In a recent Jacobin piece, Conor Kilpatrick and Bhaskar Sunkara declare that “Elizabeth Warren is Thirty Years Too Late.” Their point is not simply to identify flaws in Warren’s policy-centric vision, but to contrast Warren invidiously to Bernie Sanders, long Jacobin’s preferred candidate. Editor and Publisher Sunkara summed it up well in the Facebook post whereby he announced the piece: “Sanders didn’t need to witness the fallout of the neoliberal turn to understand the injustices of capitalism: as a socialist, he knew such barbarisms were baked into the system. And that only a bottom-up movement of working people had any chance of putting a stop to it.”
Kilpatrick and Sunkara’s argument is complicated, and somewhat convoluted (they say “paradoxical”), and boils down to this: while Warren is passe because her vision is grounded in the failed promises of financial regulation under the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama that can be traced back to the politics of the 1990’s, Sanders is the candidate of the future because . . . he first joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSIL) in the early 1960’s, and his vision is grounded in the socialist labor radicalism of the 1930’s.
Much of the argument rests on the obvious fact that Sanders is an avowed democratic socialist and Warren is not; that whereas Sanders seeks to “change the economic foundations of American life,” Warren seeks only to reform the economy and to regulate rather than to abolish markets; and that while Sanders seeks a “political revolution” against what he often calls “the ruling class,” Warren avows no revolutionary purposes, and centers her politics not on “class struggle” but on expanding opportunities for the broad “middle class.”
It makes sense that avowed socialists would prefer a socialist to a non-socialist. But this difference between Sanders and Warren is hardly something new. It does seem as though there is a bit of sectarianism behind the observation that “Sanders didn’t need to witness the fallout of the neoliberal turn to understand the injustices of capitalism: as a socialist, he knew such barbarisms were baked into the system”—as if there is something suspect about someone like Warren learning from experience and thus changing her mind, and something especially virtuous about Sanders because he has been a socialist for over 50 years, has apparently never changed his mind, and thus has always known.
At the same time, Kilpatrick and Sunkara’s argument does not center on the ideological or moral deficiencies of Warren as someone who has been a critic of capitalism for only 25 years, and an insufficiently critical critic at that. It centers on the political weakness of Warren’s approach, which they bill as “technocratic.” They argue that while Warren has many “plans” to reform capitalism, all of these plans suffer the same vulnerability that was true of the much-vaunted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Warren helped to shape under Obama: the plans might have technocratic plausibility as policy responses, but they lack the strong support of a Democratic party strongly and continuously pressured by a mobilized political base, and they are thus are always vulnerable to weakening or repeal. As they put it about Warren’s experience in recent years:
In other words, Warren rewrote the rules. And then someone else came along and rewrote them again with hardly any notice from the people she intended to help. This is the regulatory-driven strategy that has been contrasted positively to the Bernie Sanders mad-as-hell, bottom-up “political revolution.” As her supporters love to say, she has “a plan” for every possible “that.” But it’s also the strategy that seems more likely to put us back in the same position four or eight years from now with little to show for it. And, after the next election that doesn’t go our way, with an even bigger ghoul in the White House ready to wipe it all away like a splattered bug on a windshield.
Kilpatrick and Sunkara’s central argument is that the social, economic, and political obstacles and resistances to the kind of changes that Warren seeks are greater than she understands: “Warren underestimates just how cataclysmic the decades since her awakening have been for working people and how her technocratic political approach — the “plans for that” — can hardly summon the change necessary.”
The lack of a strong political base for a substantial agenda of reform might suggest that a more modest, and frankly centrist, agenda is called for. But Kilpatrick and Sunkara draw the opposite conclusion:
The strange paradox of being on the Left in 2019 is facing the fact that the most sober, realistic, and sensible position is to not play by the rules. It’s to tip over the board entirely . . . it’s less a question of policy papers and more a question of armies: the ruling class has theirs — total control over the economy and the state (not to mention the literal army), with only a vaguely disgusted public and a historically weak labor movement to oppose them. For even the slightest chance of tipping the balance, the have-nots will need an army of their own to make the impossible once again possible.
Kilpatrick and Sunkara are correct to note that the obstacles to major social and political change are great. Indeed, the greatest of these obstacles is one that they hardly note, to the detriment of their argument: the fact that the White House is currently occupied by a far-right authoritarian who has mobilized tens of millions of voters behind him, has transformed the Republican party into his mouthpiece, and thus also currently has a stranglehold on the U.S Senate that it will be very hard to dislodge in 2020. In short, passing any significant legislation is likely to be an uphill struggle for any Democratic president in 2021, should the Democrats be fortunate enough to expel Trump from the White House — a result by no means guaranteed.
Given these obstacles, Kilpatrick and Sunkara’s “strange paradox” gives new meaning to the oft-cited Gramsci comment about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” There are a number of problems with the way that they seek to relegate Warren’s candidacy to the dustbin of history because it refuses “to tip over the board entirely.”
One is that they unfairly tag Warren with being a “Patagonia” Democrat primarily interested in appealing to white, upper middle-class voters. It is true that Warren often speaks in middle-class terms about her agenda: Kilpatrick and Sunkara quote from her 2004 book: “They went to college, had kids, bought a home, played by the rules — and lost. It is time to rewrite the rules so that these families are winners again.” They seem to regard this rhetoric as suspect. But it is hard to see how it is less appealing than an emphatic rhetoric of class warfare. And indeed, Warren typically links her rhetoric about “middle class” values to the plight of “working families.” In fact, while her economic populism lacks Sanders’s hard socialist edge, it is a strong form of economic populism nonetheless as, for example, Common Dreams noted when she first announced her candidacy: “ Vowing to Fight Corporate Power on Behalf of Working Families, Elizabeth Warren Announces 2020 Presidential Run.”
A second is that they grossly exaggerate the popular forces being mobilized by Sanders even as they concede the limits of this mobilization:
While the recent uptick in labor militancy is still very, very far from anything seen in the 1930s, Sanders’s candidacy is helping stoke the flames of class antagonism in a way we’ve never seen from a presidential candidate. As Seth Ackerman recently put it, “[Sanders] is using his campaign to get people out to picket lines, encouraging class conflict in the hope that his actions . . . can start the kind of upsurge that pushed the New Deal.” And a truly remarkable army has formed around the Sanders campaign, now a legitimate social movement with the potential to catch fire and spread far beyond the campaign trail.
Again, the Sanders campaign deserves credit for mobilizing its base. And Sanders has been particularly admirable for his support of worker strike action and for proposing a transformation of labor law to strengthen the power of labor unions. But while Kilpatrick and Sunkara write nostalgically about the labor radicalism of the 1930’s, the situation today is very far from that of the 1930’s in a great many ways. The notion that Sanders promises to be the FDR of our time is appealing, but hardly persuasive much less dispositive. As they themselves note: “We are far away from transforming whatever energy there is around him today into working-class institutions that can look consistently beyond just electoral politics and sustain struggles.”
Warren does not promise socialism or the building of a radical mass movement. But she promises a range of possible changes that are arguably more consistent with the current balance of forces and the current structure of the U.S. electorate, which on the whole is not mobilized on the basis of class identity. Sanders promises more, in terms of policy and in terms of radical vision. But this does not mean that he can deliver more, either on November 3, 2020 (election day) or on January 20, 2021, when a Democrat will hopefully be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Whoever that Democrat might be, she or he will be forced to work with a House Democratic caucus that is not dominated by progressives much less by democratic socialists, and a Senate Democratic caucus that is dominated by centrists that include many “purple state” Democrats. This is not a situation ripe for radical transformation. And while Sanders surely promises a more radically mobilizational approach than Warren does, Kilpatrick and Sunkara greatly exaggerate the promise of such mobilization, while underestimating the political advantages of a less class-confrontational rhetoric.
Two questions currently present themselves to those broadly on the left who are comparing the Sanders campaign and the Warren campaign:
First: which candidate is more likely to be able to mobilize broad support among Democratic party activists and among an expanded Democratic electorate, and thus to have a greater chance of defeating Trump in a general election?
Second: who advances a governing vision that is capable of securing even modest short-term success in office, thus increasingly the probability of re-election in 2024, and of a long-term rebuilding of the forces of the left, including unions but also civil rights groups, gender rights groups, and environmental justice groups?
My own sense is that the answer to both questions is Elizabeth Warren. But that is a hypothesis, to be tested in the coming weeks and months, as the primary contest proceeds.
I am not certain of the outcome. But I am certain that Warren is hardly “thirty years too late”; that her political evolution is at least as compelling as Sanders’s steadfast commitment to the same things he believed in the 1960’s and ‘70’s; and that her “middle class” approach to egalitarian public policy and corporate regulation is at least as compelling as Sanders’s denunciations of “the ruling class.”
Today Warren is planning a major address about corruption at Washington Square Park in New York City, a site chosen for its closeness to the site of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the Working Families Party, which endorsed Sanders in 2016, today endorsed Warren for President, on the basis of a ranked-choice polling of over 10,000 members, in which Warren received over 60% of the votes on the first ballot. Lest this be taken as a sign of the group’s shift to the center, it is worth noting that the Party has thus far endorsed only four candidates for Congress in 2020: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib.
Here is how Maurice Mitchell, the Working Families Party National Director, explained today’s endorsement: “Senator Warren knows how to kick Wall Street kleptocrats where it hurts, and she’s got some truly visionary plans to make this country work for the many. We need a mass movement to make her plans a reality, and we’re going to be a part of that work.”
This sounds right to me.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. From 2009-2017 he served as Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, which he branded “A Political Science Public Sphere.” In 2017 he was awarded the American Political Science Association’s Frank J. Goodnow Award for “public service” in the profession for the work he did on the journal along with his excellent staff and editorial board.