Decision Time for Democratic Populists

In recent months, many progressives have been holding out hope that Elizabeth Warren might throw her hat in the ring to be the next Democratic presidential nominee. MoveOn.org has collected over 300,000 signatures for its “Run, Warren, Run” campaign. So far, however, she denies that she has any plans to do so.

Since her election to the Senate in 2012, Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading figure in the populist wing of the Democratic Party and, with her anti-Wall Street rhetoric, she has excited the Democratic Party base and forged a connection with working people across the nation who are still reeling from the Great Recession as well as 30 years of neoliberal domination and unrelenting attacks on workers’ rights.

“Scourge of Wall Street”

It’s not difficult to see how Elizabeth Warren could appear to be a viable alternative to the Democratic Party establishment and corporate politics as usual. She has boldly spoken out against growing income inequality, crushing student debt, and tax breaks for the wealthy. She is one of the few politicians in Washington willing to unabashedly call out powerful Wall Street institutions, as she did in a speech last year decrying a provision in the Omnibus Budget Bill that would enable further bank bailouts on the backs of working people. More recently, Warren stood up to Obama and the Democratic Party establishment, joining some right-wing populists in criticizing a provision in Obama’s prized multinational free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could give corporations the ability to challenge national laws such as environmental regulations that limit profit.

Despite denying plans to run for president in 2016, a recent poll conducted by MoveOn.org and Democracy for America showed Elizabeth Warren leading Hillary Clinton in two key states, Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren’s populist rhetoric and her growing support among the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party have highlighted a growing rift within the party between what is being dubbed “the Warren wing” and the “centrist” party establishment, which rose to prominence during Bill Clinton’s presidency. However, the fact that Warren appears unready to take up Hillary Clinton in the primaries, thereby leaving her a free field, raises serious questions about the viability of the much-discussed populist wing of the party that she represents as well as the seriousness of her rhetoric.

The Clinton campaign and the centrist wing have recently been working to neutralize any influence that the populist Warren wing could have in 2016. Many centrist Democratic leaders have drawn the false conclusion that their embarrassing defeat in the midterm elections was due to a party platform that shifted too far to the left, rather than to the Democratic Party’s inability to fight back against the onslaught on working people over the last few years. The New Democratic Coalition announced early this March that they were drafting their own more pro-business economic policy platform, focusing on “economic growth and prosperity” to counter Warren’s more progressive economic policy platform.

Serious Limitations

Warren clearly stands to the left of the Democratic Party establishment, but her politics have serious limitations. While she has challenged them on some key issues, she has broadly supported Obama’s disastrous foreign policy. For example, in 2013 she voted in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014, allowing the military to indefinitely detain individuals.

To take a different example, while Warren supports an increase in the minimum wage, she only advocates for an increase to $10.10 an hour, far less than the $15 an hour that is needed to raise low-wage workers out of poverty.

But Warren’s biggest limitation is that she completely accepts the framework of the Democratic Party, which at the national level is utterly beholden to corporate interests. In 2012, the Democratic Party received $565 million in corporate cash. This corporate money acts as a veto on any serious attempt to get the party to adopt policies that contradict corporate interests.

Unfortunately, in the face of relentless Republican-led attacks, Warren, like the rest of the Democrats, does not seek to use her position to give workers a voice independent of big business and corporate cash. For example, she does not use her position to publicly advocate for fast-food workers to actively participate in days of action against poverty wages. Avoiding such clashes with big business means not going beyond the limits the party establishment and their and corporate backers are willing to accept. This is no accident. Going down this path would lead to Warren’s complete isolation in leading Democratic Party circles – and, despite her courage in taking on Wall Street in her speeches, unfortunately that’s not what she’s prepared to do.

If Warren is really serious about wanting to fight back against the “rigged system” she so vehemently condemns, then she and “the Warren wing” need to declare their complete independence from corporate cash and join those, like Kshama Sawant, who are trying to build a new political force to represent the interests of working people and the poor.

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