Ron Berger —
Neither Elizabeth Warren nor Bernie Sanders are likely to run for president again. They are both in their seventies and Kamala Harris is undoubtedly the presumptive successor to Joe Biden. Nonetheless, for the near future Warren and Sanders will remain influential US Senators who command a national audience when they speak out about the central problem of our time: the untenable degree of economic inequality and undemocratic forms of economic and political power that exist in the United States. They both think of themselves as “progressive” and believe that fundamental change is necessary to remedy this state of affairs.
During the presidential primary campaign for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination, the media often acted as if there was little substantive difference between Warren and Sanders besides their gender, sometimes portraying Warren as a less grumpy and warmed over version of Sanders. But Sanders has called himself a “democratic socialist,” while Warren has described herself as “capitalist to the bone.” These differences in self-identity reveal different approaches to their understanding of political economy. In general, political economy refers to the ways in which the political and economic spheres of society are interrelated and tied to a set of moral ideals about the fair distribution of wealth and income. In this article, I aim to illuminate the different ways in which Warren’s and Sanders’s orientations to political economy lead to different ideas for addressing some of the core problems our nation is facing. Before turning to these issues, I first provide some brief background and review a few highlights of their primary campaigns.
Like many others, I first became aware of Elizabeth Warren when she was appointed by US Senate majority leader Harry Reid to serve as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel that had been established to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program, otherwise known as the “bank bailout” of 2008. Subsequently, she proposed and engineered the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), for which she served as an advisor to President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
Warren had come to this stage of her life after earning her law degree and teaching at several law schools, culminating in a position at Harvard Law School in 1995. She was considered one of the country’s leading experts on bankruptcy and had also studied and written about the declining economic prospects of the middle class. She had served as an advisor to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion. More generally, her scholarship and critique of the financial industry helped lay the groundwork for the Occupy Wall Street and 99% movement.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Warren identified as conservative and Republican in her early years, because she believed that they were the ones, in her words, who “best supported markets.” By the mid-1990s, however, her scholarly research dramatically changed her perspective and she began to identify as a Democrat. Deemed too controversial to be confirmed by the US Senate as the formal head of the CFPB, Warren went on to defeat incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts in 2012 and was reelected in 2018.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, many progressives (myself included) hoped Warren would challenge Hillary Clinton and run for the nomination of the Democratic Party. MoveOn.org organized a draft campaign, but Warren declined to declare her candidacy. In her stead, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders stepped into this vacuum and did far better in the primary than anyone had expected, garnering 46 percent of the pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. I was an active supporter of the Sanders campaign, but I disagreed with those who continued to attack Clinton and undermine her candidacy after she secured the nomination.
In the early 1960s, the Brooklyn-born Sanders had moved to Chicago to study political science at the University of Chicago, where he became involved in socialist politics and civil-rights and anti-war activism. He moved to Vermont in 1968, and after several unsuccessful political campaigns, was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, running as an independent and being reelected three times. Next, Sanders was elected to the US Congress in 1990, serving a total of 16 years, during which time he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He was elected to the US Senate in 2006 and reelected in 2012 and 2018, caucusing with the Democrats but continuing to identify not just as an independent but as a democratic socialist. Before his 2016 presidential run, Sanders’s weekly hour-long appearances on The Thom Hartmann Program, the leading progressive talk radio show in the country, helped make him a nationally-known figure among this political constituency.
The 2020 Presidential Campaign
Early in 2019, after Warren announced her candidacy, she struggled to put the controversy over her purported Native-American heritage behind her. After expressing contrition for any ill feelings she had caused, she started putting out one detailed policy proposal after another, which led to her campaign slogan, “Warren has a plan for that.” This, along with the enthusiastic crowds she was drawing—which included staying late at events to take selfies with supporters—she began rising in the polls. By the end of August, some in the media were declaring she had “won” the summer. Before the candidate debate in October, Warren was even leading in some polls. But this was to be the zenith of her candidacy. Once she rose to the top of the heap, the media and her political opponents began attacking her for not having laid out a detailed proposal for funding Medicare-for-All, a policy she had endorsed, in contrast to the many other plans she had developed.
Sanders, who had made Medicare-for-All a key feature of his 2016 campaign, had been given a pass, because he was not at that time in the lead and had admitted it would mean a tax increase for average Americans—an increase, he correctly said, that would still leave people better off because they would not have to pay for healthcare. As for Warren, during the previous months she had been a bit too coy about the specifics of her healthcare plan, even indicating at times that there were different ways to achieve full universal coverage. In response to the uptick in criticism, however, she laid out a detailed plan that proposed paying for Medicare-for-All without higher taxes on average Americans but through a tax increase on the wealthy; and she also proposed a three-year phase-in period before full Medicare-for-All would kick in.
Perhaps not surprisingly, but with little justification, Sanders supporters viewed this as backpedaling on Medicare-for-All, as if Sanders’s promise to pass Medicare-for-All during the first year of his presidency was anything more than a pipe dream. Additionally, Sanders willingness to go farther or spend more money on various programs was appealing to his base. Then, when Sanders had a heart attack and had to temporarily suspend his campaign, people wondered what would become of his candidacy. That is when some of his most influential supporters, who until then had held back on a public endorsement, decided to speak up. Among them was the charismatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had taken the progressive movement by storm after being elected to Congress from New York in 2018. Two other Congresswomen of color, also elected in 2018, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, who with AOC comprised the so-called “squad,” endorsed him too. The influential celebrity filmmaker Michael Moore also became a more visible Sanders supporter. And other progressive groups—such as People’s Action, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Sunrise Movement—endorsed him. For the most part, these groups would have been happy with a Warren nomination, but Sanders, who was admired for his “authenticity,” had garnered much loyalty for leading the progressive cause in 2016. Frankly, among some of his more ardent followers, “Bernie” had achieved something resembling a cult of personality. These were the people who attacked Warren as someone who could not be trusted, who after all had once been a Republican and was at heart a corporatist.
Lost in the shuffle, of course, were Warren’s bona fide progressive endorsements. In September, the Working Families Party was the first major group to announce its support. Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, the fourth member of the “squad,” was a co-chair of her campaign, along with California Congresswoman Katie Porter and New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the latter recently selected to serve as Joe Biden’s Secretary of the Interior. But this was not enough to counter Sanders’s momentum. After the early caucuses and primaries did not go well for Warren, she dropped out of the race. Sanders held on a little longer, but he faltered to Biden, too.
At the outset of the primary campaign, it should have been clear to both Sanders and Warren supporters that if they remained divided among two candidates, neither of them had a realistic chance of winning the nomination. Sanders and Warren could have solved this problem themselves if one of them had decided not to run, and they had in fact discussed the issue prior to the campaign. But they both decided to run, and consequently they both lost.
Moreover, the coalitions that comprised each of these campaigns made coalescing around one of the candidates difficult. In addition to 2016 Sanders supporters like myself, the Warren coalition included women who had supported Hillary Clinton and who held resentments against the hardcore Sanders supporters who had acted as if Clinton was as bad as Donald Trump. In turn, some Sanders supporters had an intense dislike of them. The Sanders coalition, too, included people who were highly critical of the mainstream Democratic Party and considered themselves left-wing independents, with some voting for Jill Stein in 2016. Sanders did receive notable support from younger Black voters, and Warren earned the backing of a number of Black women intellectuals and activists who understand the world (and the need for policies) through the lens of “intersectionalities,” that is, the ways in which different axes of social inequality interpenetrate one another. But neither Sanders nor Warren garnered enough support from Black voters overall to compete with Biden.
Progressivism, Liberalism, and Democratic Socialism
Beyond these political machinations, my main interest in this article is an examination of Warren’s and Sanders’s respective views about political economy, and in particular, their ideas about how to address the problems of economic inequality and undemocratic forms of elite power. Insofar as they both think of themselves and are viewed by others as progressive, let’s begin with a consideration of this moniker, which is complicated by the fact that our political discourse in the United States has been so degraded that it becomes difficult to talk about political ideologies in any meaningful way. Concepts such as progressive, liberal, socialist, and conservative have become so oversimplified, mischaracterized, and unmoored from their historical origins that without clarification they are of limited utility. Progressive is a banner that both Warren and Sanders claim, but so does Hillary Clinton and any number of other Democrats, so what does being progressive really entail?
One distinction that needs to be delineated is the difference between progressivism and liberalism. In some ways Ronald Reagan and his descendants in the Republican Party have so succeeded in tainting the word “liberal” that “progressive” has simply become a rhetorical rebranding of liberalism. In the 19th century, liberalism emerged as an ideology that focused on the protection of individual liberty—the protection of property rights and of an individual’s ability to make choices without undue interference from either the government or their fellow citizens. Political philosophers refer to this as “negative rights,” and examples are the rights embodied in the Bill of Rights and Civil Rights Amendments of the US Constitution. To a large extent, too, the “do your own thing” of the 1960’s countercultural Left, and the focus on disparate social statuses and identities as opposed to political-economic arrangements, are metamorphoses of liberalism. The extremity of liberalism on the Right, also known as libertarianism, is also a permutation that has morphed into a form of conservatism opposed to any regulation of the so-called “free market.”
Progressivism, which emerged in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contrasted itself with liberalism by insisting there was a “common good” or “public interest” that transcends the liberties of individuals, which (when unchecked) may lead to unrestrained avarice and untenable economic inequality. Progressivism invoked a (small r) notion of “republicanism” inherited from the American Founders, which defined liberty or freedom in terms of self-government and the full participation of citizens, to quote Win McCormack, “in the affairs of the community and the ongoing process of determining the community’s collective destiny.” Moreover, “acting publicly on behalf of the community required individual economic independence” dependent on “positive rights,” such as a right to “a living wage, adequate housing, health care, and basic education.” Among the economic and political reforms advocated by progressives were antitrust laws designed to curtail monopolies and maintain competition, food and drug regulation, an end to child labor, women’s suffrage, environmental conservation, progressive income taxation, open and transparent government, merit rather than patronage in appointments to civil service positions, the ballot initiative and referendum, public education, public libraries, and public parks. With the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, some of these reforms amounted to a 20th century update of liberalism, which now called for the provision of a “safety net” for people who could not sufficiently provide for themselves and their families through employment in a capitalist economy.
Bernie Sanders has added to the contemporary political discourse by reintroducing the concept of socialism and attempting to differentiate “democratic socialism” from “socialism” as practiced in undemocratic communist societies. When asked to be more specific about what democratic socialism means to him, Sanders typically cites two examples, the policies of the New Deal and the welfare states of Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Regarding the New Deal, its panoply of reforms focused more on fiscal and regulatory measures designed to redistribute wealth through market mechanisms rather than through the “cradle-to-grave” social programs that took hold in Europe. In the United States, progressive taxation shifted more of the tax burden to the wealthy, and the expansion of credit—particularly in the area of home loans (with tax credits for mortgages)—provided sufficient quality of life and government services for enough of the White middle class to mollify their demand for further welfare state expansion. This has been especially true for those able to obtain “private welfare” in the form of employment-based healthcare and pension plans. Additionally, government subsidies to rural farmers co-opted this group as well. In Europe, on the other hand, the expansive welfare states were funded by national taxes on consumption. European citizens have been willing to tolerate this higher degree of regressive taxation because they get a lot in return, particularly in the area of government-subsidized healthcare, education, housing, and public transportation. Unlike the United States, however, home ownership has not become a normative expectation and Europeans’ level of personal consumption has been relatively lower overall. In other words, Europeans have opted for a system that gives them more “public” benefits, while Americans have opted for a system that gives some people more “private” benefits but leaves many without the resources and services they need.
Europeans call the political-economic arrangement under which they live “social democracy,” not socialism. Social democracy is a hybrid political economy that maintains private enterprise and capitalist markets, including large corporations, but also supports an expansive welfare state and an active government to regulate the private sphere for the broader public good. Although there are elements of social democracy that are similar to elements of progressivism and the New Deal, the term is not generally part of the political discourse in the United States. My question is, is this what Bernie Sanders means by democratic socialism?
One way to parse the difference between social democracy and democratic socialism is to look at the official platform of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States. I do not know if Sanders is or has ever been a paid member of this organization, but I do know that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, and it’s worth taking a look at what it stands for. For starters, DSA democratic socialists believe that “workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.” This type of collective ownership can take different forms, including “worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprise.” But in some industries, where there are “large concentrations of capital…such as energy and steel,” some form of state ownership may be needed. DSA does “not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy,” but neither does it want “big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either.”
One wonders whether Sanders identification with socialism, or democratic socialism, is just a remnant of his youth. We do know that when he was in his mid-forties he told the University of Vermont student newspaper that “Democracy means public ownership of the means of production.” Has he since abandoned that view? I do not know. What we do know is that socialism is a loaded term in the United States, so if it’s not necessary to describe your views, why use it? Sanders has called for a “political revolution,” but is it a socialist revolution he still favors?
During the 2020 primary campaign, Warren did little to distinguish herself from Sanders, hoping to play it down the middle and court both Sanders supporters and mainstream liberal-progressive Democrats. Late in the campaign, she got bogged down in distinguishing herself in terms of her gender—and what she and Sanders purportedly said about whether American voters were ready for a woman president—and she did not in my view do a particularly good job of clarifying the most important distinctions between them. It is to these that I now turn.
The Political Economy of Elizabeth Warren
In August 2018, five months before she announced her candidacy, Warren released two pieces of legislation that made me enthusiastic to support her candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination: the Accountable Capitalism Act (ACA) and the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act (ACPIA). These two bills help illustrate Warren’s views on political economy.
Let’s begin with the ACA. Historian Brian Balough notes that the stark division we now assume between the public and private sector of our society was not assumed during the early years of the country, when corporations were viewed as “publicly crafted organizations granted special privileges in order to meet public service requirements.” It was only in the late 19th century, as a result of unprecedented US Supreme Court decisions, that corporations began to be treated as private entities that retained legal rights to operate in ways unconnected to the public good. (Not surprisingly, this change of legal philosophy coincided with what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” an era of growing corporate consolidation and economic inequality). Still, during the heyday of the New Deal, which lasted until the 1970s, the model of the “corporate statesman” prevailed, whereby corporate leaders saw themselves as having a responsibility to balance the claims of stockholders, employees, and the general public. This is no longer the case: Corporate leaders now view themselves as having a responsibility only to stockholders, and they are no longer committed to the goal of providing for shared prosperity or, in the words of the Preamble to the US Constitution, the goal of promoting “the general welfare.”
Warren’s ACA offers a political-economic framework for beginning to address this problem. The general principle is that if corporations want to claim the legal rights of private individuals, they should also be required to accept the moral obligations of personhood. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, “The conceit tying together Warren’s ideas is that if corporations are going to have the legal rights of persons, they should be expected to act like decent citizens who uphold their fair share of the social contract and not act like sociopaths whose sole obligation is profitability—as is currently conventional in American business thinking.”
Applicable only to corporations with annual revenues of more than $1 billion, the ACA would create an Office of United States Corporations inside the Department of Commerce and require corporations to obtain a federal charter of corporate citizenship that stipulates that company directors must consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, in their decision-making, that is, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. Corporations would be required to allow their workers to elect 40% of the membership to the board of directors, a type of corporate governance that is practiced in Germany. It’s unfortunate that neither Warren nor Sanders made much (or any) mention of the German model during the campaign. Studies of the German experience have shown that their system of co-determinative decision-making has led to less inequality between executive compensation and worker compensation—unlike the United States, where executive compensation is often linked to downsizing companies, squeezing the compensation of remaining workers, and decision-making geared to short-term gain in shareholder returns rather to the long-term gain of other stakeholders. In the United States, the bulk of top executive compensation comes from corporate stock equity, and the ACA is designed to promote long-term decision-making by prohibiting directors and officers from selling company shares within five years of receiving them or within three years of a company stock buyback. Lastly, the ACA would require all political activity of these corporations to be authorized by both 75% of shareholders and 75% of the board of directors.
As for the ACPIA, the other leg of Warren’s political economy, the aim is to begin to build a wall of separation between government decision-making and corporate interests. It would codify a requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates to release eight years of tax returns, and upon being elected, place all assets that could present a conflict of interest into a blind trust. It would require all members of Congress to release two years of tax returns as well as additional returns for every year in office; and it would prohibit any members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, White House staff, and senior Congressional staff from owning or trading individual stocks while in office. The ACPIA also includes several measures designed to limit or even ban lobbying of government after leaving office, reform the rule-making process of federal agencies to restrict the ability of corporations and industry representatives to unduly delay or influence rulemaking, ban forced arbitration clauses and class actions waivers, and create an independent US Office of Public Integrity to enforce the nation’s ethics laws, investigate potential violations, and strengthen open records laws.
Given the scope of these proposals, especially the ACA, conservatives would undoubtedly dub Warren a socialist. But this label is only a rhetorical overreach of a long-standing fear that such governmental intrusions would mean the end of liberty. Of course, these same conservatives never hesitate to expand the repressive and surveillance arms of the US government when it comes to domestic security. But it is Sanders, not Warren, who frames his call for a restoration of the New Deal and adoption of European-style welfare policies as “democratic socialism.” Whereas Sanders use the rhetoric of “revolution,” Warren calls for “structural change.” When I first heard her use this phrase, I both smiled and cringed. As a sociologist, it made me smile to hear a politician invoke a sociological term like “structure.” But I also thought it a bit odd and wondered if people understood it to mean anything more than “big,” “major,” “large-scale,” or some other adjectival descriptive.
In my view, what structural change means for Warren is, at its core, change in the structure of economic and financial markets and their interface with political and regulatory processes. This general political-economic framework tended to get lost in the plethora of her corollary plans, which included detailed proposals in the areas of green manufacturing, agriculture, housing, child care, education, labor rights, taxation, and so forth. As we move forward, we need to think more clearly about the broader framework she is articulating.
In terms of both rhetoric and policy, Warren is of a kind with progressive economist Robert Reich, who wants to “save capitalism” from devouring itself. Such language is not appealing to socialists who want to overturn capitalism and supplant it with an alternative vision of society, but it is arguably more viable politically. In its broadest sense, what Warren is looking for is not a revolution but rather a restoration of the Jeffersonian and Madisonian traditions of self-government and decentralized economic decision-making—Jefferson disdained “aristocratic corporations” and Madison believed that self-government required a citizenry capable of limiting concentrated economic power—or what Louis Brandeis, who served on the US Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, called “industrial liberty” or “economic democracy.”
Both prior to and during the campaign, when Warren was asked about her favorite president, she chose not Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal Democrat, but Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Republican whom Warren praises as a “trust buster” who broke up corporate monopolies, promoted competition, and protected the middle class. Trusts, also known as holding companies, were pools of companies or trade associations that avoided competition by fixing rates of profit and allocating business among competing firms in an industry. Although trusts per se have become obsolete business enterprises, monopolies and near monopolies (oligopolies) have not, and historically the terms were often used interchangeably.
The Sherman Antitrust Act (SAA) of 1890 is the landmark piece of federal legislation aimed at controlling anticompetitive business practices in the United States. It was an outgrowth of the populist movement of the late 19th century, the precursor to the progressive movement, composed of an alliance of farmers, workers, and other reform-minded groups that advocated on behalf of the “common people” vis-à-vis the elites and what Brandeis called the “curse of bigness.” The SAA was introduced by John Sherman, a Republican Senator from Ohio who previously served as Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of State. Sherman described his bill as a means of addressing the “inequality of condition, of wealth, and opportunity that had grown within a single generation out of the concentration of capital into vast combinations to control production and trade.”
Theodore Roosevelt is credited with breaking up more than 40 trusts. He was not, however, opposed to all trusts, and he made a distinction (borrowed from Charles Schwab) between “good trusts” and “bad trusts.” Whereas bad trusts engaged in unfair anticompetitive practices, good trusts (or “natural monopolies”) inevitably emerged from the technical conditions necessary for rational and efficient economic production and business administration. In Roosevelt’s view, it was not the role of the state to dismantle monopolies but rather to bring this private power under the control of democratically elected public power, that is, a government board of directors that regulated monopolies in the public interest. Similarly, in its early decisions about the SAA, the US Supreme Court made a distinction between “unreasonable” and “reasonable” business combinations and hence limited the scope and application of antitrust law.
In many ways, however, the president whose antitrust policies most closely resemble Warren’s views is not Theodore Roosevelt but the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. During the Wilson administration, two pieces of legislation further codified the meaning and enforcement mechanism of antitrust law: the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act. The former specified prohibited conduct as including, among other things, mergers and acquisitions that substantially lessened competition; and the latter established a federal agency to oversee and enforce antitrust law. Wilson’s thinking about antitrust law was significantly influenced by Brandeis, whom he appointed to the US Supreme Court. Following Brandeis, Wilson thought that decentralizing concentrations of economic power would bring forth more liberty to Americans.
Prior to his appointment to the Court, Brandeis had been known as “the people’s lawyer,” a constitutional scholar who translated antimonopoly populist sentiment into a set of constitutionally permissible legal doctrines. According to Lina Khan:
Brandeis and many of his contemporaries believed that the structure of our markets and of our economy can determine how much real liberty people have in their daily lives. Most people’s day-to-day experience of power comes not from interacting with public officials, but through relationships in their economic lives—negotiating with an employer, for example, or wrangling the terms of business with a trading partner. Brandeis feared that autocratic structures in the commercial sphere—such as when one or a few private corporations call all the shots—can preclude the experience of liberty, threatening democracy in our civil sphere.
Warren says that she believes in markets, but unregulated markets without rules are theft and destructive of families, communities, and middle-class life. (She also believes that markets don’t work in some areas, such as education and healthcare, where public ownership is preferable.) Part of what needs to be done, she thinks, is to prevent existing mega-corporations from abusing their market power. Take the case of Amazon, which takes unfair advantage of its digital sales platform by monitoring consumers’ interest in the products of other companies that are sold on its platform and then marketing its own branded products to undercut these competitors. Warren likens Amazon to a baseball umpire that also fields its own team. This, she believes, should not be allowed; you shouldn’t “get to do both as the same time.” Similarly, Amazon uses its market power to force its suppliers to lower prices. In the short term, consumers may like the lower prices, but in the long term these practices are costing jobs and putting companies out of business altogether.
More generally, in the tradition of Brandeis, Warren is concerned with the government’s lax policies regarding mergers and acquisitions, particularly between direct rivals, that are helping to create a hyper-concentrated corporate economy. Over the last four decades, since the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan, antitrust law has been increasingly interpreted in terms of its effect on “consumer welfare,” that is consumer prices, rather than on market competition or, in Maurice Stucke and Ariel Ezrachi’s words, “the historic concern about halting the momentum toward…concentrated economic power.” Since the 1980s, the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice have steadily raised the “market threshold” for challenging mergers; hence we now live in an era of mega-mergers of already huge corporations. This toleration of such mergers continued unabated during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.
Currently, in industry after industry in the United States, a half dozen or fewer corporations—in some cases as few as two or three—now control their respective markets by means of a business model that is built on the collapse of meaningful antitrust law enforcement. This unregulated concentration has had deleterious effects not only on our economy, but on our political system. According Sandeep Vaheesan, “Corporate concentration has meant that ordinary Americans pay more for essentials, earn less at work, lose opportunities to start new businesses, and are forced to accept corporate control of politics.” If we don’t reverse course, these consequences will continue to worsen.
Back in the 1960s, a merger that created a firm with a market share of more than 10% would have been disallowed by federal regulators. Warren has proposed a bill that would prohibit mergers of firms with a market share of 25% or more. She also wants to reverse already existing anticompetitive mergers, such as the merger of Monsanto and Bayer, as well as Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp. And she would have Amazon spin off or shutter its own private brands, such as Amazon Basics, and relinquish its ownership of Whole Foods and Zappos.
Moreover, there is broad bipartisan sentiment to do something about concentrated corporate power. I believe Zephry Teachout is correct when she argues:
Antitrust politics is not like other politics. Traditional left and right loyalties simply do not hold within its orbit. The economic populists of the right hate corporate monopolies as much as working-class progressives and immigrant small-business owners.…Unlike other well-flogged economic or culture-war issues, antitrust offers an inviting path out of the bitter cul-de-sacs of prevailing political debate. In an age of trench-war-style base mobilizations, the antitrust agenda promises something else: a vision of widening opportunities for ordinary citizens, the basic American civic ethos of giving people a fair shot, and a governing plan that could actually unite Republican and Democratic support.
Additionally, and this is critical, Teachout and others in the New Brandeis or Neo-Brandeisian movement believe that monopoly, broadly construed to include oligopolies, is not a problem in “the way that…tax evasion is a problem” or that “our total failure…to provide health care to sick people—and preventative care to all”—is a problem. Rather “monopoly is all of those problems…[because] it is the operating system of our economy.”
To be clear, antimonopoly politics is not anti-capitalist or anti-business. Brandeis himself was a business lawyer who, in Tim Wu’s words, praised “good businesses that grew organically and built dignified operations beloved by customers and partners.” However, “the real question,” as Matt Stoller observes, “is not whether commerce is good or bad. It is how we are to do commerce, to serve concentrated power or to free ourselves from concentrated power.” As Brandeis warned, “We must make a choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders agree that our economic system is not working for ordinary working people and needs to be reformed, and they both tap into a populist scorn for economic and political elites who wield undemocratic, concentrated forms of power. It is my sense, however, that it is Sanders who’s been better able to mobilize the emotionality of left-wing populism. The recent popularity of his Biden inauguration mittens memes is but one illustration of his appeal and the ways in which he has become a folk hero of sorts. But there remains the matter of socialism, or democratic socialism, which begs for clarification. Socialism has and continues to contribute important ideas for the reform of capitalism. But if you’re going to call your politics socialist, I think it’s important to be clear about what you mean. Is it something other than a revitalized New Deal or a European-style social democracy that aims to regulate capitalism in the public interest? Are you calling for some kind of mixed economy of capitalist and socialist institutions? Are you calling for the eventual abolition of capitalism? Rhetorically, for the purpose of political messaging, could the notion of “public” serve as a suitable substitute for “socialism’? These are some of the questions I have about the meaning of socialism in the United States.
Politically, socialism as an explicit ideology may be viable in a few local pockets of leftism, but it is arguably less so as an ideology capable of mobilizing enough voters to win a national election. Eugene Debs, the most celebrated socialist politician before Sanders, was a four-time Socialist Party of America presidential candidate between 1904 and 1920, the last time from prison, and he only received from 2.8% to 6% of the popular vote (the highest in 1912). As we know, Sanders, who has declined to run as a third-party candidate, was twice unable to secure the Democratic nomination for president.
As for Warren, she has captured the imaginations of those of us who are looking for creative ideas about public policy—for concrete regulatory mechanisms and legislative enhancements that can make capitalism work better for the common people, not just in the area of antimonopoly reform but in the area of regulating speculative financial markets, which have become a casino economy of sorts severed from any semblance of public utility and where stock prices have become decoupled from the real value of companies (for example, see my “Reflections on The Big Short”). And Warren can do populism, too: “Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to support laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor. Meanwhile hardworking families are told that they’ll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children.”
As I suggested, it is Warren’s vision of political economy that best reflects the legacy of Louis Brandeis, which is not a European tradition like socialism but a particularly American tradition. In a review of Warren’s memoir, A Fighting Chance, published in 2014, historian Jill Lapore dubs the book the heir to Brandeis’s Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, published a hundred years earlier in 1914. According to Lapore:
Brandeis believed that the country was being run by plutocrats and, especially, by investment banks, who, by combining, consolidating, and aggregating the functions of banks, trusts, and corporations controlled both the nation’s credit and the majority of its resources…and yet had not the least accountability to the public.…Brandeis was concerned with the…plutocrats’ use of people’s bank savings to build giant, monopolistic conglomerates answerable not to the people but to the shareholders.…Warren speaks Brandeis’s language. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own.…You built a factory out there, good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired the workers the rest of us paid to educate.” You used other people’s money…and “part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Isaac Chotiner. 2020. “How Socialist Is Bernie Sanders?” The New Yorker (Mar. 2).
Brian Balogh. 2009. A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press).
Franklin Foer. 2020. “The Differences Between Warren and Sanders Matter.” The Atlantic (Feb. 3).
Asma Khalid. 2020. “Why Progressives Chose Bernie Sanders Over Elizabeth Warren.” NPR.org (Mar. 7).
Lina Khan. 2018. “The New Brandeis Movement: America’s Antimonopoly Debate.” Journal of European Competition Law & Practice, vol. 9 (Mar.).
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