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Whoʼs Afraid of Elizabeth Warren?

07-Nov-2019Stephan Kimmerle

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“Democratic donors on Wall Street and in big business are preparing to sit out the presidential campaign fundraising cycle—or even back President Donald Trump—if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the party’s nomination,”CNBC reported on September 26.

The next day CNBC quoted a senior private equity executive who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of retribution by Democratic Party leaders. The executive explained: “You’re in a box because you’re a Democrat and you’re thinking, ‘I want to help the party, but she’s going to hurt me, so I’m going to help President Trump.’”

This big donor anxiety has been the flip side of Warren’s surge in the polls “on a message of purging corruption in Washington and restructuring the economy” (NY Times, October 11, 2019). Her progressive, populist message of standing up to Wall Street and demanding “big structural change” has tapped into widespread anger at the ultra-rich and a broken political system establishment—the same anger that first fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

Echoing Sanders, Warren has sworn off PAC money or taking part in big-money fundraisers, instead relying on grassroots small donors.

Compared to Sanders' proposals for universal programs, Warren's proposals are generally less sweeping and include some sort of means testing. Nevertheless, Warren has helped popularize bold demands to crack down on Wall Street and tax the rich, and she has defended Medicare for All, though inconsistently and with less clarity than Sanders. She has raised audacious proposals to break up Facebook, Google, Amazon, and big banks. Warren is also campaigning strongly for tuition-free college, student debt reduction, affordable childcare, a $15 minimum wage, union rights and a host of other social justice reforms to tackle systemic racism and sexism.

Warren Rising

Warren has steadily risen in the polls since the beginning of summer. As of October 25, she has surpassed Bernie Sanders and is narrowly behind Joe Biden, the front runner from the Democratic Party's corporate wing.

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Warren’s surge has triggered a debate among Sanders supporters over how to relate to Warren’s base.

The first point to register is that the growing support for Warren, along with Sander's strong support, is a reflection of the enormous swing to the left that has taken place among millions of working- and middle-class people who are the core of the Democratic electorate.

It has been a welcome breath of fresh air to see Warren and Sanders dominating the Democratic debates on national television with robust arguments for taxing the super-rich and Medicare for All, while exposing the flimsy arguments of the “moderate” candidates.

Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable that two of the three frontrunners in the Democratic primaries would be putting forward such bold, anti-corporate policies. As Sanders and Warren both drive the 2020 Democratic primary to the left, the expectations of millions of ordinary people have been raised.

The left-wing dynamic of the primary has also resulted in a competition between Warren and Sanders over who can put forward the boldest, most far-reaching demands. Sanders has further shifted to the left, calling for an even more aggressive wealth tax than Warren, the cancelation of all $1.6 trillion in student debt (as opposed to Warren’s more limited, means-tested debt-cancellation proposal), and voting rights for all inmates.

The Left Should Support Sanders

Some on the left argue that, since Warren’s and Sanders’ policies are similar, the left should support Warren, as she would be the first woman president and is somewhat younger than Sanders. There are three main reasons why Sanders deserves to be the candidate for the socialist left:

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1. Bernie has a real strategy for change: movement building. Bernie again and again emphasizes the need to build movements. This was highlighted recently with his pledge to be the “Organizer in Chief” if elected.

The changes Sanders and Warren are advocating will not happen without the active involvement of millions pushing them forward against the power of Corporate America. Smart policy proposals and good plans are great, but not enough. Warren is starting to echo some of Sanders' language on this issue, but Sanders has made this a key theme throughout his campaigns.

2. Bernie is a proud, self-declared democratic socialist. As he said recently, “If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.” In contrast, Warren has said “[Bernie’s] a socialist, and I believe in markets.” Or, as she said more explicitly on another occasion, “I am a capitalist to my bones.”

Our movements depend on fighting for what we need, not merely what is acceptable within the limitations of capitalism. To have any chance of limiting climate change we will have to fight the fossil fuel corporations head on. We urgently need a discussion in society about fundamental system change.

While Bernie’s explanation of socialism is limited to radical reforms within capitalism, he has nonetheless helped promote a mass discussion about socialist change since, at the start of his 2016 campaign, he called for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.”

3. An alternative to the Democratic Party is needed. Although Bernie is running in the Democratic Party presidential primary, for most of his life he has run as an independent. After running in the 2016 Democratic primary, he went back to being an “independent” Senator. While his second campaign for the Democratic nomination further associates him with the Democratic Party, Bernieʼs political career points to the importance of building a base of support independent from the Democratic Party.

These political differences between Sanders and Warren are understood by the political establishment. William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, explained: “Sanders sees [his campaign] as a revolutionary mass movement to upset the established order. While Senator Warren is obviously very dissatisfied with the status quo, she describes her campaign in very different terms and terms that I think are less scary.”

Warren also refused to endorse Sanders’ campaign in 2016, despite agreeing with him on many points. From a socialist standpoint, there is a qualitative difference between Bernie and the other Democratic candidates. That is why it was correct for the recent national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to decide that Bernie was the only candidate running in the Democratic primaries for President that DSA would endorse.

A Debate Over Strategy

As the media tries to use Warren to further sideline Sanders, supporters are split: some are calling for the candidates to work together, while others argue that we need to criticize Warren. For example, D. D. Guttenplan, editor of The Nation, argues in an October 14 op-ed for a “truce” between Sanders and Warren, while Carl Beijer argues against one in a recent Jacobin article.

Eric Blanc, a DSA activist, criticizes Warren’s stances on education in another Jacobin article: “When it comes to K-12 public education, Elizabeth Warren’s progressive credentials are weak. Educators and students deserve better.” Tim Higginbotham also critiqued Warren’s unclear stance on Medicare for All in a Jacobin article titled “Elizabeth Warren Still Isn’t Getting Specific on Medicare for All.”

These criticisms are all broadly correct. It is necessary to soberly assess each candidate to arrive at a clear understanding of their politics. But that reality is distinct from the question of what is the best strategy for Sanders supporters to win more support for his campaign and appeal to those voters who are considering supporting Warren.

Bernie Needs to Play to His Strength and Mobilize

Bernie Sanders—and all of us campaigning for him—should keep the focus on:

  • How to beat Donald Trump in 2020,

  • How to overcome the political situation that allowed Trump to win in 2016, and

  • How to build a real alternative to the capitalist system and its representatives in the Democratic Party elite, with the aim to build a new socialist and working-class party

Attacking Elizabeth Warren for her weaknesses may seem justified to dedicated Sanders supporters, but focusing on that negative message is not an effective way to bring over the large numbers of ordinary people who look favorably at Warren for left-wing reasons.

There is no doubt that the rise of Warren, while generally representing a swing to the left, creates challenges for Sanders’ path to victory. The answer to these challenges is to play to the strength of Bernie and his movement: collective action and mass struggle.

With his huge and highly energetic base, Bernie is in a strong position to initiate mass mobilizations. No other candidate, including Elizabeth Warren, is able to do that.

A call for a national day of action to cancel student debt with rallies at universities across the country, would help to energize Bernie’s base and raise the profile of his campaign in the broader public with a clear-cut, positive message. One day of coordinated protests could have a national impact and draw more people into political activity.

Bernie and AOC, together with others, could call for a day of mass action for the Green New Deal with rallies and mass blockades of corporate polluters and their Wall Street financiers, following the example of Extinction Rebellion. Such an action would help Bernie stand out, help frame the public debate on our terms, and highlight Bernie’s movement-building approach.

Days of action could be organized for Medicare for All with the National Nurses United union and other organizations, with mass canvasses across the country.

Sanders needs to show working people and youth that collective action is necessary, that he is the candidate able to take on the billionaire class, and that his supporters have an active role to play. Collective actions and mass mobilizations will help make him stand out to the broader public, not just the socialist left.

A call to action during one of the national TV debates in coordination with the working-class forces organized around his campaign could draw huge numbers of people into action.

It could also help to appeal to many who are currently supporting Warren. If Sanders openly invited Warren and other progressive forces to endorse and help build together with his campaign mass actions for shared demands, the appeal to Warren’s supporters would only be strengthened.

Will Bernie adopt such an approach? Hopefully. However, we should not just depend on him to take such action. Our organization, DSA, can play a role in directly mobilizing in this direction, and consistently calling on Bernie to take this step.

DSA is running an impressive independent campaign for Bernie. We can take the battle to the next level with organizing such national days of action—on campuses, in the streets, at the doors—if we all step up to the task.


Stephan Kimmerle is on the Editorial Board of Reform & Revolution and is a Seattle DSA activist.