Why the American Left Cannot Afford to be Agnostic about Sanders and Warren

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Photograph by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The Sanders campaign has a pretty transparent overarching strategy for the 2020 primary. According to the trend for around 7 months now in the Morning Consult Democratic Primary poll, the second choice of many Biden supporters — currently 28% of them — is Bernie Sanders. The focus is on strategically appealing to the working class voters that make up Biden’s base by dismantling the “Blue Collar Joe” narrative. The campaign intends to hit Joe Biden on his ties to credit card companies, his passage of free trade deals that were harmful to labor, his vote in support of the Iraq War, and his push for the 1994 Crime Bill that contributed to the needless increase of mass incarceration, among many others. The Sanders campaign has tried to hit Biden on quite a few of these blunders and his broad centrist record, but time and time again, he has polled between 26% to 30% in recent months, not really dropping overall. All the while, that brings me to the rise of Elizabeth Warren.

The theory goes that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are attracting entirely different voters from entirely different lanes. Bernie Sanders tends to appeal to lower-income, less-educated people, and has a more diverse base. Elizabeth Warren appeals to those with postgraduate degrees, people we’d consider to be members of the professional-managerial class, and her base is much more white. This theory tends to be reflected in who is donating to both of these campaigns:

Why then would it be important to differentiate the two candidates from each other if they appeal to two different lanes of the party, people from different walks of life, and of different professions? This matters because overtime, it is likely that the two will be splitting votes on the Left, potentially allowing for Biden to squeeze by with the nomination. Some also argue that Warren is beginning to look appealing to some former Bernie Sanders supporters who want a more compromising progressive candidate. Over the course of the last few months, I’ve noticed on social media and among conversation with friends that supporters of the two remain pretty neutral between the two. Only recently with the Working Families Party endorsement of Elizabeth Warren has there been a small amount of tension play out between the two bases of support. But we cannot remain neutral between the two. There are fundamental differences involving political movement theory, electability against President Donald Trump (not on the basis of gender, but on basis of approach), and foreign policy voting record between Sanders and Warren that must be brought to daylight. These differences show that Bernie Sanders is the conclusive champion of progressive causes, universal social programs, and a trailblazer for what could be the start to an anti-war progressive American foreign policy not tied to the existing military-industrial/foreign policy complex.

  1. Political Movement Theory — The fundamental difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is ideological. Bernie Sanders is a self described Democratic Socialist. He will not let this label go, he believes entirely that the system of capitalism is a source for many of the problems of society. Elizabeth Warren has claimed she’s a “capitalist to her bones.” She claims that the solution to capitalism’s shortcomings is a market with rules. These ideological differences are foundational in understanding their differences in approach when it comes to political movement theory. Bernie Sanders wholeheartedly believes a democratic socialist society cannot exist if the very base of the society being governed does not rise up to address the problems affecting their communities. He cites the LGBT movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and many more examples of what he considers to be the foundations of real change from the bottom on up. He believes that a truly anti-establishment campaign cannot be waged without a movement of everyday people coming together to stand up for something. Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand is pushing for a similar approach of movement building, citing abolitionists, women’s suffrage, and early labor organizing. But the difference between the two is that it doesn’t take a movement to regulate markets, it doesn’t take a movement to have some tweaks on an existing system of capital. Bernie Sanders is calling for a movement to fundamentally change the very fabric of the currently existing economic system. The very system that has caused more than 30 million Americans to still live without health insurance, the very system that has caused 45 million people to hold some $1.6 trillion in student debt, the very system that has caused over 18 million families to pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Bernie Sanders will need movements of people to challenge the existing status quo. It will take an actual movement to accomplish what Bernie Sanders is trying to achieve. For the first time in American history, the electoral process won’t be the end of the nationwide project Bernie Sanders’ election would kickoff, it would be the beginning of a new type of politics of change entirely unheard of in our country.
  2. Electability Against Trump — Now before I get levied accusations of misogyny against a female candidate for president, let me preface by saying the electability argument I’m presenting has nothing to do with Warren’s gender. It has everything to do with the difference in approach between Sanders and Warren. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will not take so-called ‘big money’ in the primary. That is money that comes from corporations and super PAC’s. Bernie Sanders has extended this promise to also be in the general election, should he make it that far. Elizabeth Warren on the other hand has claimed that she does not “believe in unilateral disarmament.” This would mean that she will face off against a president presenting himself as a populist while taking campaign contributions from corporations and DNC power brokers. What could go wrong? Factoring that in, let’s examine Warren’s and Sanders’ approach of political movement theory when it comes to the general election. Warren approaches Trump’s simplistic, anti-intellectual policy stances on certain issues with what has been marketed to the American people by her campaign and the corporate news media as a “plan for that” issue, whatever it may be. Elections tend to be won by messaging, by pathos rather than logos, and by simplicity. The likelihood that the solution to right-wing populism is technocracy is very slim. No matter how many experts can be pulled together, no matter how many focus groups are used for messaging, Bernie Sanders has organically crafted strategies that resonate with a significant chunk — some even claim a majority — of the electorate when it comes to Medicare for All, Green New Deal, and Tuition Free Public University. Simple, to-the-point messaging. Not only that, but Bernie Sanders currently has one million individual donors. This number alone is important regarding electability because this means he has more individual donors than President Trump does. Further, a deep dive into the data suggests that Bernie Sanders has out-raised other candidates significantly in counties that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but swung to Trump in 2016. The Left economic populism of Bernie Sanders is resonating with the American electorate, seemingly more than technocratic policy plans could.
  3. Foreign Policy Voting Record — Having examined Warren and Bernie’s differences in movement building and electability, let’s take a look at some concrete differences between Sanders and Warren when it comes to foreign policy. You might be wondering why foreign policy specifically. Thanks in part to former president Barack Obama’s expansion in presidential powers to push war, foreign policy is the area where president’s have the most power to act without Congress. We need to elect a progressive candidate that we can trust when it comes to being pro-peace. Looking at Sanders’ record on foreign policy, we see a candidate who led the opposition against the 2003 Invasion of Iraq which ultimately cost the United States around $2 trillion and led to the deaths of tens of thousands, some sources say half a million Iraqis, in the ensuing destabilization and civil war that followed. We see someone who worked to pass the bipartisan War Powers Resolution on Yemen to try to force Trump’s hand to stop assisting Saudi Arabia in one of the deadliest conflicts in the world right now, happening in Yemen. We see someone who has constantly spoken out against Trump on intervention in Venezuela, Trump’s Iran strategy, and even recently has spoken out against Trump’s lack of standing up for human rights in Kashmir. With Bernie Sanders, we get the opportunity to fundamentally change the foreign policy status quo of this country since World War II. We get the chance to end the endless wars, to treat the Palestinian people with the dignity and respect they should be treated with, to undo the foreign policy blunders that America has levied against countries all over the world. Bernie Sanders is a serious anti-imperialist candidate when looking at what the alternatives are. Oddly enough, Elizabeth Warren is a hawk when it comes to Israel-Palestine. She supported the granting of $225 million in emergency funds to Israel for the Iron Dome and she has close relations with AIPAC. She tweeted about how climate change has undermined our military readiness, rather than focusing on the slew of millions of billions of people that will be affected by climate catastrophe. In 2017, Warren voted for a defense spending bill that budgeted over $700 billion in defense funds, allocating more than even Trump was asking for. Sanders voted against this and every single military spending bill Trump has presented. The difference between the two in terms of foreign policy once again stems from their anti-establishment approaches. Bernie Sanders disagrees heavily with the approach to foreign policy that the US has had for over the last forty years. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t have such a clear stance, at the moment. Just like the American foreign policy status quo, her plans on foreign policy are all over the place.
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The difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when commemorating 9/11 speaks volumes

Lastly, those three main points aside, one should take a look at major differences within the issues during the current primary so that it is easy to see who truly is the standard-bearer of the American Left. Currently, the major difference between Sanders and Warren is the inclination for Warren to means test her policies, while Sanders remains committed to universal reforms, understanding that the more means testing there is for policies, the more likely they are to be chipped away into nothingness due to unpopularity and are likely to help less people. On every single issue, Bernie Sanders is well to the left of Elizabeth Warren, standing for the same things, but involving and including way more people to benefit from them.

Current major differences:

Student Debt Cancellation — Elizabeth Warren’s plan will eliminate existing student debt for around 75% of the student debt holding population and will reduce some debt for around 95%. Sanders wants to eliminate all student debt —spending up to $1.6 trillion, $2.2 trillion over 10 years. Warren, on the other hand prefers an income-based sliding scale that eliminates $50,000 of student debt for households making below $100,000 a year. For households making above $100,000, the debt cancellation would decrease until it hit zero at $250,000 a year.

Housing — The housing plans between Sanders and Warren differ majorly in that Bernie Sanders calls for national rent control and Elizabeth Warren claims that high cost rent differs per geography of location — a form of means testing based on the cost of living in certain states.

Medicare for All — This is a major difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the present moment because we are not getting straightforward ideas from Warren when it comes to the role of private insurance in Medicare for All. Some are even saying there is intentional ambiguity about her Medicare for All plan and how little she brings it up because it allows her to walk a fine line on healthcare. This is an area of tension that has caused Warren to come under fire from those on the Left who see the dodgy nature of her stance on private insurance abolition in the implementation of Medicare for All to be suspicious and insulting to those who have been locked into this fight for years and whose lives are on the line. While both involve means testing for their prescription drug price plans, Warren supports a plan that caps out of pocket spending at $500 a month while Sanders caps out of pocket prescription drug spending at $200 a year and ensures that no American making less than $25,000 and no family making less than $52,000 a year would be charged a co-payment on prescription medications. Sanders’ plan goes as far as eliminating existing medical debt for those who have had to suffer under the current immoral system of for-profit health insurance.

Climate Crisis — The difference between Warren and Sanders on climate change policy may look small, but it is important to recognize that the difference comes down to how willing and through which avenues the candidates want to tackle climate change head on. Sanders’ plan, dubbed as the Green New Deal, pushes for a 100% renewable transportation and electric grid by 2030, zero carbon emissions by 2050, and the declaration of climate change as a national emergency. It also pledges to create more than 20 million well-paying green jobs, spending $16.3 trillion over the next decade on this full package. Warren’s plan borrows from former Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee’s climate plan, self-dubbing itself as a comprehensive cross-industry (public and private) plan to curb our current trajectory regarding climate. Her plan would cost $3 trillion, including an additional $1 trillion over 10 years to be put toward energy programs, jobs and research. Warren looks at climate change as an issue of political will and government corruption, intending to use “the levers of government to tackle the climate crisis” seemingly more so than she is willing to have massive green job-boosting spending packages as Sanders is attempting to do. Of course, like all these policies, higher cost isn’t the best measure of effectiveness, but Sanders’ plan goes further than anyone else’s to address the impending climate catastrophe by being effectively radical and expensive and getting the stamp of approval from the Sunrise Movement for being the “the biggest and boldest plan and vision out there.” The single most important thing that sets Warren and Sanders apart on climate change, something that shows their ideological difference involving the role of capitalism and profit motive in climate change, is that Sanders would dramatically expand public ownership of utilities to make electricity “virtually free” by 2035.

The distinctions between Sanders and Warren may seem slight or inconsequential to some, but a few months from now the American Left will have the choice of whether or not it will let a largely multiracial, overwhelmingly youth-supported working class democratic socialist movement with universal social programs get co-opted by means-tested classical progressivism resonating by and large with the professional class. It will choose if it wants to continue forward with the economic populism of Bernie Sanders or abandon it for the technocratic policy wonkishness of Elizabeth Warren in order to challenge a right-wing nationalist commanding a movement of anti-intellectualism. The American Left cannot afford to be agnostic about this choice. It cannot beat around the bush on the very real issues impacting millions of people such as climate change, immigration, student debt elimination, and healthcare. It must take a hard stance. Yes we want a Green New Deal. Yes we want a moratorium on deportation. Yes we want to eliminate the student debt of 45 million Americans. Yes we want actual Medicare for All with the abolition of private insurance.

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