“If the current polls are reliable, Nixon will be re-elected by a huge majority of Americans who feel he is not only more honest and more trustworthy than George McGovern, but also more likely to end the war in Vietnam. The polls also indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote, and that he might carry all fifty states. This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it— that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes, understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose... Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” —Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail ‘72
Let’s begin bluntly. Over the past three years, the Democratic Party has avoided like hell any discussion about its philosophical future.
The biggest evidence of this is the non-stop discussion of the “Russia meddling” scandal among Democratic establishment figures and mainstream media very friendly to the Democratic establishment. This, despite the fact that former DNI chief James Clapper, former CIA director Michael Morrell, Representative Maxine Waters, and Senator Dianne Feinstein have all publicly stated that there has been no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and a Washington Post report concluding that Russian meddling made “little difference”, if any, in the outcome of the election. And yet the frenzied claptrap surrounding the investigation of President Trump’s “Russia ties” continues to convince Democrats that Robert Mueller— Stoic G-Man of Justice, Truth, and the American Way— is going to uncover a “smoking gun” that will persuade senate Republicans to pass articles of impeachment against all party interest.
This retreat into paranoia and fantasy has purposely been indulged in, all to avoid facing a very important question the Democrats should have asked after the defeat in 2016: What is the Democratic Party? Is it progressive or centrist? Is it the party of Main Street or Wall Street? Is it New Deal or Third Way? For the past three years, the Democratic establishment has done everything it can to avoid answering with anything more substantial than “We’re the party against Trump.” Because to attempt an answer with more meat on its bones would mean admitting to the existence of a party civil war.
In a Nation piece titled Russiagate Is More Fiction Than Fact, journalist and former Democracy Now host Aaron Maté zeros in on the convenience of the “Russia scandal” to a broken party, when he writes:
“Some who focus on Russiagate may be acting from the real fear and disorientation that follows from the victory of the most unqualified and unpredictable president in history. But those who partake, particularly those in positions of privilege, should consider that Russiagate offers them a safe and anodyne way to ‘resist’. For privileged Americans to challenge Trump mainly over Russia is to do so in a way that avoids confronting their own relationship to the economic and political system that many of his voters rebelled against… Economic discontent— along with voter suppression, the Democratic Party’s failures to reach voters, and corporate media that gave endless attention to Trump’s empty promises and racial animus— are among the issues cast aside by the incessant focus on Russiagate.”
Here, Maté states a truth Democratic leadership and mainstream media already know, but unfortunately don’t care about: That nobody— nobody— making under $30,000 a year in this country gives a rat’s ass about “Russiagate”. That no single mom needing welfare while working full time, or blue collar worker unable to pay his medical bills, is tuning in to hear the latest about the Mueller investigation. It’s not happening. Instead, the question middle and lower income voters will ask in this upcoming election is the same question they have asked in every election: “Which party, and which candidate, is going to do the most for us economically?”
The progressive author and intellectual Chris Hedges recently echoed this point in a recent CBC interview, when he observed:
“This gets to the heart of the issue of the failure of elites to address the social inequality that is deforming and destroying the country, and that created Trump. Russia had nothing to do with it, and neither did Comey, or the Podesta emails. It had to do with a rapacious greedy myopic elite that embraced an ideology that was ridiculous from its start, neoliberalism… in order to enrich themselves and their class.”
In the absence of a “smoking gun”, then, that they could desperately cling to and babble on about in 2020, establishment Democrats will no doubt try some other way to avoid answering the economic question (as it would entail having to discuss the philosophical future of the party more broadly). But they may be thwarted in their effort by candidates in the progressive-populist wing; candidates unwilling to allow their party to continue engaging in fantasy to avoid having to hash out a comprehensive plan for America’s working class. Which brings me to next year’s Democratic presidential primary.
If there’s one thing the Democratic establishment loves, it’s not a politician, but a modeltician. The difference being that while a politician traditionally had concrete philosophies and policy positions they held or at least pretended to hold, the modeltician— either young, or at least a new face from the usual suspects— regurgitates cultural moods, spouts bromides, and has a general air of passion and warmth about them, but in truth is a completely ambiguous figure. A bright shining abyss. The party elite, by offering the modeltician to the masses, is saying to us: “Here is the new boy or girl wonder. The one foretold. The messiah. A pretty face with some feel-good slogans, shareable soundbites, and an inspiring origin story; now project all of your vague political sentiments onto him or her and don’t ask about specifics.” The modeltician is one of the very few ways, then, that populism can actually be used to work against the populace and for the ruling powers. Hence, when you go from being the party of the working class to being the party of the hip urban professional class, the firebrand— the raging prophet in the wilderness— has no place. Democratic primaries function only as Democratic runways.
In this race, there are plenty of modelticians to choose from: Kamala Harris, who traveled to the Hamptons to raise funds from major corporate donors before announcing her bid, and who refused— as California attorney general— to prosecute the head of OneBank in the wake of its violation of state foreclosure laws; Corey Booker, who joined 12 other senate Democrats in 2017 in killing a budget amendment that would have allowed importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada (an action which may be explained by the fact that he received $267,300 from pharmaceutical companies); Kirsten Gillibrand, who phoned Wall Street executives personally to ask if they would support her financially through the race if she were to run; and finally Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota who still hasn’t managed to remove the glue attaching her tongue to the floor of her mouth, is also “rnng fr d’ prsdncy”. Her decision to announce her candidacy in the middle of a blizzard has been held up as proof of her being “a woman with grit” rather than proof of her being a woman with toluene poisoning. But aside from the senator’s lack of a weather app, a more troubling fact is that Elmers has taken more PAC money than all the other aforementioned candidates.
But unlike in 2016, where only one progressive choice mounted a serious challenge to the party establishment, this upcoming primary will also see plenty of leftwing mavericks. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran who supports a non-interventionist foreign policy; Andrew Yang, the Venture for America entrepreneur running on a platform of universal basic income; and Bernie Sanders, 2016’s one progressive, who ignited a movement of young people across the country around the issues of free college, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and Medicare For All. Yet if you want a real reformer who is also the most likely among the progressive bunch to become president, I would argue to look no further than Elizabeth Warren.
I first became aware of Mrs. Warren during her first senate run in 2012. I had been following the Massachusetts race despite never having been to Massachusetts, primarily because of my extreme irritation at the election of Republican Scott Brown two years prior, who won on the simple— and stupid— motto: “I’m Scott Brown… and I drive a truck!” Even in an anti-Washington, “down home”-themed midterm like 2010 was, I couldn’t fathom that such a shallow, idiotic, meaningless yeehaw-slogan managed to convince enough voters that he was the man for the job (in hindsight, what an innocent time!) But as my interest in the Massachusetts race progressed, it became less about hoping Brown would lose and more about hoping Warren would win. Politically I fell in love so to speak, and have been a supporter of hers ever since.
A few reasons why…
Warren’s academic background studying— and then teaching— bankruptcy law, while advocating for tough corporate and banking regulations, means she not only has the desire to take on Wall Street, she knows how. And not only does she know how to take on Wall Street, she’s done it. Her spearheading the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau saved Americans $12 billion by cracking down on phony bank accounts, predatory lending, for-profit colleges, and bad mortgage practices. But even before her entry into politics, Warren has displayed a passion for helping middle class families and fixing our economic system, writing books like As We Forgive Our Debtors (1989), The Fragile Middle Class (2001), The Two-Income Trap (2004), and All Your Worth (2006), as well as appearing in the documentary Maxed Out (2006) and giving a warning about “the coming collapse of the middle class” at Berkeley in 2008 just months before the financial crisis.
She’s also brilliant on foreign policy when she suggests that the biggest problem with our defense is the defense budget itself. On Warren’s campaign website platform, the foreign policy tab states that “Washington’s foreign policy today serves the wealthy and the well-connected” and that defense corporations have put our military policy in a “stranglehold”. As a five-year Army veteran and three-year defense contractor, I agree. Soldiers and private low-level operations personnel around the world see very little of the money that goes into the blackhole of “defense”, while administrators and bureaucrats— public and private— get filthy rich. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve seen subpar (and expired) medical and protective gear, bad ammunition, shrinking salaries, unpaid bonuses, and diminished benefits. I’ve also seen hiring standards for contractors lowered to the point where non-veterans and general discharge vets with criminal records make it to conflict areas they’re ill-suited for, and I’m frequently told by NCO and officer friends that today’s incoming batch of new-enlistees “are garbage” due to lowered military recruiting standards. All because bloated federal funding is hoarded by glorified pencil-pushers and champagne connoisseurs at the top of the defense pyramid. Truthfully, I think a Warren administration could go even further than current campaign promises, and slash 25% of the defense budget and still maintain capability of keeping Americans safe at home and abroad. There’s that much waste, folks. It could even be argued that an overfunded Department of Defense and Department of State incentivizes conflict more than diplomacy and international cooperation, and thereby makes us less safe, not more. This being said, the senator is off to a great start recognizing the problem, and I believe she will be pushed further by her base solution-wise in the coming months.
Comrades and friends express their discomfort that Senator Warren is not a socialist. And to be sure, she doesn’t call herself one. But an examination of her financial and economic goals and the financial and economic goals of Bernie Sanders show that they are nearly identical, and her politics anywhere else in the industrialized world would be rightfully recognized as social democratic (which is what Bernie Sanders, it must be said, confuses for “Democratic Socialism” when he claims that label for himself). And so, I say to my comrades and friends, that we all want revolution, yes— not incrementalism— but revolutions take on many forms. Very few of us, for instance, conceived of any kind of violent overthrow of the top 0.01% when we said we wanted revolution. Too few Americans would have the stomach for setting the Hamptons ablaze. What most of us conceive of, then, when we voice a desire for revolution is a revolution in policy: a Green New Deal, single-payer healthcare, free university, and at least a 70% income tax for the super-wealthy. And I think Warren will deliver on that, I really do, despite her shyness in taking on a socialist label. She’s already announced a plan for universal child care, which none of the other candidates have done.
All of this is to say— at the risk which comes with the territory of tethering the credibility of one’s political instincts to the integrity of a politician— that I trust Elizabeth Warren.
Watch the Wells Fargo CEO squirm in his seat while she looks him dead-in-the-eye and says “You should be fired”, and tell me you don’t trust her as well.
Watch her grill the CEO of Equifax over his profiting from a data breach, and tell me she isn’t a woman of the people.
Watch her take on Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education), Jerome Powell (Chair of the Federal Reserve), and Alex Azar (Secretary of Health & Human Services) at their respective appointment hearings over their lobbying pasts, conflicts of interest, and lack of experience, and tell me she wouldn’t do a damn fine job as the leader of this country.
You know better.
Yet this endorsement would not be complete if I did not address the Native American heritage controversy that— pardon the pun— has given everyone reservations. All of us have family lore passed down from generation-to-generation that’s either half-true or not true at all. Some of us hear this lore at grandmother’s lap and then go on to forget it; others internalize the lore and see it as an integral part of who they are. Elizabeth Warren did the latter.
For this, President Trump has mocked her over and over again on national television with the nickname “Pocahontas”, claiming that her “dishonesty” in this matter should disqualify her from running against him. But when it comes to honesty and integrity, forget glass houses… Trump and his supporters are throwing stones from a glass fucking castle. Warren may have unintentionally overstated her Native American heritage, but the sitting president has quite intentionally attempted to bribe and then threaten a porn star with whom he had an affair while being married to Melania (aka Wife #3) for only a year; cheated building, sanitation, and design contractors out of money on more than sixty different occasions; founded a fake university that swindled “students” out of tuition that ranged from $10,000 to $35,000; bought a golf course and then claimed a Civil War battle took place there that he completely made up; and on and on and on I could go.
But this goes beyond the narcissism and lack of self-awareness of the orange clown currently taking up space in the Oval Office. Here we catch a glimpse of how female politicians are held to higher standards than their male counterparts. George Bush can lie about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Bill Clinton can lie about a blowjob, George Bush Sr. can lie about “no new taxes”, and Ronald Reagan can lie about Iran-Contra. But Elizabeth Warren can’t be wrong about family heritage.
It was, of course, a bit silly for Warren to think that Native American heritage would even matter in an election that would center primarily around economics and populist anger, and even sillier of her to take a DNA test to prove it. But that’s not really the point of this non-scandal, is it? The point is to distract and distort. To cast doubt on the fact that a former law and economics lecturer responsible for the founding of a consumer watchdog agency would be a better fit for the presidency than a sleazy reality TV star running a gangster government.
“I am not a person of color,” Warren said in a speech in Iowa, “I’m not a citizen of a tribe. Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry. Tribes and only tribes determine tribal citizenship and I respect that difference. I grew up in Oklahoma and like a lot of folks in Oklahoma, we heard the family stories of our ancestry. When I first ran for public office, the first time was in 2012 and the Republicans homed in on this part of my history and thought they could make a lot of hay out of it, a lot of racial slurs and a lot of ugly stuff that went on. And so my decision was, we’re just going to put it all out there.”
Anyone— especially any Democrat— who looks at this hiccup and thinks “Her campaign should be over for this” needs to open up an eight-story window and jump.
I end my short letter of support feeling obligated to answer the inevitable questions from those still unsure that Elizabeth Warren is the best progressive candidate of 2020: Why not Tulsi Gabbard? Why not Andrew Yang? Why not Bernie Sanders?
But before tackling problems I have with each candidate individually, I’d like to point out a minor issue I have with all three as a collective: their unwillingness to get blood on their teeth. I hated when Michelle Obama dispensed the advice three years ago regarding political opponents that “When they go low, you go high” and loved when then-Attorney General Eric Holder rebutted “No, when they go low, you kick ‘em!” Politics is not tea time, and primaries are about showing how you are different not only from the opposing party’s nominee, but are different from your own party’s other contenders. This will involve going on the offensive, and if you’re unwilling to do so, voters are justified in doubting your strength. It’s not enough to simply have the best policies, you have to be a bulldog about why your policies are the best, and you have to be willing to expose how rivals are either liars, cowards, copycats, dimwits, or simply unable to follow through. Otherwise why have a primary at all if everyone stops at “having great respect for one another”? (As a related aside, this is why I can’t stand it when politicians and commentators decry “the politics of division” and urge those prominent in national discourse not to “generate more heat than light”. Politics by its very nature is division, and where do the Gandhis-of-mediocrity think light comes from? If we cannot have refuge from attempts at bipartisanship and “united parties” at least give us refuge from bad clichés).
Democrats’ insistence on keeping primary campaigns “positive” reminds me of what Matt Christman said once on a Chapo Trap House episode last December:
“They have this weird sense that no one should be criticized— no candidate should be criticized, at all— you sort of just have to let all of these campaigns wash over your totally smooth marble-like brain, and then, I dunno, pick one out of a hat, or pick whoever calls your house the most… There’s no sense that you’re supposed to come to this decision based on actual political beliefs or policy red lines. They don’t think of it that way. It’s just an extended marketing campaign, and they bring out the new hot product.”
In short, another term for “negative campaigning” is campaigning. Presidential candidates without blood on their teeth will never be president, and I don’t feel like any of the progressive candidates in the Democratic field outside of Warren have the chops to rip anyone to shreds (as will be required in a race filled with “moderates” who are backed by private interests).
As for my specific objections to each of the other progressive candidates running in the primary, they are briefly as follows:
Tulsi Gabbard does not have a lot of name recognition, and though progressive, does not have as big a reputation in progressive circles as Warren or Sanders. I wish I could say her military service would give her enough standing to beat Donald Trump in an election, but that just isn’t so. Trump had no problem insulting John McCain for being a prisoner of war, and his supporters had no problem still voting for him. And it’s not as if the Republican machine hasn’t had experience in the past of denigrating the military service of opposition candidates, as evidenced by the “swiftboating” of John Kerry during the 2004 election. It’s unfortunate, but military service just doesn’t carry you a long way in a presidential race. As a matter of personal opinion, Gabbard’s insistence on allowing Bashar al-Assad to maintain rule in Syria, rather than support the Kurdish freedom fighters and the creation of a long-overdue independent Kurdish state, bothers me a great deal. But this objection of mine toward Gabbard pales in comparison, still, to my resolute opposition to the corporate modelticians running alongside her. At the end of the day, I don’t think she would make a bad vice presidential pick for Warren.
Andrew Yang knows he will not be president. Yang’s bid has never been about becoming president. Yang’s campaign is about promoting awareness. Awareness of the danger job automation poses to the economy, and awareness about a possible solution to that danger— universal basic income. His campaign is bold and forward-thinking, but progressives should not give Mr. Yang anything more than an admiring pat on the back. We certainly shouldn’t give him a valuable primary vote assuming he even makes it on the ballot. While I fully believe that Andrew Yang could be the politician of the future, he is simply not the politician of today.
Bernie Sanders woke me up when it came to political philosophy. Before him, I had no idea what the difference was between neoliberalism and progressivism, nor had I ever heard of any such thing as “Democratic Socialism”. Until his candidacy in 2016, I was aware only subconsciously of a distant, alien, “plastic” essence to rising Democratic stars at the state and national level (and to the stiff-grinning groupies who surrounded them) that bothered me in a way I couldn’t articulate. I often ask what kind of liberal I would be today had Bernie decided not to run that last primary, and a cold shudder runs up my spine when I picture myself in an alternate timeline turning to Ezra Klein or Jonathan Chait for “smart political analysis” instead of Bhaskar Sunkara or Thomas Frank. Unfortunately, this time around, Sanders’ campaign has been torpedoed before it’s even begun. The MeToo movement was weaponized against him by media talking heads and by op-ed writers in national newspapers who chided the Vermont senator for not personally chaperoning every single individual on his campaign in every state to make sure they weren’t committing harassment. Though I think this absurd expectation— and the holier-than-thou “Well I never!” coverage it generated— has unfairly ruined his chances for the presidency, I still love Bernie Sanders. He is an extremely powerful voice for a burgeoning socialist revival in the United States, and— like Tulsi Gabbard— I do not think he would be a bad choice as Warren’s vice presidential pick. In fact, he’s probably the best choice. A Warren/Sanders ticket would unite the progressive base and generate a level of excitement that simply couldn’t be matched by any of the centrist candidates. But a Sanders vice presidency is a separate article altogether.
Bottom line is that Elizabeth Warren’s got the economic ambition of both Roosevelts, the foreign policy caution of Eisenhower, the idealism of Kennedy, and the backbone of LBJ. To veer into British territory, she is the American left’s Iron Lady. She is not only the economic fairness candidate, she is the anti-corruption candidate, the change-the-way-the-United-States-does-business-around-the-world candidate.
UPDATE 8/30/2019: One of my ambitions as a writer is to develop the willingness to own up to my mistakes. After nearly six months of supporting Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the presidency, it’s become increasingly clear that I have made a few. The first can be found in line 5, paragraph 16 when I state “[Warren’s] politics anywhere else in the industrialized world would be rightfully recognized as social democratic.” In a July 2018 interview with the New England Council businesses association (that I somehow missed), when asked whether she identified as a socialist like Sanders, Warren was quick to distance herself saying she was “a capitalist to her bones”. Clearly then, I was wrong, as the social democratic policies of other countries are certainly not capitalist to their bones. My second mistake can be found in lines 7 and 14 of paragraph 16, where I say “We all want revolution, yes— not incrementalism— but revolutions take on many forms… And I think Warren will deliver, I really do…” A recent New York Times story on Warren claims that in a meeting with party establishment figures, she signaled her readiness to be a “team player” when it comes to unifying the party around policy. A team player— while not a corporatist and not a traitor— is also not a revolutionary. It’s incrementalist.
I also have to admit that I have been disheartened by who Warren’s base have shaped up to be. While no candidate can have total control over who their supporters are, I can’t overlook the fact that while a majority of Sanders supporters tend to be working class and people of color, most of Warren’s supporters are white college graduates and urban professionals. You simply can’t have a robust blue collar populist movement without workers and minorities. After careful consideration, I have decided that while Elizabeth Warren is still a very important voice in the Democratic Party, and while I still admire her quite a bit, she is unfortunately not revolutionary enough for the highest office in the land. As of today I am shifting my support to Bernie Sanders, where it should have been all along. Though my criticism still stands that he should get tougher with his opponents on the debate stage and not be afraid to be aggressive, I’m glad to see my fear that the harassment controversies would doom his campaign was needless. His campaign is not only enduring, it is thriving.
I am choosing to leave this article up because, rereading it, I feel like I’ve written some decent observations about the Democratic Party and how it operates, but I wanted to attach this at the end so readers would know of my change of mind. It’s “Bernie or Bust” and it really always has been.