Elizabeth Warren's necessary contradictions
She was both a populist and a wonk, an insider and an outsider, a capitalist who terrified other capitalists
Probably more than any other candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary, Elizabeth Warren had the depth that comes from contradiction: She was both a populist and a wonk, an insider and an outsider, a capitalist who terrified other capitalists. And even if her own struggles to unify those multitudes arguably explains why her campaign ultimately failed, Warren forced the policy debate into unusual and neglected corners that both America and the left will need to pay greater heed to.
"Warren's politics are so confusing because we have forgotten that a pro-capitalist left is even possible," wrote political scientist Henry Farrell in Foreign Policy. More to the point, the whole way Americans talk about "capitalism" versus "socialism" has become so vague and detached from specific realities on the ground that both terms are borderline useless.
Warren called herself "a capitalist to my bones" and praised markets, and commentators on all sides of this debate took it as a contrast with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described "democratic socialist." Yet Sanders' own agenda is a mix of New Deal politics and Nordic social democracy, which may involve a large role for public services, nationalized industries, and a sweeping welfare state, but still leaves plenty of room for markets and the traditional functions associated with capitalism. Meanwhile, for all the supposed differences in philosophy, the particulars of Warren's agenda were only a hair to the right of Sanders: both pushing aggressive tax hikes on the rich and a wealth tax in particular; both pushing sweeping Green New Deals and job plans; both supporting a resuscitated labor movement; both in favor of universal and affordable child care and health care, enormous student debt relief, free college, a $15 minimum wage.
One of the more interesting takes on Warren's ideal political economy came from the liberal-friendly libertarian Will Wilkinson: Essentially, she wants "Bedford Falls for All," in reference to the idyllic American town from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. ("If we can imagine that multicultural mega-cities count as versions of Bedford Falls, too.") What’s striking about this vision is how it cuts across our ideological labels, and rejects the nightmare scenarios of either capitalism or socialism: Warren's modern, multicultural Bedford Falls is above all an egalitarian place. It has commerce and private property, but neither poverty nor inequality. It has markets, but has neither bigfooting corporations and banks, nor a Soviet-style central planner.
The through-line for Warren was ultimately a concern with process — regardless of what we're talking about, are the rules by which we're playing actually consistent with that egalitarian Capra-esque playing field? "As far as I can tell, what Elizabeth Warren wants is the kind of democracy and market economy she thought we had when she was a Republican, but was scandalized to discover we didn't have," Wilkinson wrote. Warren is, in a sense, the ultimate "equality of opportunity" champion.
This concern with process is an easy thing to snark at these days, particularly from the hardcore left, given how relentlessly centrist elites have invoked "equality of opportunity" as a cheap dodge to avoid doing anything at all. But even if capitalism is abolished, the questions of process — how economic activity is directed, how decisions are made, at what level, who has authority, and who has access — do not go away; they simply shift contexts. They are certainly not answered by the means of production being "publicly owned" in some grand sense. At a basic level, process is everything. Indeed, a market is simply a set of rules determined by government, a point which blows up U.S. politics' asinine division between "markets" and "big government." The necessary challenge Warren presents to the left is how to flesh out a genuinely democratic and decentralized alternative to Americas' current cutthroat capitalism, however the taxonomy of that society is defined.
"The free-market ideal is a situation in which no actor has economic power over any other," Farrell wrote. What made Warren so striking was that, even as she praised markets, she did not shy away from the radicalism of the policies that would be necessary to actually level power relations in a meaningful sense. Wilkinson himself is clearly troubled by Warren's wealth tax and her plans to crush private equity, preferring to see her voting rights and anti-corruption plans as core to her program. (Some of his fellow liberal-friendly libertarians were driven to apoplexy by Warren's plans to democratize corporate power and internal governance.) But Warren herself never acceded to any such division: She may have spoken in the vernacular of capitalism, but the hatred she earned from the lords of Wall Street made it clear they knew what a return to genuine democracy in both the commercial and political sphere would mean for their wealth and power. Warren may have been reluctant to join Sanders' explicit statement that billionaires shouldn't exist, but her entire platform was shot through with the unspoken assumption that a society can endure only so much economic inequality before political equality becomes a practical impossibility.
Ultimately, what made Warren so invigorating was that, when it came to procedural justice, she actually meant it. Equality of opportunity was not a dodge for her. And if the practical challenges of getting to genuine equality of opportunity required smashing outcomes down to a more equal distribution along the way, then by god that's what needed to happen. This is why, however different their starting places, Warren and Sanders landed on roughly the same policy platforms. They had their differences, and in another world those differences would've mattered. But in U.S. politics as it exists, those gaps were minor compared to the massive gulf between them and the rest of the field. For several months, the campaign of Elizabeth Warren, self-described capitalist, arguably terrified the rulers of American capitalism far more than Sanders. Contra Wilkinson, Warren's vision of a modern, polyglot Bedford Falls for All very much is a left-wing vision.
That said, the way Warren cut across the one-dimensional spectrums of capitalism-vs-socialism and markets-vs-government did not always play in her favor. At one of the most crucial junctions of the primary, the interplay actually failed her.
It's hard to say exactly what Warren thinks of Medicare-for-all as a matter of first principles. It is in fact possible to create universal and affordable health coverage via private markets and private insurance providers, and there is a case (though certainly not a dispositive one) for doing so. Furthermore, how to do it — how to structure and regulate the market such that insurers compete on delivering value and convenience to patients, rather than screwing patients and gaming their risk pools; how to subsidize the whole system so that it's affordable to all — these are questions that fall directly into Warren's unusual ideological wheelhouse. Yet for months, she simply punted to supporting Sanders' single-payer plan. When her brief rise to frontrunner status brought the focus of her rivals and forced her to the center of the Medicare-for-all portions of the debates, Warren hemmed and hawed and ultimately released a financing plan that was a confusing mishmash of technocratic complexity, arguably inferior to Sanders’ straightforward tax hikes. Then she finally retreated from Sanders' position and proposed a multi-year transition to Medicare-for-all.
It's doubtful that hedging a bit on Sanders' maximalism is what hurt her. That Joe Biden of all people is currently the candidate juicing voter turnout and appealing to a broad swath of the working-class masses should make it clear that the details of policy are not the critical factor here. More likely, it was that the "plans" candidate was caught out in the open with no plan for one of the biggest issues in American politics. Health care presents a particularly thorny challenge for anyone who is a believer in markets: It's hard to contrast a market-based system against the simplicity of Medicare-for-all, which is precisely why Sanders' critics in the Democratic primary didn't bother. They simply fear-mongered about voter backlash to sudden and dramatic change. When presented with the challenge, Warren neither went all-in on Sanders' plan nor had her own fleshed-out alternative. She simply blinked.
Warren has always had both a policy wonk and a table-pounding populist inside her. Warren may have come from working-class roots in Oklahoma, but she wound up as a professor at Harvard — a necessary path, arguably, if one is to be an expert in defense of the people. This served her well in designing her policies: Her creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, embodied how regulatory complexity, even if it's unavoidable, could be aimed at the wealthy and the privileged to make life simple and straightforward for average consumers and workers. But in an age when politics is increasingly polarized along lines of education, the tension between her internal wonk and populist arguably forced Warren to choose between two mutually exclusive forms of self-presentation.
Her command of policy details, in both design and execution, thrilled white well-educated professionals (including yours truly). But her base of support never really expanded significantly beyond that demographic. Her enthusiasm for the jargon and high principles of the new social justice movements won her plaudits from that same constituency, but it also led her into unnecessary embarrassments, and it failed to connect with voters lower down the class ladder. As admirable and necessary as Warren's desire to rewrite the rules of capitalism is, there is nothing to stop her enemies from rewriting them right back, save for the raw political force of a bottom-up mass movement. And Warren, justly or not, simply wasn't able to assemble one.
Wilkinson's most intriguing thought is that Warren's flurry of detailed policy proposals and "I've got a plan for that" self-branding was actually a liability rather than an asset: "The stirring vision of a multicultural 'Bedford Falls for All' America, which I see as the moral heart of Warrenism, has been obscured by a haze of technocratic detail," he lamented. Given the muddled way Americans talk about capitalism and socialism, markets and power, I'm not sure Warren could've turned that vision into a pitch as equally straightforward as Sanders' anti-elite table-pounding. But I would've liked to see her try.
Another outcome of the tug-of-war between the wonk and populist on Warren's shoulders was her attempt to paint herself as a "unity" candidate late in the game. This was probably always doomed to fail: You could plausibly argue for Warren as a unifier of the Demcoratic Party's broad base of working-class voters and its socially progressive upper-class urbanites — the split between Sanders and Hillary Clinton from 2016, crudely put. That was certainly what myself and others hoped for from her. But this leaves out a third group: the donor-backed establishment of Democratic Party power-brokers, who could never possibly have been brought on board with Warren's policy agenda. (Indeed, Warren was always at her best when filleting self-important and self-congratulatory elites, from Mike Bloomberg to the CEO of Wells Fargo.) As I said, she was honest about the radicalism of her demands; there was no way for her to avoid a brutal fight that didn't involve sacrificing her core principles.
That meant Warren needed to solidify the same sort of broad bottom-up coalition that Sanders has been aiming for. But once Sanders himself was in the race, there was no good way to run against him without wounding her own chances, and forcing ugly compromises. The most poignant aspect of Warren's campaign may be that it came four years too late: Had she thrown her hat in the ring in 2016, Sanders himself would've almost certainly stayed out. The Democratic Party could've arguably avoided many of the demographic splits that bedeviled the contest between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and Warren would likely be president right now. Even if she'd lost to Clinton, it would be her, not Sanders, entering 2020 with name recognition, with good will from a previous run, and a campaign infrastructure that also managed to raise astonishing amounts of money from small donors.
But that is past. For the future, the important thing is what Warren does next. I can't imagine a scenario in which it would be better for her to endorse Biden over Sanders, unless the former literally promised her carte blanche to design his platform and put together his cabinet. But any Biden or Sanders administration would be foolhardy not to place Warren at the pinnacle of policymaking power, be it as Treasury Secretary, or to replace Chuck Schumer as leader of the Democrats in the Senate. Beyond all that, everyone within and outside of Sanders' camp who is struggling for a more just and equitable country would do well to learn from Warren's approach to writing the rules and setting the distribution of power.
We will not have a President Warren. But America and the left still have need of Warrenism.
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