The false promise of Elizabeth Warren
Illustration Credit: Rosie Bromiley

Nothing epitomizes Senator Elizabeth Warren’s disappointing descent from ‘star of the left’ to saboteur of the left better than progressive journalist Krystal Ball’s waning esteem for her. In 2014, the then MSNBC commentator publicly urged Warren, the architect of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and opponent to the Biden-backed 2005 Bankruptcy Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, to run for President because America ‘need[s] someone…feeling in their bones the plight of the worker and the middle class…who is unafraid to stand up to the Wall Street titans. That person is not Hillary Clinton. It is Elizabeth Warren’. On 10th March 2020, in the midst of the Democratic establishment’s cynical, Obama-instigated regrouping around the previously dismissed former Vice President Joe Biden (a coordinated effort to undermine the momentum of Senator Bernie Sanders’ ‘Not me, us’ campaign), Ball delivered a scathing retraction of her praise. She declared that ‘Warren has missed her window to actually be an ally, to actually prove that you can ever count on her…she will sell out every principle she’s ever claimed to believe in for her own power positioning’.

The first hint that Warren would prove a hindrance to the leftist movement occurred during the 2016 Democratic primary. When Sanders’ democratic socialist campaign was waging an uphill battle against the formidable former Secretary of State, New York Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton, as well as the non-neutral leadership of the Democratic National Committee, an endorsement from the popular economic populist Senator would have surely provided a much-needed surge of support. However, Warren, who seemed to ideologically align so well with Sanders, inexplicably declined to exert her leverage, and eventually endorsed the then nominee-presumptive Clinton on Rachel Maddow’s show in June. There is no understating the potential benefit such an endorsement could have yielded for Sanders, as Dave Lindorff speculated on:

Imagine if Warren, the wildly popular senior senator from Massachusetts…had endorsed Sanders, who after all is attacking the same corrupt big banks that Warren built her whole political career by denouncing. There’s no way having a popular anti-bankster, feminist senator endorsing Sanders wouldn’t have…really damaged Clinton. Instead, Clinton was allowed to eke out a narrow victory there by picking up the support of identity-voting women who didn’t bother to examine her bogus feminism.

Partly because of Warren’s silence, the party nominated a candidate who boasted of planning to ‘put a lot of coal miners…out of business’, sat on the aggressively anti-union board of Walmartvoted for the Iraq War and complacently refused to campaign at all in the key midwest state of Michigan. Accordingly, she lost. Despite all these flaws, whenever questioned, Clinton tended to regurgitate a common refrain, that her loss was attributable to ‘sexism and misogyny’. This ‘bogus feminism’ is a cop-out excuse that fundamentally fails to account for the class dimensions of her defeat. Nevertheless, Warren seemed inspired by Hillary’s usage of identity politics, as it increasingly came to define her 2020 primary race, occasionally at the expense of meaningful economic policy.

That Warren would come to conceal an erosion of economic populist principles with a veneer of liberal feminist gesturing became apparent in November 2019, when she followed fellow candidate Senator Kamala Harris by revoking her support for the Sanders-written Medicare For All bill. She offered instead a watered-down alternative, not quite akin to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s much derided ‘Medicare for All That Want It’ but a backtrack nonetheless. Like Harris and Buttigieg, Warren had for months politically capitalized from association with Bernie’s single-payer plan (which, according to polling conducted by The Hill, had 88% support among Democrat voters in April) but in November released a plan offering only an expanded, means-tested version of public option in her first year, and Medicare for All legislation in her third year, by which time electioneering would likely be dictating Warren’s priorities. 

This clear deprioritization of Medicare for All, which tellingly caused for-profit healthcare company stock prices to surge, was followed within weeks with Warren’s infamous pledge in Iowa to ‘be wearing that [Planned Parenthood] scarf when sworn [in] as president’. The statement was predictably picked up and pedalled by right-wing outlets as easy fodder for inciting anti-woke, conservative ire, and struck many left-wingers as hollow and performative given Warren’s recent retreat on healthcare policy. According to Warren’s own Medium article detailing her intentions for ‘Congressional Action to Protect Choice’, her proposals for federal law on reproductive rights included ‘guarantee[ing] reproductive healthcare as part of all…future health care coverage –  including Medicare for All’, and therefore no guaranteed abortion coverage for those without healthcare insurance until at least three years into her presidency. 

Warren’s Medicare For All debacle embodied the central weakness of her campaign. As a December New York Times article revealed, in what amounted to a preemptive autopsy of her failed presidential bid, Warren was suffering as a result of fighting a ‘two flank war’, sitting on the fence and satisfying neither side of the ideological gulf between Sanders and Biden support. The article observed how ‘Quinnipiac polling shows that Ms. Warren has flagged significantly since October among older voters…and Mr. Sanders has clipped much of Ms. Warren’s support among younger voters. Among Democratic primary voters under 35, her share dropped by 13 points from October to December, while Mr. Sanders’s rose by 21 points’. 

It transpired that the more progressive wing of the party had been alienated by her proposal to delay implementing MFA, whereas the more conservative, demographically older wing of the party had been influenced by debate attacksfrom Senator Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg demanding to know how Warren intended to fund MFA without increasing middle class taxes. 

Between October and January, the left wing of the party consolidated behind Sanders, who had received a polling boost after his heart attack from the endorsement of ¾ of the House of Representatives’ progressive ‘squad’. Warren fell under increasing pressure to bow to the policy preferences of the more liberal, upper-middle class faction of her supporters. As an analysis conducted by NBC concluded in March, ‘Warren’s support was more concentrated among college-educated Democrats. Sanders continued to win over the youth vote while trying to build a broader coalition of blue-collar and anti-establishment voters demanding systemic change’. Warren faced a quandary whereby she had to sacrifice the principles that had defined her political career to remain a viable candidate. 

Whereas Warren had launched her campaign with rhetoric couched in the plight and empowerment of working class women (she ‘situated her[self]…as the heir to several generations of persistent women — from the Bread and Roses strike, to the garment workers in New York, washerwomen in Atlanta, and janitors in Los Angeles’) she now found herself catering to the less revolutionary demands of a more managerial, professional, upper-middle class and college-educated base. (A base best summarized by Michele Ruiz’s insufferably elitist comments that ‘a certain kind of woman, however loftily, sees herself in Warren: smart and studious, ambitious and outspoken, always harboring a pipe dream, perhaps following their own path…going to college and law school, being elected to the Senate, and joining the presidential race’).

Warren’s January release of her student debt relief plan somewhat affirmed this strategy of pandering to a new base. Her proposal capped an individual’s eligibility for debt forgiveness at $50,000, distinguishing itself from Bernie’s comprehensive proposal in that it would still leave thousands of Americans saddled with debt, as it failed to completely eliminate the $1.6 trillion of student loans owed. This ‘reasonable, moderate’ repositioning was unsuccessful, and amongst spiralling poll numbers, Warren made one final, flailing bid to regain the progressive votes she had been hemorrhaging to Sanders since October. 

The night before the January 14th debate, CNN released a story – anonymously sourced, but presumably planted by the Warren campaign – that in a 2018 private conversation Sanders allegedly expressed his disbelief to Warren that a woman could win the Presidency. Rather than deny that Sanders, whose feminist credentials include having been vocally pro-choice since 1972, harboured any such sexist positions, Warren (when given the opportunity to substantiate Bernie’s denials) simply expressed disagreement that a woman could not be President. Across the spectrum of American politics, most regarded this move as a treacherous stab in the back. The Washington Reporter remarked that ‘Democrats can say what they want about President Trump being “mean,” but at least unlike them, he stabs you in the front’ while Michael Moore lamented on twitter that ‘why Elizabeth chose to stick a knife in Bernie’s back [was] beyond [him]’. 

The stunt failed to translate into increased poll numbers – between 13th January and 10th February Warren’s support among Democrats shrunk from 16% to 14%. The power play did not manifest in any significant dent in Sanders’ support. His polling numbers continued to grow approaching the Iowa caucus, attributable to the campaign’s unprecedented ground-game, therefore Warren’s blow could not actually be described as a direct affront to her own leftist economic principles. That would occur only when things got more desperate. 

On Thursday 27th February, with consecutive defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada under her belt, the Warren campaign dramatically reneged on her signature promise to not ‘take a dime of Pac money’ as the newly formed Persist Pac, created by female Warren supporters (and primarily funded by Karla Hurveston, described by The Intercept as a ‘Silicon Valley Megadonor’), announced investment of $9m in television adverts across Super Tuesday states including California, Texas and Massachusetts. 

Most offensive about the hypocrisy was her insistence that the decision was rooted in feminism; she reasoned that “all the men…had either super PACs or they were multibillionaires…and the only people who didn’t have them were the two women”. The comment solidified her campaign’s slow distortion from economic populism to corporate liberal feminism, a change characterized by journalist Arwa Mahdawi as ‘the highly disingenuous way [Warren] framed her Super Pac backtrack as some sort of feminist position. There is nothing remotely feminist about using gender as an excuse to abandon your principles and embrace big money. Feminism is supposed to be about dismantling oppressive systems, not aligning yourself with them’. 

The advert purchase signalled Warren’s determination to endure through Super Tuesday. While the centrist wing of the party dropped like flies to endorse Biden, Warren refused to do the same for Bernie, remaining stubbornly in a race she could not win. She even placed third in her own state of Massachusetts, a humiliating fate Klobuchar narrowly avoided in Minnesota when she dropped out. Moreover, the manoeuvre marked a betrayal of the very reasons she entered politics. By her own admission, Warren entered the political sphere due to her 2005 clash with Biden, whose funding from Delaware-based credit card companies ensured his vocal support for the Republican-backed Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, a legislative move that denied bankruptcy protection to millions during the Great Recession. Therefore, Warren’s abhorrence of big-money interest in politics, and it’s harmful ramifications for the working and middle class, in the end proved a principle she was willing to sacrifice as she abandoned her promise to decline big money.

When push came to shove, Warren’s allegiance to her newly-attained demographic of managerial, professional class liberal elites triumphed over her professed allegiance to the working class interests of the ‘washerwomen in Atlanta, and janitors in Los Angeles’. Despite having written in her 2003 book The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke that ‘senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening’ Warren showed no qualms selling out those very same middle and working class women, a betrayal encapsulated in her April MSNBC appearance, whereby she confirmed that she would happily accept the position of Biden’s Vice President. 

Ultimately, I concur with Jacobin magazine in that I, too, would ‘like to see a woman president as much as anyone. But not if it costs us the chance to build a movement that can actually improve the lives of the vast majority of women’. Warren’s 2020 campaign proved that she is not the woman to lead such a movement. However the primary defeat of Sanders at age 78 leaves America’s burgeoning socialist movement ripe to be inherited by an army of progressive female politicians, from Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, to Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Pramia Jayapal or Nina Turner, all of whom are well suited to take on the mantle.