,000 in cancellation.

Now, reading this, it becomes clear that at least for me, there is a giant difference between Warren and Sanders. I have $140,000 in student debt. Sanders promises to wipe all of it away. Warren promises to get rid of $50,000. So the difference between the two candidates is about $90,000!
But we can also see here why leftists think Warren is excessively “wonkish.” Here’s how Meagan Day explained it in Jacobin:

“A socialist pursues decommodification through universal social programs that enshrine new social rights for all, which is why Sanders has proposed to eliminate every last penny of existing student debt. A capitalist of the liberal or progressive variety is seduced by means-testing, which is why Warren needlessly introduced eligibility requirements and caps into her student-debt forgiveness program.”

“Means-testing” is a critical part of the difference between the two, because in it we see the serious differences between what Sanders and Warren each think the world ought to be like. Sanders believes in a “de-commodified” provision of public goods, where they’re free and you get to use them because you’re a person. Warren believes much more strongly in giving them only to people who satisfy a set of eligibility criteria. Now, defenders of means-testing will argue that it is “progressive”—this is why they say things like “you don’t want to give free college to Donald Trump’s kids.” But you should give free college to them, for the same reason that we give Donald Trump’s kids the same access to free public high schools and free roads and free fire services and free libraries and free parks. They are people, so they get given the basics the same as anyone else. Means-testing introduces a dark new quality to public benefits: You have to qualify, meaning that there will be paperwork, and there will be scrutiny of your finances, and you can’t just have the thing, you have to go through a bureaucratic process. We on the left are fighting for a world in which people do not have to prove that they are poor enough to get to go to the public high school or the public college. They just get to go.

These are going to seem like small things, but they are not. “I dream of a world where student debts are forgiven” and “I dream of a world with substantial debt cancellation dependent on income threshold with a multi-tiered phase-out system” are quite different political rallying cries. One of them is inspiring. One of them sounds like it will involve a nightmarish pile of paperwork. On Warren’s website, I see promises about things like: “Elizabeth’s plan to use market forces to speed the transition to clean energy—without spending a dime of taxpayer money.” My alarm bells go off here. Taxpayer money needs to be spent. Market forces are killing the planet. This is a classic example of using right-wing premises to make a left-wing case, and I do not want another president in love with the market. (Warren is absolutely in love with the market, and says she left the Republican party because it wasn’t committed enough to markets. Not because of, you know, all the racism.) Likewise, when Warren talks about “corruption” as the root of Washington’s problems, I see a huge red flag: Free market libertarians like talking about corruption, because “corruption” means “the wealthy powerful people have too much influence in the government.” Leftists think the problem is not just that the wealthy powerful people have too much influence, but that disproportionate wealth and power exists in the first place. Talk of “corruption” says to rich people: I’ll curb your influence in Washington, but you don’t really need to worry about your fortune or your status.

But one of my biggest fears about Elizabeth Warren is this: I do not know whether she can actually win. I have always thought that Bernie Sanders would be the perfect opponent for Donald Trump, because he neutralizes much of Trump’s appeal. It is difficult for Trump to engage in his usual sleazy attacks against someone who is as relentlessly on-message as Bernie is, and who draws people’s attention over and over back to a series of very simple plans: Medicare for all, Free College, Green New Deal. (Note that while Elizabeth Warren’s plans are abundant, they are often very unfocused. Her website overflows with plans, but she seems reluctant to push the phrase Green New Deal, and it’s not clear which of her endless plans she finds most important.)

I fear running Warren against Trump, because I think Trump will relish running against her. For one thing, she does have a scandal: She spent a very long time fabricating an important detail of her identity, falsely claiming to be Native American. In doing so, she allowed Harvard to pretend it had more faculty of color than it actually did. She tried to defend herself by saying that she was, in fact, Native American, citing a DNA test. This was not just offensive to Native people, but it makes Warren seem untrustworthy: Does she still think she’s Native American? What did she think the DNA test proved? Does she think it was wrong to suggest that both she and her husband were Cherokees and to contribute recipes to a Native cookbook? This may seem trivial, but character matters, and this does not speak well of Warren’s truthfulness. Trump will exploit it endlessly. She will be asked about it again and again, and I have never heard her deal with it well.

I also think Elizabeth Warren’s “wonkish Harvard professor” persona will be easy for Trump to run against. Harvard is a bad brand. People hate it, not unjustly. It will be very easy to make Warren seem like a snob, and Warren’s professorial demeanor will not help. Trump’s whole shtick is anti-elitism, and while Elizabeth Warren may be a strong critic of Wall Street, a Harvard professor is a perfect target for Trump’s pseudo-populism. I do not have confidence that she will counter this effectively. I would be worried about Warren in a race against Trump, and my instinct is that Sanders, Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker would actually do better at appearing “relatable.” How well will Elizabeth Warren do in Michigan and Florida, rather than New York City? This is the question, and I’ve generally been very encouraged by the effectiveness with which Bernie makes his pitches to right-wing audiences at Liberty University and FOX News.

So much prediction at this point is just gut feeling, but there is something that I think we should all find very troubling about a Warren nomination. I have the same feeling I had when Tom Perez was running against Keith Ellison for DNC chair, and we on the left were told that there was “no difference” between the two, because both were Progressives. (Turned out there was indeed a difference.) It was difficult to prove them wrong, but it felt like they were wrong. Now, I’m being told that there is no difference between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. This, too, feels wrong, and I think we will see just how wrong it is if Elizabeth Warren actually wins the nomination and then the presidency. Bernie Sanders poses a threat. (The journalists are rallying behind Warren. The New York Times celebrated Warren meeting the million-donation threshold as a “milestone” but didn’t run a story when Sanders met the same threshold months earlier. Expect endless profiles of Warren as the great Unifier.)

Of course, it isn’t just gut feeling: I think there are things Elizabeth Warren has done that are incredibly troubling, such as her strange comment that Israel is under threat from “demographic realities, births.” (If this isn’t just racist code for “too many Arab babies” then I’m not sure what it means.) In These Times examined Warren’s record on military issues and concluded that “once Warren’s foreign policy record is scrutinized, her status as a progressive champion starts to wither” and even “judged according to the spectrum of today’s Democratic Party, which is skewed so far to the right on war and militarism it does not take much to distinguish oneself, Warren gets an unsatisfactory grade.” Since foreign policy is so much of what a president does, and historically where presidents have had an almost unimpeded power to shape policy, this means: In one of the main realms of presidential power, there is absolutely no reason why a leftist should support Elizabeth Warren.

Why vote for Sanders when you can have Elizabeth Warren instead?” is the question a Guardian columnist asked in February. I think the left had better have a very good answer to that prepared, and that often times we can sound like we’re splitting hairs when we do dig our heels in for Sanders. But we must dig our heels in. Will Elizabeth Warren try to overthrow Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and remake the Democratic Party entirely? I do not think she will. Will she fight until her very last breath for single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal? I do not think she will. Will she travel the country as president helping organize labor unions? I do not think she will. Will she shun corporate money and tell the ruling class to go screw itself? Since half the ruling class have been in her law school classroom, and since she has already wavered on taking corporate money, I do not think she will. Will she learn the critical lesson from the Obama years: You don’t open a negotiation with your final offer, but with something ambitious? She has already showed us the answer, by declining to support national rent control. Does she have a lifelong track record of protest and activism? No. Can she be relied upon never to sell us out? I have no idea, but I don’t want to take the risk.

I love watching Elizabeth Warren grill people in the Senate. I love the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She’s quite clearly one of the best people in the government, and I am impressed with many of her plans and much of what she’s accomplished already. But there are many signs that she will prove to be disappointing in the same way Barack Obama was, and will not build the kind of powerful left movement that we so urgently need if we are to begin to actually transform the political and economic system.

Nathan J. Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs.

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