Despite all the newspaper endorsements, Senator Elizabeth Warren is an underappreciated politician—and the candidate herself is among the ranks of those who have sold her short. She is a deep and original political thinker. Over her time in academia and in the Senate, she has evolved a distinctive critique of American capitalism as presently practiced, and a lyrical vision of what might replace it. Based on her presidential campaign, however, you wouldn’t really know it.
While Warren has clashed with some of the candidates to her right—she chastised former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his foray into a wine cave and accused former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of oligarchic tendencies—she has declined to truly delineate herself from Senator Bernie Sanders. The sharpest distinction Warren has drawn with her ally from Vermont is her gender. In a more accurate rendering of the pair, that is only the beginning of their differences.
Of course, there are good reasons the world tends to lump Sanders and Warren together as ideological twins. Long before it was popular, Warren and Sanders pitted themselves against a common enemy on Wall Street. They are the two most important politicians prodding for a break with the economics of the Clinton-Obama era. Despite their apparent agreement on policy, however, their ideological frameworks are hardly the same. They diverge on fundamental questions about the role of the state, the contours of the market, and the underlying goals of political life.
As a presidential candidate, Sanders has somewhat tempered his radicalism. When he talks about his political forerunners, he identifies more strongly with Franklin D. Roosevelt than with Rosa Luxemburg. He describes his democratic socialism as the ideological successor to the New Deal. Still, he has stayed true to his younger self, who told the University of Vermont student newspaper in 1987, “Democracy means public ownership of the means of production.” He has promoted a plan that would require large companies to gradually hand their employees a 20 percent ownership share of their stock.
Warren comes from another tradition, one that some of Sanders’s intellectual backers have dismissed as “middle-class liberalism.” That’s stated as a smear—and it hardly captures the radicalism of her program—but it’s also fairly accurate. Warren is an intellectual descendent of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who posed as both an enemy of economic concentration and a believer in competitive markets. Like Brandeis, Warren’s primary goal is to depose the monopolists and tame finance, so that a broader swath of the public can participate in the economy as owners and entrepreneurs. Earlier in the campaign, when she was bolder about distinguishing herself, she announced, “I’m capitalist to the bone.”
If Warren wanted to define herself in opposition to Sanders, she wouldn’t need to tie herself in knots. Where Sanders talks about revolution, her description of the American economy amounts to a restoration. She wants to return to another era, when the economy (and government) was less captured by Big Business. Her scourge is corruption, and embedded in her incessant denunciations of it is the hope that the system can be salvaged by extrication of that tumor. Where socialism imagines greater concentrations of power—greater state planning, greater public provisioning of goods—her vision ultimately points in the direction of a more decentralized, more competitive economy. Sanders’s keyword is equality; her best speeches have extolled liberty.
By contrasting herself with Sanders, she could press the case for her electability. Donald Trump has already begun to portray socialism as a foreign incursion, but Warren’s populism is in the American grain. It draws on a political vocabulary that traces back to Thomas Jefferson. She wants “structural change,” but her changes are premised on principles that are deeply familiar. (Matt Stoller’s recent book, Goliath, has a vivid history of the anti-monopoly movement to which she is heir.)
To read Warren’s books is to see that she is a radical in defense of tradition. Her hostility to finance grows out of the abusive practices she witnessed in bankruptcy proceedings as a legal scholar; she saw how unregulated markets destroy families and communities, how they threaten the structures of middle-class life. As a professor at Harvard, she wasn’t especially active in the campus left. Even her denunciations of racism seem to grow from the same instincts as her economics: She dislikes how racism amounts to powerful groups corruptly wielding power to prevent the full participation of citizens in economic and democratic life. This is a platform that can be burlesqued, but her arguments have the potential to garner appeal far beyond the party base. She once told me, “I sound like I come from the left, to the left. I don’t sound that way to a lot of folks on the right, or a lot of people who are just fundamentally apolitical.”
Not so many months ago, Warren was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. There are many reasons she dropped from that position, but her decline in the polls coincided with the release of her Medicare for All plan. I have asked Democrats close to Warren why that plan proved a political disaster. One answer is that the plan reflected Sanders’s predilections, not her own. If she hadn’t tried so hard to cling to Sanders in the primaries, she would never have conceived a plan so complicated and with such centralizing tendencies.
Warren’s window for pressing her brand of liberalism is quite possibly closing. Her past behavior suggests that she would never attack a possible nominee for the sake of scoring points in a debate. Still, having articulated a modernized version of Brandeisian liberalism—a vision that could eventually become the mainstream of Democratic thinking—she owes it to herself and her party to finally press a rigorous case for the society she wants to emerge. Instead of positioning herself as a less grumpy version of Sanders, she has one last chance to campaign as fully herself.
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