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Elizabeth Warren: The Polite Protest of the Middle Class

Elizabeth Warren has taken a progressive stance on many issues, from Medicare for All to racial justice and gender oppression. But on closer inspection, Warren’s “plans” are little more than half measures underpinned by a blind trust in capitalism’s capacity to resolve its own problems.

Renato Flores

September 24, 2019
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Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After the first rounds of Democratic debates, the field is narrowing. There is simply not enough space for 20 different candidates, especially when many of them seem like carbon copies of each other. A “top three” is emerging consisting of Biden, Sanders, and Warren, each of them representing a different tendency within the party, respectively: the old Clintonite Third Way, the populist revolt, and the polite dissent of the petit bourgeoisie. Warren’s base is the “Brahmin left,” the highly-educated voters of elite left-wing parties.

In the 2016 primary, the real contest was limited to two people: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This masked the divisions among Sanders’ supporters, divisions that Warren’s emergence is revealing. Some progressive voters saw in Clinton a straight continuation of the Third Way and of politics as usual. They were ready for something else, and Sanders attracted them. By the end of the 2016 primaries, Sanders had won 43% of the popular votes. In contrast, Sanders today polls at around 25%. Where did that support go? Even accounting for polling inaccuracy, the lion’s share has probably gone to Warren.

Sanders was bound to lose the middle-class protest vote once a more middle-class alternative came around. It did not have to be Warren, but the other contenders have been ineffective. Her only real rival was Kamala Harris, but the latter’s campaign momentum stalled when, during the second debate, Tulsi Gabbard read out loud Harris’ record on mass incarceration and exposed her overall political cynicism. Harris’ flip-flops on busing and Medicare for All have made her appear anything but sincere. After this, there has been a slow but sure transfer of support from Harris to Warren, consolidating Warren’s status among the top three.

The Class Roots of Warren’s support

Warren uses progressive rhetoric designed to appeal to the educated middle class. She came to national prominence after her 2011 speech in Andover, Massachusetts, where she emphasized that “nobody in this country got rich on their own.” She clearly described the role that government plays in keeping the capitalist economy going by providing infrastructure, public education, and policing. Big capitalists should not expect to receive the entirety of profits, Warren said, but instead “a big hunk” with another hunk “paying forward for the next kid who comes along.”

This speech was a solid appeal to return to a social contract according to which big business pays taxes such that others can have the chance to be capitalists. Like a good “middle-class” speech, it ignored how surplus value is extracted from workers under capitalism. Indeed, the phrase “working class” is absent from Warren’s website, while references to rebuilding the middle class are abundant. Warren is a self-described “capitalist to the bone,” who switched allegiances from the Republicans to the Democrats when she thought the Republicans would not defend markets. We should never forget that she clapped when Trump said America will never be socialist.

Warren’s “plans” section of her website has subtitles such as “End Wall Street’s Stranglehold on Our Economy” and “Promoting Competitive Markets.” She leaves a wide-open avenue for petit bourgeois who up to recently had the means to become capitalists. She even allows for straight-up capitalists as long as they support “fair competition,” misunderstanding how real competition operates in capitalism. Thus it is hardly surprising that Warren’s support is solidly middle-class. The “coastal elites” are not a uniquely American phenomenon. In France, Thomas Pikkety has amply written about them, coining the term “Brahmin left.” Indeed, a core component of the new European left populist parties, such as Podemos or La France Insoumise, is formed by the disaffected petit bourgeois which demand their fair share of the capitalist cake.

Brahmin left parties nominally represent wealth redistribution, but they tend to just make cosmetic changes when elected. A perfect example of this is Manuela Carmena, who won the election to become mayor of Madrid on a left populist platform. After two years in which social spending was increased by 26%, the right-wing central government forced a budget crisis. Carmena reacted by sacking the local councilor of economy and finance and by imposing austerity for the remainder of her mandate. Her lack of effectiveness in addressing wealth disparity led to a significant loss of working-class support, even if it did not bother much to the middle classes, which are economically secure, and paralyzed by the fear of right-wing populism. Carmena lost her reelection bid after losing support in working-class neighborhoods. Abstention increased, even amid calls for “harm reduction” voting.

Warren fits this profile perfectly. She came to the fore as a liberal feminist icon since the time of “nevertheless, she persisted” when she opposed the confirmation of Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions. But she opposed Sessions on purely legalistic grounds, never challenging the political order he represents. Like other Brahmin left politicians, her career is full of half gestures toward progressives. She challenges the Pentagon’s massive funding but repeatedly voted to fund Trump’s wars. She acknowledges climate change but hopes to use private initiatives to make the United States carbon neutral. She refuses PAC money for the primary but will take it in the general, because the Democrats need it to beat Trump. And under the influence of PAC money, it is clear that her independence will be further undermined. At best, she would be a very confused capitalist politician, who despite good intentions toward working people ends up being completely ineffective. At worst, she’s a deceptive demagogue.

American-Indian Identification

While Warren has feminist credentials, her credentials on the race front are questionable. Up until recently she called herself “Native American” and a member of the Cherokee nation. Because of this, she was repeatedly baited by the right wing, including by Trump with his insulting “Pocahontas” nickname. At first she did not acknowledge the problem inherent in her stance, and went so far as to release a DNA test showing that she likely had “Native American” ancestry. Warren has come around and apologized for this after it was strongly denounced by the Cherokee nation.

Even acknowledging the wide misunderstanding in the United States of what it means to be “part Cherokee” or “part Irish,” the pertinent question is still: What has Warren done, or is she doing, for American Indians right now? She has a comprehensive platform for Indigenous justice, but she has not significantly related herself to any struggle of Indigenous people in the United States. She did not comment on Standing Rock, the most visible struggle by Native American people in recent history. Outside one of her “plans” on her website, she barely mentions the violence Indigenous women face today: Indigenous women are sexually assaulted, stalked and preyed on by perpetrators outside their own community and ethnic group at alarming rates. The numbers are heart wrenching: in the United States, 84% of Native American women experience violence (56% sexual violence) in their lifetimes. The numbers are so high that Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman (MMIW) Day was proclaimed in an attempt to remember those lost and to enact legislation to address the problem.

With Warren having claimed Cherokee heritage, she has the responsibility to talk widely and loudly about the real issues facing Indian Country such as the massive MMIW crisis, the building of pipelines, or telescopes on sacred land and the appropriation of land for building the border wall. Unfortunately, her silence is commonplace with candidates. The “frontier” roots of the country permeate heavily into American culture, be it through the Second Amendment or the way tactics in the U.S. Army are informed by experiences in the Sioux wars. Significantly challenging the state’s relationship to American Indians involves questioning far too many things for a mainstream politician.

Race, Foreign Policy, and Climate Change

Warren generally fails on the race front. She does not significantly address race in her platform, aside from calls for “equal justice for all.” This is strange for a candidate who in 2015 not only asserted that “Black lives matter,” but also declared that “economic justice is not, and never been sufficient to ensure racial justice.” Despite this, her focus on “means-tested” programs does not address the fact that state and federal aid programs are often implemented in a very racist manner or are used to discipline vulnerable communities.

Her comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform is race blind, even though her “plan” acknowledges the racism of the system. Even if Warren proposes decriminalization of overpoliced social issues such as mental health, her core vision for ending mass incarceration is simply to end private prisons. This approach is significantly flawed, first and foremost, because it would be ineffective; only 8.2% of prisoners in the United States are held in private prisons. Moreover, the public system is deep into subcontracting, meaning that the distinction between public and private is ever more blurred. When these issues are accounted for, it becomes clear that Warren’s “plan” does not challenge the logic of mass incarceration and reduces to stating that that public prisons are better than privates ones.

Furthermore, Warren does not just fail to challenge U.S. imperialism, but she actively supports it. Her questions during the confirmation hearing for former Defense Secretary James Mattis were more focused on defense contracts in her home state of Massachusetts than on U.S. intervention abroad. While she claims to oppose the total funding given to the military-industrial complex, she has voted for a war budget larger than the one Trump asked for. She has started a slow shift on Israel/Palestine, in accordance with the times, but in her previous stances, as Glen Greenwald notes, “she sounded like Netanyahu.” She opposed military intervention in Venezuela but favors economic sanctions. And her rhetoric on North Korea is no better. Despite all her “plans,” her stances are not that different from business as usual. She is more concerned about funding the military than imperialism.

The worst part of her acquiescence to imperialism is her plans to tackle climate change by reforming the military significantly, without challenging the premise of a “green military” in the first place. Warren acknowledges that the U.S. military contributes immensely to climate change, but instead of addressing how imperialism itself perpetuates climate change in semi-colonial countries, she plans to have the military become carbon neutral by 2030. She also plans to use the Defense Department for climate research. According to her website, “we don’t have to choose between a green military and an effective one.” The question of what that military is for remains unanswered.

The Future of the Democratic Coalition

In a three-way contest between Biden, Sanders, and Warren, the latter might seem like the obvious centrist compromise. But the second choice of many Sanders and Biden supporters is actually not whom you would expect. Many Sanders voters have Biden as second choice, thanks to his carefully cultivated “working person” image among older voters, and the converse is also true: many Biden supporters have Sanders as second choice. Meanwhile most of Warren’s supporters would vote for Kamala Harris. Conventional left-right dichotomy is distorted by the personalized character of the primaries and issues of representation. With both Sanders and Biden claiming to represent the (white) working person, this can serve as a smokescreen to hide their serious political differences.

The appearance of Warren has forced Bernie to adopt sharper rhetoric around “class warfare,” and to enmesh himself further in some movements, such as joining striking workers or leading an affordable insulin caravan. But if Warren’s support lies in the “Brahmin left,” as polls seem to demonstrate, Sanders is not going to attract her supporters by doing this. To win he has to cut into Biden’s supporters, as he appeared to do in the third Democratic debate, or to mobilize abstentionist voters.

While it is clear that Bernie has a platform that is to the left of Warren’s, it still resembles New Deal liberalism more than a transitional program. It has immense blind spots in foreign policy. Furthermore, electing someone to the presidency inside the Democratic Party is not a shortcut to achieve socialism, and the best we can hope from him are mild reforms.

And while Sanders could bring mild reforms, these are more unlikely in a Warren presidency. One just has to look at her record and the stories of other Brahmin left candidates to see a long history of failures.

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