The most important thing Democrats must do in 2020 is nominate someone who will defeat Donald Trump, whose administration represents a grave, existential threat to our republic itself.
He’s a uniquely hated person with especially bad approval ratings, and his last opponent – a historically disliked nominee who had been vilified by a literal Vast Right Wing Conspiracy for more than two decades – beat him by three million popular votes. He squeaked by in the Electoral College thanks to a combination of a juiced base and a group of center-right Republicans and Independents who hated Hillary Clinton specifically, or the status quo generally, and were willing to take a gamble on an unknown entity who would “mix things up.” Since then, he’s committed vulgar criminal acts in plain view of the American people – on a daily basis – and has even been impeached for a couple of them. Sure, his base is inflamed and perhaps even more excited than it was in 2016, but I’ve seen no indication that it has grown.
Based on polling and general energy, it seems to me that there are five people currently vying for the Democratic nomination who could beat Donald Trump in November: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, and Amy Klobuchar. They aren’t all equally likely to win, but none deserves to be discounted if we’re just thinking in terms of electability (we shouldn’t be, though. Mike Bloomberg should leave the race now).
One candidate, however, stands above everyone else in her capacity to unite the party and trounce Donald Trump in November. She’s also the candidate whose record suggests she’ll do the best job for progressive causes once in the Oval Office. That candidate is Elizabeth Warren.
Rethinking The Narrative – Institutionalism vs. Anti-Establishmentarianism
According to the predominant narrative of the race, Warren has essentially already lost the “left lane primary” to Bernie Sanders, whose goal now is to prevail over whomever emerges atop the “moderate” wing. Until her epically powerful debate performance on Wednesday, the media had inexplicably written her off despite her strong national numbers and the fact that she’s recently polled within two points in a head-to-head matchup with Sanders among Democrats – with 14% unsure.
The predominant theory was concocted months ago, when many people assumed that Joe Biden would easily conquer the center-left. But Biden never had the energy or organization to hack it in this campaign. He’s got a good sense of his own legacy, so I expect him to be out of the race the week after his inevitable underperformance in South Carolina.
In addition to representing the center-left wing of the party, however, Biden also represents the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. Likewise, Sanders doesn’t just represent left-wing politics — his candidacy is an insurgent rejection of the Democratic Party itself.
The fact that Sanders is currently the frontrunner demonstrates that the “progressive” vs. “moderate” lane theory might not have been very good in the first place. In fact, party regulars appear to be quite fine with Sanders’ policies, hence his status as a frontrunner. It might be more useful to look at the differences between the “institutionalist” candidates and the “anti-establishment” candidates. To be clear, I’m referring to is the establishment of the Democratic Party, not the overall capitalist establishment that bears down on our society.
At this stage in the cycle, the anti-establishment lane is actually quite crowded. Sanders leads, but he is not the only viable candidate whose run is premised on bucking party orthodoxy. Buttigieg’s attempting to leapfrog an entire generation of rank-and-file Democrats and Bloomberg is a former Republican with autocratic tendencies who’s trying to buy his way past the party.
There are only two people in the institutionalist lane, however: Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.
Klobuchar could potentially beat Trump, and I think she’d make a good president. But, despite her great showing in New Hampshire, she doesn’t yet have national support and she’s about to experience major scrutiny as a result of that great showing. Moreover, that showing was predicated on the media narrative that she somehow “did well” in the New Hampshire debate. I watched that debate – she did not do well. Imagining her debating Donald Trump makes me nervous.
Warren, on the other hand, has double-digit support nationally and has already weathered a scrutiny cycle after being the front-runner briefly a few months ago. The fact that she polled so high a few months ago, by the way, is evidence that she’s got a high ceiling of support. And as she showed this week, she is very capable of fighting and articulating her differences with every other candidate. We also saw how good Warren is at reading arrogant billionaires for filth, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Donald Trump simply skips the debates if she’s the nominee.
More importantly, she’s much more acceptable to the Sanders’ faction than Klobuchar would be. Actually, she’s the leading second-choice candidate overall, which suggests that she’d be the best at consolidating the party once nominated.
Later, I’ll explain why I favor Warren’s brand of Radical Institutionalism to Sanders’ version of Anti-Establishment Radicalism. But first, I want to delve into why she’s a great candidate in general.
“I Feel Your Pain”
To some extent, my hopes about Warren’s candidacy are rooted in my faith in her ability to talk one-on-one with people, reckon with them, and figure out what they need.
In an interview conducted by PBS at the end of Bill Ciinton’s administration, Paul Begala said about the president that “his most compelling attribute is that interpersonal empathy. When he is connecting with someone, the whole world melts away.” Warren has the same fantastic capacity for performative empathy.
Take, for example, this excerpt from the Dec. 19 debate at LMU. Judy Woodruff asked the candidates, in the spirit of the holiday season, whether they’d ask for forgiveness or give a gift to the other candidates onstage. It was a terrible question, but Warren still knocked it out of the park. I’ve included Senator Sanders’ response here as well, for contrast.
In terms of substance, Warren and Sanders say basically the same thing. Stylistically, however, Warren demonstrates her ability to connect.
It’s cool to rail about “the billionaire class,” but Warren’s story about a family of three rationing a single insulin prescription is harrowing, visceral, and relatable. It’s apolitical, even though she’s using it for political ends, because it’s so clearly tragic and so objectively unfair.
The “socialist vs. capitalist” debate is reductive; America has always existed somewhere along the spectrum between these two poles. But clearly the words mean a lot to people, even if they don’t understand the underlying concepts or how they work together. Because she excels at performative empathy, Warren is perfectly suited to translate progressive policies to skeptical voters who might otherwise be reticent to support what they think is socialism.
Her performative empathy also perfectly suits her to capture a large block of former Republican voters without having to modulate her positions.
Thanks to the vitriol generated by Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has a much better chance of attracting disaffected Republican voters in 2020 than it does in most years. As a former Republican, Warren is positioned to make the progressive case to these people by telling the story of her own journey and how she went from being “just like” them to holding the views she has today.
In this, she is unique amongst the potential Democratic nominees. Yes, Michael Bloomberg used to be a Republican, but he doesn’t have the ability to connect with people and his mid-career party switch seems from the outside like a conversion of convenience rather than conviction.
To capture Republican votes, any other Democratic nominee will have to pander, most likely by dropping liberal parts of the party platform. Or they can do what Sanders is likely to do, and not even try to capture Republican votes. Warren is the unique candidate whose story enables her to actively pursue Republicans without changing her messaging.
“Nevertheless, She Persisted”
Another really appealing part of Warren’s personal story? She’s a woman!
Look, I know I’ll never truly understand misogyny because I’ve not experienced being a woman. That’s a fair point. But Elizabeth Warren does understand it, and she’s in a great position to relate to other women who also understand it.
Quite a lot has been made of the fact Trump carried the white female vote in 2016 despite his egregious crimes against women and stated desire to roll back women’s rights. But Trump’s inauguration unleashed not only rage, but organizing power from the women who didn’t support him. And that organizing power has been paying electoral dividends – in the 2018 midterm elections, white women voters shifted dramatically away from the Republican Party and helped the Democrats take over a House of Representatives that had been wickedly gerrymandered to prevent that from happening until at least the next census.
I want a candidate who can harness that energy and solidify those gains so they become permanent. Warren’s personal story – which includes familial hardships as well as career decisions made in the shadow of sexism, but nevertheless, she persisted – might play well with the women the Democratic Party is trying to permanently peel away from the Republicans.
Clearly, sexism played a large role in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. But that’s not just because we live in a sexist society, although we do. Clinton also made some tactical errors in how she responded to the sexism she encountered — namely, to try her damnedest to ignore it. Elizabeth Warren does not ignore or mitigate sexism! She takes it head on.
Again, I’m no woman! But a lot of women are heartened by how hard Warren has fought – even women who don’t (yet) support her candidacy, like Sanders’ top surrogate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Warren’s bounce after the most recent debate is indicative of how potent she as a champion for women. The media tried to erase her from the story – Slate published a ridiculously premature and irresponsible obituary last week – and her response wasn’t to sulk away but to hit back harder and with verve.
I think a lot of women understand what it’s like to feel like their ideas and accomplishments aren’t heard. I know some of them are skeptical that a woman can beat Donald Trump, because they know how good he is at galvanizing misogynists. But Warren has what it takes to galvanize women.
And let’s not forget – Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, and even with the white female vote breaking towards Donald Trump, still beat him by three million votes. Elizabeth Warren is much better equipped than Clinton was to take advantage of the largest group of voters in America.
Just as I know I can’t speak for women, I certainly don’t want to speak for non-white, non-hetero, or non-cis people. I do know that Elizabeth Warren has the best rating amongst all the candidates from the Center For Urban and Racial Equality, and that she has a thorough and compelling section on her website focused on securing LGBTQ+ rights and equality.
“Revolution” vs. “Massive Structural Change”
Successful art and political movements are reactions to the successful art and political movements that come before them. As time goes on, the metaphorical pendulum seems to go faster and swing harder in each direction, at least in terms of politics.
Americans don’t kick incumbent parties over subtle differences. New presidents are full-on rebukes of their predecessors, at least when power is given from one party to another. So, Democrats should nominate the person who is most opposite Donald Trump.
On the issues that are animating this race, both Senators Sanders and Warren are about as far from Trump as can be. The theory applies, however, not only to substance but to style: Bill Clinton’s performative empathy highlighted the contrast between him and the stodgy, cold George H.W. Bush; Jimmy Carter’s performative decency was a rebuke to the shadiness of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and their pardoner. And after George W. Bush, we didn’t just go with an anti-war candidate. We nominated and elected a black man whose middle name is the same as the last name of the guy over whom we’d just blown up the Middle East. And Trump, well…
Warren is, quite simply, the most different candidate than Trump in style as well as in substance. Trump is a yelling, red-faced man who speaks simplistically. Warren is a professorial, sprightly woman who gets visibly giddy when discussing the details of her policies. Senator Sanders, in this regard, doesn’t create as much of a contrast with the incumbent.
“Style,” however, doesn’t just refer to how a candidate looks or talks. It’s also about how they intend to accomplish their proposals. Here, too, Senator Warren presents more of a contrast with Trump than Sanders.
Sanders fashions himself as a revolutionary figure who will accomplish massive things via the force of his movement. Warren, on the other hand, advocates not for revolution but for “massive structural change.” That’s a hugely important distinction!
Warren and Sanders approach change differently, which is why I call Sanders an Anti-Establishment Radical and Warren a Radical Institutionalist. Here, it’s instructional to look at 2016 and how the two senators worked to influence the Clinton campaign.
Sanders, as we know, challenged Clinton to win the nomination of a party of which he’d never been a member. That was very bold. According to The Atlantic, he’d almost tried to primary President Obama in 2012. He’s a bomb-thrower, and I do understand why that’s appealing to a lot of people. His 2016 campaign generated a large movement and has had a huge role in shifting the Overton Window leftward within the Democratic Party. But it was also a bruising primary that got unnecessarily vitriolic at times. Clinton’s loss belongs to her, but the primary caused some collateral damage that did play a role in the final result.
Politico had a good story recently on how Elizabeth Warren worked to influence the Clinton campaign, and I appreciate her method more. Basically, Warren spent about a year behind the scenes with the Clinton people. She gave them a list of demands regarding policies and personnel, informing Clinton that she would receive Warren’s endorsement only after she’d proven herself worthy. She extracted a lot from the campaign, and endorsed Clinton. No collateral damage.
It’s because this is how she operates that Warren will be a unifying figure in the general election. She’s stern, but she hasn’t made enemies in her party and she hasn’t thrown bombs. She’ll be able to pull together the party regulars and get the full heft of its apparatus focused towards her election.
Sanders aspires to lead a “revolution,” but Trump has already led one. He’s interrupted the status quo so drastically that – if the Democrats take the Senate as well as the White House – they will not only have a big mess to clean up but also a ton of opportunity to rethink our systems and structures and make them better than they were before.
More revolution also suggests more chaos. Warren projects organizational calm, and voters will reward her for that against Donald Trump.
In addition to having electoral advantages, Warren’s brand of radical institutionalism puts her in the best position of all the candidates to create lasting progressive change as president.
I don’t intend for this essay to be a negative case against Bernie Sanders. I respect him and admire him as perhaps the most principled career politician who ever made it to the US Senate. I know he is the front-runner in the race, and I think he has a good chance to beat Trump – not as good as Warren does, but still good! And while Warren does have more thorough plans, Sanders stands for a lot of very good policy goals.
But the election is not only about that. In addition to what a candidate stands for, we have to evaluate them based on what they will be able do in office. And because she’s a Radical Institutionalist – and not an Anti-Establishment Radical – Warren is better equipped than Sanders to be a good president.
When asked how he’ll make his priorities into laws, Sanders defers to his movement – the revolution will take care of it, he says, because the sheer fact of his hypothetical victory will mean that he has captured the American imagination to such an extent that we’ll all demand that the ruling class bend to his will and the ruling class will comply, of course, because the revolution is so powerful that they’ll have no choice.
I’m not convinced.
First of all — the ruling class doesn’t ever give up power voluntarily, and it doesn’t care what people who aren’t members of it think. Just look at Mitch McConnell. His whole purpose in life is to thwart the transmission of power from white men to others as America’s demographics shift, and he’s been utterly gleeful about allowing himself to become a transparently craven villain to most of America.
He’s just one example. For another, recall the grin that kept flashing on Jeff Sessions’ face back in 2017 when he was being grilled in the Senate Intelligence Committee by Kamala Harris about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Why was he smiling?
Was he stoked because Kamala Harris was reading him for filth on national TV? Nah, probably not.
Was he enjoying having to do a dance around perjuring himself in the service of a president who’d already written him off as a failure and had telegraphed his desire to get rid of him as soon as possible? I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed that.
What Sessions did enjoy, however, was having a job that allowed him to rubber stamp the appointments of young, white supremacist federal judges who will outlast him and protect white power for decades after he’s dead. And he was willing to endure a huge amount of public humiliation in order to hold onto that job for as long as possible.
Today’s craven Republicans know that they don’t need the support of the American people to hold onto – and even increase – their power, and they’ve shown no ounce of embarrassment about thwarting the will of Americans. And they are incredibly good at using institutional means to do that.
A grassroots movement is fantastic – and Warren’s movement is very large, I should add – but I want the next president to be the person who is best equipped to use these same institutional means – not just revolutionary means – to thwart these bad actors.
Warren and Sanders have a lot of policy similarities, but one difference is that Warren is actually bolder when it comes to modifying institutional structures that people like McConnell and Sessions use to get their way. During the September debate, for example, Warren and Sanders were each asked about how they’d get tough legislation through the Senate. Warren said outright that, if the Democrats take over the Senate in 2020, she’ll work to end the filibuster. But Sanders said specifically that he would keep the filibuster.
For “major legislation… that saves the planet,” Sanders said, “you can do it in a variety of ways. You can do that through budget reconciliation law. You [can] have a vice president who will, in fact, tell the Senate what is appropriate and what is not.” That answer is incoherent, and it relies on extremely optimistic assumptions.
Warren’s stance, on the other hand, shows a willingness to usher in meaningful structural change that will reverberate for generations to come.
“Structural” is an important word here, because our next president’s lasting impact will come from her ability to navigate the structures of our government. In some instances, navigating the structures may mean changing them – by ending the filibuster, for example, or by radically reforming the Supreme Court (another issue on which Warren has signaled a more bold stance than Sanders). Even more importantly, though, our next president needs to understand the existing structures and how to work within them to achieve her goals.
Of course legislation is important, but the work of the federal government is actually done by collection of bureaucracies that all must be managed and organized towards achieving the government’s goals. In many cases, these bureaucracies are relatively stable from administration to administration, which is why there’s a so-called “deep state” of professionals who feel more loyalty to their missions and the American people than they do to any particular political party.
The Trump regime has done all it can to dismantle these bureaucracies by turning “deep state” into a pejorative term, denigrating career civil servants to the point that they quit, and then either not replacing them or replacing them with people opposed to their bureaus’ missions. Perhaps the most famous of these instances is the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which Trump spitefully handed over to Mick Mulvaney for the sake of running it into the ground.
The CFPB was targeted because it was an effective new agency creating regulations that were starting to wrestle a modicum of power away from giant companies and towards consumers in the marketplace. Elizabeth Warren was the architect of that bureau, which wasn’t even an idea until she brought it to President Obama and insisted that he prioritize it. And in addition to putting the team together to design it, she was the front person when it came to selling the CFPB to the American people and making it reality.
Trump’s administration has presided over a massive institutional bloodletting, and so many of our bureaucracies have been gutted. Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk did a fantastic job detailing some of that, but it’s from 2017 and things are far worse than they were then. Yet, in the aftermath of Trump’s deregulatory, anti-government smash job, there will be so many opportunities.
Perhaps it’s true that the federal government has been overlarge, and that there agencies with calcified structures that have become inefficient. By purging so many of the old guard and leaving so many jobs vacant, Trump has given the next president the chance to remake the administrative state.
Of course, Bernie Sanders should have a significant role in the Warren administration. But we need a radical institutionalist in the Oval Office to fully seize this moment.
Like Sanders, Warren has organized a grassroots movement and she’ll be able to call on it when she needs its support getting legislation through a hopefully filibuster-free Congress. But she’s also organized a bureaucracy, and how the next administration does that will likely have more long-term impact on more Americans than any legislation.
I hope you’ll join me in voting for Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination for president this year.