In February, a little more than a week after she officially announced she was running for president, Elizabeth Warren rolled out a sweeping proposal to make high-quality child care accessible to every family in the country by levying a tax on the ultra-rich. It would be a massive reinvestment, she said, because the problem demanded it: “This will be about four times more than we have invested in our children. But that’s exactly what we need to do.”
Two weeks later, at a rally in New York City, Warren introduced a plan to break up companies like Amazon and Facebook, telling the crowd: “We have these giants corporations… that think they can roll over everyone.” A week after that, she reintroduced a $500 billion plan to address the housing crisis over the next 10 years. A week after that, it was a proposal to break up agricultural monopolies. Earlier this week, Warren introduced a public lands platform.
Warren is telling a story about the country she wants to live in—and the country we currently live in: In the new gilded age, three of the richest people in America own more wealth than the poorest half of the rest of the country. Our current government’s cabinet is essentially just a wealthy cabal of privatizers and corporate raiders (a completion of form of our political system rather than an anomaly). While city officials across the country shell out billions in public dollars to attract corporate giants, low-wage workers in those places regularly toil under brutal and highly-surveilled conditions. People living in one of the richest countries in the world are turning to crowdfunding sites to pay for basic health care needs. The world is melting in ways both literal and metaphorical and, maybe more than any candidate running right now, Warren has a plan for it.
But in the world of political reporting, which often relies on high school taxonomies to describe candidates, the clarity of Warren’s vision is sometimes treated as a liability. She has been called the “wonky professor” by CNN; the New York Times described Warren’s 2020 strategy as “nerding out.” Her campaign is often compared to Hillary Clinton’s for its focus on the details—the Associated Press pointed out that Clinton’s experience should be a “cautionary tale” for someone like Warren, warning that “in 2016, Clinton put out piles of white papers, but her general election opponent hardly engaged in the policy debate.” This assessment of Warren is also, unsurprisingly, often incredibly gendered. However it’s delivered, the message is clear: Warren runs on policy at her own peril.
But unlike Clinton’s modest, technocratic approach to sweeping structural problems, Warren’s proposals offer a kind of moral urgency that seems primed for this moment. “She knows where the bodies of capitalism are buried and is not going to keep the conspiracy hushed up,” Marshall Steinbaum, an anti-trust expert and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told Jezebel. “What Warren represents is taking on that concentration of power. You can’t deal with the problem without confronting it.”
Warren is running as a candidate who says she can see the country clearly. Can voters see her?
In many ways, Warren’s presidential campaign is a re-introduction of the issues she has been working on for decades. She is one of the few DC politicians who can truly claim the mantle of an “outsider,” which speaks as much to the lonely battles against Wall Street that Warren has picked as to her actual personal background. Growing up in a family in Oklahoma that Warren likes to describe as on the “ragged edge” of the middle class, she moved her way through academia—first at Rutgers University, then the University of Houston, and eventually Harvard Law.
But the fiercely progressive Warren of today is not the Warren who always was. As Politico recently reported, she was a registered Republican for many years of her mid-career life, only changing her registration to Democrat in 1996. Warren claims that she was “just never very political” and credits her eventual conversion to her academic research that brought her to bankruptcy courts around the country and in contact with struggling families, which upended her belief that families just needed to work harder or tighten their belts to pull themselves out of financial distress. With a boost from an appearance on Dr. Phil’s daytime television show, Warren ended up gaining a national profile as a bankruptcy expert in 2003 when she released The Two-Income Trap.
“She really did have a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion when she saw the bankrupt consumers really were suffering—forced into bankruptcy by illness, firing or divorce—and not predators,” one friend and early University of Texas colleague told Politico. (Others claim that Warren’s shift was less extreme than it appears.)
During the financial crisis, Warren was called on by Harry Reid to chair the congressional panel on the Troubled Asset Relief Program and eventually pushed through the creation of her brainchild, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, building the agency up from scratch. “This agency is out here in a sense to try to hold accountable a financial-services industry that ran wild, that brought our economy to the edge of collapse,” Warren told Vanity Fair in 2011. “There’s been such a sense that there’s one set of rules for trillion-dollar financial institutions and a different set for all the rest of us. It’s so pervasive that it’s not even hidden.”
But in a move that angered progressives and spoke to the entrenched power of financial institutions in Washington, Barack Obama ended up passing over Warren to head the bureau she created. As Rebecca Traister put it recently in a New York Magazine profile, Warren was boxed out because “she was too outsider-y, too challenging a figure for some Democrats, let alone Republicans.”
Around this same time, a number of powerful Democrats, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, encouraged Warren to run for the Senate against Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, a proposal which some saw as a ploy to shuffle her away from the CFPB. The plan may have been to send Warren to Massachusetts to head off her regulatory crusade, but if so, it failed miserably. In a video of her on the campaign trail that went viral, Warren made clear that she was still there to fight. “I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever,’” Warren railed. “No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”
For a first-time politician, Warren took seamlessly to campaigning, raising $5.7 million in the first quarter—nearly double the haul of her opponent. But her run had low moments, including the revelation dug up by Republican operatives that Warren had claimed Native American ancestry in the past, listing herself in law school directories as a minority, which opponents claimed was to help advance her academic career. Her years-long mishandling of the issue has meant that it followed her well into today. Still, Warren ended up unseating Brown anyway, a Tea Party hero with high favorability ratings whose surprise win two years earlier had derailed much of the Democrats’ agenda.
In her time in the Senate, Warren has focused, with varying degrees of success, on many of the same issues that had defined her career, such as student loan reform and pushing for the SEC to require banks to admit wrongdoing in many instances when settling cases with the agency. Despite having a lack of signature legislative accomplishments, it’s clear that Warren has exerted influence in Washington, especially when it came to financial reform. As Sarah Mimms wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, “Warren’s real power lies in her outsized influence, not just for a freshman senator, but for virtually any elected official in Washington. Her pen may not have touched many pieces of legislation that made their way to Obama’s desk since her election in 2012, but her fingerprints are all over them.”
Warren’s presidential campaign, much like her time in the Senate, has that same focus. “If you go back to what she was doing before she became a politician, it helps answer what the through line is in her policies now as she runs for president,” Heather McGhee, former president and now distinguished senior fellow at the progressive think tank Demos, told Jezebel. “She still sees that big corporations have too much power and that government should be on the side of working families.”
But more than just bringing massive corporations to heel, Warren’s proposals seek to address the trickle down consequences of those excesses. As corporate profits rise, wages for workers stall. Forty percent of Americans are one missed paycheck away from falling into poverty; half are one medical emergency away from financial ruin. More than a third of the country is considered “rent-burdened” or paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. As Warren well knows, this precarity isn’t just a function of chance—it’s the system as it’s currently designed to work.
But as with most ambitious proposals, Warren’s have flaws. As Bryce Covert pointed out at The New Republic, Warren’s child care plan fails to adequately address the fact that access to child care is an infrastructure problem and that the federal government needs to get directly involved in ensuring that there are enough providers across the country. It also doesn’t offer anything for families with a stay-at-home-caretaker, as the progressive think tank the People’s Policy Project noted. And, when it comes to Warren’s sweeping housing bill, public housing seems mostly like an afterthought.
Still, in their design, the policies Warren is most focused on attempt to address the very mechanics of political and economic power—who has it, how it works, who it hurts, who it helps. While Warren has followed in the footsteps of other candidates’ agendas when it comes to sweeping policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, the slew of ideas that she’s put forward thus far offers something distinct: an aggressive, direct attack on that power.
Take, for example, her corporate governance bill, which would allow workers to elect 40 percent of the board of directors of big corporations (defined as those bringing in more than $1 billion in revenue). Rather than impose incentives for corporations to do better, Warren’s bill would instate a measure of democratic control, an effort to fundamentally change the way corporations operate.
“Warren’s through-line is not that these corporations should behave better, it’s that they shouldn’t be allowed to exist in the way that they exist right now,” corruption expert and former New York Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout told Jezebel. “It’s corporate illegitimacy over corporate accountability.”
Warren’s bill to break up big tech companies—including Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple—would restructure the way that 21st century monopolies operate, barring them from being both the biggest marketplaces in town while also participating in those same marketplaces. When it comes to government itself, she has put forward an ethics bill that would instate a lifetime ban on presidents, vice presidents, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and federal judges from lobbying and a ban for many of those same officials from holding stocks while in office. (The bill, however, says nothing about public financing of campaigns, perhaps one of the most pressing anti-corruption reforms.) She wants to abolish the Electoral College and earlier this month, Warren came out against the filibuster, a Congressional mechanism that, if left intact, would stymie most of the Democrats’ big policy priorities.
The details of the proposals may sometimes feel obscure, but the impacts are straightforward: Warren wants to, in her own methodical way, build out structures that better prevent inequality and massive abuses of power. It’s in some ways a subtle, long-game agenda, but so is spending your life dismantling a building brick by brick.
The pressing question for Warren is whether anyone will actually see the full picture she’s putting out. In the first quarter of the year, her campaign only brought in $6 million in donations, trailing behind Sanders, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and even relative unknown Pete Buttigieg. While it’s still early in the race and there is time for Warren to make up the deficit, it’s clear that she still hasn’t captured the country’s imagination in the same way as some other candidates have.
It didn’t help that Warren, in one of the first moves of her campaign, ran straight into one of Donald Trump’s traps. After the president claimed that Warren was lying about her Native American ancestry and goaded her by calling her “Pocahontas,” she took and published the results of a DNA test, a move veering into race science that angered many in the Native American community. “Non-Indigenous Americans will never stop making claims to all things Indigenous: bones, blood, land, waters, and identities. The U.S. continues to appropriate every last thing,” Kim TallBear, associate professor on the Faculty of Native Studies at University of Alberta and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, said in response to an ad Warren put out about her heritage.
Despite these issues, for many, the political instinct is to ascribe Warren’s inability to breakthrough as the typical trials of a campaign built on policy—particularly when it’s a woman behind those policies. Clinton comparisons abound. As Elena Schor wrote for the Associated Press, “Warren’s approach is built on a risky bet: that voters will respond to her detail-driven effort when other Democrats are appealing to hearts as much as their minds and after a 2016 presidential campaign in which Hillary Clinton’s policy portfolio wilted in the face of Donald Trump’s personal attacks.”
But there is a difference between policy that is meant to obscure technocracy and protect power and policy as a direct translation of popular anger at unjust systems. “What stands out about Warren’s policies are how transformational they are,” Teachout said.
Yet many Americans hungering for change have found their transformational candidate in Bernie Sanders, not Warren. Since both entered the 2020 ring, Warren’s approach has often been defined as less radical than that of Sanders’s, particularly in that it seeks to reform capitalism. It’s a construction for which Warren, who has described herself as “a capitalist to my bones,” is as much to blame as anyone. The essential differences between the two was aptly described last year by David Dayen in The New Republic. “You can restructure markets so everyone benefits, or you can break down the market system, either eliminating the profit motive or giving everybody a public option,” he wrote. “The impulse is the same: The game is rigged and must be fixed. But there’s a long gap between re-writing the rules of the game, as Warren wants, and turning over all the chess pieces, as Sanders does.”
But in broad strokes, Sanders’s and Warren’s campaigns are more compatible than they are in competition—while Sanders spends much of his energy blowing up the idea that government can’t or shouldn’t directly provide people the benefits that they need, Warren is ready to sink the knife into the hearts of the institutions and systems that made government that way in the first place. Their campaigns may very well be, at least in a (hypothetical) healthy primary, in a kind of conversation with one another, pushing each forward, challenging blindspots, and forcing the other to speak to more issues. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that there are two candidates bringing forward progressive ideas that dramatically reform the role of government will only strengthen the 2020 field. And as we’ve seen before with the long tail of Sanders’s transformative 2016 candidacy, whether or not Warren wins while making her case to the American public may be entirely besides the point.
“She’s answering the question, ‘Who did what to whom?’ and what she is going to do about it,” Teachout said. “Most of the other candidates are using passive language construction about what happened and about what might be done.”
There is a growing sense of urgency across the country right now to try to answer these questions. “No bank too big too fail, no banker too powerful to jail,” became a catch all, anti-corruption, anti-Wall Street chant at Sanders’s and other progressive rallies in the years since the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s a sentiment that’s only grown in force since then. As with most things, Warren has a plan for that, too.