by Alex Knepper
If you told me four years ago that I’d be supporting Elizabeth Warren for president, I’d have rolled over with laughter: the woman is a demagogue, I said; she demonizes big business and pits American against American. No politician’s victory in the 2012 election cycle frustrated me so much.
I was wrong. I bothered to actually investigate her claims, and, like Warren herself, discovered that my knee-jerk apologism for corporate power was unfounded. Like Warren herself realizing that credit card companies, and not irresponsible consumers, were the unscrupulous party in that market and one revelation leading to another, I realized that much of what she says about the ‘game’ of American life being ‘rigged’ that I didn’t want to be true — is true, after all. It is in fact the overseers of global techno-capitalism who are pitting American against American, not Sen. Warren — and Sen. Warren, unlike her Republican critics, actually consistently opposes class warfare, not only of the poor against the rich but of the rich against the poor, too. The most recent round of Federal Reserve data showed that 88% of American wealth is owned by 20% of the people. Factor in money hidden overseas, and 80% of Americans are fighting over a mere 10% of wealth in the United States. Take away the way the wealthy skew the averages upward, and the rest of the United States looks more like Eastern Europe than Western Europe. If it is true in any meaningful sense that all men are made equal, this is not a natural, normal, or inevitable outcome, but the result of 40 years of policy choices consciously arranged to stack the deck in favor of the wealthy and well-connected.
Democrats have found in Elizabeth Warren a synthesis between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Her steady ascent in the polls reflects a deep temptation to nominate her and see if it isn’t possible to elect the candidate who is actually the best fit for the job rather than go for the ‘safe’ pick in former Vice President Joe Biden. Some on the center-left are, frankly, horrified, convinced that Warren, the left-wing woman professor from Massachusetts with a racial controversy to her name, is too likely to lose to Donald Trump. Democrats would prefer to win with a woman, and would prefer to win with a progressive, and would prefer to win with someone brainy and accomplished — but they are traumatized after Hillary Clinton’s razor-thin loss and fear they might lose the country they love to political madness if Trump is elected again.
The simple reality is that nominating Elizabeth Warren is something of a higher-risk, higher-reward proposition. Because we have so little data to work with, we really can’t know how the American people will respond to her unless she is nominated. It’s been nearly 50 years since Democrats were traumatized by their 49-state loss — every state except Warren’s own Massachusetts! — to the noxious Nixon, Donald Trump’s nearest precursor. Since then, the center-left has lived in perpetual horror of a repeat scenario (didn’t I just type this?) and has nominated overwhelmingly cautious and predictable candidates. Ironically for the theorists of moderation, the Democrats’ most resounding victories in the last 50 years came from Barack Obama — a black man from Chicago widely perceived as a socialist by his opponents. Although the 2008 election was a ‘gimme’ for Democrats, the 2012 election certainly was not. The official opposition — to say nothing of the informal opposition — including Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, declared that Obama’s real ideology was African anti-colonialism; that he is the ‘food stamp president.’ But not enough people bought it.
The lesson of Barack Obama is that a good candidate can withstand even the most extreme and relentless and organized criticisms. This lesson applies to Bill Clinton’s victories, too. He didn’t survive and thrive through his pitfalls and scandals because he was moderate — he survived because he’s a great politician who had a great message for his time. The fact that Warren has already survived the ‘Pocahontas’ saga speaks well of her resilience: the DNA test fiasco is one of the worst acts of political malpractice I have ever seen, yet she still has been able to convince me, and millions of other Democrats, to support her. It’s easier to forgive someone when they have an abundance of positive qualities, too. One reason so many insane criticisms stuck to Hillary Clinton is that she often seemed unwilling or unable to articulate a positive vision for the country or a worthwhile policy agenda. Few will question whether Warren has a coherent vision.
When Warren talks about economics, she doesn’t sound like a radical leftist: she sounds like she is simply speaking common sense, which is why even the likes of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson have taken notice. Republicans have primed people to expect her to open her lips and spout Marxism. When they hear instead an accurate and compelling diagnosis and prescription for what ails their communities, they will, like millions of Americans relieved to discover Ronald Reagan was not a fanatical flamethrower when they tuned in to the 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, warm to her.
What I worry about, then, is not her economic agenda; that’s actually widely popular. But she’s not shy about her support for various left-wing social causes, either, and they might be a harder play. The backlash against ‘political correctness’ has become so indiscriminate and hostile that Republicans will cease to listen to anything someone says if they are perceived to be an ally of the ‘PC left.’ Although Hillary Clinton was tagged as a ‘moderate’ in the 2016 race owing to her lack of hostility to corporate power, she actually ran an aggressively culturally liberal campaign, campaigning with the mothers of black men who were victims of police brutality, inviting illegal immigrants on stage at the Democratic National Convention, running with someone who said that he hopes the Catholic Church comes around to the position of the Democratic Party on abortion, voicing support for trans people, and promising strict gun control measures. Of course, with Warren, there’s the neverending ‘Pocahontas’ drama. I do not believe a constructive debate over race is possible with Trump as the Republican nominee. He will always find a way to drag the debate down to his level, and racial resentments will allow him to corral people back into the Republican tent who might otherwise be interested in Warren’s economic messaging. When white voters learn that Warren has tagged Trump as a ‘white supremacist’ or refers to the ‘Latinx community’, many will close their ears to whatever she has to say about anything else. One good Trumpian gripe about unruly darkies can negate days’ or weeks’ worth of work pounding home a message against income inequality.
Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a way around this. Democrats must not delude themselves into thinking that Biden will be able to avoid similar controversies, or that Trump won’t transform the election into a proxy race against Barack Obama. One of the GOP’s prime motives for electing Trump is to get revenge on Obama. There is simply no way around this election turning into a racial minefield — so we might as well nominate someone willing to articulate justice.
Some have criticized Warren’s viability on the basis that her ‘plans’ are more like ‘wishes’; that if Mitch McConnell is still Senate Majority Leader, President Warren will be obstructed from Day One and will never be able to get anything passed. Unfortunately, this is true — it’s definitely possible that this will happen. But once again, it’s equally true for center-left Democrats; Obama entered office willing, even desperate, to work with Republicans and earn bipartisan legitimacy for the legislation he supported. Republicans spat in his face and obstructed everything he tried to get passed, anyway. If Republicans are going to behave as radical obstructionists no matter who is president, we might as well nominate someone who at least is keeping superior policy ideas in the mix. Besides, how are we going to win back the Senate if we don’t have an agenda to rally around? Why does anyone have any reason to vote for Democrats who have surrendered in advance? Frankly, all new legislation originates in wishes. How will we gain support for progressive economic policies if we nominate someone unwilling to fight for them? Why should Democrats surrender out of the gate on the basis that Republicans are going to force them to water it down later anyway, only to have to water down the already-watered-down proposal? Why should Democrats stop talking about what their goals and beliefs are when the other party never does this and never suffers any negative electoral consequence over it? It’s obviously possible that the Republicans could retain the Senate and block everything the next Democratic president does. But that isn’t a reason not to nominate Warren. Taken seriously, this mentality is simply fatalistic and encourages us to give up in advance.
The last major criticism is that Warren’s signature plan to pay for her proposals, the 2% wealth tax on assets over $50 million — which common sense dictates would be subject to a litany of caveats; for farmers who own potentially valuable land, for instance — is likely to be struck down as unconstitutional by the conservative Supreme Court, and would not deliver the revenues promised by Warren anyway, especially judging by the fact that most countries that have tried a wealth tax have abandoned them. I am not quite left-wing enough on economic issues to endorse Modern Monetary Theory, but I think they are right that the United States, as the financial hub of the planet and home of the world’s reserve currency, has unique economic advantages it fails to optimally use. It is one thing for Spanish or Swedish businessmen to want to initiate ‘capital flight’ to the United States. But, aside from the fact that this cat is already out of the bag — myriad incentives already exist to stash money overseas, capital flow is already internationalized, and we already have a situation in which trillions of American dollars are out of the reach of the government — most ultra-wealthy people strongly prefer to be located out of the United States for a large variety of reasons, if they have a choice — and there are only so many ways to relocate money. Hence even if it doesn’t deliver what Warren promises, it will still bring in a lot of money — and could encourage other countries to revive their old wealth taxes, too, now that the United States would no longer be obstructing their efficacy. Thomas Piketty concedes that a wealth tax is unlikely to function optimally unless lots of countries adopt it. But no movement is possible unless the United States gets in the game. But even if the wealth tax doesn’t materialize, we already have plenty of money to pay for a public option for healthcare, a student loan bailout ($1 trillion in expected revenue lost over 25 years; same as a pointless fighter jet program the GOP keeps voting for), and subsidized childcare. We have plenty of tax revenue and plenty of ability to borrow — it is simply a question of priorities. There never seems to be a question of whether there’s enough money to go around when it comes to helping the military, Amazon, banks, or government contractors and bureaucrats — or millionaires who want their taxes cut. If we’re going to dole out all this public money anyway, can we do something with it that makes a difference in the lives of working people instead of military contractors and millionaires, for once?
I do believe Donald Trump is the most incompetent and clueless president in the history of the United States, far below acceptable standards for first-world political leadership, a morally abominable human being, and a legitimate danger to the long-term viability of our republic. If he is elected again, the republic is in serious trouble. But the republic is already in serious trouble. And Donald Trump did not fall out of the sky. Donald Trump, to paraphrase Eric Voegelin on Hitler, must be understood within the context of the morally ruined society that gave rise to him. The republic is in danger if Trump wins again, but it is in perhaps an even profounder danger if the single governing party is unable to produce leaders worthy of our times and the challenges they present. America has triumphed in past moments of crisis because it has produced, almost as if under the watch of Providence, titans like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Joe Biden is simply not a leader worthy of this moment. Elizabeth Warren is. She might be more likely to lose, it’s true — but given what’s at stake, that’s a risk I am willing to take to nominate a candidate who could actually become a great president.
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