“It is not surprising that Warren found no place in Washington. The cameo role she played on the national stage made her an idol to the leftmost part of President Obama’s coalition and a hate object for conservatives—and yet her understanding of the financial crisis is best described as populist, conservative, even right-wing. It arises from what has happened to the American middle class in the past four decades.”
Christopher Caldwell, “Elizbeth Warren, Closet Conservative”
Weekly Standard, 2011
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The political labels that we use have become so distorted and divorced from anything concrete as to almost be meaningless. So, when “the left” media describes Elizabeth Warren as one of the two progressives in the Democratic primary race we should ask the question: in what way?.
What are journalists, academics, and professionals referring to when they call the woman with whom they seem to identify so closely, a progressive who shares the same goals as Bernie Sanders? What goals do they share? How do these observers use the same word to describe a lifetime socialist and a woman who was a Republican until age 46, falsely claimed to be a minority for 30 years, and is a self-described “capitalist to her bones”? It’s possible that “left” media are simply misusing that word.
This issue of how Democratic Party-aligned corporate media view and position Warren is something I covered in my recent piece “Can the Mainstream Media See Elizabeth Warren Clearly”. This article will expand upon some of the analysis found in that article.
For many regular citizens (not just the mainstream media), when they call Warren progressive, it’s in relation to her work in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which also brought her to national prominence. In a sense, the CFPB acts as a line of demarcation, one which erases all of Warren’s prior history or renders it irrelevant, a sort of Anno Warren, or even a death bed penance and absolution that opens the gates of heaven. What if we were to instead properly balance her prior history with the weighted effects of her advocacy since entering the public eye, more akin to the Egyptian Judgement of Osiris?
Would the benefits of the CFPB outweigh the negative impacts of Warren’s past advocacy?
The answer to such a question starts with looking critically at Warren’s past and considering the ways in which the reasoning behind and constitution of the CFPB represent both a continuation of—and break with—that past.
Warren’s behavior leading up to her Senate run
There are two troubling aspects of Warren’s biography that are well known, and while only one directly connects to her financial advocacy, both are important to any judgement we may make about her character, mindset, and politics. These would be her explanations for claiming to be Native American for 30 years and her past as a Republican. The two issues speak directly to her integrity and credibility. Warren’s claim to be Cherokee played a part in her 2012 Senate run in Massachusetts against Scott Brown. At the time, she was accused of claiming racial minority status in order to access the benefits of Affirmative Action.
1. Let’s deal with the Native American issue
What we know now, and what I suspect was and is absolutely clear to Warren, is that Cherokee culture and history has played zero part in her lived experience. To deflect the accusation that she lied and committed acts of cultural appropriation, Warren made the point that she had simply been told by family all her life that she was Native American. One way she attempted to reinforce the idea that her claiming to be Cherokee for 30 years was an honest mistake, was to give the Boston Globe a copy of Pow Wow Chow. It’s a 1984 cookbook of Native American recipes to which Warren submitted five recipes in the name of her supposed Cherokee ancestry.
Two of the recipes she submitted to Pow Wow Chow, ostensibly from her great grandmother, were crab dishes plagiarized from a chef in the New York Times. Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann, also submitted a recipe, Oriental Beef Stir Fry, which was also dubiously identified as a Cherokee meal. Perhaps this was an innocent mistake. After all, there’s no indication if Warren’s family also told Mann all his life that he was Cherokee.
The cookbook alone is somewhat trivial, but provides some evidence of Warren’s character. Did she ever honestly think she was Cherokee? Did she honestly think she was Cherokee while copying recipes from the New York Times? Did she honestly think she was Cherokee while being trolled by Trump into taking a DNA test to prove her ancestry?
We know that she was still proclaiming pride in her Native ancestry during her 2012 Senate run. The very real possibility that Warren’s non-Native ancestry has always been clear to her makes her decision to take a DNA test and publicly submit the results tactically unfathomable, especially if that move was an attempt to put the story to rest. The deeply cynical ploy led even the Boston Globe to suggest that Warren not run for president (after the paper endorsed the idea in 2016).
2. Let’s deal with the Republican issue
When asked about her Republican past, Warren has said she just wasn’t politically active until her work on bankruptcy. She has said that the work helped make clear to her which party did a better job of looking after the interests of the middle class and the markets, the Democrats. This eventually led to her change in party registration.
The truth may be more complicated. Despite coming from a family of New Deal Democrats, Warren was described by both childhood friends and colleagues from early in her career as very conservative. When Warren says that she wasn’t very political, she tends to point to her positions on cultural issues, like abortion or racial equity policies like busing.
Interestingly, Warren doesn’t seem to see economics as political, particularly as the discipline relates to her past efforts at protecting corporate power. Economics seems only to become an issue of politics and power for her in the present. There may be a reason for this. For much of her history, Warren has been a staunch free market capitalist.
During the 80s and 90s, she was in fact a strong advocate for deregulation, actively making the case for deregulation to conservative legal groups like The Federalist Society and the Manhattan Institute. One of her first academic papers was on the deregulation of utilities and her prescriptions supported automatic rate increases for consumers. If we’re being honest, much of her early work was done in support of the current economic system, a system she is now said to be progressively challenging.
She’s like a pyromaniac, sobered by the destruction she’s left in her wake, who decides to become a firefighter.
Warren is described by a former colleague as, “surprisingly anti-consumer”. This is contrary to her current portrayal (by herself and the corporate media) as a strong consumer advocate. In fact, if we look beyond her academic output and consider her focus as a private-sector professional, much of Warren’s work as a lawyer during the 90s was representing the interests of corporations over consumers. In one of her more publicized cases, Warren helped Dow Chemical shield itself from liability from lawsuits of women suffering from the company’s leaking silicone breast implants.
While some liken Warren’s political change over time to a demonstrative religious conversion, her long-time collaborator, Jay Westbrook, sees a shorter trajectory.
He said: “It drives me crazy when she’s described as a radical left-winger. She moved from being moderately conservative to moderately liberal.”
An argument (unpersuasive, in my estimation) could be made for Warren’s progressive bona fides on the basis of the CFPB being a progressive institution. The problem is, it isn’t. As argued by UK sociologist Frank Furedi, consumer activism, which is what drives to CFPB, is really an alternative to direct political engagement. It’s a form of activism that essentially thrives under conditions of social and political alienation, wherein citizens find a decreased ability to directly effect policy change.
“There is a fundamental difference between the tradition of direct action and the media-driven protest of consumer activism. The aim of direct action was to mobilize people in order to shift the balance of power in society.
Consumer activism is not about people gaining power for themselves. It is about ‘empowering them’ through the benevolent acts of others. It involves small groups of activists who see themselves as acting on people’s behalf. The principal aim of this sort of initiative is not popular mobilisation but the exercise of influence over the media and influential people in the political oligarchy.”
It makes sense that an agency focused on citizens—in relation to capitalism, rather than in relation to their overall needs and desires—is not progressive. The CFPB has offered useful reforms, to be sure, but nothing durable, as evidenced by the massive profits credit card banks continue to make from gouging customers on fees, despite the CFPB’s existence.
Thinking about the nature and goals of the CFPB illuminates the difference between a politician like Sanders and one like Warren. When people say they share the same goals, they are referencing a general desire to address the concentration of wealth and power among the country’s elite and its corporations—and presumably, to challenge monopoly.
However, their respective explanations of the causes of that wealth concentration and their strategies for dealing with it should invite some skepticism of the idea that they have similar goals.
Warren focuses on bad individuals within the system and on making rules that constrain them.
Sanders’ critique is of the capitalist system itself and his interest is in workers amassing the power to fight it.
The difference between these strategies is the difference between, referring back to Furedi, a consumer advocate and someone engaged in direct action: the desire to empower vs the desire to take power.
Despite Warren’s attempt to mimic Sanders’ organizing strategy (as seen in her recent rally), the difference between them remains stark. In 2016, Sanders revolutionized a different approach to donor and voter engagement that eschewed big dollar fundraisers while inviting—nearly exclusively—individual donors. His campaign was largely successful in framing itself as a movement focused on making the needs of ordinary citizens a national priority. This framing was completely dependent on the credibility of Bernie Sanders.
There’s an internet meme from 2016 that seems to be increasingly true: “for every mistake America has made in the last 30 years, there’s a video of Bernie Sanders trying to stop us.” To compare and contrast, 30 years ago Warren was still a Republican pushing deregulation.
Like Sanders, Warren has sworn off expensive gatherings for wealthy donors, citing the malign influence of money in politics. After making this pledge in December, she clarified in February that she didn’t mean for the general. There was reporting in May, that the first quarter of her presidential campaign was dependent on PAC money from her midterm Senate run. In July we learned that her campaign solicited $100k for a DNC database.
Also in May, she criticized Joe Biden for attending a private fundraising event. Yet it was soon revealed that Warren had attended similar events with some of the same donors for her midterm Senate campaign. Using $10.4 million left over from that senate run makes her non-corporate pledge deceptive at least and utterly meaningless at most, and her critique of Biden rather hypocritical. Among her donors were Bain Capital, Verizon, Comcast, Global Petroleum, several healthcare firms, and a number of universities. These are the kinds of donors that invite skepticism about her stated desire to fight large corporations.
Inviting even further skepticism, there are now reports of Warren’s overtures to party insiders, making the case that she’s aligned with their interests. In echoing Sanders, Warren has also made an effort to cobble together something of a grassroots army. While Sanders is organizing a force made up of regular citizens to help push through his agenda once elected, from the reports of her conversations with party insiders, Warren seems more focused on getting elected and then releasing her army like Obama.
The comparison is apt. Warren is increasingly describing her campaign as if it’s a mass movement, despite her base being mostly college grads, overwhelmingly white, and relatively comfortable, hardly the makings of a successful cross-class mass direct action coalition. Much of her policy agenda, like a proposed wealth tax, means taking on powerful interests. That she may intend to battle those powerful interests backed solely by the power of the Democratic Party, which is currently beholden to those interests, invites considerable suspicion around what she actually plans to accomplish. The fact that Obama ran on the public option to expand health care affordability with no intent of fulfilling it remains a cautionary tale.
Frankly, there are too many reasons to be suspicious of Warren’s intent. Not to sound like a paranoiac accusing her of being a Manchurian candidate, but we don’t really know what’s credible in her agenda. What she calls “plans” are, in actuality, just blog posts and white papers. She’s currently addressing a number of issues for which she has no history of advocacy, including maternal mortality and prison reform. Despite her carefully managed reputation as an economic progressive intent on challenging monopoly, for some reason Warren didn’t co-sponsor Sanders bill to direct the Federal Reserve Board to break up financial institutions. She also didn’t join any of his three attempts to raise the estate tax. If her intent to challenge monopoly and wealth inequality were genuine, why didn’t she do that? Or, at the very least, write and promote her own legislation? Her inaction calls into question her progressive commitments.
Considering Warren fully, including her seeming contradictions, places her mission in a specific context. She supported the neoliberal policies and deregulation used in the effort by both parties to deconstruct the remaining pieces of the New Deal. Indeed, she only became a Democrat after the party had adopted those neoliberal policies in Bill Clinton’s first term. The current economic environment, featuring Gilded Age levels of wealth disparity, is the result of policies and frameworks that she advocated for. Additionally, her suggestions for addressing these negative effects start and end with markets. In a sense, she’s offering a sort of trickle-down economic populism as a slight variation on the elite-favoring Reagan-era trickle down economics she promoted earlier in her career.
In all fairness to her political identity, I’ve never heard Warren call herself a progressive. However, I’ve also never heard her challenge that designation when applied to her. The most pessimistic view, or cynical, depending on your perspective, is that her campaign only exists to curtail the promise of Sanders’ agenda. In this reading, she’s a centrist who, through misleading discourse and aesthetics, is masquerading as a progressive.
Here’s where, if we use the “Judgement of Osiris” test I mentioned earlier—weigh her past choices and bring them to bear in our judgement of her character, mindset, and politics—it seems clear that in balance, Warren is not a progressive or, if she is, it’s in a way that requires a very specific modification of what being a progressive means. What does this ambiguity say about her candidacy and the role of her campaign?
It’s also worth asking if it’s politically disqualifying to falsely present yourself as a racial minority (and when called out, simply say, “well that’s what I was told, oops”) when you’re in a party that’s dependent on the votes of racial minorities.
With all of the issues I’ve explored in this piece (and my previous one) and have brought up in this closing section, it should be recognized that she and Sanders are in competition and she is not the other progressive in the race. Despite every assertion otherwise, Elizabeth Warren is no progressive. She’s a standard neoliberal dressed up in progressive rhetoric.
* I would like to thank Aimee Terese of the “What’s Left?” podcast for research that informed this article.
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