What to Make of Warren’s Policy Blitz

Elizabeth Warren may have smart policies. But Bernie Sanders has mass politics.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at the National Forum on Wages and Working People on April 27 in Las Vegas, NV. Ethan Miller / Getty

Last week I wrote an article praising Elizabeth Warren for advancing the student debt conversation. While I think her proposal falls short of what we deserve — a full-on student debt jubilee, no means-testing or exceptions — I’m impressed by how seriously it takes the problem of student debt, leaving Obama-style “refinancing” behind in favor of large-scale debt forgiveness, commensurate with the gravity of the crisis.

The student debt proposal was one of many recent plans released by Warren in recent months, ramping up in the last few weeks. Some are better than others. Her Ultra-Millionaire Tax is a winner, as is her Real Corporate Profits Tax. Warren’s universal childcare plan is promising overall, though it retains unnecessary fees for users. Her affordable housing plan is one-sidedly market-based: its central proposal is to incentivize local governments to remove zoning restrictions. That needs to be complemented by heavy investments in social housing, a policy recently floated by the People’s Policy Project.

But criticisms aside, Warren’s proposals trend in a positive direction. At the very least, they demonstrate a willingness to tackle working people’s real problems with debt, housing, health, and childcare. If they were to materialize, many of these proposals would significantly improve life for working people — maybe not as much as we’d like, but enough to be considered a positive development, especially after decades of Democratic disinterest in policies that threaten corporate profits or meaningfully redistribute wealth.

So it’s understandable why many on the Left have reacted to Warren’s policy blitz with delight. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The proposals she’s pumping out are exciting, but more to the point, they are a strategy for raising her campaign’s profile.

It’s not standard in presidential politics to bust out of the gate with a constant stream of detailed policy ideas. The other candidates aren’t behind on releasing policy proposals — Warren is way ahead, doing something unusual. Bernie Sanders doesn’t even have his policy team fully assembled yet, nor do the others. We need to ask why Warren feels compelled to adopt this early traction-gaining strategy to begin with.

In my view, Warren’s policy blitz is a bid to distinguish herself in light of her difficulty thus far in cohering an organic base. Put bluntly, Warren is turning her campaign into a policy factory because she’s had trouble inspiring people with a broad-strokes political vision the way her closest ideological competitor, Bernie Sanders, has.

This strategy may work to boost her campaign prospects, but it’s a bad omen for any presidential administration seriously committed to taking on the ruling elite. If you can’t impart to millions of working people the sense that they are carrying out a historic mission during your campaign — a “political revolution” driven by “Not Me, Us” — you won’t be able to mobilize them to exert pressure on the state to challenge the interests of capital when it really counts, during your presidency.

Part of Warren’s trouble in the area of mass politics can be traced to the fact that she’s neither an establishment plaything nor an opponent of capitalism. To her credit, Warren won’t take corporate money (at least during the primary), and she evades the regular donor circuit. That means that to make her campaign viable, she needs masses of ordinary people to believe in her project strongly enough to donate their own hard-earned money to her campaign. Unlike Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, or certainly Joe Biden, she can’t paper over her lackluster popular support with fat checks from elites.

So far, those masses have failed to materialize. That’s largely because Warren’s temperate political ideology makes it hard for her to say the things necessary to get their attention. She’s great at diagnosing the worst problems of capitalism and has plans to address them, but her rhetoric doesn’t polarize along class lines. She therefore struggles to define her constituency and identify who exactly that constituency is up against.

Warren hates egregious inequality, but fundamentally believes in the superior rationality of markets. She has unwavering faith in capitalism, calling herself “a capitalist to my bones” — her primary concern is that it has been led astray. At a time when socialism is becoming synonymous with efforts to put people over profit, Warren disavows it. When Donald Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country” a couple of months ago, Sanders stayed slouched in his chair, while Warren rose to her feet in applause.

This means that while Warren knows down to the last detail what she’d like better regulations to look like, she’s not quite solid on the antagonists and protagonists, i.e. which broader social forces need to be arranged against which other forces to make change.

Sanders’s vision of social conflict is quite clear, and is summed up by the name of his town hall last year: CEOs vs. Workers. To make favorable policy materialize and to protect it from reversal, the forces of workers need to be arranged against the forces of CEOs. Nearly everything Sanders says and does leads back to this core belief in the power of ordinary working people to take on capitalist elites themselves. As he puts it, “Real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up.”

In Warren’s case, where oppositional rhetoric appears at all, the contest more often comes across as “Smart Progressive Policymakers vs. Bad Rules.” Not only is there no room in that rivalry for ordinary people, but the enemy is also faceless. The enemy is incorrect policy, and it must be corrected by expert policy correctors. Elect Warren, on the basis of her demonstrated expertise, and she will deftly set about changing the rules so that capitalism doesn’t produce so many awful externalities.

Sanders may as well have been winking at Warren when he said, in a video screened recently to thousands of self-organized groups of Bernie supporters in every congressional district:

No president, not the best intentioned, not the most honest person in the world, no one person can do it alone. Now why is that? Because this is what is not talked about in the media, not talked about in Congress: the power structure of America is such that a small number of wealthy individuals and large corporate entities have so much influence over the economic and political life of this country that no one person can do it.

You think we’re gonna pass Medicare for All tomorrow because the president of the United States says that’s what we should do? You think we’re gonna take on the fossil fuel industry and effectively and aggressively combat climate change change because the president of the United States thinks we should do that? … A lot of presidents say, “Gee I have a great idea. I woke up yesterday and I think health care for all’s a good idea.” That’s not the way it happens. It happens when millions of people stand up and demand it.

It’s unsurprising that Bernie’s broad vision of social conflict is more inspiring than Warren’s. After decades of skyrocketing living costs and stagnating wages, many working people are spoiling for a fight. That nascent fighting spirit can be seen in the popular protest movements that began in 2011, the unprecedented popularity of Sanders’s dark-horse candidacy in 2016, and the teachers strike wave that kicked off last year.

Unencumbered by an awkward mixture of admiration for capitalism and disapproval of its ugliest excesses, Bernie Sanders is uniquely capable of picking that fight — and making ordinary working people feel like they’re at the center of it, that it’s theirs to win.

It’s the trouble Warren has had breaking through in this way that explains why she has turned to cranking out hyper-detailed proposals. She’s making up with wonkery what she lacks in big-picture political clarity. In the process, she’s successfully grabbing headlines and winning the hearts of left technocrats with prominent platforms. That might translate into some boost in popular support. But it’s not obvious that such support will ever rival that of a candidate who tells workers, “This is class warfare, and we’re going to stand up and fight.”

We are right to admire many of the ideas coming out of the Warren campaign. Best-case scenario, they will spur a progressive policy arms race, which would be to the benefit of all.

But we shouldn’t see her policy blitz purely as a sign of strength. It may actually be an SOS message, a panicked response to her campaign’s shortcomings in the field of mass politics. And of course, mass politics are necessary for creating durable and militant constituencies that can self-organize outside the state, which is in turn necessary to win and preserve a progressive policy agenda against the interests of capitalists — an agenda that Warren and Sanders largely share.

Warren’s policy blitz strategy may pay off in the short term. But in the long term, there’s no substitute for naming the sides, picking a side, and building up your side to fight the other side. And that’s Bernie’s game.