NEW YORK—In April of 2016, I went to a huge Bernie Sanders speech in Washington Square park, which spilled out into the surrounding streets around NYU. Last night, I went to a (not quite as huge, but still big) speech by Elizabeth Warren, in the same park, under the same noble white arch. What’s the difference?
It is true that Warren’s crowd is, perhaps, a bit wonkier, a bit more buttoned-up—a crowd too respectful of norms to talk during the national anthem, but also not aggressive enough to yell at me when I did. Warren had come to roll out her plan to end government corruption just a block away from the location of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist fire, where 146 workers died gruesomely due to greed and nonexistent workplace safety. Warren paid lengthy tribute to Frances Perkins, who was inspired by the fire to redouble her efforts as a social crusader, and who went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary and a key backer of the New Deal. Workers haven’t had as good a friend in the Labor Department, or in the White House, since. In 2020, we have a legitimate chance to have a true friend to the working class as president once again. The two true friends in the race are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are running more or less even for a close second behind Joe Biden. For anyone with a meaningful grasp of what the problems are facing America—for anyone who might be inspired by the story of Frances Perkins, or anyone who might regularly read Splinter—the Democratic primary is an audition of these two candidates. They each have their partisans already, but for the first time in my life, I keep returning to the question: What is the difference, in substance, in what they would do if they were elected president?
In substance. In style, you can see the differences. Many people cite the fact that Bernie is a “movement guy” and Warren is a “wonk,” but that is more a matter of presentation. Both are strong supporters of organized labor; both want to attack climate change; both want to end mass incarceration and close the racial wealth gap and support abortion rights; both want to do as much as can be done to lessen the influence of money in politics, and make voting more meaningful. Bernie may have a better plan for health care; Warren may have a better plan for affordable housing; both of them, I believe, are existentially committed to turning around the growth of economic inequality, which is the biggest underlying issue that fuels many of the other issues that we talk about.
The primacy of inequality, its role as the fountainhead of so many other problems, makes many of the political arguments we have about stylistic details of these candidates unimportant. Warren’s annual wealth tax on the very rich is, to me, the single most radical policy proposal of any candidate in the race, and would do more than any other single policy to alter the imbalance of economic and political power in this country. It strikes me as absurd, then, to knock Warren for being wonky. Inequality can only be solved by growing the power of organized labor and, even more importantly, via the tax code. The tax code is wonky. Tax policy is wonky. It is also the most powerful tool for fixing what ails us. One wonky change to the tax code, accompanied by another wonky change to labor law, can reverse the trends in this chart—a chart that goes a long way towards encapsulating everything that has been wrong with America for the past half century. As Warren spoke about her wealth tax last night, you could see a handful of people standing out on the balconies of the graceful Fifth Avenue apartments overlooking the square, watching. I like to imagine that they were contemplating their own demise.
There is an unimaginable amount of money at stake in this election. The implementation of the sort of changes that Warren and Bernie want to implement in the tax code would cost the very richest people in the country many hundreds of billions of dollars. The same is true of multinational corporations, which can be thought of as algorithms that operate to maximize their own profits, which are unfortunately treated as humans for the purpose of campaign finance. Accumulating political power is a rational choice for such an algorithm, and to the extent that Bernie and Warren want to limit the opportunities for such corporate political power, corporations will oppose them. This is all to say, simply, that there will be a staggering amount of financial resources directly and indirectly arrayed against the success of these two candidates. Both, or either. Think about the collective power of the group that encompasses “Wall Street, major corporations, and the rich,” and you can start to imagine the sort of opposition that will rise up against either of these people if they are the Democratic nominee. When you keep this in perspective, the fact that we on the left are engaged in harsh and bitter battles over the relative merits of these two similar candidates seems rather petty and unwise. If Bernie crushes the rich in a “movement” style and Warren crushes the rich in a “wonky” style they have still both crushed the rich. I just can’t find it in myself to get particularly worked up about who does it, so long as it gets done. Nor do I trust my own powers of prediction enough to tell you with real confidence who would be more likely to get it done. They both want to get it done. And, not to be too cutesy, getting it done is going to require a whole fucking lot of People Power, because the power that comes from money will be acting to stop it. If the portion of the American electorate that can accurately identify both the problems with and the best solutions to our nation’s problems proceeds to divide itself in half and then consume itself with rivalry over personalities while the upper class marches on to win another class war, I am going to fucking scream. Let’s not do that.
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Eat the rich in 2020. Don’t worry too much about which fork you use.