I’ve written about Elizabeth Warren’s populism before, though she’s not one of my favorite topics. Also, I try not to quote at length in this space, as I figure people come here to read what I have to say. I can easily link to other people’s work. Yet I sent an entire section of Franklin Foer’s article, What is Wrong With the Democrats?, to a friend. The excerpt from Foer’s essay begins here:
Booker’s opposite number, in some ways, is Elizabeth Warren, the great hope of the populist left. Before there was a resistance to Trump, Warren had prefigured its combative style. In moments designed to spread virally across Facebook, she would ask sharp, angry questions of bankers and regulators. (“Did you have your eyes stitched closed?” she said last year to a former Federal Reserve official who was testifying that nothing in the data had suggested a mortgage meltdown in the run-up to the 2008 crash.) Her latest book is called This Fight Is Our Fight. The book before that: A Fighting Chance.
I first spoke with Warren just after she lucked into another such viral moment. The night before, Mitch McConnell had stopped her from speaking out against Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. In words destined for college-feminist T-shirts, he accused Warren of transgressing a rule intended to preserve the Senate’s bonhomie: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” As I walked with Warren across the Capitol, she seemed almost punch-drunk after a night of fawning press coverage and little sleep. She stepped with the bounce of a lottery winner. A few weeks earlier, she had found herself reamed by anti-Trump forces for voting in committee to confirm Ben Carson to the Cabinet, a vote that was unexpectedly condemned as a concession to tyranny. McConnell had restored her bona fides.
Warren’s social-media moments create the impression that she is radical. But in fact, she didn’t spend her youth protesting, and she never joined a movement. Voter-registration records from the early ’90s list her as a Republican. “I sound like I come from the left” to people on the left, she told me. “I don’t sound that way to a lot of folks on the right, or a lot of people who are just fundamentally apolitical.”
Nor is Warren’s driving obsession wealth redistribution. That’s important politically, because many Americans simply don’t begrudge wealth, and “inequality” as a clarion call hasn’t stuck. (Indeed, Democrats have begun to shift away from inequality as a label for what ails America’s economy and culture. Some fear that white voters who are predisposed to racial resentments hear the word as code for a desire to transfer wealth from whites to blacks.)Rather, Warren is most focused on the concept of fairness. A course she taught early in her career as a law professor, on contracts, got her thinking about the subject. (Fairness, after all, is a contract’s fundamental purpose.) A raw, moralistic conception of fairness—that people shouldn’t get screwed—would become the basis for her crusading. Although she shares Bernie Sanders’s contempt for Wall Street, she doesn’t share his democratic socialism. “I love markets—I believe in markets!” she told me. What drives her to rage is when bankers conspire with government regulators to subvert markets and rig the game. Over the years, she has claimed that it was a romantic view of capitalism that drew her to the Republican Party—and then the party’s infidelity to market principles drove her from it.
Trump managed to exploit populist anger in part because he could go places ideologically that no Democrat would ever travel. As a matter of politics and policy, Democrats will never be the party of economic nationalism. Its voters are, on balance, more globalist than the Republican base. They tend to live in places that have prospered from trade and technology. They typically support immigration. But Warren has begun to outline the possibilities of a new center-left populism—one that gets beyond wealth redistribution alone.
At the core of Warren’s populism is a phobia of concentrated economic power, an anger over how big banks and big businesses exploit Washington to further their own interests at the expense of ordinary people. This fear of gigantism is a storied American tradition, descended from Thomas Jefferson, even if it hasn’t recently gotten much airtime within the Democratic Party. It justifies itself in the language of individualism—rights, liberty, freedom—not communal obligation.
There’s a growing consensus among center-left economists that the dominance of entire industries by a few enormous companies is one of the defining economic problems of the era. The issue has gravitated toward the mainstream of Democratic Party thinking partly due to the work of Barack Obama’s in-house economist, Jason Furman, a protégé of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Furman revolted against the behavior of business leaders who came to call at the White House. Many of them didn’t seem especially committed to capitalism. With their privileged access, they groveled for favors that would further their dominance. “They were like the Chinese,” he told me recently. “They craved certainty. They wanted everything planned.”
Everyone can plainly see the lack of competition in many sectors—the way that there are five big banks, four big airlines, one dominant social-media company, one maker of EpiPens. What’s more, a small set of institutional investors—BlackRock, Fidelity, Vanguard—holds stock in a vast percentage of public companies, so even sectors that look somewhat competitive are less so than they appear. CVS and Walgreens, for instance, have a strikingly similar set of major shareholders. The same is true for Apple and Microsoft.
Furman argues that such business concentration is a leading cause of inequality and wage stagnation. Warren has come to believe in this same idea. As a senator, she can see how the ills of finance—the industry’s concentration, its abuse of political power—have been replicated across the American economy. Last June in Washington, she gave an important speech, naming a long new list of enemies—oligopolistic companies like Comcast and Google and Walmart, which she blamed for sapping the life from the American economy. “When Big Business can shut out competition, entrepreneurs and small businesses are denied their shot at building something new and exciting.” In making a Jeffersonian argument, she has begun to deploy Jeffersonian rhetorical trappings. “As a people, we understood that concentrated power anywhere was a threat to liberty everywhere,” she argued. “Competition in America is essential to liberty in America.”
Warren has not committed to running for president, either publicly or, according to close associates of hers, privately. But if she does run, she will likely seek to channel working-class anger toward behemoth firms, their executives, and the government officials who coddle them. It’s not a terribly complicated case to build, since the headlines are so packed with the rent-seeking exploits of those firms: the continued predations of banks on their own customers; airline overbooking; life-saving allergy injections that cost hundreds of dollars; cable companies exacting ever-higher fees; the exposure of low-level workers to such erratic hours that it becomes impossible to establish a daily routine; a broad indifference to consumers.
The approach exudes a Trumplike hostility to Washington elites, but not necessarily to government. And nearly the entire Democratic agenda can be justified through its prism: Obamacare preserves freedom and loosens corporations’ grip on their employees, by allowing workers to switch jobs without fear of losing health insurance. Criminal-justice reform is an effort to secure liberty and equality from an abusive apparatus of the state.
A turn toward populism will never be enough to win back a state like West Virginia, which is now deep-red. And there are legitimate questions about whether a strident former Harvard professor, no matter her Oklahoma roots, can effectively purvey that message to a sufficiently broad audience. But Warren’s brand of populism could help cool white-working-class hostility toward the Democrats and persuade the likes of Greenberg’s focus-group members to switch allegiance again. Empathy with economic disappointment, and even anger over the status quo, might reduce the sense that Democrats are perpetrators of the status quo. And liberal populism would take the party beyond ineffectual arguments about Trump’s temperament. A populist critique of Trump would point to his fraudulence as an enemy of the system, a fraudulence that perfectly illustrates everything wrong with plutocracy.
The interesting thing here is that any political observer would even try to dress Warren in Jeffersonian garb. Foer’s analysis is worth thinking about. I’ve said that the discordant strains in Warren’s thought are most apparent in her slogan, “The system is rigged.” She blames crony capitalism, financial interests on Wall Street, and the so-called behemoth firms for the rigging, but she notably does not blame behemoth government. In fact, she thinks that if we make government even more powerful, it can bring all the cronies to heel. You never hear her suggest that she and her fellow progressives contribute hugely to the problems she talks about.
Jefferson modestly said, as a central part of his thought, let government get out of the way:
A noiseless course, not meddling in the affairs of others, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretext of taking care of them, they must be happy.
That sentiment, that confidence in ‘a noiseless course,’ is as far from Warren’s way of thinking as you can get. She’s about fighting – fighting this and fighting that – until you wonder who can possibly win when the public’s defenders are spread so thin. Would people cheat me if they thought they could get away with it? I have no doubt some people probably would. We are not talking about punishing cheaters, though. Government already has that as part of its charter. We are talking about a regulatory regime that tries to protect people from any kind of bad thing that might happen to them. That hands government more power than it ought to have, and contributes to the growth of institutions government regulates.
I wish Elizabeth Warren’s populism would extend to this simple disavowal: we don’t want government to protect us. We don’t want it to fight for us. We just want it to leave us alone. It is a necessary evil: the less visible, the less malignant; the more powerful, the more harmful. Therefore make government weak, to make people happy and secure in their property. Make government passive wherever possible, because its activity causes misery. These principles never fail to enlarge liberty for those who make them their own.