Elizabeth Warren isn’t the president we need in this moment.
If Warren follows in Obama’s footsteps, big ideas like Medicare for All will be dead on arrival—and there are signs that she may.
In the face of Trump and the imminent threat of fascism, and after over years 40 years of experiencing the 1% usurp our political system, progressives cannot let dogmatism and ultra-leftism lead us to confuse allies with enemies. Elizabeth Warren is an ally who has embraced many progressive reforms. The difference between her platform and that of Bernie Sanders pales in comparison to the difference between either and Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, the picks of the corporate Democrats. We must not allow loyalty to Warren or Sanders to pit us against one another and lose sight of our most important task—to use this moment to build a robust social movement Left.
At the same time, we need to understand the differences between the candidates. In the American political circus, it can be easy to get caught up in a candidate’s personality and see this as the driving force of change. However, far more important than individual characteristics are the political projects they are building.
One indicator is how well they inspire people to take action beyond the ballot box—because defeating both the far Right and neoliberalism will require a mass movement. In “What an Elizabeth Warren Presidency Would Look Like,” Kathleen Geier fails to acknowledge that Warren has not mobilized working-class people across racial difference as effectively as Sanders. In 2017, polls showed Sanders was the most popular U.S. politician. His base is younger, more diverse and more working-class than Warren’s. He has an enormous grassroots campaign infrastructure and more donations from working people, including teachers and Walmart workers, than any other candidate. It’s important to note that Sanders’ popularity is not a product of his personality or a good slogan. It is a product of his politics.
When Sanders lost in 2016, he immediately funneled his campaign infrastructure into an independent political organization with a bold title: Our Revolution. In addition, dozens of other organizations have spun out of his campaign all across the country—a testament to the grassroots, independent nature of the Sanders political project. Elected officials at all levels of government—including Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—credit Sanders as inspiration for their run. This is important because transforming the make-up of Congress will be essential to moving Medicare for All, free college, decarceration and the Green New Deal forward.
Warren’s base is wealthier, whiter and more college-educated than Sanders’, and she takes a friendlier approach to the Democratic establishment. It’s hard to imagine how Warren might juggle these competing interests, but the Obama years give us a good idea what it might look like. When Obama was elected, Obama for America, the grassroots organization that fueled his campaign moved to the Democratic National Committee. As a result, his 2.5 million activists were no longer positioned to build an independent power base but instead became an arm of the Democratic Party. This took the millions of people, who had been ignited by Obama’s campaign and his independent vision for the future of American politics, off the streets and co-opted them into the confines of the neoliberal Democratic Party. This was fatal for the reforms Obama campaigned upon. In order to actually move promises like a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants, the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay, and the repeal of tax breaks on the wealthy, his inside strategy would have had to be matched with robust outside pressure. But Obama saw grassroots activism as a hindrance to his ability to build trust with moderates and Republicans. On multiple occasions, including during the Ferguson rebellion, he condemned popular resistance. As a result of his focus on compromise, Obama failed working people—by bailing out the banks instead of the people, by expanding the War on Terror and the military’s drone program and passing a watered-down version of healthcare reform.
If Warren follows in Obama’s footsteps, big ideas like Medicare for All will be dead on arrival—and there are signs that she may. The New York Times reported in August 2019 that Warren was courting party officials by stressing that she will revive the party from the inside, not mount a challenge from the outside, as has been Sanders’ approach.
As Geier notes, the bully pulpit is another tool at the president’s disposal. Geier describes how Warren went up against Wall Street and neoliberal Democrats as a freshman senator—no small feat. Warren quickly became a champion against corporate greed. But is that enough in 2020?
Today, three billionaires own more wealth than half of Americans. Given these conditions, people are demanding a total overhaul of our economic system. Polls show the majority of young people prefer socialism: 55% of women under 55 say they would prefer a socialist country to a capitalist one, and 70% of millennials—a growing slice of the electorate—say they would vote for a socialist. As the Overton window shifts, Warren remains stuck, referring to herself as a “capitalist to my bones.” She cites “corruption” as the source of every ill, implying our problems aren’t so much systemic as a matter of a few bad apples. We can anticipate that, as president, Warren will not only reinforce the false notion that capitalism can be saved, but that it can be divorced from corporate greed and that it isn’t predicated upon exploitation and the creation of a permanent underclass. While regulating corporations is necessary, we know it won’t solve the crises of climate, housing and debt. The fossil fuel industry’s very existence relies on burning carbon, the real estate industry’s relies on gouging tenants and the private banking system’s relies on massive debt. Under capitalism, the needs of people and planet are always secondary to the profit motive. Warren will offer BandAid solutions to problems that, without deep economic transformation, will only persist.
The policy plans for which Warren is famous reinforce this rhetoric. For example, while Sanders is fighting for the complete elimination of student debt, Warren’s plan targets debt up to $50,000. For people like my sister, who has accrued more than $150,000 in student loans, Warren’s plan isn’t super helpful. Yes, it would aid many students and tangibly change millions of lives—but the plan would simultaneously legitimize greedy corporations like Sallie Mae and the idea that it’s not only okay, but normal and right, to prey upon young people’s desire for a good education. Another example: On January 3, Warren broke with Sanders in announcing her support for the Trump administration’s United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), citing the agreements improvements over its predecessor, NAFTA. However, these modest improvements do nothing to change the fundamental logic of free trade that has forced millions of people into poverty. Warren’s approach to issues such as these undermines the long-term battle to wrest our society from the grips of corporate greed, as well as the basic tenet that every human, by virtue of being born, has a fundamental right to healthcare, housing, food, water, safety and education.
While Geier mentions Warren’s poor record on foreign policy, it does not receive the level of scrutiny it deserves. It’s a shame that even our most progressive candidates for elected office are moderate when it comes to issues of foreign policy, given that the U.S. military receives more than half of all discretionary federal spending, and the U.S. is waging a War on Terror in 80 countries. Progressives cannot limit our values to the confines of U.S. borders and ignore the devastation that millions of people are experiencing around the world under U.S. militarism.
On issues of war and peace, Warren is not to the right of the Democratic party, but she is also not a progressive leader. Sanders is no saint here, either, but he has championed progressive foreign policy ideas before they were politically popular, such as ending the war in Yemen and our allyship with Saudi Arabia, cutting off funding to Israel for its occupation of Palestine and ending economic sanctions against Venezuela. Warren, meanwhile, championed Israel’s 2014 war against Gaza, has moved to the right on sanctions against Venezuela, and has been an ally to the defense industry.
Just last week, when Trump assassinated Iranian Commander Qasem Soleimani, waging war without Congressional approval, Warren began her Twitter statement against war with the qualifier “Soleimani was a murderer.” In using rhetoric that jibes with Trump’s claims of “Iranian aggression,” Warren may be covering her political bases, but she is also handing Trump a justification for war. This, coupled with the fact that Warren voted for the sanctions that led up to the war, makes her complicit in the deaths of thousands that may result. (Sanders, by contrast, took to nearly every platform to state clearly that the United States is the aggressor and to make steadfast his stance against war.)
Warren’s track record on foreign policy is quite clear: She moves with the political winds—when it’s popular to do the right thing, she does it, and when it’s not, she doesn’t stick her neck out. As president, will she signal to others in the party that they can continue to move to the right on foreign policy? Can we expect a continuation of the Democratic status quo under Obama, when we killed more people with drones than ever before and bombed Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia?
While both candidates are scaring billionaires, only Sanders is building a loyal base of support among working-class people. Only Sanders is moving the needle left on foreign policy. Only Sanders can be trusted to avoid the Obama trap of watering down policies in the name of bipartisanship. Only Sanders will lead a movement for the transformation of capitalism we urgently need.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.