Framing the Democratic Party’s presidential contest are two popular candidates, Bernie Sanders on the progressive-left and Joe Biden on the center-right. In between sit candidates who seek support from both left and right, attempting to successfully bridge the current divide. One of these straddlers – Elizabeth Warren — is rising fast and now appears to be emerging as the candidate to beat for the nomination.
Warren is complex, everything about her is connected to everything else. The specific facts about her life and politics can best be understood in relation to the general facts. A close examination of her political history and her evolving policy positions is therefore highly relevant.
In her official campaign literature, Elizabeth Warren states that she is the daughter of a janitor, growing up “on the ragged edge of the middle class in Oklahoma.” Warren shuns using the term “class” except when combined with the term “middle.”
Warren moved away from Oklahoma at 19 years old and has never resided there again. She finds it politically useful to stress her origins in this heartland state, but conveniently leaves out more relevant facts. One such fact is that she was a hardline conservative for a majority of her life, and a Republican Party member until she was 47 years old. She has stated that she used to believe that working class people who filed for bankruptcy were “cheaters,” not understanding that the key fact was that they were poorly paid by the owners of capital. She was a professor in Texas and Pennsylvania where being a Republican was suitable, but when she was hired at the liberal Harvard University, she suddenly became a Democrat. She explained the switch by stating that “I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets.” In July 2018 she stated to the New England Council, a regional business lobbying organization, that she is “a capitalist to my bones.”
While such statements help establish her bonafides among the centrist sector of the Democratic Party, they are contradictory to and raise serious questions about the sincerity of her newly found progressive-left policy positions. Also worth noting is that when Donald Trump announced that “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country’’ in his State of the Union address February 5, 2019, Elizabeth Warren joined the Republicans in giving the president a standing ovation. More recently, Warren contrasted herself to Bernie Sanders, stating that “he’s a socialist and I believe in markets,” later adding that “I love markets.” In fact, Warren’s entire career can be viewed as a long and largely hopeless project to try and make capitalist markets work for rank and file people, failing to understand that capitalism works well mainly for the wealthy. The result of markets in command has been, as Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of Bolivia, recently stated at the U.N., such grotesque and immoral inequality that 26 very rich people now have the same wealth as 3.8 billion poor people in the world. Similarly, a recent study of the U.S. showed that the 400 wealthiest people controlled more wealth than 80 million American families (62% of America) and paid a smaller percentage of taxes than any other group in society, while everything (including our very lives) is commercialized to endlessly accumulate more capital for those already rich.
Capitalism is not only responsible for this inequality and poverty, but also for the existential threat posed by the current climate crisis. This is because capitalism is a system of infinite growth operating on a finite planet. As numerous climate scientists have repeatedly pointed out, if there is no transition to a different and more sustainable system, humanity itself will be at risk in a relatively few years. In short, the planet as a place of human habitation is being destroyed for the immediate enrichment of the very few. The gradual approach of recent decades has obviously fallen short, making radical options necessary. The climate crisis represents the ultimate market failure and decisive government action is required to save numerous different species as well as humanity itself. To avoid the looming catastrophe, the cuts in carbon emissions necessary for survival require a head on confrontation with the capitalists and their growth system, something that the capitalist supporting Elizabeth Warren shows no sign of having much interest in doing. Connected to this is Warren’s acceptance of what she considers political reality, only wanting to push top decision-makers to regulate capitalism, reform markets to make them somewhat fairer, not to energize citizens to become part of a revolutionary political movement to replace both markets and capitalism.
Warren Claims to be a Native American
Another subject worth exploring in terms of Warren’s history is her attempt to claim Native American ancestry during the 1980s and 1990s. During that era, as today, there are potential benefits from affirmative action if one successfully claims to be a “person of color.” The legitimate reason behind affirmative action is an attempt to compensate, in at least some limited way, for the historical suffering imposed on groups that were oppressed through discrimination in the past, which has often continued into the present.
Ample evidence exists that Warren, without justification, tried to play the identity politics card and capitalize on the immense suffering endured by indigenous peoples in this country, summed up as attempted genocide, as well as the massive land theft by the settler colonialist system brought into the U.S. from Europe. On official documents, such as her State Bar of Texas registration card dated April 18, 1986, Warren listed her race as “Native American.” While working at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s and early 1990s she also claimed that she was a Native American. During the same period, she registered herself as a minority with the Association of American Law Schools, and identified herself as a Cherokee Indian in a cook book called Pow Wow Chow that she contributed to. When she went to Harvard as a tenured law professor, Mike Chmura, the law school’s news director, repeatedly touted Warren as the “first woman of color,” specifically a Native American, given tenure at his institution.
Actual Native American people have the culture and tribal affiliation which makes them authentic. Such a status does not depend upon the “proof” of a DNA test. In any case, DNA test results for Warren showed that any Native American DNA in her genes was 6 to 10 generations removed, meaning there was perhaps one ancestor in her racial background hundreds of years ago. Warren’s misguided attempt to “prove” her Native American heritage angered many Native people and gave Donald Trump another talking point against her. In short, Elizabeth Warren is a fully European-American person and, by claiming to be a person of color, took away the chance for an actual oppressed minority person to be appointed to the top positions that she filled as professor at several law schools.
Early 2019: Warren’s Duel Declarations as a Presidential Candidate
Warren’s kickoff as a presidential candidate had two contradictory aspects, both of them emblematic. They took place at virtually the same time. One was an event with a populist focus, the other was a magazine article with a plutocratic focus.
Warren established her exploratory committee on December 31, 2018. The official kickoff event of the campaign was on February 9, 2019, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Warren spoke to the crowd and media at the site of Everett Mills. This is where in 1912 the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) union led a mainly immigrant and female working class in the bitter but successful “Bread and Roses” strike. The strike was against the textile mill owning capitalists and the system they controlled (violent police, unfair courts, bought off politicians). At the kickoff, Warren took a populist stance, talking about the “middle class” being squeezed by an unfair system, but using the term “working people” not working class, and “rich guys” instead of the plutocratic capitalist class.
Unnoticed by the media was the fact that at the same time, January-February, 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations’ house journal Foreign Affairs featured an article by Senator Warren entitled “A Foreign Policy for All,” (together with a photo of the candidate). Numerous other past presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, were selected by the Council to place an article in Foreign Affairs at an early stage of their run for the presidency. Connecting to the Council can bring favorable treatment from the media, as well as contributions and endorsements from political and economically influential people. Warren’s willingness to write an article for the Council’s magazine can be read as a signal that she is available and would work to promote the CFR agenda if elected president. Warren undoubtedly knows the value of having her name associated with the world’s most powerful and influential private organization, “Wall Street’s Think Tank.” The Council is the ultimate networking, socializing, strategic planning, and consensus-forming institution of the dominant U.S. plutocratic billionaire class, the think tank of monopoly-finance capital. Its connections extend deeply into key capitalist class families, top corporations, leading media, elite universities, powerful non-profits, foundations, other think tanks and international organizations, as well as international policy planning and agenda setting groups like the Bilderberg group, Trilateral Commission, and the Davos crowd. The CFR’s membership is 5000-plus and the hardcopy readership of Foreign Affairs is currently 329,000, with another 340,000 E-newsletter subscribers and over two million monthly page views. Calling itself the “voice of authority,” Foreign Affairs magazine states that it “…offers engagement with the people whose decisions sway markets, define industries and direct the course of nations – the segment of the population known as the Influential Elite.”
As this is written in October, 2019, Warren is the only 2020 presidential candidate of either party who has been allowed to present their policy ideas to the very influential Foreign Affairs audience. How and why Warren received this benefit from what is the world’s most powerful private organization is unclear, but at minimum, they must see her as a kind of ally, especially in the struggle against the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.
What Warren wrote in her article was a mix of populist-sounding phrases about the outsized power of “wealthy elites” (no use of the word class except in “middle class”) and assurances that “progress” will not adversely affect the interests of the capitalist class: “none of this requires sacrificing the interests of American businesses … shareholders and corporate executives will profit as well.” Although lamenting the gigantic military budget “too large too long” she neglects to mention the numerous times she voted for this extreme militarism, as late as the 2017 military budget for example, which actually exceeded President Trump’s requested amount. With this and other votes Warren signals that she clearly wants the U.S. to continue to be the world’s hegemonic power.
In her Foreign Affairs article, Warren also resorts to vague generalities like the wealthy should pay their “fair share” of taxes, without specifically saying what that would be. She uses the term “Foreign Policy Starts at Home” as the heading for one of her sections, this is almost exactly the same phrase that CFR president Richard Haass used for his 2013 book Foreign Policy Begins at Home.
One effect of Warren’s CFR connection is her profile was raised among key media people, resulting in positive media coverage of her campaign, helping her breakout from the large pack of Democratic Party presidential candidates. Do to the large number of types of media and media outlets, it is difficult to adequately document the favorable media coverage that Warren has received. But detailed reviews of Warren’s policy proposals (but not Bernie Sanders proposals) as well as emotionally-connected pictures in people’s heads adding up to positive feelings for Warren are being regularly transmitted by the U.S. mainstream media.
Warren Develops a Full Set of Policy Positions
The mainstream media is sometimes confused by Warren’s contradictory stances. On the one hand one of the Financial Times’ top analysts (Tom Braithwaite) stated that Warren “offers to reform capitalism rather than overthrow it. This is not the worst outcome” and that therefore “corporate fear goes too far” (October 5/6, 2019). On the other hand, The Financial Times also expressed the common view that Warren’s “campaign platform is similar” to Bernie Sanders’ (October 3, 2019). This is the superficial view, once closely examined, the key differences between her and Sanders’ policies are clear.
As her campaign developed during the spring and summer of 2019, Warren stated that the “core” of her campaign was focused on corruption. She also laid out a full set of often progressive policy positions, all of them more conservative than the policies argued for by Bernie Sanders. Warren’s aim seems obvious: to take away as many of Sanders’ supporters as possible, while still retaining many key establishment backers who understand that this is what she has to do to gain the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. In short, Warren is positioning herself to be the second most progressive candidate in the race, one that is still strongly pro-capitalist and therefore more acceptable to the more middle-of-the-road and establishment elements of the Democratic Party. This is most clearly seen in her Green New Deal, health care, and student debt proposals.
Warren’s Version of a Green New Deal
There are many Green New Deal (GND) plans, each presidential candidate has a variation on what a GND should include, how much it should cost, and where the money would come from.
The proper goal of a GND is to adequately respond to the scientific consensus about what needs to be done to reverse the existential threat of climate chaos. Since Warren’s favorite approach — the market — has failed, this means that a large scale government program, like that during the Great Depression and World War II period, needs to put in place. This would subordinate private capital accumulation to the public good. Such a holistic vision of the next economy would involve a planned program of green infrastructure, agro-ecological agriculture and just transition investment, which would guarantee jobs and income to people laid off from fossil fuel intensive jobs. If large enough, it could be a giant step in the right direction, towards saving a habitable planet and moving toward a truly democratic and inclusionary society, based on class solidarity, full employment and the empowerment of the multicultural working class. An adequate GND also involves an international dimension, serious funding for poorer nations to allow them to skip over the fossil fuel stage directly to a renewable energy economy.
All this requires overcoming the hegemony of the capitalist market which favors the wealthy, leading to 100% clean energy and serving the needs of the vast majority of the people. This is one source of its power as an idea: it might be able to mobilize a large scale movement behind it. Such a movement of masses of people in action will be necessary to save a habitable planet whoever is elected president in 2020. During the crucial past several decades the capitalist market with its cap and trade and carbon tax proposals has failed to even slow down climate change. Now the best science states we have only a little over a decade to radically change business as usual and get off the path we are on leading towards inconceivable planetary, national and individual disasters.
Although stating that climate change means “our very existence is at stake,” Warren at first proposed only a medium-scale GND, which would spend $3 trillion dollars over ten years, with the usual promises of renewable energy, jobs and economic development especially for poor communities, but no international aspect. This initial plan was followed up on later, Warren adding another $1 trillion, after Bernie Sanders came out with his comprehensive $16.3 trillion GND plan. Hers is the second largest among the Democratic presidential candidates, but is only one fourth the size of Sanders’ plan. It is clearly inadequate to begin to deal to the revolutionary task at hand. Not doing enough on this issue–preserving a livable space on planet earth–has unimaginable costs for our human future.
Warren’s GND plan also suffers from a shocking misplacement of emphasis. It includes a section on “Our Military Can Help Lead the Fight Against Climate Change.” Ignoring the fact that the U.S. military is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, Warren states that climate change is “undermining our military readiness” making it more difficult for the U.S. armed forces to “perform their mission.” Warren, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants to “harden the military against the threat posed by climate change.” This is because some military bases might be impacted by hurricanes, floods or other climate-change-related events. Warren fails to recognize that the traditional “mission” of the U.S. military – most accurately characterized as attempts to dominate other nations and peoples through invasions, perpetual wars, and assassinations by Special Forces and drones, all of which greatly increase environmental destruction and greenhouse gas pollution — must be scrapped. So instead of calling for serious cuts in the bloated military budget and a transformation of the “mission” to one of promoting peace, Warren wants to make the U.S. military better able to impose U.S. imperialist hegemony, colonial type domination of territory, people and strategic resources worldwide. Therefore, Warren also has voted in favor of most of the military budgets that have come before her in the Senate, at a time when the U.S. annually spends many times more than China, the second highest spender. All this at a critical moment when military activities need to be radically cut to reduce pollution and fund the Green New Deal.
Warren and Health Care
When Warren ran for Senate in 2012, she was against single-payer health care, arguing that “you’ve got to stay with what’s possible.” Now she has stated that she is in favor of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All single payer plan. This is one of Sanders’ popular signature issues, and to win over those people, Warren cannot allow any daylight on health care between her and the Vermont Senator. One vocal Warren supporter, Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, verified that Warren’s stance on health care was tactical, saying that it is “an important long-term investment in her relationship with Sanders’ voters” (San Francisco Chronicle September 15, 2019).
Since signing on to Medicare for All, however, Warren has backtracked, arguing that there are “a lot of different pathways” to universal health care. She also stated that Medicare for All is simply a “framework,” that “I support a lot of plans,” and has refused to state how it would be funded. These equivocating statements in effect tells the wealthy and powerful private insurance industry that she might well want to keep much of the current system of high premiums and millions of uncovered Americans. What is going on is that Warren is co-opting the Medicare for All term, but not being specific about exactly what she means by it, leaving it murky with wiggle room to compromise with the vested interests later. Given her history of love for the market and reform approach generally, it is likely that her true position is not, in fact, Medicare for All.
Warren’s Student Debt Plan
Warren introduced her Student Loan Debt Relief Plan bill in July of 2019. The bill specified a means test to determine the level of debt relief. Those with lower incomes would have more of their student debt canceled, and the Internal Revenue Service, the Treasury Department and the Department of Education would coordinate to see who receives benefits. This appears to be progressive and fair, but what it misses is the fact the universal programs (like Social Security) are the ones that are popular, and dividing up the population on the basis of income is not the way to successfully maintain such programs into the future. In fact, means testing opens the door for the right wing to try again to privatize and eliminate popular social welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare as well as government operated public schools, even parks and libraries, based on the fact that some have enough money to privately pay for these benefits. Needed social welfare programs have only successfully stood up to constant right wing attacks because they were universal, for all and the good of all. Warren does not understand this. She is, in effect, signaling again to the corporations and the wealthy that she is a pro-capitalist neoliberal.
Warren’s career-long record illustrates that she has a serious authenticity problem, characterized by a lack of fixed progressive values or principles. After being a right-wing conservative for most of her life, late in her career she has endorsed a number of progressive proposals which, if implemented, would involve a large expansion of federal power. Yet at the same time she continues to assert her belief in private capitalist markets. This raises the serious question of how trustworthy she is. Do progressive people want a candidate who is moving to the left to undermine an opponent, or a person whose candidacy is setting the progressive standard? What would she stand and fight for if she became president? We do not know the answer to this central question. Her ongoing attempts to straddle the divides in the Democratic Party has made her the contradictory Ms. Warren.
Laurence H. Shoup attended public schools and graduated from California State University at Los Angeles (B.A. in History and M.A. in Social Science). Following two years as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, he attended graduate school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, receiving his Ph.D. in United States History in 1974. Dr. Shoup has taught U.S. history at a number of universities and has published numerous articles and five books, including Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (with William Minter); Rulers and Rebels: A People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901; and Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2019.