What are the differences between Warren and Sanders relevant to progressives’ primary choice between their two leading, if not only, alternatives to the Democrats’ establishment candidate in 2020?
This question was the subject of a recent article by Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, who offered an establishment answer to “one of the key questions in the race: What is the difference between Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)?” Plutocrat Jeff Bezos’ WAPO argues that the difference is one between Revolution and Reform/Regulation. This answer is ridiculously irrelevant because it pits two undefined artificial abstractions against each other in a manner designed to rhetorically divide the bell curve of opinion according to voters’ subjective reactions to these perspectives. These voters would otherwise be united to meet the current democratic crisis with any and all appropriate policy tools, however, WAPO might define them on its abstract spectrum of Revolution to Reform.
As one prominent politician put this same idea, before quickly correcting himself: “Elizabeth Warren is more of the reformer than Bernie the revolutionary, meaning one who sees making our existing system of government work better to serve all Americans. Whereas Bernie is more – at least the message is more – blow it up.” The problem is not just that arguing at this level of abstraction is a meaningless distraction, but that Sanders’ established style is to leave the explosives safely in “the message” never to escape into the real world of action where any meaning could be found. As Zach Carter has persuasively argued in HuffPost such abstract politics, also engaged in by various sources of “liberal and left-wing political discourse,” distracts progressives from the real issue of plutocracy.
Aside from constitutional amendments – which, like Sanders’ proposed “Economic Bill of Rights,” cannot in themselves constitute change – no political change in the US system takes place at anywhere near the level of such broad abstraction as WAPO would have progressives believe can guide their choice between Warren and Sanders. It is rather made through the concrete and preferably informed changes of policy which commonly take the form of laws and regulations implementing that policy. Carter observes “when it comes to their most detailed policies to date, both [Warren and Sanders] support an array of trust-busting, tougher regulation, wealth redistribution, public options and, where appropriate, nationalization. It depends on the problem they’re trying to solve. In practice, they end up supporting an awful lot of the same solutions.” The real issue is which is more able and willing to authentically fight the power by putting words about policy that can reclaim power from the plutocrats into well-considered legislative, executive, administrative and judicial action.
Journalist Mat Yglesias underlines Carter’s point by reporting far more substantial evidence than WAPO offered in support of his opposite conclusion from WAPO’s superficial judgment of Warren and Sanders: “whenever [Sanders’] vote was needed to incrementally advance some progressive cause, it was there… While Obama was in the White House, it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who attracted the ire of administration officials and congressional leaders by occasionally spiking executive branch nominees or blowing up bipartisan deals. Sanders, by contrast, was not a troublemaker at all. He talked about his blue-sky political ideals as something he believed in passionately, but he separated that idealism from his practical legislative work, which was grounded in vote counts.” In other words, Sander’s “revolution” was all talk but no show.
Which then is the WAPO “Revolutionary?” The cowardly lion who talks a good game or the principled brinkswoman who plays a good game? It is Warren who complained to the NYT: “Democrats have been unwilling to get out there and fight.” Accordingly, former congressman Barney Frank, always a sharp observer of such matters, said of Warren, when she was only two years into her new career in electoral politics: “Right now, she’s as powerful a spokesperson on public policy as you could be in the minority… She has an absolute veto over certain public-policy issues, because Democrats are not going to cross her… Democrats are afraid of Elizabeth Warren.” Can anything remotely similar be said of Sanders after his 30 years in Washington?
Warren, at least as much as Sanders, has clearly stated the reason for her candidacy is to fight “against a small group that holds far too much power, not just in our economy, but also in our democracy.” She describes her purpose is not “to just tinker around the edges — a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change” of plutocracy, “a rigged system that props up the rich and the powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else.” WAPO must have missed these parts of Warren’s announcement speech which made this clear challenge to the systemically corrupt plutocracy. It is the central motif of her campaign. Warren’s announcement made clear that Trump is merely a symptom – the detritus – of this larger problem. Just taking out the garbage is not going to solve the systemic problem of plutocracy from which he emerged. If not systemically fixed today with more than cosmetics, Warren understands, the plutocracy is capable of generating even more toxic products tomorrow.
Therefore, from the very start of her highly effective campaign, Warren positioned herself in opposition not just to Trump but to the economically “rich and powerful [who] have rigged our political system as well. They’ve bought off or bullied politicians in both parties to make sure Washington is always on their side.” She calls this system by its proper name. “When government works only for the wealthy and well-connected, that is corruption — plain and simple… Corruption is a cancer on our democracy. And we will get rid of it only with strong medicine — with real, structural reform. Our fight is to change the rules so that our government, our economy, and our democracy work for everyone.” She emphasized to Emily Bazelon, writing for the NYT: “It’s structural change that interests me.” Ignoring the distracting stench from Trump to focus her advocacy on the necessary systemic reforms is a winning progressive strategy that the establishment Democrats will again predictably ignore, as they did in 2016, at their peril.
Warren has taken on the task of defeating not appeasing that establishment. Warren’s plan is, “First: We need to change the rules to clean up Washington. End the corruption.” This is not an opportunistic aspersion by a political con-artist, like Trump’s totally phony drain the swamp slogan, soon belied by building his own most corrupt administration in recent history. In Warren’s case, according to a New Yorker profile, “her agenda of reversing income inequality and beating back the influence of corporate power in politics…. are issues that Warren has pursued for three decades.” Her mission as nothing to do with political calculation.
For Warren, this issue of the corrupt plutocracy is not just a majoritarian issue adopted to boost a political campaign. This priority issue of the day is one for which Warren’s prior expertise and activism drew her into politics. This is uniquely her own issue emergent from a highly successful academic and policy career. It is less that Warren needs to be president in the mode of the ordinary egomaniacal career politician than that this paramount issue calls her to bring to the presidency her unique skills acquired during an extraordinarily successful career outside of politics. As a University of Chicago economist told the NYT, “Wall Street and its allies are more afraid of her than Bernie … because when she says she’ll change the rules, she’s the one who knows how to do it.”
Zach Carter’s argument quoted above can be interpreted to suggest another answer than WAPO’s misguided theory for this key question of the difference between Sanders and Warren. Some claim their differences are merely symbolic, “differences of temperament, style,” much in the same manner as the other candidates who are mining the plutocratic wing’s symbolic and diversionary identity politics, and single-issue politics, while at the same time they raise money from plutocrats to foster those divide and conquer divisions among progressives. But to deny the existence of objectively important – indeed decisive strategic – differences between the two progressives in the race would also be just as wrong as the ridiculous Revolution versus Reform distraction marketed by WAPO and others. It invites progressives to distribute themselves randomly according to styles and smiles rather than strategic choices.
It is important for progressives to address and answer this question for themselves, well before the primaries, so as not to squander their resources of time, finances and conviviality fighting among themselves during the important lead-up to the primary elections where they must be strategically united in order to win. I have argued at length elsewhere that the contemporary failure of democracy in America is fundamentally due to the failure of progressives over two generations to unite behind an effective strategy to fight the corrupt plutocracy as their priority, much as progressives have done at times of similarly profound crisis in the past. In the United States, due to its own systemic cultural legacies of racist slavery, genocide, and imperialism, joined with more universal issues of patriarchy and plutocracy, there will always be fertile soil for the emergence of anti-democratic element into totalitarian mobilization. This was understood from early days.
Trump is the direct and predictable product of the progressive failure to forge an effective opposition to that proto-totalitarian element at a strategic moment. As Slavoj Zizek, Trouble in Paradise (2014) 115, posits: “The rise of Fascism is not only the Left’s failure, but also proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize.” Proto-totalitarian Trumpism is what arises when progressives fail to unite strategically.
The Plutocracy and its propagandists have a keen interest in prolonging this division among progressives, and it now backs Biden, or Trump. Recent polling shows Biden 30% – Sanders 19% – Warren 15%. Supporters of the two progressives, if united, would defeat the plutocracy’s candidate. As the progressive choice between Sanders and Warren lingers through the summer of 2019 it will aggravate yet another in a series of historical failures by progressives to unite strategically and competently in time to decisively defeat the corrupt plutocratic establishment’s control of the Democratic Party. Sanders failed at this task in 2016 though progressives provided him resources to do the job. Yet another progressive failure to organize themselves strategically behind a progressive in the 2020 primaries could be fatal. The likes of WAPO will not do it for them.
The purpose of this article is to discuss four issues for which there is evidence of an objectively salient difference between these two leading alternatives to Biden. This evidence can assist progressives in making the necessary early strategic choice between the two. Some might object that 2019 is too early for progressives to rely on polls or even to make such a choice. My own experience in authoring a long Huffington Post article strongly supporting Sanders in 2015 is that discerning use of early polling data can provide a reliable guide to what will remain as the decisive factors through to the end of the campaign cycle, and even beyond. The present piece is offered in the same spirit as my 2015 article which remains relevant as an example of how early the disastrous outcome of the establishment Democrats’ 2016 failure could be predicted.
I disclose my personal views at the outset, if they are not already clear. Though I supported Sanders extensively through advocacy and as a state delegate for Sanders in 2016, lending a good deal of my time and even some money to his effort, certainly by the time of his speech at the Democratic Convention in July, if not earlier, I had concluded he was an incompetent betrayer of the important role and opportunity he had been granted by his supporters which he wasted at a crucial moment in American history. When he is compared to Elizabeth Warren, I now find Sanders to be unreliable, inauthentic, incompetent, and wrongly motivated as a career politician with no other relevant skill base. This perspective has been elaborated at greater length by Jeffrey St. Clair (2016), as referenced below.
Sanders is concededly good at expounding majoritarian policies. The problem is execution. Chris Smith in Vanity Fair similarly observes that Sanders “is very good at raising money….what Sanders was less good at in 2016 was spending his large pile of money to win votes. Particularly the crucial Democratic primary votes of women and African-Americans… Sanders is showing little sign that he’s going to get it right this time around.“ Sanders ran an incompetent 2016 campaign in both these respects and also in his failure to elaborate detailed strategy to support his big themes, which drew criticism.
If Bernie Sanders has not, Elizabeth Warren clearly has learned each of these lessons very well. She has been generating detailed policy at such a fast pace it is difficult to see anyone catching up to her. She has demonstrated her ability to run a highly effective campaign on limited funds. One imagines that if she possessed Sanders’ 2016 wasted pile of loot she would already have reorganized the Inauthentic Opposition party, as Sheldon Wolin usefully labeled the Democrats in 2008, into a true opposition party that it was designed by Martin Van Buren to be at its inception.
As for Sanders’ problem with reaching African-Americans, according to Rev. Al Sharpton, his progressive rival has no such problem. Of course, “Kamala [Harris] connects with black-church audiences. Cory Booker, too,” says Sharpton. “And I’ll tell you who surprised me: Liz Warren. She rocked my organization’s convention like she was taking Baptist preacher lessons.” Warren thus readily solves the biggest demographic problem Sanders had and still has: black women, particularly in the south. And this Oklahoma woman might also surprise with her ability to also reach southern white women still living under their unreconstructed patriarchy. Her primary-election campaign strategy has been preparing her with the experience to play an unprecedented role in American political history in the general election. By comparison, Sanders used to “giving the same stump speech at event after event, numb to the hunger of the beast he had awakened,” St. Clair (2016) 8, bongs a known and dated turn to the stage, which like Biden’s has little potential to surprise.
We already know Sanders capitulated to the plutocracy in 2016 for no reason that he could credibly explain. What exactly is to be gained by progressives in trusting Sanders not to do the same thing again? We now have Warren who gives us no reason to doubt and some reason to trust that she will “persist” rather than capitulate under similar circumstances. She combines the unique qualities of a true policy expert with the ability to communicate. But most important she is someone who has not been a career politician, and therefore is not, like Sanders, “year after year: a politician who promises one thing and delivers, time and again, something else entirely.” St. Clair (2016) 18.
Having disclosed this general point of view toward the two progressives, I try to remove these subjective understandings largely derived from my involvement in the 2016 effort from the analysis below of four more objective factors that distinguish Sanders’ remaining supporters from those who are increasingly supporting Warren.
1. Low information:
The first striking difference between the two progressives revealed by polls is the different information levels of their respective 2019 supporters. The June 11, 2019, release by the highly reliable Quinnipiac Poll found that among those Democrats paying little or no attention to the campaign, Sanders is actually well ahead of Biden 36% to 22%, let alone Warren. This could be because such persons recall Sanders favorably from 2016 while in their recollection Biden’s role in politics is probably somewhat vague. Biden’s last campaign was 2012 when he played only a minor supporting role for the main act. Warren was a relatively fresh face as a one-term Senator when she announced for the presidency. She had never thrown her hat in the ring of presidential politics before (unlike both Sanders and Biden).
Among people paying a lot of attention, however, Warren’s 17% support far outstrips Sanders at only 9%, which also leaves him marginally behind even Harris’s 11% and Buttigieg’s 10%. This means Warren is the clear alternative to Biden among those informed voters who are already paying a lot of attention to the contest. Here is the Q-poll data:
Attention to presidential campaign Q1
A lot Some None
Biden 32% 33% 22%
Sanders 9 17 36
O’Rourke 1 6 4
Harris 11 6 3
Warren 17 18 6
Buttigieg 10 6 6
It is to Warren’s inevitable advantage and to Sanders’ disadvantage that eventually nearly all voters will be paying at least some attention to the election campaigns. Paying a lot of attention halves Sanders’ support from those who are paying some attention. And just paying some attention halves Sanders’ support from those who are paying little or no attention, while it triples Warren’s support.
Another data point, from 538, supports this finding that Sanders is supported by the least informed progressive voters in 2019. (This contrasts with 2016 when the low information voters tended to oppose Sanders, who was all but boycotted by the mainstream media.) The 538 pollsters counted twitter “exclusive followers” of the respective candidates and found Sanders finishing (at 63.2% exclusivity) second only behind spiritual leader Marianne Williamson’s faithful followers. These exclusive – nearly faith-based – twitter followers are presumed less informed about other candidates because they only follow Sanders. By contrast, among the candidates registering more than de minimis support, Warren’s followers were found to be by far the best informed by this standard (at only16.4% exclusivity). This evidence supports the separate Q-poll finding above that Warren voters tend to be significantly better informed than Sanders voters.
Sanders’ poor showing among informed voters may be due to what St. Clair (2016) 18 calls, “So much talk, so little action. The deeper you look at Sanders, the less substance you see.” Or it could be the more you know Warren the more there is for a progressive to like. Or both. In any event, this difference in information levels of their supporters affects the distinctly different trendlines for these candidates. Among the top five contenders, Warren is the only one whose trend line from the first monthly polling in March through June 2019 has been consistently improving, presumably due to her masterful campaign. In that same period, Sanders first lost supporters to Biden and then won them back to return himself and Biden to the respective points where they had started out.
Both Biden (at 7% unknown) and Sanders (at 6% unknown) were both extremely well known to Democratic voters at the time of the May 21 poll on this question. This compared to Warren who was insufficiently known to 23% of such voters, including 32% of nonwhite voters. Assuming that the current directional trends for these top three candidates persist, this much larger number of voters who do not know her leaves Warren considerably more room to expand her support compared to her two main rivals as her campaign reaches this nearly quarter of Democrats who do not know enough about her to form an opinion now. In other words, if Warren’s campaign continues performing at her three-month upward trend rate and Biden’s continues producing his two-month downward trend rate, Warren would overtake Biden in less than three months, by September.
In four polls taken on the question from 2013 to 2019 Warren has also increased steadily in her favorability rating from 17% in 2013 to 32% on May 21, 2019, while she at the same time increased her familiarity among voters. Here is that data:
Fav Unfav HeardEnough
May 21, 2019 32 41 25
Dec 19, 2018 30 37 31
Jul 08, 2014 24 15 61
Dec 11, 2013 17 19 63 1
Given Warren’s favorable Trendline momentum is Warren not already the predictable leading contender against Biden? Indeed, a recent CBS poll showed Warren beating Sanders by six points and only six points behind Biden on the soft question whether she is being considered by the Democratic voter. A recent national and several blue state polls also show her running ahead of Sanders. Even Chris Mathews can read this trendline.
This trend led some to another question, whether it is risky nominating Warren for the goal of defeating Trump? As of the date of the May 21, 2019 poll, 54% of all voters were already committed to “definitely” not vote for Trump. This should indicate that a relatively popular candidate like Warren should be able to defeat Trump. She has a 41% unfavorable opinion rating compared to Trump’s 57% unfavorable opinion rating. Several matchup polls recently showed her defeating Trump by small margins, and even finishing within the margin of error against him in Texas. Meanwhile, the recent and more reliable Q-poll has Warren defeating Trump by seven points, which would constitute a modern (post-Reagan) landslide. Ipsos confirms her beating Trump by a very comfortable 6%.
It does not require a poll to conclude that at least some of Sanders’ supporters are attracted by Sanders’ self-description as a socialist, which no other current nor perhaps any credible past Democratic presidential candidate has done.
“Mayor Pete” in his agreeable, measured, intelligent way has furnished a concise understanding of socialism as “a word in American politics that has basically lost all meaning. It is used by the right wing to demonize majoritarian policies, and the right question is whether an ‘idea is good or not.”’ A democracy appraises policy ideas one issue at a time on the basis of majorities, not on the basis of abstract ideology. In the case of socialism, much less, the detailed content of that ideology has been notoriously disputed by its adherents for many generations which makes any direct implementation into policy impossible. Says Carter: “It was even hard to pin down Karl Marx on a practical definition” Carter thus writes: “The trouble for leftish intellectuals is a confusion over the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism.’ Both words are extremely flexible, and their meanings shift with political currents. In an American context, it has never been easy to distinguish between socialism and reformed capitalism.” (link in original) Sanders is supposed (by left intellectuals) to support the former and Warren “only” the latter. As the vaguest of directional signals this supposed distinction between them cannot determine nor predict any actual policies.
The term socialism in American politics, as Buttigieg says, has been used more often as a right-wing propagandistic epithet than a successful organizing concept for progressive action against plutocracy, excepting perhaps only the brief era when the charismatic Eugene V Debs represented socialism in several presidential campaigns. This fact was on full display in Bernie Sanders’ attempt, in his June 12 George Washington U speech on the subject of Democratic Socialism, to explain any advantage he seeks to gain by using such a contested term. Most of the references to socialism made in Sanders’ speech are about those who “use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur,” such as against FDR and his New Deal, or other more recent safety-net programs.
Sanders defined socialism in his speech in a manner indistinguishable from the far more meaningful term “progressive.” Sanders seemed to use “progressive” as a synonym for socialist when he referred to “I and other progressives” and referred to “FDR and his progressive coalition” while at the time claiming FDR and his New Deal were models of socialism for him. In his speech, Sanders even suggests that “freedom” is socialism.
This speech, intended to elucidate this key component of Sanders’ political identity, sowed understandable confusion among various commentators trying to make sense of it. After the speech, three smart journalists chatted that his speech didn’t “really have a coherent answer” to the question of why Sanders calls himself a socialist. None could find a rational reason for Sanders to highlight his claim to being a socialist in light of its most common use – as in Sanders’ own speech – as a “slur” against democracy and its natural tendency to serve the majority rather than plutocratic elites. A Slate commenter called Sanders’ attempt to equate the New Deal, FDR and progressives all with socialism as “rhetorical pixie dust” because “his self-described ‘FDR-style’ platform isn’t really even socialism.”
In an NPR interview Sanders said “What I mean by democratic socialism is that I want a vibrant democracy.” The more he talks about it the more confusing his use of the term becomes and the more it looks like Sanders is just blowing smoke on the subject. It is at least clear, as many actual socialists complain, that Sanders does not accept the normal handy definition that one critical advocate of socialism provides: “Under socialism, there is social or public or perhaps ‘state’ ownership of major productive assets; under capitalism, these things are privately owned.“ This socialist prefers Warren over Sanders, and gives her a point for honestly saying she is not a Socialist though Sanders pretends he is. He also undertakes a sustained analysis concluding that “Warren is more an old style Progressive and Sanders more of a New Dealer… The proposals she advances [are] closer to genuine socialism than the redistributive (Social Democratic) measures seemingly dearer to Sanders’ heart.”
For his followers who take him seriously, the most sense that can be made for purposes of comparing Warren and Sanders with respect to his claim to be a socialist is this judgment that Warren leans Progressive (systemic, or “structural” change) while Sanders leans New Deal (redistributional programs). This formulation deploys terms which have concrete meaning and resonance in US political history unlike Sanders’ murky use of the term “socialism” to encompass both these other terms, along with democracy itself, and even freedom, justice and other good things. One wonders when he will pull out the motherhood and apple pie associations. Sanders’ term remains deliberately meaningless and subjective to Sanders himself for connoting predictable support for any particular strategy.
Mat Yglesias who, as quoted above, found Sanders actual policy work less aggressive than Warren’s suggests a reason it serves Sanders to retain the socialist label. He reports about Sanders stint as mayor in a way that applies to his pre-presidential political career as a whole, that “if not for the ‘socialist’ label, there would be nothing particularly remarkable about his tenure in office relative to what any normal liberal Democratic mayor would do.” This observation suggests the real function of the term socialism for Sanders, which he cannot reveal and therefore covers up with both smoke and also his unconvincing and even false suggestions, for example, that calling himself a socialist means he is building a movement (“in opposition to oligarchy, there is a movement” which he associates with socialism) or is inherently more aggressive in fighting the plutocracy.
As Yglesias reports, “Sanders has spent the past 30 years very much not building up an institutional democratic socialist movement.” And anyone involved in his 2016 campaign understands he continued very much not building a progressive movement to replace the plutocratic wing of the Democratic Party that year. What he did do was sequester his mailing list with his non-profit “Our Revolution” to solicit money for professional activism. As Jeffrey St. Clair, Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution (2016) 13, charges: “By 1994, it was apparent that the only movement in which Sanders was interested was the movement of liberal money into his political campaign trough.” This also described Sanders’ 2016 political campaign which primarily operated as a successful fundraiser of nearly a quarter billion dollars. Any nascent “movement [was] … snuffed out by its strange and stubborn leader.” St. Clair (2016) 8.
Sanders provides no historical support for the tacit suggestion that a socialist as he defines the term is more aggressive and reliable in fighting the plutocracy. This idea is demonstrably false, especially when applied to his own historic capitulation in 2016 to the Clinton ring without receiving any strategic or otherwise significant concession for his supporters in return. Debs, the model for a socialist presidential candidate in a plutocratic era, by comparison, never campaigned for the faux progressive Woodrow Wilson but rather from his prison cell charged that “no man in public life in American history had ever retired so thoroughly discredited … as Woodrow Wilson.” Ernest Freeberg, Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent (2008). This is not to suggest that the Clintons were necessarily as bad as Woodrow Wilson, but the comparison holds that Sanders’ brand of socialism did not make Sanders live up to the standard Debs that set for a more aggressive socialist opposition to plutocracy.
Yglesias concludes that Sanders’ use of the term socialism is only “a shtick that’s taken him … far.” This “shtick” exploits the term’s actual function in US politics – as a derogatory right-wing epithet – for purposes of executing a political rope-a-dope strategy. The more the right-wing complained about his solely verbal “socialism” the more Sanders gained support in the Peoples Republic of Vermont, and elsewhere as people started looking for more extreme and aggressive responses to the bipartisan plutocracy. If Sanders is attacked by the right for being a socialist that meant he would be perceived by his progressive supporters as an authentic threat to the right, even though his actual political accomplishments are merely “banal,” as Yglesias puts it, actually less threatening to the plutocracy than the expressly non-socialist but authentically progressive Warren.
WAPO clearly bought Sanders’ “shtick,” as discussed above, along with at least some of Sanders’ voters. Now that a majority of Democrats approve the label it cannot hurt him in the primary, unless primary voters understand that it makes him less “electable” in the general election by losing the essential support of Independents. Since Democrats will not red-bait him during the primaries voters will not know the extent of the risk until Republican do so in the general election.
On a policy level, the term does facilitate the kind of sleight of hand Sanders executed in 2016 when he ran a campaign on the basis of the progressive principle that it is necessary to take back democracy from the corrupt plutocracy first, as Warren contends and Sanders then claimed, in order to subsequently accomplish other progressive majoritarian goals. Sanders had warned during the January 17, 2016 debate: “Very little is going to be done to transform our economy and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy.” But when it came time to capitulate to Clinton, however, Sanders suddenly abandoned this priority and shifted to a wholly inconsistent excuse for supporting the leading practitioner of that corrupt campaign finance system at that time. His excuse was that the Democrats had included some promises in their platform on spending programs that were not possible to deliver nor sustainable in a ruling plutocracy. Jeffrey St. Clair (2016) 4, 20 correctly predicted that these “planks … will get promptly embalmed” and criticized Sanders for accepting them in return for his support of Clinton – calling Sanders “a political coward who feared retribution,” even suggesting an undisclosed “Faustian deal” with Clinton.
Socialism is such a slippery concept that it allows Sanders to juggle policies and priorities in this inscrutable fashion as it may suit his own political needs. At its heart in US politics socialism has always represented this same flawed strategy that political reform should not be a sequential priority over economic reform. Instead socialists can shift among the actual priority and what amounts to popular distractions from that priority. It is instructive in this regard that in US history TR came before FDR. The Progressive Era necessarily preceded the New Deal because structural democratic reforms made by even the Progressives uncompleted reform agenda enabled adoption of the majoritarian New Deal policies. It is a fundamental error to put the New Deal cart before the Progressive horse. Absent a democracy, progressive economic reform is unsustainable at best. Pursuing both at once loses the focus and weakens the alliances necessary for victory over the plutocracy which is prerequisite to victory on the remainder of the agenda.
Slavoj Zizek, Trouble in Paradise (2014) 120, demonstrates that this fundamental strategic error of flawed priorities remains essential doctrine for socialists today. Zizek unsuccessfully argues the case for not prioritizing the fight against systemic plutocratic corruption. He would rather confuse and dilute this priority goal with advocacy of redistributional socialism, an old failed tactic from as early as 1848 which he treats as if it were a new insight. Having brought all his formidable polemic powers to bear on this central subject of his analysis Zizek fails to make a credible case that “the universal goal” for the Left – the only thing that “can save us from” the prospect of an authoritarian future – “is only the unity of the struggle for freedom and democracy with the struggle for social and economic justice.”
The pernicious influence of this old socialist “unity” of goals doctrine, which involves building a platform for a new party, rather than strategic sequencing of goals to take over an existing party, is one of the causes of progressive failure, such as in 1912 when Debs diluted the progressive vote by running for president on such a “unity” platform against the Progressive Party. The Progressives finished second but could have narrowed the margin with those socialist votes which instead went in futile search of “the universal goal.” Contrary to Zizek, this strategic socialist failure to prioritize defending democracy against rule by a corrupt plutocracy is a cause of the proto-totalitarian Trump, as it was in 1912 the cause of proto-totalitarian Wilsonian repression, Jim Crow racism, gratuitous war, state propaganda and ultimately the end of the Progressive Era.
Sanders’ June 12 speech was similarly promoted by his campaign as promising to explain “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy.” Like Zizek, Sanders did not explain; and it is not. The strategic meaning of socialism as Sanders uses it is precisely to justify, as he did in 2016, the strategic error of failing to keep the focus on overthrowing the plutocracy in alliance with the majority who supports democracy prior to using the hard-won machinery of democracy to enact majoritarian reforms of the economy. The best understanding of the difference between Sanders and Warren on this spectrum of socialism is that Warren is both more strategic and also more socialist (according to an actual socialist) in her emphasis on systemic (“structural”) reform as her first priority. Sanders we may legitimately fear from experience, might sacrifice such strategic focus to win some incremental popular redistributional victory deemed to be idiosyncratically “socialist” which the ruling plutocracy might nevertheless tactically concede.
Contrary to WAPO’s argument that Sanders is distinguished from Warren as a revolutionary, polled progressive voters who self-identify as “very liberal” (i.e strongly progressive voters) seem to know better. Warren decisively leads Biden 30% to 19% among these progressives, of course, but also leads Sanders at 22%:
total very liberal
Biden 35% 19%
Sanders 16 22
O’Rourke 2 4
Harris 8 13
Warren 13 30
Similarly, confirming Warren’s solid lead among these “very liberal” voters by looking at their least favorites, Warren, at only 2%, has the fewest voters among all candidates who say they would not support (“would be unhappy with”) her nomination. This compares very favorably with both Biden at 16% and Sanders at 8%. These most progressive voters (“revolutionary” in WAPO’s analysis) apparently do not buy Sanders socialism gambit and prefer Warren.
4. Gender gap:
Minnesota is something of a Democratic progressive bellwether state. Sanders crushed Clinton there in 2016 by 61.7 to 38.3% due to its caucus system that rewards motivation and high turnout. But Sanders’ abject failure of organization left the establishment in charge of the party. The party establishment which thrives upon low turnout and knows it is “much more expensive” to run a primary campaign, supported the legislature’s change of Minnesota into a primary state in order to avoid the serious risk which progressive caucusers, motivated by presidential politics, posed to the party insiders’ continued control of the party – should progressives ever get organized. Obama had won in 2008 on the basis of dominating the caucus states, and in 2016 Sanders’ relied even more than Obama on caucus victories. Minnesota’s new 2020 primary will now be held on Super-Tuesday one month after its neighbor Iowa kicks off the 2020 election season.
In a Minnesota poll conducted June 8-12, 2019 Warren had a narrow lead in Minnesota over both Biden and Sanders while also running 5% ahead of MN Senator Amy Klobuchar. This should be expected in a progressive state. What is unexpected is the gender gap also revealed by these results. With Biden, there is little gender difference in his support, but with Sanders, there is a considerable gender gap among Minnesota progressives. Sanders leads among men (at 30%), but gains less than half as many female supporters. Warren leads among women (at 27%), but attracts less than half as many male supporters. Klobuchar voters also show a gender gap. It is therefore likely that Warren will get a disproportionate share of Klobuchar voters after Klobuchar realizes the futility of a campaign where she trails even in her home state, and finally drops out. Until then Klobuchar is likely depressing Warren’s margin over Biden in Minnesota, if nothing else.
This surprisingly large Minnesota gender gap among Sanders’ supporters also appears at the national level with a 40% gap or more reported by the Q-poll (Q, 2,3,5) and (Q.2). Warren’s national gender gap like Harris’ is much smaller, suggesting that in progressive Minnesota Warren’s gender gap is more expressly due to Sanders pulling progressive males away from Warren rather than some gender-polarizing effect of Warren herself, which is not registering in the national polls. Warren is not identified with gender politics. Indeed the NYT reports that as an academic, “She challenged standard feminist thinking.”
As a politician, Warren similarly runs on the issues and not, as Clinton did, on her gender. There is no need to go to gender to support Warren. She is one of the most accomplished persons in politics. Her strategy to make inequality and corruption her priority focus is exactly what the country needs. Identity politics is simplistic and ultimately counterproductive. It is appropriate that the first woman president does not solicit votes to simply check that box. Warren seems to understand, as Slavoj Zizek writes: “Authentic emancipatory events always involve ignoring particular identities as irrelevant… Otherwise, we will get just a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs.” Trouble in Paradise (2014) 160-61. Warren is authentically in pursuit of “emancipatory events” that will restore first democracy and then equality to the 99%. Not campaigning on her gender identity supports that authenticity.
The element of Warren’s identity that does go to her authenticity in uniting the country for such “emancipatory events” against the ruling plutocracy is her background as a working-class kid from Oklahoma who rose to the highest levels through a combination of her own considerable merit, grit, and the opportunity culture that the boomers then enjoyed. Her gender is not the core message of that Lincolnesque story which is sufficient unto itself even without its gender subplot. By contrast, Obama used his identity to disguise his elite family background and elite schooling. “He posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln,” judged Cornel West, but Obama was actually “counterfeit” – a “Rockefeller Republican.” Both Warren and Obama ended up as law professors at elite institutions but Warren’s academic career both traveled much further and ultimately reached much higher than adjutant instructor Obama’s did.
Obama has more charisma, to be sure, but where did that get us? Obama published no professional work but rather books about himself to help him rise to the top management of a rigged system. Warren published copious highly regarded professional work and popularized that work in books to expose, help others deal with, and change that rigged system. Warren’s success relies far less on identity than Obama’s did, which for their supporters is an important guard against being “manipulated by oligarchs,” again.
The men who are disproportionately propping up Sanders’ campaign account for more than double his lead over Warren. When added to the multiple sexual harassment allegations against Sanders’ 2016 campaign, this gender gap among Sanders’ supporters is an embarrassing warning sign to progressives. It gives retroactive credibility to the 2016 “Bernie Bros” allegations that appeared at the time to be a deliberate lie aimed against progressives’ justifiable rejection of Clinton.
There is polling evidence of a 20% or more male gender bias among Democrats and Independents. Sanders, not Biden, is its principal beneficiary. If that 20% includes you, it is time to reconsider the cost of such bias. Gender bias is both patriarchal and inherently unconstitutional, even in the absence of the ERA. United States v. Virginia (1996). Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works (2018), tells us “patriarchy is the very core of fascism.” If this weed has found a root among progressives and is not immediately eradicated upon its discovery by means of individual soul-searching then the American democratic project which now depends upon progressives finally joining to take effective strategic action in the face of proto-totalitarianism is certainly doomed.
In 2019 it needs to be asked of many of those statistically excess men in Sanders’ column whether they are sufficiently confident of the basis for their support of Sanders over Warren. Do the four objective differences between the two explored above truly justify support of Sanders? Or should these men better serve their legitimate political goals by throwing their support instead to Warren in order to both 1) avoid charges, or at least the appearance, of gender discrimination and 2) provide the unity that progressives desperately need well before going into the primaries against the plutocracy.
If it is true that Warren is attracting support on her merits and not for her gender, the men who are supporting Sanders in excess numbers should a) get informed about Warren, b) read the polling trendlines on the wall, c) not be fooled by Sanders’ meaningless if not somewhat fraudulent “socialism” gambit, and d) eschew even the appearance of sexism by immediately unifying progressive support behind Warren. 2016 was then, 2020 is already now. Warren is not Clinton.*
* This article is based in part on the author’s most recent book, “Strategy for Democracy: From Systemic Corruption to Proto-Totalitarianism in the Second Gilded Age Plutocracy, and Progressive Responses” which is currently available as a free ebook. This is part of a multi-volume study assessing strategies for ending the political influence of special interest money. It especially critiques the dominant Democratic liberal memes of endless advocacy for constitutional amendment and other piecemeal reforms, while presenting easier and more effective alternatives. See also “The Amendment Diversion,” Bk. I and “Demimonde Democracy”
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