[ Photo credit Greg Skidmore]
TL;DR – I have been somewhat cautious about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in the past because of some of her positions and political rhetoric, so I did my homework. After doing my homework, I think my caution was mostly misplaced. I do, however, continue to have differences with her diagnosis of the cause of America’s major political and economic problems and I disagree with her use of populist rhetoric in her campaigning and political style. That said, she is a talented, smart, and passionate public servant whom I would gladly support against Donald Trump should she win the 2020 Democratic nomination.
While much can change between now and the Iowa Caucuses next January, as of right now Elizabeth Warren has roughly as good a shot as Joe Biden of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. I will admit that I have eyed Warren’s candidacy with some degree of caution, as her rhetorical style a fair amount of anti-elite economic populism, and I am wary of populism and populists, especially given the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency.
That said, populism (a political style that pits a good, virtuous people against an immoral elite of some kind) is not a binary: politicians can run the scale from exhibiting a small amount of populism here and there all the way all the way to a Stalinist “elites are the enemy of the people”-type populism. Given Warren’s reasonable chance of becoming the 2020 nominee, I recently made an effort to give Warren’s candidacy a fair shake and as much of an objective assessment as I could, reading two biographies of Warren and listening to several hours of one-on-one podcast interviews with her. This is what I learned.
THE COMPELLING CASE FOR WARREN:
Elizabeth Warren’s life story is impressive. She went to law school at a time when it was hard to do that as a woman and she did it while raising small kids. Her academic career and research led her to study bankruptcy, thinking it would confirm her early-life worldview that those who declare bankruptcy are morally lacking and mooching off the system. Instead, she found that the data and evidence showed very much the opposite, and she changed her political and societal views accordingly. This is an important cognitive skill that we all could use more of in our lives and especially could use more of from our political leaders.
Then, she spent much of her political career looking to put her research knowledge to use by working to address what she perceived to be the causes of the systems that led to those bankruptcies in society, as well as economic inequality more broadly.
Example: her proposal to give corporate employees control over 40% of the seats on the boards of directors that govern the institutions they work for (“codetermination”) is a cool idea. Research shows that countries that adopt some form of this type of corporate governance tend to also have higher wages for workers and lower levels of economic inequality in their societies.
Elizabeth Warren is smart, talented, and a workhorse. She’s a badass who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She knows what it’s like to be working parent of small kids. She was a talented and distinguished law professor. Her presidency would serve as an excellent and empowering model to young women and girls both in the U.S. and around the world. She would represent America honorably on the world stage and use her platform to address the very real and important issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation for the middle class.
MY DISAGREEMENTS WITH WARREN:
The causes of economic inequality
Warren’s explanation of the current state of economic inequality in the U.S. goes something like this: at key moments when government policies have been made that affect levels of economic opportunity and inequality, elected officials chose to enact policies that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless because they had been “bought” by campaign donations from powerful interest groups, lobbyists, and special interests. The solution, as she sees it, is to “stand up” to the influence and power of the special interests, thereby freeing policy-makers to pursue policies that benefit the majority.
As best as I can make sense of the research on the causes and consequences of economic inequality in contemporary American society and its relationship to the political process, Elizabeth Warren’s explanation is partially, but likely not entirely (or even mostly) correct. Instead, wider structural factors over the last half-century including globalization, industrial automation, and to a smaller extent technological innovation are among primary culprits for widening levels of economic inequality in American society.
These trends have of course been exacerbated by deliberate policy choices that have weakened labor unions and restructured tax codes in ways more favorable to those with higher income levels, but it’s not at all a foregone conclusion that economic inequality would not have grown over the last several decades in the absence of the influence of lobbyists and interest groups. We’d still have the wider forces of globalization, automation, and technological innovation at work.
If a President Warren is going to be effective at addressing economic inequality, her policy prescriptions will need to address much more than simply limiting the influence of lobbyists and the wealthy donor class on public policy.
Political change and the influence of lobbyists
This same explanation accounts for Warren’s theory of political change. For example, in a recent NPR interview, Warren was asked why meaningful gun control legislation has not been passed in recent years despite overwhelming public support for such measures. Her answer was that the NRA has bought off members of Congress with its campaign donations, and thus members of Congress listen to the NRA above their own voters who want these policies.
My best explanation would go something more like this: members of Congress of course pay attention to donors, but the best political science research tends to show that money can indeed by access to and attention from lawmakers, but not necessarily votes. Instead, most members of Congress (who are from safe electorally lopsided districts) pay most attention to the vocal members of their partisan primary constituencies because they are most worried about being primaried out by a more ideologically extreme/pure challenger. Republican primary voters care about gun rights. And it’s not because they’re bought off by the NRA, but because they believe strongly in an expansive interpretation of the 2nd amendment. These people show up to vote in primary elections and they care about gun rights, and so members of Congress from red states and districts tend to vote against restrictions on owning, buying, selling, and operating guns because voters who feel the same way control their electoral fates.
Take the NRA out of the equation entirely, and you’d still very likely have massive pressure from partisan constituencies who care strongly about this issue. Having a president who “stands up to the NRA” (as she promises to do) likely wouldn’t move the needle much in terms of congressional incentives to support gun control legislation.
Democratic norms and the legislative process
Recognizing these electoral and institutional constraints, Elizabeth Warren is now advocating for the elimination of the Senate filibuster so as to be able to pass all legislation with a simple majority.
On this point, I agree with her. (I say this someone who, as part of a U.S. Senate simulation as an undergraduate, argued passionately in favor of the sacred rights of senators to filibuster. I changed my mind somewhere around 2014.) I support the elimination of the filibuster so as to enable majorities to govern and to increase accountability on the majority party to govern effectively (they can’t blame a Senate minority for poor governance if the minority can no longer block the majority from enacting its program). I support the elimination of the filibuster going forward, regardless of whether “my side” is in control or not.
When you hear Elizabeth Warren advocate for abolishing the filibuster, though, you hear a different rationale: “This business that Democrats play by one set of rules and Republicans play by a different set of rules — those days are over when I’m president. We’re not doing that anymore.” What she means is that under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans have tended to put the exercise of political power ahead of respect for the norms of democratic governance that hold a liberal democracy together.
On this point, I still agree with her: McConnell’s complete lack of regard for democratic norms of reciprocity and fair play are egregious and shameful. Where I disagree is on how to respond. She’s saying “if they’re going to play dirty, than so are we.” I worry that this will continue to hasten the arms race of political power, continuing to raise the stakes of the outcome of each election which will further incentivize abandoning democratic norms in favor of securing political power (example: Merrick Garland). This is not a recipe to ensure the long-term health or stability of our political system.
The use of populist rhetoric
When Elizabeth Warren talks about lobbyists, special interests, and the donor class, she says over and over again that they’re “corrupt.” I’ll admit that I’m wary of the use of this word, because in an international political context “corruption” usually refers to politicians or other authority figures taking cash bribes in exchange for granting political favors. It is true, though, that “corrupt” can also simply mean “unfair” or “distorted” which is what I think she means: that the system unfairly benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle- and lower-class. When she accuses politicians and interest groups of being “corrupt,” though, it’s not unreasonable for listeners to infer an accusation of lawbreaking and other illegal activity.
This matters because it’s a common strategy for populists. Example: Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he lost the popular vote in 2016 only because millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton or that the electoral system is “rigged” against him (something Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common). Accusing lobbyists of “corruption” (whether you agree with their positions or not) for exercising their first amendment rights to freedom of speech and association is, to me, a gesture in the same direction (although not near as egregious) as when Donald Trump says that the news media is a purveyor of “fake news” and therefore is “the enemy of the people.”
This rhetorical populism also targets other Americans. At her town hall meetings, Warren often focuses her rhetoric on the wealthy and super-rich, accusing them of selfishly hoarding their wealth at the expense of the less fortunate. She talks derisively about the people with vacation homes and yachts and says that she’s going to pay for her expansion of welfare state programs (universal child care and health insurance, etc.) by enacting a “wealth tax” on the net worth of the wealthiest vacation home and yacht owners.
Now, I want to be clear that support proportionately higher levels of taxes on those more fortunate to support the provision of services like education and healthcare to those less fortunate in an effort to broaden opportunity and prosperity for all. This can be done, though, in ways that do not rhetorically demonize those who are being taxed at higher rates.
When Elizabeth Warren casts rhetorical dispersions on the wealthy, making them out to be antagonists against the good, virtuous middle- and lower-classes, this is populism. Rhetorically, it’s the same political style that Donald Trump uses (although again, not near as egregious) when he makes straight-up racist comments against immigrants and Muslims, making them out to be the enemy of the good, virtuous white, Christians. When populist leaders are able to convince a majority of the people that another group of people are corrupt or threatening, they are more easily able to infringe upon the rights of those minority groups (whether the wealthy or the immigrants or the Muslims, etc.) to boost their popularity among the masses.
WARREN’S CANDIDACY IN PERSPECTIVE:
I tend disagree with Elizabeth Warren about the causes of economic inequality in U.S. society and as well as her view of the effect of lobbyists on the American political system and political change. Those are honest differences of opinion, though, and I fully appreciate Warren’s efforts to apply her understanding of the world to make meaningful change, as I hope we would all do.
I am wary of Elizabeth Warren’s comfort with “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to responding to recent Republican efforts to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the pursuit of policy outcomes. I am wary of the populist notes she inserts into her stump speeches. I understand and sympathize with much of the motivation, but I do not support such political styles and strategies becoming the “new normal” in the United States, as neither is conducive maintaining a strong and vibrant liberal democracy.
As I said at the outset, though, these characteristics do not exist in a binary but rather in matters of degree. In my estimation, if we were to put someone like Vice President Biden on one end of the spectrum around a 1 and President Trump on the other end of the spectrum around a 10 in terms of populism and disrespect for democratic norms and institutions, I’d put someone like Elizabeth Warren around a 3-ish. She’s not actively trying to sow doubt in the institutions of the news media, the judiciary, NATO (as Donald Trump has done), or even capitalist democracy (she goes to great length to assure us that “I’m a capitalist to my bones” and her record supports this). She’s not actively calling for a ban on travel of all wealthy people to the United States (like Trump did with Muslims, and tried very hard to follow through on, achieving some degree of success with his travel ban).
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, I’d rank around a 6 or a 7. He’s actively disparaging the “1%” and the “billionaire class.” He’s taken to criticizing the free news media. He calls for a “revolution” of the people substantially reform the political and economic institutions of the United States. He is a populist through and through. Elizabeth Warren is nowhere near as far along this spectrum as Bernie Sanders, who I am on record of actively opposing for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Therefore, if the primary election were held today, Elizabeth Warren would perhaps not be my first choice for the reasons outlined above. That said, should she win the nomination for president in 2020, I will gladly support her candidacy. She has not “crossed the line” of populism or the delegitimization of our political institutions the same way that Trump or Sanders have. The risk to democratic norms and institutions from a President Elizabeth Warren is low, and much, much lower than from a President Bernie Sanders or a re-elected President Donald Trump. And the potential for her to enact meaningful change in American public policy about the issues she cares about is pretty good (assuming, of course, that the Democrats win the Senate – odds are currently low – and the Senate nukes the filibuster. If not…?)