Something is missing in the social agenda of Elizabeth Warren that is much more consequential than the question of how she is going to pay for Medicare For All and for the other dozen plans she has unfurled. Where is the social force that will carry her policies, i.e., the social group that will play the role of the proletariat in Marxist theory and — of the free market in libertarian ideology?
There is a tendency to assume, by those who were brought up to believe in the democratic form of government, that whoever wins the election carries the day. That the presidential candidate and the political party that gain the majority can introduce the changes they promised to bring about. Indeed, when a president and a party win with a big margin, they are often able to make significant progress on implementing their campaign promises. For example, in 1984, President Reagan won in a landslide, carrying every state except Minnesota and DC, securing an 18.2% margin of victory in the popular vote. Additionally, the Republicans maintained control of the Senate. These victories allowed Reagan to usher in an era of unbridled capitalism. However, most times, elections are won by a small margin of the popular vote (or even won only in the Electoral College and lost in the popular vote), and a majority of the Senators hail from different ideologies (even if they are of the same party and certainly if they belong to the other party). Hence, whether the election is also accompanied by a rise of a new social force — or a new coalition — plays a very key role in all that follows.
To illustrate the point, all one needs to do is look at the history of health care. President Clinton assigned the reform of health care to First Lady Hillary Clinton, who deeply believed that policies that are supported by evidence will be embraced by the public once they are properly explained. (I know this not merely from listening to her at half a dozen evenings at the Renaissance Weekends but also at two small private dinners in the White House.) She accordingly assembled a group of health care experts and instructed them to ignore politics, not to consult with any interest groups or lobbyists, and to come up with the best health care plan for the nation. It had little political support and was dead on arrival when it reached Congress.
President Obama is reported to have made two key phone calls early in his presidency (or had those calls made on his behalf). One was to promise Big Pharma that, if it did not oppose his health care program, he would not ask Congress to allow Americans to purchase medications overseas, including in places like Canada, where they cost a small fraction of what they cost in the US and are just as safe as those sold in the US. He also promised not to ask Congress to give Medicare the authority to negotiate prices with Big Pharma, which the drug manufacturers much feared. In the other call, he promised health insurers that if they did not oppose his program, he would not even consider the public option. Voila, we got the odd the creature known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare, which has no price controls whatsoever, leaves us with very expensive medications whose prices keep rising exponentially, and only offers private health insurance options. Lacking a “proletariat,” Obama’s other reforms did even worse than his ACA. (Obama tried to convert the millions of young people who voted for him into a social movement, however that effort fizzled when he asked the young people what his first priority should be, and they chose legalization of marijuana.)
President Johnson’s great success in achieving several major reforms is often attributed to his exceptional negotiation skills. However, one should note that he had a major new social force working for him, namely the civil rights movement. And, when it waned, so did the liberal reforms Johnson championed.
Warren is now following in Hillary’s foot steps in the sense that her plans may make wonkish sense, but it is difficult to discern how she hopes to bring about the needed realignment of forces. She can rest assured that the health insurance industry she is seeking to put out of business will not simply fold and look for another line of work and that Wall Street, which she is planning to tax, will not take such ideas lightly. Both industries are already mobilizing to oppose her election and to ensure that if she is elected, she will face debilitating opposition in the Senate. Where is the new social force, or new coalition of existing forces, that will support her vision beyond bringing out the vote?
Bernie Sanders’s rhetoric suggests that he is aware of the need for a major realignment of social forces, well beyond the electoral box. He openly calls for a revolution. While Warren emphasizes that she wants to keep capitalism, Sanders famously calls for socialism. However, it is unclear who Sanders sees as the social force that will bring about the revolution, unless he is counting on his young supporters, many of whom are children of the upper middle class, who for some reason adore this old man. These, you can bet your lunch money, will return to their dorms, books or bongs, as soon as the elections are over.
The rebuilding of democracy after Trump, healing the nation and shoring up the social bonds where now tribalism of class, race, and politics prevails, is essential as a foundation for all other polices that are called for, because they all require a capacity to work together and give and take. It will take a major social movement, of the magnitude and force engendered by the civil rights, progressive, and environmental movements. The focus on electoral politics in an election year is fully understandable. However, unless attention is paid to social and not merely political forces, whoever is elected will not have the support that will be required to bring up the badly needed, and vastly overdue, reforms.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. Click here to watch a recent, four-minute video “ Political and Social Life after Trump.” His latest book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.