Elizabeth Warren is not a neoliberal.
Characterizing Warren as a “neoliberal” or, even more stupidly, a “Clintonite,” some misguided online Bernie Sanders supporters seem to be trying to cast her as the archvillain in the sequel to 2016’s horror flop, Hillary. With Warren’s advocacy for aggressive government regulation, her support for redistributive programs, her sharp critique of antisocial corporate behavior, and her rejection of individualistic folklore (remember “You didn’t build that”?), she’s emerged as a relatively mild but nevertheless quite serious opponent of neoliberal ideology — the worldview in which markets can solve everything and, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “There is no such thing as society.”
If Bernie Sanders weren’t running, an Elizabeth Warren presidency would probably be the best-case scenario. Warren is a “good liberal,” a species that nearly went extinct after Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign and has only recently been spotted again roaming the savannahs of Washington, DC. Left and socialist organizing has been at least partly responsible for the resurgence of this highly vulnerable political animal; we should claim credit for such creatures, not misclassify them.
However, while Warren isn’t a neoliberal, Sanders supporters aren’t the only ones making shit up. Her own supporters have been spinning a series of fictitious narratives rooted in classic neoliberal identity politics, using feminism and anti-racism to discredit Sanders’s socialist agenda.
There is, of course, nothing inherently neoliberal about opposition to race and gender oppression or struggles for full social rights and inclusion for LGBTQ people, immigrants, the disabled, the indigenous, or any other group. But the term “neoliberal identity politics” refers to the way the politics of identity can be — and often are — abused by those in power, to undermine the very politics of collectivity upon which the liberation of all oppressed groups depends.
One of these curious neoliberal narratives is that only sexism could explain why people support Sanders over Warren, since the candidates are exactly the same politically. Earlier this year, Moira Donegan, writing in the Guardian, asked, “Why vote for Sanders when you can have Elizabeth Warren instead?” While Warren calls herself a “capitalist to my bones,” Sanders is a lifelong socialist. Donegan dismissed that distinction, writing, “this point has the quality of a post-hoc rationalization. It is cited by those seeking an acceptable reason to vote for a man and not for a woman — those who would vote for this man, and perhaps not any woman, no matter what.”
That “perhaps” is doing a lot of work here, considering the outpouring of money, volunteer energy, and enthusiasm from Sanders supporters for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Tiffany Cabán, Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez, Julia Salazar, and other socialist women who have newly run for office within the past two years. Neoliberal identity politics is a kind of Etch A Sketch into which socialism instantly disappears.
Yet that narrative has (forgive me) nevertheless persisted. The Twitter feeds of liberal feminist journalists are obsessed with the supposed sexism of Bernie supporters. And in April, when Warren’s campaign was failing to take off, Irin Carmon wondered in New York magazine, “I wonder where all the ‘but I love Elizabeth Warren’ guys are now.”
Of course, Bernie Sanders surely has some sexist supporters. Given the prevalence of knuckleheads in the population, if he lacked any appeal to such people, he’d probably still be hanging out in Burlington, Vermont. Yet at a time when health-care and pharma profiteering are killing people and capitalist greed threatens the existence of the human species, the idea that there is no other reason to choose a lifelong socialist over an agreeably indignant liberal is simply not serious.
It’s not only bearded men at DSA meetings (or Jacobin writers) who find the distinction meaningful. The ruling class and its pet thinkers do, too.
Politico reported this week that for establishment centrists, Warren was emerging as an acceptable alternative to Sanders. Third Way, a proudly centrist think tank that has drawn donations from some of the same hedge funders who backed Mitt Romney — its board is made up of bankers and other Wall Street executives — once vilified Warren’s economic populism as “disastrous.”
But one of the group’s cofounders recently praised her as a “Democratic capitalist,” in contrast to Sanders, a socialist. (Although Warren calls herself a capitalist, it’s uncharacteristically imprecise for her to do so; clearly she means that she favors capitalism over any other system, as she doesn’t actually own any companies.) This is probably one reason her campaign, which was flagging just a few weeks ago, has recently seen a flurry of media coverage, much of it emphasizing that she is taking votes from Sanders, and using words like “surging.”
For people who prefer to discuss issues — most voters are not especially ideological — Sanders is better on those policy areas where he and Warren differ. That’s because rejecting capitalism affects the way a person thinks about everything.
While it’s true that Warren supports Medicare for All on paper, she has recently waffled on the matter. Relatedly, Sanders’s view that abortion should be part of a full reproductive health-care plan offered under single-payer is stronger and more specific than Warren’s pro-choice position. She talks a lot about a “strong military” and “military readiness,” while Sanders has been doggedly leading the fight to end the devastating war in Yemen. Warren is a committed fan of American global power, one of the most destructive forces on earth; Sanders has been an enemy of imperialism all his life, growing even more outspoken over the past year, hardly the typical trajectory for a presidential candidate.
A second myth is that Sanders is sexist and dismissive toward his female opponent. This is a revival of a fairy tale from 2016, popular at that time with the media and professional class. It appears to be based on the fact that Sanders, who emphatically points his finger a lot, did not stop doing this when his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was present. (The claim doesn’t appear to make any more sense than that.)
This myth has recently been repackaged: now it’s allegedly Elizabeth Warren he’s disrespecting, despite the fact that the two senators are friends and colleagues.
Vanity Fair reached new levels of mendacity with its headline last week: “Sanders: Warren is Surging Because She’s Got Ovaries.” The lede of the article, by Bess Levin, summarized Sanders’s comments in the most tendentious way possible: “she has two X chromosomes and voters are all eh, you’ll do.” But, as the article itself makes clear, Sanders said nothing of the kind. Rather he acknowledged that “there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that.”
What kind of oblivious, sexist monster would have failed in this context to say that? If he hadn’t mentioned the desire of progressive voters to see a woman become president, the media would have rightly nailed him. He also noted that there are “a lot of factors” and that “she’s running a good campaign.” Of course, the headline and lede writers belong in Fake News jail, but the fact that so many liberal media hacks were sharing this on Twitter shows their enduring attachment to the myth of Bernie’s sexism.
A third, equally peculiar story is that Warren has been widely embraced by black voters, in contrast to Sanders, who, according to the same corporate media, black people supposedly don’t like. She was a big hit at a recent “She the People” forum, where candidates addressed an audience of women of color. Warren wrote an op-ed for Essence. Media coverage makes much of the idea that black women are attracted to her concrete approach to issues like black maternal mortality, free college, student debt, and child care. A Grio headline on her “She the People” appearance read, “Elizabeth Warren building unlikely connection with Black women voters.” Her proposal to support minority-owned businesses has been widely reported.
It’s good that Warren is addressing these important matters. But there’s a problem with the narrative that black voters prefer Warren over Sanders: It isn’t true.
A Hart Research poll in late May found 58 percent of black voters “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with Sanders, while only 37 percent felt that way about Warren. Sanders is more popular among black voters than any candidate except Biden, who benefits from his association with President Obama.
Warren supporters and the media have no business peddling these neoliberal identity fables. Those of us who support Bernie Sanders should also stop tarring Warren with the “neoliberal” and “Clintonite” epithets, since they’re equally inaccurate. And while we’re on the subject of accuracy, Elizabeth Warren should probably stop calling herself a “capitalist” — though we’re not responsible for how she chooses to identify herself.