Elizabeth Warren Is Much More Than “Bernie-Light”

In some ways, she’s even more progressive than Sanders.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both belong in the race. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

Elizabeth Warren’s head start has not yet amounted to much. Nearly three months after she was the first big name to enter the 2020 Democratic race, the Massachusetts senator is being outpolled and out-raised by a number of rivals across the political spectrum. This despite her churning out one detailed progressive policy proposal after another and staking out bold stances on issues like reparations and the Electoral College.

Liberals have found someone to blame for standing in Warren’s way: Bernie Sanders.

“There’s no substantive reason [for Sanders] to run this time around with Warren in the field, but instead of helping his ideological twin become the first female president, he’s centering himself,” Alexis Grenell lamented in the Daily Beast last week. Writing in Vox, Matthew Yglesias stopped short of saying the independent senator from Vermont should drop out but did suggest the primary field wouldn’t be noticeably worse off if Sanders and the rest of the men running abandoned it. “Warren is obviously not identical to Bernie Sanders but offers a broadly similar leftist critique of the U.S. economy and a parallel practical promise to break somewhat with Democratic establishment personnel in executive branch appointments,” he wrote. Moira Donegan struck a similar note in the Guardian when assessing the two senators’ positions shortly after Sanders jumped in last month. “Why would Democratic voters choose Sanders when Warren is running?” she wrote. “The two are not ideologically identical, but the differences between their major policy stances, on regulation of financial services and the need to extend the welfare state, are relatively minor, especially compared to the rest of the field.”

The impulse to compare rather than contrast Warren with Sanders in this way is a natural one. The two economic populists are indeed closer to each other on the ideological spectrum than they are to anyone else in the race. And as Donegan points out, the socialist-capitalist binary that is often used by Sanders fans to sort the two can feel like a post-hoc rationalization from those “seeking a politically 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.” Second-choice polling, as limited as it is, offers evidence of that: A plurality of her supporters name him as their second choice, and yet his fans are about two times less likely to select her as their fallback than they are to pick Joe Biden, a man who is synonymous with the status quo and not yet even in the race. That is truly maddening for progressives like myself who see the deck as still stacked against women and candidates of color, in the general election and the Democratic primary.

And yet downplaying the ideological differences between Sanders and Warren strikes me as unfair to the former, who has clear reasons to be in the race beyond self-glorification, and unhelpful to the latter, who should be celebrated for offering the most robust and substantive policy platform of anyone running for president. There’s not just room in the 2020 Democratic field for both a blow-up-the-system democratic socialist and reform-it-from-the-inside “capitalist to the bone.” There’s a real need for both.

Let’s start with Sanders. While the Democratic field has adopted many of his once-radical positions, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep them were he to depart the race. Even with him running, for example, Warren and other progressive candidates have begun to inch away from his signature Medicare for all proposal despite signing onto the idea previously. Warren, for one, still supports the effort but is also open to incremental steps that preserve some form of private insurance. Sanders, meanwhile, is uninterested in any half steps on the way to a single-payer system, a position he made clear Wednesday when he pointedly withheld his support from a symbolic effort by House Democrats to expand Obamacare. Likewise, as his fans at Jacobin point out, Sanders offers a distinct theory of change, one that relies on bottom-up, movement-based politics. Unlike another white dude I can think of, then, Sanders had a good reason to jump in and has a good reason to stay.

Warren, meanwhile, is far more than just “Bernie-light,” as some of her critics on the left derisively regard her—an impression her supporters risk feeding by blurring the lines between them. Warren is not as far left as Sanders in terms of economic orientation, but she never claimed to be. The former law professor and consumer advocate has already proved she can both believe in the power of the market and still be serious about crafting and enforcing the rules needed to make it fairer and more equitable. She’s pasted a target on everything from Big Tech to Big Agriculture. And while both Sanders and Warren are clear about their visions of the future, Warren to date has provided a far more specific road map of exactly how to get to hers.

Consider the bounty of unique proposals she has already put forward: She wants to give workers the power to elect at least 40 percent of the individual board members at large corporations; to break up Amazon, Facebook, and Google; to fight consolidation in the agriculture industry beginning with the merger of Bayer AG and Monsanto; to prevent ex-lawmakers and Cabinet members from lobbying on behalf of corporations; to provide universal child care via a federal system for funding locally run child care providers; to address America’s housing crisis by taking on segregation, redlining, and restrictive zoning; and to institute an annual “wealth tax” on fortunes larger than $50 million. Add to that her past record on gun control, her present embrace of a Ta-Nehisi Coates–style view of reparations, and a potential future where she’s the first female president in our nation’s two-and-a-half-century history, and Warren supporters shouldn’t be content to claim she’s as progressive as Sanders when they could argue she’s more progressive than him.

How much that assessment resonates with voters will depend on how much they prioritize economic policy above all else. It also depends on the related question of whether a man who identifies as a socialist or a woman who calls herself a capitalist would fare better against Donald Trump in an election of existential importance. But that’s why primaries exist. There very well may come a point in the nominating contest when it makes sense strategically for either Sanders or Warren to drop out to allow the other to consolidate support against a more moderate rival, which is to say any other rival. But for now, the race is richer with both of them in it. They’re two different messengers with similar messages, just not the same one.