Elizabeth Warren appears to be the woman with a plan. She thrives on the debate stage with her detailed plans to fix the social ails of our time while Joe Biden struggles to keep his dentures in. The differences between these two candidates are stark: while Vice President Biden is the establishment choice to garner conservative support as a moderate Democrat, Senator Warren is a progressive candidate garnering grassroots support from fellow progressives. This kind of distinction should serve as a warning for establishment Democrats who rely on the existing structures to maintain power — but it doesn’t. As the Democratic Primary draws closer, Warren’s plans are increasingly being revealed as empty rhetoric made to placate progressive voters.
Many Democratic candidates have faced backlash in this recent election cycle for accepting corporate donations to fund their electoral campaigns. Progressive voters are increasingly concerned with the question of how a candidate will be able to fight for the rights of the working class and marginalized groups while accepting money from corporate donors who actively fight against change for the status quo. Until recently, Warren’s campaign has also faced such a backlash regarding her previous pledge to ban big-donor fundraising during the primary election, but only with the caveat that she will accept any and all funds during the general should she win the nomination. It is important to note that this initial decision came after Warren seeded her campaign budget with the corporate funding she received less than a year ago during her 2018 Senate run — most notably accepting a collective of nearly $220,000 from Apple, Amazon.com, and Microsoft. The campaign has since pledged to forgo big-money fundraising during the general election as well to appease those critics.
This shift could be an indicator of Warren’s willingness to address the concerns of her constituents, but it comes with yet another caveat. Warren will forgo big-dollar fundraisers for her presidential campaign but advertise and support these same big-dollar fundraising events for the Democratic National Committee, which acts as a de facto endorsement for the Democratic nominee. The majority of DNC funds raised during an election year are spent in support of the presidential candidate’s campaign. This move reveals that despite her campaign’s proclaimed progressive ideals and grassroots support, Warren will ultimately operate within the institutional confines of the DNC.
Big-money corporate fundraising has been a mainstay for American political elections, and has only become more prominent since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United in their case against the FEC. The Citizens United v. FEC case decided that the First Amendment includes corporate campaign donations in its protection of free speech. In simpler terms, money is speech and corporations are considered persons protected by the Bill of Rights. In an era of unprecedented economic inequality, this spells trouble for low-income citizens.
Grassroots campaigns which are funded by small-money individual donations must garner support from millions of individuals in order to compete with corporate influence. Corporations have immense funds which they funnel through super PACS and advocacy groups in order to have disproportionate influence in elections and policymaking. For example, the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future — which include membership from health insurance industries like Blue Cross/Blue Shield and industry special interest groups like the Federation of American Hospitals — has launched a multi-hundred-dollar TV ad campaign to attack Medicare for All. Put more simply, working class and low-income voters have an overwhelming disadvantage when it comes to influencing policy through campaign donations.
Although Warren’s campaign is currently being funded through grassroots efforts to garner these small-money individual donations, her promise to use big-money fundraisers to fund the DNC allows room for negotiation with these corporate interest groups. Already, Warren has distanced herself from her support for Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care plan, Medicare for All, in a private meeting with union officials. After offering full support for Sanders’ plan on the debate stage, she now regards the proposed legislation as merely a framework for her own healthcare plan, which was announced early this month.
Medicare for All is an especially hot topic in the Democratic primary. Aside from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, each candidate has expressed support for a version of Medicare for All which would ensure that every American has access to health insurance but allows for the existence of a for-profit private health insurance industry. Warren originally provided support for a single-payer system along the lines of Sanders’ plan but has since distanced herself from his specific legislative proposal. On the debate stage, she revealed her reluctance to admit that although income taxes would raise for the middle class, with the elimination of out-of-pocket payments like deductibles and copays, they would ultimately save money.
Elizabeth Warren’s recent plan to finance Medicare for All expands upon the existing Medicare tax, but would implement a flat head tax rather than the traditional 8% payroll for employers. Companies with fewer than fifty employees and independent contractors would be exempt from this head tax. With the recent example of rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft exploiting the independent contractor loophole by depriving their workers of employee benefits, this exemption could serve as an incentive for businesses to follow in their steps. Additionally, Warren maintains her promise that she will not raise taxes on the middle class, but a disproportionate head tax on small businesses is a tax on the middle class.
When evaluating the demographics of Warren’s support, her increasing distance from a straightforward progressive tax plan to fund Medicare for All is rather unsurprising. Among the top donors to her campaign are lawyers and law firms; business services professionals; health professionals; real estate professionals; and “miscellaneous business” professionals. These donations reveal that support for Warren is overwhelmingly among the business-class. She has no trouble garnering support from college-educated, business-class white people but, as recent polls have shown, she has been struggling to pull support from people of color and lower-income voters.
By her own admission, Elizabeth Warren is a capitalist through and through. A single-payer healthcare system is decidedly a move away from a capitalist framework for health insurance. Medicare for All eliminates the need for private insurance companies which profit from their services. Warren’s efforts to distance herself from a single-payer system are thus not surprising. Her malleable stance on Medicare for All and big-money fundraising paints a troubling picture of a candidate that uses progressive language to attract supporters but will ultimately give into corporate pressures.
Warren’s acceptance of capitalism allows for her campaign to provide a progressive alternative to a compromise candidate in the eyes of center-left establishment Democrats. Matt Bennet, co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way, says “The thing about Warren is that she is staying within the lines of what is manageable; what she’s offering is not a rejection of capitalism.” For establishment Democrats, this makes her a much safer choice than Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist. This also reveals that she has failed to pinpoint the root cause behind the government corruption she aims to correct.
The Responsible Capitalism Act seems like yet another plan in Senator Warren’s legislative arsenal built to win the Democratic nomination and defeat Trump but it falls short in identifying the culprit behind rampant economic inequality. It is not corruption that incentivizes CEOs to shortchange their employees in exchange for their third super-yacht, it is capitalism. It is not corruption which prioritizes profits over taking responsibility over ecological disaster, it is capitalism. Warren’s plan fails to identify the problem and reveals her reluctance — no, refusal — to enact the structural change necessary to combat economic inequality and return rights back to the working class.
The time to combat the far-right economic policies which have decimated the American working class with incremental neoliberal legislation is over. In order to address the growing economic inequality that has emerged after over five decades of regressive tax plans and corporate bailouts, the Democratic nominee must be able to accurately address the root cause of the problem. Warren’s campaign relies on progressive rhetoric to garner grassroots support but has already shown signs that she is unwilling to challenge the status quo for the system which led to a for-profit healthcare system; trillions of dollars of student debt; and historic wealth inequality.