This piece was originally published in the New York Times on March 12, 2020.
Joe Biden has the Democratic nomination nearly locked up. Progressives are sorely disappointed, and it’s easy to sympathize. Mr. Biden is an old hand of the party’s old guard, cozy with big finance and spellbound by a bygone era of bipartisan amity. A man in denial about the depth of polarization and systemic corruption can’t begin to fix what’s wrong with the country or the Democratic Party.
Progressives need to understand that Bernie Sanders was never the answer. Support for “democratic socialism” may be on the rise, but it’s not nearly enough to underwrite a governing majority. Jitters about electability aren’t the only thing doing Mr. Sanders in, though.
Democrats are hungry for reform, not revolution. To oust Mr. Trump and especially to govern effectively, Democrats need a fighting creed that avoids both Mr. Biden’s blinkered complacency and Mr. Sanders’s quixotic hand-waving. She may be gone from the race, but Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. Democrats should pick up the fallen flag of Warren-ism and run.
America is embroiled in a crisis of deepening corruption. A self-reinforcing spiral of regulatory capture, self-dealing and influence-peddling has led to intensely concentrated power that is at once economic and political. That concentrated power has rigged the rules that define the structure of America’s democracy and economy to the advantage of the powerful at the expense of ordinary Americans. This has deprived us of our most vital means of collective self-defense: meaningful democratic control over the institutions that shape our lives. Unless we fight to unrig the system, millions of us will continue to live and die on the terms of unaccountable power.
Let’s be frank: “Big structural change” is a dreadful political slogan. Yet it’s exactly what America needs. At its heart, Warrenism is a program to establish genuine popular sovereignty over our polity and economy. In the context of a corrupted system of organized clout, this seems radical. A reform agenda focused on rooting out graft and cultivating real democracy poses a threat to many of America’s most powerfully entrenched interests.
Although Warrenism may be less “revolutionary” than Mr. Sanders’s socialism, it’s also more threatening to concentrated power. That’s because it’s learned and realistic about the ways in which rules structure the political and economic incentives that ultimately determine who gets how much of what. Warrenism is jealous of the political rights of citizens and therefore hostile to electoral practices — like gerrymandering, voter-ID laws and felon disenfranchisement — that deprive vulnerable citizens of equal representation. That extends to Senate rules, like the filibuster, that stymie majority rule in an already anti-majoritarian system.
It sees shell companies, lax tax enforcement, revolving doors between regulators and the corporations they regulate and hidden conflicts between the private holdings of public officials and the public interest as rich soil for the cultivation of systemic corruption and organized venality. Warrenism’s obsession with policy detail sometimes smacks of managerial paternalism, but it aims at building and streamlining the capacity of government to reliably deliver the high-quality public goods citizens demand in a way that relieves them of the burdens of confusing paperwork and Kafkaesque administrative complexity.
Warrenism grasps what many other Democrats (like Mr. Biden) don’t: Liberalism is on the ropes because it became complacent about power. We liberals got ahead of ourselves and began to take the institutions of inclusive, liberal-democratic capitalism for granted — despite the fact that our first serious strides toward full democratic equality were taken well within living memory. The collapse of Communism made us think we’d won for good, and we became fixated on tweaks to liberal institutions to enhance economic efficiency or make them better conform to academic ideals of distributive justice rather than tackling their deep-seated structural and procedural flaws.
Mr. Trump and his minions have taught us a lesson about power. For better or worse, the heart of politics is distributive conflict, and the most fundamental fight is over the distribution of power — over which groups will become more or less protected, and more and less bound, by the law.
Mr. Trump has made clear which people and groups are favored under his leadership. He is at the top of a relatively small elite that monopolizes the power to set and enforce rules that allow the ruling class to enrich itself and reinforce its rule through domination and exploitation.
Groups that have been losing power through democratization and the equalization of rights — including the Trumpist Republican Party’s aggrieved base — as well as incumbent economic interests are keenly aware of the nature and value of power. The closer they get to losing it, the more avidly they marshal every form of heft, pull, propaganda, coercion and extortion at hand to prevent America’s political economy from locking into an equilibrium of fully inclusive democratic equality.
Yet sleepwalking liberals can’t seem to snap out of it. That’s why Warrenism’s tough-minded agenda for returning control to the democratic citizenry is so important. We argue among ourselves about whether the rise of populist nationalism reflects economic or racial anxieties (or both). We debate whether these anxieties would be best assuaged by a universal basic income, an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, or by getting the fine print of Medicare for All exactly right. What we haven’t been doing is rallying for a dogfight.
This is one reason that Sanders-style socialism picked up steam. Socialists may be in the grip of unworkable, harebrained dogma, but they see power and are ready to fight for it. They grasp that regaining democratic authority over economic power, both inside and outside the political system, is urgently necessary. And that makes socialists like Mr. Sanders better defenders of liberal democracy than many Biden-loving liberals.
I’ll be sorry to see Bernie Sanders go, but he was never going to win. Mr. Biden can beat Donald Trump. The trouble is that he can’t seem to grasp our deeper problems, so he’s counting on a de-polarizing Republican epiphany rather than preparing for a fight. That’s why Mr. Biden, and the entire Democratic Party, needs a stiff dose of Warrenism, and quick.
Warrenism is awake to power. It’s good, old-fashioned American republicanism with bite. Should Democrats take down Mr. Trump, they need to be willing to throw down for Big Structural Change. One way or another, Democrats need Elizabeth Warren. There can be no meaningful change in policy — no universal health care, no clawback of systemic corruption, no large-scale climate action — without distributing democratic power back to the sovereign American people. And that means leaving blood, teeth and shredded filibuster rules all over the Senate floor.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore under CC by 2.0