I dearly want Elizabeth Warren to become President.
Ideally, I would be less emotionally invested. Our political culture focuses too much on Presidents, too little on movements. A progressive Democratic movement of regular people and non-famous politicians is what will flip statehouses, build unions, and campaign for new protections; victory at the federal level will be an outgrowth of that movement.
Any sufficiently high-level politician is guaranteed to have some of their views too colored by their past, by their time clawing their way up the existing diseased power structure. They will need to have a movement yelling at them, forcing them to change positions sometimes, getting them to fight harder than they would have on their own. There is no such thing as a “savior” who can let us relax and stop paying attention.
All the above understood — I still want it to be Warren. Right now, given that the presidency is a powerful office and a meaningful symbol, she is the best poised to turn our country in a new moral and effectual direction.
The main point Warren makes with eloquence and force is that our aspirations are not as out of reach as they seem. She can make this point so well because she has deep practical policy knowledge and skill about how to make our aspirations concrete. Democrats of the past have voiced similar-sounding ideals about power being too concentrated and the system not working for everyone, but they have worked within that same broken system and their solutions have played it safe so as to avoid backlash. Warren’s plans are not simply wonky policy proposals; they are articulations of a world almost-here, a view through a thin barrier, of what success looks like. Warren knows–and can tell the story–that government does possess the tools to combat entrenched elite power, both institutional and financial, that what has been seen as impossible is highly plausible, that “unbeatable” established interests stand on feet of clay.
Just a few of many examples of how her vision marries the ideal and the possible:
- Warren first put the idea of a wealth tax on the agenda. Income and capital gains taxes keep the rich from getting richer as quickly; wealth taxes can actually make them less rich. She read the latest research showing wealth has reached such towering heights that such policy is needed, and then learned by trial and error how to sell this idea to audiences by comparing it to the property taxes they already pay.
- Warren knows from personal experience how transformative for women’s lives and careers the right to childcare is. She sees that other countries can and do provide this, and that the money needed is raisable, but sees from those examples how we must also build up national childcare providers to the needed capacity and quality, not just throw a new tax credit at the problem.
- Warren looks at megacorporate structures and sees not just enemies to tax more and regulate better — though they are that! — but institutions that can be made more equitable in their very bones, such as by requiring employees be represented on corporate boards, whether or not there is a union (a policy that has served Germany well).
- Warren’s student loan forgiveness proposals preach that our policy changes leading to college becoming prohibitively expensive over the past 40 years were not inevitable. They were a collective social choice, not inevitable. To provide redress, we must not just make college free to future students, but also recompense the students our choices are still hurting.
Warren’s ideas resonate with so many people in so many different ways. Whether it’s black mothers who doctors and hospitals undertreat, or people with disabilities who can’t get married or buy a car without losing benefits, farmers frustrated the terms of service prevent them from repairing their own tractors, or parents trying to support their kids through active shooter drills, she sees and reflects back the whole crazy kaleidoscope of how our broken political system hurts people and how fixes are well within reach.
Of course, Medicare-for-all — her enthusiastic embrace of the end of private insurance as we know it — also reflects this vision. The status quo is so dysfunctional, and educated people are so used to it, that a clear vision of a better world seems—falsely—”extreme.” Warren has seen past politicians’ typical status quo bias, and sees that health insurance companies never delivered on their early promise to keep costs down, and they are now ineffective middlemen. They essentially collect tolls for nothing, and then use those tolls to lobby for zero change. And the rest of the system is infected by this complexity, doctor’s offices and hospitals dedicating staggering amounts of time and effort to maximizing revenues when they could be improving care. So of course, Warren sees it as an active good to eliminate private insurance. Medicare-for-all is not just a good goal, it is a prerequisite for making health care work in this country. This is not unrealistic as some have said; it is one of the most realistic visions out there.
She also has a focused strategy for how to accomplish these once in office. She connects all the social ills she diagnoses with one common enabling element: pervasive corruption, when power-holders scratch each others’ backs to promote their own interests and prevent needed changes. In January 2021, her first action, what you might call a “plan of plans,” would be a major anti-corruption package that breaks the corrupt patterns. Campaign finance, conflict of interest laws, lobbying restrictions — these are all process reforms, but they clear the way for all her other solutions, and other politicians’ solutions. She’s willing to take actions necessary to this end whether or not they might be seen as “extreme” by politicians grown too used to our failed political culture — including people like Buttigieg, Biden, and, sadly, Obama. Warren is willing and able to abolish the Senate filibuster and add more Supreme Court justices in the certain knowledge that those two biggest fortresses of elite power will fight every meaningful change by fair means or foul.
It is a difficult proposition, but as I see it, no other road has even a chance of succeeding.
So, does Warren have the skills to back up this talk? For her track record, read this article about her entrance into national politics. She saw Obama’s administration filled with Wall Street sympathizers who used the bailout to stabilize the financial industry to the exclusion of all other goals. She made herself inconvenient, persistently fought from the outside, and forced the formation of a new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And as she got to staff and build that agency from the ground up, it came to reflect the imprint of her vigorous and optimistic outlook, to become an agency that shows how government can be a force for good, not paperwork.
Warren is also a great speaker and storyteller — warm, funny, engaging, able to merge the personal and the political. Watch this speech on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which starts with an emotional story of preventable deaths born of greed, then walks you gently but inexorably to the comparable policy failures we see today, and leaves you believing that if we overcame the corruption of that age, we can overcome the corruption of this one.
Does Warren sound like a teacher? Maybe — but the best of the teachers. The teacher who cared about you specifically, who drove across town to check if you were okay.
Some might ask why I prefer Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders, who also preaches aggressive change. Sanders’s style is clear, unblinking, stentorian, over and over calling out the biggest inequities and calling for their biggest policy solutions, like Medicare-for-all. That is a distinct style and has its charms, but I see it as lacking in the personal touch, the “we can do it next year and this is what it will look like” sense you get from Warren. The biggest issue that makes me wonder about Sanders is this: he has rejected true abolition of the filibuster. His argument for this antidemocratic bastion, which gives veto power to states representing one-fifth of the country, seems to be that his Political Revolution will be so strong that it will wash over such barriers like sand. I fear he views the world as a slog toward progress over generations, with success at some date uncertain. Good viewpoint for a prophet and movement-builder; not the greatest recipe for a president.
Is Warren going to “fold” on Medicare-for-all, as the firmest Sanders partisans allege? This notion originates in her transition plan, which specifies various major year-one reforms short of full Medicare-for-all. This plan is in response to the media hounding her on the achievability of her plans. Because she cares about policy specifics as an indicator of values and readiness, she made this list of more immediately passable ideas. In fact, the distinction between Warren’s and Sanders’ plans is tortured, because Sanders staffers say just as readily that their envisioned Medicare-for-all would struggle to pass even in an ideal 2021. Any reform will be a fight, and Warren and Sanders will be in roughly the same place in the march toward health care for all.
Some might ask, is Warren too far left to win? Will the “white middle class” support her? I think the “electability monster” is a trap. When Democrats try to figure out who would be popular to other voters they are merely imagining, they make worse decisions overall, because they ignore their gut. I averaged together head-to-head polls collected to date and found a slight advantage for Biden over Trump, but pollsters seem to agree such hypothetical contests have little predictive value this far out; being better- and longer-known confers a benefit. Too, we know from experience that any Democratic frontrunner is equally victim to the Republican smear machine once it gears up — just look at John Kerry, who Democrats picked for his appeal to the mythical middle and who was destroyed anyway. I’m not skilled in prognostication — I don’t think anyone is — but I believe the most resilient candidate will provoke the most natural enthusiasm among Democrats, inspire them to come out and canvass, and have a positive message that activates previously disillusioned voters. That potential is what I see in Oklahoma’s Warren.
(I also believe Biden has not received nearly the scrutiny Warren has for his faults and weaknesses — he shows staggering unseriousness and entitlement through his incoherent speech — so any lead he may apparently have is likely perilously fragile. And note most swing voters are not in fact centrist.)
As I laud Warren for her strengths, I don’t want to erase her faults. Obviously the “DNA test” episode was a blunder, when she looked to the fantasy of a coup de grâce that leaves an opponent flatfooted by its cleverness, and in the leadup she failed to ask important questions about racial implications. And it is true that while she talks about battling structural racism, that battle is not what comes to mind naturally or automatically for her. (Her vision of the average unjustly-burdened American may be of someone female, but it’s also of someone white.) Not unrelatedly, while gesturing at better principles, she does seem to have absorbed some of the imperialist mindset on foreign policy, as is common in Beltway culture, in desiring a strong military that will fight Evil People abroad, and in looking away from Israel’s atrocities. Overall, from some prickly responses I have seen her give on video, I do worry she has developed some beginnings of a savior complex, thinking so highly of her approach as to bristle at criticisms.
As I said at the start of my essay, any politician will be imperfect and must be pushed and prodded to do better. (Sanders shares some of these problems; and Biden, while maddening, would still be worlds better than Trump precisely because he can be so pushed.) But I have also seen Warren seriously working on her racial justice blind spot. She has incorporated activists in her policymaking, and met extensively to listen to Native American groups after the DNA episode, without trying to manufacture a “look, I’m forgiven” moment. She has also started to foreground racial issues in her core message, as in her speech which balances the American revolutionary promise with a forthright admission of how the Revolution enshrined slavery.
Warren is a prime example of the gauntlet faced by women politicians. Because she has worked ten times as hard as her similar-positioned male counterparts, she now shows a greater willingness to accept she might be wrong.
I will work for any Democrat who wins the nomination, and I will be especially happy if that is either Warren or Sanders. Warren, however, is the candidate best positioned to use her rhetorical and executive chops to reorient us toward a future with compassion, responsiveness to facts, and reparation of injustice.
Solutions at a scale that could actually combat the problems we see around us.
Try everything, and hold on to the good.
No more small ideas.