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Elizabeth Warren’s Grudging Acceptance of Billionaires

The future of the Democratic Party in the US may hang on whether it decides to love or hate the billionaires who have made it what it is today.
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Elizabeth Warren in San Diego, 2019 © Jeffrey Alan Photography / Shutterstock

November 12, 2019 10:13 EDT

Although direct rivals for the Democratic presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been working in some respects like a wrestling tag team. The media prefer to ignore the most serious implications of their strategy for the party itself and US society as a whole, but with the recent focus on the wealth tax, there may be a compelling reason to begin examining it more closely.

Concerning the major reforms required to address the distinctly unsolvable problems at the core of the US economy — such as the debt crisis as well as the stultifying cost of health care and education — the two candidates have shown themselves ready to jump into the ring and challenge any Democrat who says that the solutions to these issues can only be achieved by minimalist approaches consisting primarily of gentle nudging or minor tweaks to existing laws and institutions.

As a subsidiary of Fox News — a powerful news outlet dedicated to seeking ways to discredit DemocratsFox Business has its own reasons for calling attention to the points of convergence and divergence between the two progressive candidates. Thanks to a debate that has increasingly focused on taxing billionaires’ fortunes, Fox focuses on a quasi-philosophical question on which Sanders and Warren appear to disagree. It is, quite simply, whether billionaires should or should not exist. Since Sanders has boldly proclaimed, on moral grounds, that they shouldn’t exist, the media obviously wanted to know if Warren agrees.

Warren’s response to the question correlates with her statement — intended clearly to differentiate herself from the “Democratic socialist” Sanders — that she is a capitalist to the bones. “Look, somebody has a great idea, and they follow it through and they work hard and they build something, good for them,” Warren said.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Great idea:

In the framework of the “American dream,” the ideal substitute for the otherwise inevitable conclusion that hard work is the unique natural source of income. Belief in the power of the “great idea” justifies the average person’s faith in the moral value of capitalism, a system in which there is one way to survive — hard work — and two ways to become successful: start with a large sum of inherited money or come up with the kind of great idea that can con masses of people into paying considerably more than the actual worth of the great product that results from the great idea.

Contextual Note

The media shy away from the idea that Sanders and Warren are a tag team for two notable reasons. One is political and the other cultural.

The cultural reason boils down to the notion that an election, rather than being an opportunity to assess ideas and plans for government, is essentially a competition between ambitious, talented individuals. Casting the two progressive candidates as combative rivals, even while recognizing the similarities in their thinking and programs, allows the media to comfort the idea, present at the core of American culture, that life itself is a zero-sum game played out by ambitious individuals.

On any issue and at any given moment, everyone is either a winner or a loser. Losers can nevertheless hope to win the next time, just as winners will fear losing the next time. Alas, it’s often the ideas themselves that are lost or forgotten once the winner emerges and the loser retreats into the shadows.

The political reason follows the same logic but turns out to be a bit more cynical. The public sees Sanders and Warren as similar in their take on the economy and their insistence on the need for a serious shift in the approach to essential dollars-and-cents questions. The media, in contrast, want every election to look like a horse race in which they can highlight the drama of competing thoroughbreds digging their hoofs in the dirt to be the one to cross the line first as the crowd expresses its rising emotion. Treating the two progressive candidates as rivals rather than as objective allies allows the media to focus on the combat rather than the substance of the issues they raise.

This has an advantage for the media. It allows them to avoid the real story the polls have been telling, one that reflects the deeper trends in US politics, which the media appear to prefer ignoring because it would oblige them to think rather than just report. It concerns the growing fault line within the Democratic Party itself, which has little to do with the individual candidates and everything to do with the future of the republic.

There is, after all, more than one way to read the endless parade of polls that mark the campaign. The corporate media gain by reinforcing the belief that an election is nothing more than a horse race. But the real story delivers a lesson the establishment Democrats, who guide much of the media’s reporting, don’t want voters to hear.

Most observers seem to agree that there are three leading Democratic candidates among the 20 or so who have been announced: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Practically everyone agrees that Biden and some of the candidates with low polling numbers (Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro, for example) represent the Democratic establishment. As the former vice president under Barack Obama, Biden himself embodies it nearly as emblematically as Hillary Clinton.

The real story of this election is less a question of which individual in the party will emerge as the Democratic National Convention’s nominee, but rather which side in the rift that now divides the Democratic Party in two will end up carrying the party’s flag to battle in 2020 against the redoubtable Donald Trump.

The rift began with Bernie Sanders’ startlingly effective primary campaign against Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. With the arrival of the youthful, feminine contingent now referred to as “The Squad” after the 2018 midterm elections, the movement initiated by Sanders has turned into a commanding historical trend. Whether it will transform the Democratic Party, disappear into the mists of history as a minor, losing challenge to the authority of a dominant system or spawn a reconfiguration of the entire political landscape, possibly with the emergence of a third party, no one knows. For the moment, all eyes are focused on the horse race. 

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The gap between the establishmentarians and the progressive trouble-makers — which, in terms of voting blocks, is also a generational gap — has nevertheless created a dramatic scenario that upsets and radically undermines the reassuring sense of a unified historical mission that dominated an era of tranquility, extending from Bill Clinton’s presidency through Barack Obama’s.

The political headlines now focus regularly on which candidate is ahead in the polls, who is advancing and who’s falling behind. That has enabled Biden, the emblem of the establishment, to continue to appear as the favorite, even in polls where Warren equals or even surpasses his score.

But if the media analyzed the drama of the primaries in terms of its long-term historical significance — the question of which political and economic philosophy (and which generation) will achieve dominance inside the Democratic electorate — Biden and the other establishment Democrats would be trailing miserably behind the combined popularity of Sanders and Warren. By the same token, in terms of pure marketing impact, The Squad have clearly outdistanced the hyper-conventional Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Historical Note

The 2016 Democratic primary resulted in a head-to-head that Hillary Clinton had to win to reassure the Democratic Party that it was still the political force crafted by her husband a quarter of a century earlier. The Democratic National Committee did everything it needed to do and more to ensure that result. Bernie Sanders couldn’t count on the party’s machinery, which meant that even if he had pulled marginally ahead, he would have remained in a position of weakness. 

The corporate capitalism defended by Clinton and Pelosi constituted the party’s fundamental strength. It presented itself as capable of credibly governing a powerful set of institutions — financial, military, industrial and global in their intricately woven economic and cultural complexity — that defined the wooly concept known as the “national interest.” This has come to mean that the trivial interests and concerns of ordinary citizens will always be subsidiary to the more deeply-considered, more judiciously-weighed interests of the privately-owned corporations charged metaphorically with the programming of what we are tempted to call the “government-corporate operating system.” The metaphor, as in all hyperreal structures, may, in many people’s minds, be more real and have more impact than reality itself.

The algorithms that regulate the system’s behavior are coded deep within its logic, which was stabilized ideologically nearly two centuries ago, first in the UK and then, with increased agility, in the US, as the logic of empire moved from one side of the Atlantic to the other. A recent article in The New Yorker quotes the founder of The Economist, James Wilson, who in the 19th century specifically defended the sanctity of profit, in comparison to possible concerns about the health of a company’s customers or workers, with this iron-clad statement of principle: “Where the most profit is made, the public is best served. Limit the profit, and you limit the exertion of ingenuity in a thousand ways.”

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That, according to the system’s logic repeated in today’s debates, is why we need billionaires. Society places a higher premium on ingenuity and the riches it creates than on people’s well-being. Some commentators find the logic flawed, but even our system of education has inculcated in us the axiom that, because successful innovation — Warren’s “great idea” — produces billionaires, the only valid reason for having a great idea and innovating is to get rich. The corollary is that if something has made someone rich, it is innovative and socially desirable. 

To differentiate herself from Sanders, Warren has demonstrated her own ingenuity by hitting upon a compromise that even the existing system can accept as consistent with its logic: “You make it to the top, to the tip-top, then the answer is: Pay a wealth tax so we can invest and create opportunities for everyone else.” 

The only flaw in her logic is that in a society that insists everything is about competitive advantage, the motivation to “create opportunities for everyone else” simply doesn’t exist or, rather, can’t compete with the motivation to accumulate as much as possible for oneself. That line of code about the value of generosity and sharing was never written into the operating system. And had anyone attempted it, it would have produced a fatal system error.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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