From the beginning, there were good reasons for progressive leftists not to trust that Elizabeth Warren was on their side. For one thing, she had spent much of her career as a Republican, and only recently become a champion of progressive causes. Warren worked at Harvard Law School training generations of elite corporate lawyers; did legal work for big corporations accused of wrongdoing; collected donations from billionaires; held secret meetings with investment bankers and major Democratic party donors; and stood up and applauded when Donald Trump vowed that America would “never become a socialist country”. Even at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her most prominent initiative on behalf of ordinary borrowers, Warren brought in former Wall Street bankers, tasking financial foxes with guarding the henhouse.
Yet Warren’s campaign debuted with a populist note. She chose to make her kick-off speech in Lawrence, Massachusetts, site of the famous 1912 Bread and Roses textile industry strike, and she explicitly invoked the spirit of organized labor in her campaign announcement. Warren unveiled a series of ambitious social policy plans designed to please leftists, and some of us praised her promises to levy new taxes on wealth, expand childcare and give workers new power within their companies. In debates, the more centrist candidates accused both Warren and Sanders of being too radical. Warren memorably snapped back at those who ran for president to tell the country that change was impossible.
It’s been difficult for progressives to know what to make of Warren. She’s been antagonizing the super-rich, but some of them also seem fond of her, perhaps because they recognize that her regulatory proposals are actually a modest and pragmatic way of staving off a populist revolution. She has long been attacked for supporting Medicare for All, but she has also been troublingly vague about the details in ways that left single-payer proponents unsure whether she was with them or against them. (Harry Reid, having been Warren’s colleague in the Senate, said she would probably ditch single-payer when she was actually in office, in favor of something more “pragmatic”.)
But lately, Warren has finally begun to make her true feelings clear, and progressives no longer need to wonder whether she’s with us or not. She’s not. Warren released a Medicare for All plan that called it a “long-term” plan, which leftwing political analyst Ben Studebaker pointed out is “code to rich people for ‘this is all pretend’”.
A few weeks later, Warren confirmed that while in theory she supported single-payer healthcare, it would not be one of her primary initiatives, and she would initially push for a more moderate proposal similar to those advocated by Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. Political analysts quickly saw Warren’s statement for what it was: an admission that she did not really intend to pass single-payer at all. Doug Henwood noted that Barclays bank put out an analysis assuring Wall Street that Warren’s plan to put off Medicare for All until late in the first term “decreases the likelihood that this plan comes to fruition”. So much for big structural change.
Then there’s foreign policy. Warren has never been particularly progressive on foreign policy, or even shown much interest in it at all. She has defended US military aid to Israel, and infamously, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, killing thousands of Palestinians including children playing on the beach, Warren spoke up for “Israel’s right to defend itself”.
Recently Warren has given progressives even more cause for alarm. Instead of condemning an obvious rightwing coup in Bolivia (as Bernie Sanders did), and denouncing the seizure of power by Christian theocrats, Warren gave a tepid statement that recognized the legitimacy of the country’s new “interim leadership”. On Venezuela, Warren’s statements were even worse; she recently told Pod Save America that she believes the US should recognize the leader of the opposition as the legitimate president, and should maintain the sanctions that economist Jeffrey Sachs has said “are deliberately aiming to wreck Venezuela’s economy and thereby lead to regime change”. Sachs has called sanctions “a fruitless, heartless, illegal and failed policy, causing grave harm to the Venezuelan people”, yet Warren says she sides with Trump on the matter.
This is not trivial. Foreign policy is one of the most important parts of a president’s role. A president who is not a progressive in their dealings with the rest of the world is not a progressive at all. US policy has the potential to destroy lives and undermine popular movements, or to save lives and support those movements. It is critical to have a president who will take on human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and who will stand up for authentic democracy around the world. Nobody on the left can support someone who casually supports the Trump administration’s crippling sanctions, who excuses the wanton killing of Palestinians, and who declines to call a military coup a military coup.
It is helpful, at least, that we can now see more clearly the distinction between Warren and Sanders. She is not just a more wonkish and pragmatic advocate of the same politics. The politics themselves are very different. Sanders quickly denounced the Bolivian coup as a coup, and stuck to his assessment. He promised that Medicare for All would be a top priority, introduced in his first week. Sanders is far from a perfect candidate, but Warren has made it clear that she is no radical, that she accepts much of the “Washington consensus” that Sanders has devoted his career to disrupting and questioning.
Because candidates will typically try to tell voters whatever they think we want to hear, it is useful when they take actions that show us where they really stand and how we can expect them to act in office. Questions about the sincerity of Warren’s progressivism are rapidly being answered by her public statements. She’s telling us she’s not one of us, and we should believe her.