After her fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Warren’s prospects look shaky. She’ll need to put up strong numbers in Nevada and South Carolina if she’s to mount a Super Tuesday surge that puts her back in serious contention for the Democratic nomination. It’s possible, but for now the odds look long.  

Whether she manages to catch fire or flames out in two weeks, there are important lessons to be gleaned from Warren’s campaign, the agenda that drives it, and the debate around it. I believe we’ve misunderstood Elizabeth Warren, because we’ve misunderstood Warren-ism. This is largely due to the stultifying limitations of our conventional ideological categories, which pit “left” against “center” against “right” and “socialism” against “capitalism.” The candidate herself is partly to blame: She has defined herself, and has specified the policy details of her agenda, too much in the impoverished terms of our creaking political categories. 

A “Bedford Falls for All” agenda

Having looked carefully at Warren’s history and “plans,” I’m convinced that her defining aim, “big structural change,” is mainly about the vigorous reassertion of (small-r) republican popular sovereignty over our common institutions against their corruption by corporate venality. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t want to nationalize manufacturing, seize the wealth that capitalists have stolen from workers, or radically level the distribution of income and wealth to align with some abstract ideal of distributive justice. 

As far as I can tell, what Elizabeth Warren wants is the kind of democracy and market economy she thought we had when she was a Republican, but was scandalized to discover we didn’t have, thanks to the undue influence of self-dealing moneyed interests in the policymaking process. 

Because the American republic is, in fact, in the midst of a spiraling crisis of corruption, there is more than a whiff of radicalism in a reform agenda focused on rooting out graft and restoring popular sovereignty. But Warren’s program is animated by earnest devotion to sturdy procedural ideals — fair elections, the rule of law, equitable and responsive political representation, and clean public administration— not left-wing ideology. It aims to realize a homely republican vision of America in which equal democratic citizens of every gender, color, and creed can vote their way to a system that gives everybody a fair shot at a sound education and a decent wage sufficient to raise a family in a comfortable home without becoming indentured to creditors or wrecked by the vicissitudes of capitalist dislocation. 

This is more Frank Capra than Fidel Castro. Warrenism is not hostile to capitalism. It’s hostile to the forces that have turned our country into the United States of Pottersville. America never was Bedford Falls, Capra’s idealized American town in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Not for everybody, at any rate. Not by a long shot. But that’s at bottom what Elizabeth Warren wants: Bedford Falls for All (if we can imagine that multicultural mega-cities count as versions of Bedford Falls, too), brought to you by the uncorrupted democratic will of the American people, in all its varied splendor. That’s not a left-wing vision. It’s just an enormously appealing vision, at once liberal and republican, that taps straight into the main vein of our political culture’s idealized self-conception.

The trouble is, Warren has muddled her pitch and stepped on its populist appeal by proliferating detailed “plans” for every conceivable issue and progressive constituency in a misguided attempt to dig into Bernie Sanders’ left-wing support. The stirring vision of a multicultural “Bedford Falls for All” America, which I see as the moral heart of Warrenism, has been obscured by a haze of technocratic detail. Meanwhile, “big structural change” has been made to seem more contentiously ideological and bureaucratically suffocating than it ought to, neutralizing the energizing, nonpartisan populist appeal of Warrenism’s core agenda: the restoration of meaningful democratic control over the institutions that shape our lives.        

The Warren inkblot

Ryan Avent, a former colleague at The Economist, observes a “vast gap in perceptions [of Warren] between groups of people … whose politics are a teeny bit different but who might otherwise be expected to assess policy platforms and candidates in fairly similar ways …” He notes, in particular, the gap between the New York Times’ endorsement of Warren and The Economist’s rather more skeptical stance. What explains this gap?

Ryan also mentions Tyler Cowen, a longtime mentor and friend, who has been vexed by my praise for Senator Warren’s clarity about the corruption of our polity and economy, as well as her vision for reform. In the grand scheme of things, Tyler and I don’t differ much in our philosophical and political inclinations. Yet Tyler’s opinion is that Warren “has the worst proposed economic policies of any candidate in the adult lifetime of Tyler Cowen.” 

For my part, I find Tyler’s characterization and opinion of Warren’s agenda myopic, hyperbolic, and mostly irrelevant to my animating concerns. What gives? Tyler and I both admire the generative power of markets and see economic growth as a humanitarian imperative. We’re both lapsed libertarians reconciled to the complementarity of big government and market-driven prosperity. But he looks at the Elizabeth Warren inkblot and sees a dragon and I see a knight.

I agree with Ryan about the crux of these disagreements:

[I]f you think the underlying political economy situation in the U.S. right now is totally fine, Warren is anathema, because the animating spirit of her campaign is that it isn’t, and that none of America’s big problems can be solved without addressing that. 

That is to say, you either think the basic structure of America’s democracy and market economy is broken, or you don’t.

If you think it’s broken, “big structural change” will strike you as imperative. If you think Warren is broadly correct about why it’s broken, and about how to fix it, you’re unlikely to greet the prospect of a Warren presidency with alarm — even if you disagree with details of her prescription for structural reform, or prefer alternatives to some of her many plans.

I think Senator Warren’s right that the rules that define the basic structure of America’s democracy and economy are rigged to the advantage of the powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens. I agree with her that endemic regulatory capture, rent-seeking, and influence-peddling add up to an existential crisis of metastasizing corruption. Like her, I see the presidency of Donald Trump — and the clear and present danger he poses to America’s democracy, constitutional order, and the rule of law — as a late-stage symptom of this institutional pathology. So I’m convinced that “big structural change” is urgently necessary, and that any economic policy platform that fails to seriously address this need is worse than one that does.   

What’s more, McConnell and Trump’s lawless regime is a festival of red flags indicating slow-motion collapse into soft-authoritarian kleptocracy propped up by propaganda, rigged elections, suppression of rivals through fake corruption investigations, and wickedly dangerous ethno-nationalist demagoguery. Trump will absolutely cash the blank check the Senate handed him when the GOP chose to burn the legitimacy of congressional oversight authority to the ground. There’s no question that he’ll continue to abuse his power to fix the election and consolidate his authority to loot, extort, and auction off state power with impunity. If a Democrat can manage to win the White House under these alarming conditions, I’d like it to be a Democrat who is clear-eyed about what’s happening — who will do everything possible to minimize the chance that this will happen again. 

By my lights, Warren’s main priorities as president — anti-corruption, voting rights, and electoral reform — are the right ones, and her detailed legislative proposals on these issues are the best on offer. I disagree with her on an array of other policy issues, but their collective weight in my ranking of priorities doesn’t come close to the weight I place on the structural reforms necessary to arrest America’s devolution into a banana republic. Not only do I think these are reasonable priorities, I think other priorities are extremely difficult to justify. 

However, plenty of business-oriented Democrats and Trump-skeptical conservatives disagree that we’re in such perilously dire straits. If, in your estimation, America’s democracy and market economy are fundamentally sound, Warren’s agenda of “big structural change”can come across like a call for experimental surgery on a flourishing patient. If it ain’t broke, why risk fixing it to death? If you happen to think the constitutive rules of the great American game work really well if you think America’s political and economic system delivers in spades — Warrenism can look like dangerous, wild-eyed radicalism.

Indeed, from certain angles, Elizabeth Warren can look even more threatening than Bernie Sanders, a proud socialist. Unlike Comrade Sanders, Warren is a fancy Harvard authority on the fine-print terms of really existing American capitalism – on the tangled legal code governing credit, debt, and bankruptcy. If Bernie is a left-populist bulldozer bearing down on the temple of free enterprise, Warren is a plumber with a detailed map of the pipes through which capitalism’s lifeblood flows. If you think there’s nothing that badly needs fixing, it’s not nuts to worry that a skilled technician determined to slip into the cellar and modify how much money flows how fast through which pipes could gum up the works far worse than an antique bulldozer with a bad timing belt blaring the Internationale.

If this is how you see it, what are you missing? Power. 

“Warren’s candidacy represents an argument that the mistake we made was neglecting the importance of power,” argues Ryan Avent. “One of the important contributions of empirical economics over the past decade or two has been to demonstrate the ways that power matters — in labor and product markets, in how concentrated economic power translates into political power, which helps sustain yesterday’s winners in permanent positions of strength.” 

After the recovery from 1970s stagflation, Avent observes, the consensus of influential economists and policy wonks became overconfident in the self-correcting powers of markets, and missed that “the political and social and ethical stage on which the theatrics of the market were played out could not be taken for granted, but might well change over time in ways that corrupt the operation of the market and threaten the entire edifice.” However,

… to take best advantage of markets, you need to have in place all the various institutions which restrain and counterbalance the power that has a tendency to accumulate in an under-policed marketplace. You can’t count on well-meaning policy-makers to do that for you, because the system becomes corrupted by the influence of powerful economic actors. You can’t count on the consciences of the economically powerful to restrain abuses, because the market system elevates into positions of power and influence those individuals who do not let ethical concerns constrain their behavior. 

I completely agree. But if, at this late date, someone won’t agree that “the rise of the crooked class,” as I call it, has set America on the road to serfdom, threatening to turn our economy into a hyper-politicized morass of clientelist corruption, you’re probably not going to persuade them. And you’re not going to persuade them that an agenda to fix it by shoring up popular sovereignty is economic policy. 

But suppose they are already persuaded of this? People like Ryan Avent and me shouldn’t need to explain that restoring democratic accountability, eliminating corruption, and rebalancing structural power are really what Elizabeth Warren cares about most, but that her plans to, say, ban fracking by executive order and bigfoot all over on private equity are merely incidental. I can’t tell Tyler that this dubious stuff is obviously incidental. Because it’s not obvious.

Capitalist to her bones, or not?

“I am a capitalist to my bones,” Warren has said, but you probably haven’t heard her say anything like this lately. Why? Probably because Bernie Sanders has repeatedly cited this line to sharpen the contrast with his main rival in the notional “left lane” of the primary race. “I mean, Elizabeth considers herself, if I got the quote correctly, to be a capitalist to her bones. I don’t.” He continued:

And the reason I am not is because I will not tolerate for one second the kind of greed and corruption and income and wealth inequality and so much suffering that is going on in this country today, which is unnecessary.

The contrast here really is sharp. In a 2018 interview, Warren said:

I am a capitalist … I believe in markets. What I don’t believe in is theft, what I don’t believe in is cheating. That’s where the difference is. I love what markets can do, I love what functioning economies can do. They are what make us rich, they are what create opportunity. But only fair markets, markets with rules. Markets without rules is about the rich take it all, it’s about the powerful get all of it. And that’s what’s gone wrong in America.

Bernie’s position is extremely clear: Capitalism inherently produces needless suffering because it actively promotes greed and corruption, leading to massive, ill-gotten wealth for a few, while leaving others with little or nothing.

Warren’s position is rather less clear, because it is more nuanced, less ideological, more off-the-cuff, and leaves more unspoken. But it’s much closer to the truth. She’s saying that capitalist systems of market exchange generate broad prosperity and opportunity, and we definitely want that. Markets are structured by rules, but the rules are morally acceptable, or fair, only when they define a system that does generate wealth and opportunity for everyone. But the rich and powerful have rewritten the constitutive rules of our markets to effectively legalize cheating and stealing, allowing them to hoard wealth and opportunity, depriving the rest of us our fair share. When mere power replaces the constraints of fair rules, it’s like having no rules at all, which leads to lawless, exploitative domination by people of enormous, illicit wealth. 

These are very different messages, with very different implications. However, Warren tends to efface the distinction for the same reason that Sanders highlights it: They see themselves as competing for the same pool of voters. Bernie has won this branding fight, and Warren has lost it doubly, because much of the progressive wing of the party believes Bernie that Warren is a suspiciously ex-Republican capitalist, but moderate and electorally nervous Democrats believe that Warren’s rhetoric about corporations and billionaires makes her platform too hard to meaningfully distinguish from Bernie’s socialism.

Elizabethan history

A pocket history of Warren’s leftward journey might help us see just how different she really is from Bernie Sanders, and the untapped potential of her progressive/moderate crossover appeal. 

Warren’s ideological conversion was sparked by her academic legal research on consumer bankruptcy, which led her to see that working people were getting crushed by debt. She hadn’t previously grasped that ordinary folks were racking up huge credit card balances because it had become much harder to achieve a decent standard of living on wages alone. Lenient bankruptcy rules, she found, were acting as a form of relief, taking some of the pressure off, and effectively saving working families from debt peonage. 

A moderate, market-friendly Republican, Warren went into this project thinking that easy bankruptcy creates moral hazard, and that people were exploiting the bankruptcy safety hatch to live beyond their means and foist the bill onto creditors — a standard position for a right-leaning, law-and-economics scholar at the time. But she and her colleagues found that this had little to do with rising consumer bankruptcy rates. So she changed her mind and fought against attempts, led by big banks, to seal off the hatch, because she thought it would effectively trap ordinary Americans in something like indentured servitude to creditors. She believed the evidence was on her side, and she deployed it powerfully and persuasively. But she lost. 

Warren seems to have experienced this loss as a demonstration of the power of concentrated profit-seeking corporations to bulldoze over the facts and rig the rules to fatten themselves at the expense of working people. She wanted to do something about it, to push back against it. She wrote books like The Two-Income Trap and proposed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which made her a celebrity in progressive circles. Obama recruited her to help set up the CFPB, drawing her into Democratic politics. After he didn’t nominate her to run the CFPB, fearing she wouldn’t be confirmed, Warren ran for Senate as a Democrat and won. First-hand experience in office validated and deepened her analysis of the ways corporate power intervenes in policymaking to fix the rules that govern markets to its own advantage at the expense of workers and consumers.

It’s incredibly hard to see this as a story of an ideological left-wing zealot who believes that it’s plain wrong for some people to be too rich, or that every billionaire is a policy failure, so we need to break out the guillotines. Indeed, it’s hard to find anything in Warren’s history to suggest she’s ever found inequality, or billionaires, inherently objectionable. It’s only rather late in the day that she comes to the conclusion that runaway inequality is driven by rigged rules of the game, rather than fair market competition, and that the imbalance of power this creates in the political system makes it nearly impossible to unrig the rules and establish new ones that give everybody a fair shot.

Few politicians can trace the incentive structure that makes this problem so intractable in the way a Harvard legal scholar steeped in public choice and law-and-economics can. And few of them actually want to fix it, anyway. But Warren is both incredibly sincere and driven. It turns out, however, that what it would take to do anything meaningful about unrigging the incentive structure of our political economy is pretty “radical” relative to the status quo. And that has made her seem like a dangerous person to those handsomely served by it.

I don’t think Warren’s basic political values or manner of thinking about the incentives that structure political and economic institutions ever dramatically changed. What changed, it seems, is her sense of the facts on the ground about how our markets and democracy work (or don’t) and how their dysfunctions connect. The implications of these facts changed her sense of what needed to be done politically, which brought her into progressive circles, which changed her politics further. Henry Farrell’s take in Foreign Policy jibes with my own suspicion that her basic commitment to competitive markets governed by fair, mutually advantageous rules has never wavered:

The conventional story is that as Warren moved from the right to the left, she abandoned the public choice way of thinking about the world, in favor of a more traditional left-wing radicalism. A more accurate take might be that she didn’t abandon public choice, but instead remained committed to its free-market ideals, while reversing some of its valences. Her work as an academic was aimed at combating special interests, showing how the financial industry had shaped bankruptcy reforms so that they boosted lenders’ profits at borrowers’ expense. Notably, she applied public choice theory to explain some aspects of public choice, showing how financial interests had funded scholarly centers which provided a patina of genteel respectability to industry’s preferred positions.

Now, Warren wants to wash away the filth that has built up over decades to clog the workings of American capitalism. Financial rules that have been designed by lobbyists need to be torn up. Vast inequalities of wealth, which provide the rich with disproportionate political and economic power, need to be reversed. Intellectual property rules, which make it so that farmers no longer really own the seeds they sow or the machinery they use to plant them, need to be abolished. For Warren, the problem with modern American capitalism is that it is not nearly capitalist enough. It has been captured by special interests, which are strangling competition.

As I see her, Elizabeth Warren isn’t very ideological at all — at least not in a typical left/right sense. She’s just an extremely smart, motivated, and morally passionate legal scholar who changed her mind about the moral hazard of lenient consumer bankruptcy, saw big finance manipulate the political system to get what it wanted in a way that left already-struggling working Americans even worse off, drew from that experience a larger lesson about the dangerous imbalance of power in America’s political economy, and became dead set on fixing it. 

Because Warren these days tends not to foreground her Republican, right-leaning law-and-economics past, the story of her political conversion, and the lessons it contains about her enduring commitment to markets and her determination to make capitalism work, doesn’t come across on the stump. I suspect that Warren might have been better served by leaning into her differences with Sanders, letting the inherent radicalism of her core message appeal to the left while allowing her market-loving bona fides to shine through. 

The “big structural change” required to restore popular control over our common institutions is, all by itself, a profound threat to incumbent interests engorged by the ill-gotten gains of a rigged system. That Warren so clearly saw this, and was nevertheless determined to fight these unduly powerful interests, is what made her a star on the left in the first place. She is, indeed, hostile to the interests of many really-existing capitalists. And that makes it very easy to confuse her agenda with socialism. But it is a confusion, and Warren could have done far more to discourage, rather than invite, it. Republican liberal-democracy isn’t socialism. It’s the basic American ideal.

You don’t need a fleck of sympathy with “socialism” to think that the authority to shape the rules that define the market institutions that shape the lives and determine the material prospects of a nation’s people ought to be vested in the people. But if we’re inclined to see our current system of incomplete democracy and rigged markets as an exemplary instance of capitalism, as both left and right tend to do, then it can be difficult to communicate the distinctness of Warrenism, because the implications of basic republican sovereignty, in that context, are so transformative they’re bound to seem vaguely socialistic. 

Popular Sovereignty 101 counsels a redistribution of political power from wealthy elites to the democratic public, in accordance with a mundane ideal of democratic political equality. A newly empowered citizenry would almost certainly deploy its democratic heft to protect itself from market exploitation and market risk, which would have a dramatic economically redistributive effect. But this can make markets more competitive, more efficient, more innovative, and more productive, as well as less extractive and unjust. 

That this is so easily confused with socialism is a measure of how badly trapped we are in an impoverished set of categories for thinking about political economy. And this infects how we think about “left” or “right” positioning in electoral politics. This confusion is why Elizabeth Warren became a Democrat, threw in with progressives, and is running for president on the left of the party. That’s where her message is received with the most enthusiasm, by far — even if it is, at its core, the message of someone who just wants the system to work like she thought it did work back when she was a Republican. 

However, this may be a case in which “hunting where the ducks are” turned out to be a mistake. Warren’s core agenda isn’t really left-wing. But personnel is policy, as they say, and if democratic socialists are more attracted to this basic agenda than anyone else, the agenda will inevitably get fleshed out in democratic socialist terms. Something like this might explain why I think my critique of Warren’s wealth tax, designed by the leftist economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, is more faithful to the republican, anti-corruption spirit of Warren’s core agenda than the proposal she took from a couple of French socialists. 

By filling in her agenda in terms that reflect the economic policy concerns of the soft-socialist left, Warren runs the risk of trapping it there, on a thin strip of political territory between the ideological Bernie/DSA wing and the pragmatic Clintonite wing of the party. But this is also probably why Warren is more competitive in a one-on-one match-up against Sanders than Bloomberg, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar, and does either slightly better or slightly worse than Biden, depending on how undecideds break.  

Because the distinction between Sanders and Warren really is substantial, Biden is tanking, and Warren’s overall agenda is more moderate and market-friendly than her campaign has made it appear, moderates who are casting about for a viable alternative to Bernie’s socialism ought to give her a second look. However, overtaking Bernie will be an uphill battle. His message meshes with the populist mood of the electorate in a way his competitors’ do not.        

Make America simple again

In an illuminating essay on the disastrous failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, David Graeber, an anarcho-socialist political theorist, observes that the epochal shift of the economy away from manufacturing toward a combination of “knowledge work” and the “service sector” has shifted the nature of class relations in some politically important ways we’ve overlooked. 

“The real story,” Graeber writes, “is the spectacular growth, on the one hand, of clerical, administrative, and supervisory work, and, on the other, of what might broadly be termed ‘care work’: medical, educational, maintenance, social care, and so forth.” 

Graeber suggests that the electoral collapse of social-democratic and worker’s parties in Europe is a result of a “revolt of the caring classes” against the “proceduralism” of the “professional-managerial class” for whom “rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality.” 

Graeber maintains that the bureaucratic ethos of the managerial class came to define left-leaning parties in the 1980s and 1990s as it took control from weakening working-class factions and triangulated toward the “center”:

The peculiar fusion of public and private, market forces and administrative oversight, the world of hallmarks, benchmarks, and stakeholders that characterizes what I’ve been calling centrism is a direct expression of the sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. To them alone, it makes a certain sort of sense. But they had become the base of the center-left, and centrism is endlessly presented in the media as the only viable political position.

But this technocratic ethos, Graeber argues, has put these parties at odds with one-time party loyalists in the exploding caring sectors of service economy:

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

This central class divide now runs directly through the middle of most parties on the left. Like the Democrats in the US, Labour incorporates both the teachers and the school administrators, both the nurses and their managers. It makes becoming the spokespeople for the revolt of the caring classes extraordinarily difficult.

I think there’s a great deal of insight in this. Graeber notes that right-wing populists, like Trump and Johnson, may be privileged, narcissistic, pathological liars. But, he writes, “they also present themselves as the precise opposite of the infuriating administrator whose endless appeal to rules and demand for additional meetings, paperwork, and motivational seminars makes it impossible for you to do your job.”

This suggests another bind for Warren: She has offered a populist, caring-class agenda in a dissonant managerial-class frame, straddling the party’s hidden class divide. If she’s able to pull out of her spin, this could work to her advantage; it means that very few Democrats actively dislike her. But for now, rather than unifying the party around her, tensions between Warren’s caring-class content and managerial-class rhetoric may be preventing voters on either side of the divide from forming a durable attachment to her candidacy.  

Warren’s “I have a plan for that!” slogan appeals mainly to the PowerPoint masters of the lanyard class, not the people who have to navigate the byzantine maze of their oversight. That is to say, it appeals to people like me. That Warren is a powerful wizard of rule analysis and plan-making is a sterling qualification that ought to be attractive in candidate lawmakers and executive officers. But is it? Graeber suggests that, actually, it can be intensely aggravating to the caring-class voters whom Democrats claim to represent. For them, a cavalier attitude toward regulatory compliance, contempt for standard administrative procedure, and an indifference to “norms” can convey a promise of liberation from suffocating managerial domination. 

Donald Trump never sounds like he might be a guy from HR about to lead you through a folder of “onboarding” paperwork. And neither does Bernie Sanders. Bernie sticks to a relentless, simple message and doggedly refuses the assumption that nothing could be more important than a thorough debate over the niggling details of rival health care plans. Bernie’s simply on your side against the entitled rich pricks who make your life a pain, and he’s going to make it easier. When he’s president, insulin is free. How much will it cost? Nobody knows!

Graeber’s point is that major parties of the left have been cratering in part because the managerial-class mindset simply can’t comprehend that this, not “centrism,” is what “electability” looks like.   

Warren is a warmly relatable former special-ed teacher who sincerely wants to help nurses and baristas escape the Kafkaesque administrative hell of credit card collections and hospital billing departments. But she also projects an air of  technocratic stewardship, as if it’s a comfort to place yourself in the steady hands of an expert public administrator. Some of us do find this comforting. Yet, if Graeber’s right, this may also alienate a segment of the Democratic audience and attenuate the power of the personal connection she so skillfully forges.    

Meanwhile, “big structural change” promises to saddle managerial paper-pushers with the soul-sucking challenge of massive database upgrades and org-chart revisions. Managerial-professional Democrats may delight in technocratic “plans,” but they tend to be conservative about the institutions they manage. They may be attracted to transformative progressive change, but not without a lot of meetings negotiating every intermediate step. A grade-grubbing McKinsey consultant seems perfect for that. 

But if you’re fed up with the exhausting incomprehensibility of our rigged system and desperately desire a simplifying reboot that favors the little guy, Bernie (or Trump) is your man.

It’s vaguely ironic that the distinction between Warren and Sanders on this score also explains why some principled free-market enthusiasts find Bernie less off-putting. As the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle recently argued

Warren’s appeal is that for all her rousing rhetoric, there will be no radical breaks with the current system. The most important changes will probably be rules tweaks that most people won’t notice or understand, even if those changes are radical in effect. And for precisely that reason, Warren is more likely to actually accomplish much of her agenda.

Her candidacy is thus perfectly pitched to technocratic professionals and moderate suburban voters, including Republicans fleeing the Trump incursion. Sanders, on the other hand, is more likely to help the party reclaim white working-class Trump voters who are fed up with the whole system, especially its professional classes.

The brain-dead simplicity of “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall” is so effective because the vast bulk of voters rarely tune in to politics. This is not to say that Warren is not an outstanding communicator who speaks in simple, accessible, persuasive terms. She is. And her basic pitch to fight corruption, restore popular sovereignty, and Make Pottersville Bedford Falls Again is compelling. 

But if you randomly flip to the Warren channel, you might find her talking about anything: taxing billionaires two cents on the dollar, trans rights, racial justice, banks, coming up on the ragged edge of the middle class, closing the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, plans, plans, plans. She’s a professor. She wants to get through the entire syllabus. Flip to the Bernie channel, or the Trump channel, and it’s a rerun. It’s tedious. I don’t like it. But I definitely know that the news is fake, the call was perfect, Democrats hate America, the economy’s never been better, and low-flow toilets are an outrage. And I definitely know that the United States is the world’s only advanced nation that doesn’t guarantee health care to its citizens. Most voters only ever catch a couple snippets of a couple episodes of a candidate’s show. If they’re not singing their theme song’s refrain in the few minutes voters do tune in, most won’t hear it.     

So here’s my main diagnosis of Warren’s stagnation. She has left too many voters with a confusion of mixed messages, which has clouded her powerfully attractive central agenda and kept Democrats from seeing her as an electorally promising rallying point. Democrats dislike her less than any of her competitors. And if they could just wave a magic wand and install somebody in the White House, skipping the election altogether, more of them would pick Warren than any of her rivals. But this general positivity has failed to translate into durable support. By chasing supporters on the party’s left with an exhausting array of detailed, hyperprogressive plans (many of which are unlikely to be legislatively feasible), I suspect that Warren has put too many Democratic voters (and members of the media) in a position where they: 

  • never clearly heard her compelling pro-democracy/anti-corruption agenda; 
  • heard a bureaucratic, managerialist economic policy agenda; 
  • heard both, liked one but not the other, and couldn’t tell which was central; or
  • heard “socialism” and concluded either that it’s bad, too electorally risky, or that Bernie does it better.

A better Warrenism?

Politics takes a lot of luck. If other candidates had assailed Bernie early on, Warren might be riding high. If his heart attack had been worse, she might be winning. It may be that, given her campaign’s information and resources, Warren’s strategy and messaging have been optimal all along, but the future just keeps unspooling in unpredictable ways that trip up the strategy. She could still come from behind and win it all! Who knows? Not me. Nobody likes a Monday morning quarterback, and it’s foolish to act like one before halftime on Sunday. 

So I can’t honestly say I know that she could be doing better under the circumstances — though I do think I’ve shed some light on why she’s struggled so far, and I’ll be glad if I’ve said anything Warren’s campaign finds useful as it tries to mount a comeback. However, my main objective in diagnosing Warren’s stall is to illuminate how Warrenism’s core aim — restoring robust democratic control over our common, destiny-shaping institutions — might be repackaged as part of an electorally and politically plausible agenda more likely to appeal to moderate voters and policymakers of either party. 

As we’ve seen, it can be helpful to see Warrenism in terms of a primary and secondary agenda. The primary agenda is structural and procedural, concerned with rolling back corruption and establishing democratic sovereignty. The standard platform of policy proposals and issue positions candidates typically run on is secondary, and necessarily so. The motivating premise of the primary agenda is that the current rules of the economic and political game are so screwed up because the rulemaking process has become corrupted by intertwined economic and political power. This straightforwardly implies that effective democratic policymaking on behalf of the common good is exceedingly unlikely unless structural reform can be achieved first. 

As Ezra Klein recently observed, American political campaigns typically involve a bizarre charade in which candidates lay out comprehensive programs of legislation with no acknowledgement whatsoever that nearly everything they propose is politically infeasible because, as Ezra succinctly puts it, “divided government is common, the filibuster forces supermajority levels of consensus in the Senate, electoral geography dilutes the power of popular majorities, and polarized parties make compromise impossible.” 

In this context, standard portfolios of policy plans are largely decorative — toothless expressions of sensibility. So why even bother? As the Princeton political scientist Frances Lee said to Ezra:

Realism about these constraints is just not a compelling electoral message — neither for primary voters nor the general election. … How can you get voters to care about the outcome of an election if you’re telling them that even if you win, the opposing party will have a veto over most of the things they care about?  

The result is the confounding spectacle of candidates attempting to attract supporters with proposals they know they cannot implement. Reporters ask how candidates plan to pay for policies that will never be enacted. Pundits and wonks add up the “total cost” of agendas that would require unified partisan control of government to get even partially enacted. Voters are left systematically misled about what they can realistically expect and disappointed that they never get what they’re promised. When this happens again and again, bomb-throwing “outsider” candidates who promise to blow up the system and barrel through gridlock end up looking better and better.

If voters won’t reward candidates who tell them that they won’t get what they want, then it looks like we’re in a bind. Because, in that case, it’s also going to be difficult to foreground the primary structural message of Warrenism without muddying it up with talk of policy proposals that are doomed to fail unless structural reform gets done first. This can be hard to get your head around, so consider an example. 

I’ve noted elsewhere that it verges on incoherence to propose a wealth tax now on the grounds that the iron grip of the megarich on the policymaking process makes it nearly impossible to write rules that benefit ordinary Americans. Why? Because the argument for the policy implies that it won’t get done. This doesn’t imply that everything is impossible. But it does imply that everything will be a challenging dogfight, and that the order of operations matters a lot to the political feasibility of Warrenism’s core agenda. 

Let’s stick with the example of the wealth tax. Basic electoral reforms that increase diffuse democratic power relative to concentrated economic power will need to be set in place before a wealth tax stands a chance. And if we manage to get ourselves into a position where a wealth tax can pass, substantially increasing the state’s tax enforcement capacity will need to come well before we pass a policy that is, effectively, a massive new subsidy to the tax avoidance industry, or else it will be evaded and undermined into oblivion by the very power it’s meant to contain.

But a complicated, sequential, long-game policymaking strategy for rebalancing democratic power isn’t a captivating electoral strategy. Voters want to know what you’re going to do, and aren’t going to respond to clear-eyed realism about the dysfunction of the system. In that light, it’s easy to see the appeal of attaching Warrenism’s core structural agenda to policies, like wealth taxation, that many Democrats find galvanizing for other reasons. The wealth tax is thematically consistent with a program to restore democratic control over common institutions. If it’s effective as part of a policy package that brings along enough voters to put a candidate into office, then the necessary initial steps of the core agenda can get off the ground, which could make a wealth tax feasible … some day.  

That makes a sort of sense, but I think we need to be more careful, and less ideological,  about the policy agenda we plug into the larger agenda of fundamental structural reform. One of the great merits of Warrenism’s procedural sovereignty agenda is its relative neutrality. Democratic equality, accountability, and fair representation are needed to secure substantive popular control over the institutions that structure our society and our lives. Truly democratic majorities equitably represented by uncorrupted electoral and legislative institutions might turn out to lean either “left” or “right,” and it’s fine however that turns out. What’s not fine is that the system’s rigged against the democratic public at all, whatever its ideological cast. The strong argument for a renewed liberal-republican politics of robust popular control of government isn’t that it’s a precondition for a wealth tax or Medicare for All, though it is. The strong argument is that if we can’t control the institutions that determine our fates, then we aren’t free. We’re pawns of the people who do control them, subject to exploitation, cruelty, and abuse. 

Democratic equality, fair representation, and uncorrupted governance are in truth what some self-described “patriots” claim for their guns: They are guarantors of the equal recognition and protection of our basic rights, and our best defense against the depredations of unauthorized power. The point isn’t that, without these things, your partisan faction won’t get what it wants, though it probably won’t. The point is that, without these things, no faction’s claim to authority can be legitimate, so no faction can get what it wants on terms consistent with justice, civil peace, and social stability. 

I fear that identifying the project of securing the political sovereignty of America’s citizens too closely with any familiar partisan agenda runs the risk of recruiting the toxic power of negative partisanship against it. And identifying it too closely with ideologies inherently hostile to markets and large fortunes runs the risk of galvanizing the anti-democratic resolve of the megarich. 

As I’ve already observed, the redistribution of political power back to the whole body of democratic citizens threatens unduly powerful interests no matter what. In a constitutional system that’s already dysfunctionally sclerotic, and a statutory/regulatory/judicial environment that’s already skewed to the advantage of entrenched interests, Warrenism’s core agenda should be expected to elicit formidable resistance all by itself. 

However, all by itself, this agenda has a great advantage: It embodies some of America’s most cherished and fundamental ideals, lending it enormous moral authority. Given the stakes, it seems unwise to weaken this advantage by making the project more vulnerable than necessary to the delegitimizing weapons of right-wing ideology and polarized partisanship.

That said, all by itself, the core agenda doesn’t amount to a practical, electorally promising agenda. To turn it into one, it needs to be tied to the kind of standard policy platform voters demand. It seems to me, then, that the most promising secondary, policy-oriented agenda to attach to Warrenism’s inherently disruptive and transformative primary, structural agenda will be politically moderate, and openly enthusiastic about capitalism, market competition, innovation, and economic growth. 

But focusing too exclusively on the concentrated power of corporations and billionaires isn’t just a strategic error that invites overwhelming resistance from already-dominating political forces that need to be pacified. It also leads to the neglect of other forms of concentrated power that keep our system rigged. This is both an intellectual and strategic mistake. An incomplete and partial diagnosis of the problem narrows the appeal of a structural reform agenda, which makes it harder to recruit the popular political energy it will need to succeed. 

For example, public sector unions organize against voters to block reform and starve other programs, and much poorer citizens, of public funds by dominating budget processes. Elected Democrats who like their jobs tend not to complain about teachers unions obstructing badly needed experimentation and reform in our primary education system, just as Republicans tend not to complain about the NRA, but it’s a form of anti-democratic “capture” all the same. And there are many other examples of capture and rule-rigging at work on multiple levels of our political economy. These merit attention, too.  

As my colleagues Brink Lindsey and Steve Teles detail in their book, The Captured Economy, local zoning authorities protect the interests of incumbent property owners at the expense of poor and working-class residents, younger people trying to break into the best labor markets, and the vitality of the economy as a whole; occupational guilds deprive millions of a fair opportunity to join professions through onerous, unjustifiable licensing requirements; restrictive patents and copyrights effective enclose the intellectual commons, turn artists and innovators into rentiers, slow the pace of invention, and deny new entrants a fair shot at success by lining their path with toll booths and bridge trolls.      

It may be politically tricky to sustain a more general and consistent spirit of antagonism to the full range of monopolies and combinations that work to fix the system against the public interest. Political realism counsels against goring every ox at once. Still, it’s worth trying to develop a saleable structural reform agenda that’s relatively even-handed about the many ways, large and small, that concentrated power can “capture” policymaking and deprive citizens of meaningful collective control over the rules of the game. 

Noting that the source of the problem isn’t just titans of industry and ravenous corporations underscores how comprehensive and pervasive barriers to democratic equality and fair economic opportunity really are, and how urgently democratizing change is needed. Moreover, easing off monomania about the corrupting influence of corporations and the megarich combats the perception that Warrenism’s core agenda is a stalking horse for left-wing ideology, allowing its pan-ideological, cross-partisan appeal to shine through. 

A cherry-picked diagnosis of our political economy’s deformation that’s easygoing on the urban managerial-professional class, but rough on billionaires, is sure to elicit a politically chilling suspicion that a successful structural reform project can’t afford. A broadly compelling version of Warrenism’s republican agenda should be able to tap into rural America’s resentment of the feather-bedding insiderism of metropolitan elites and professionals. Emphasizing that teachers, lawyers, doctors, academics, and other “knowledge work” professionals also insulate themselves from competition and extract resources from less well-positioned citizens is not a standard left message. It is a radical message, but when you whittle away the parts that cut against the interests of the urban liberal professional class, it comes off too much like a strident version of standard-issue Democratic progressivism.

The basic structure of America’s democracy and market economy is broken, and our system is sliding ever deeper into lawless corruption under Donald Trump. An effective agenda of “big structural change” that brings our common institutions under meaningful popular control is urgently needed. It’s crucial to get it right, because the future of our republic really may turn on it. 

However she fares in the remainder of the race, we should be grateful to Elizabeth Warren for showing us the way. If she falters, we should want Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg or even Michael Bloomberg to pick up her broken spear. But this is more likely if the radical core agenda of Warrenism is attached to a more moderate policy agenda — and a simpler, more focused, less managerialist message — that can command a level of support equal to the challenge of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s charismatic, anti-elitist, wrecking-ball clarity.          

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore under CC by SA 2.0.