On Monday, Bernie Sanders rolled out perhaps his most radical policy proposal yet: a total debt jubilee for all students currently paying back student loans. The policy would mean debt relief for some 45 million Americans who owe an average of $30,000. As borrowers will know, interest rates for these predatory loans are exceptionally high. Undergraduate borrowers pay an average rate of 5.05%, while graduate students see average rates of more than 6.5%. The Sanders plan would be paid for by a new tax on Wall Street speculation.
The debt relief legislation that Bernie Sanders unveiled, alongside fellow progressive Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), is radical for two reasons. First, it would lead to a massive boom in consumption from the working and middle class. It’s not uncommon for borrowers to pay $900 or $1000 a month as part of their repayment plan, rivaling the cost of rent for many. The inability of young adults to buy homes and start businesses because they lack capital has been well documented. Sanders plan would have a powerful impact on this trend, dramatically increasing economic mobility for a not-insignificant chunk of Americans.
The second purpose of the radical proposal is a redistribution of both wealth, and political power. Not only is the mechanism through which the debt relief is funded as progressive as possible, it represents a reduction in inequality that goes beyond money. There are a wide range of dispositions that we on the left hold, as anyone who has ever been on Twitter or Tumblr for more than five minutes will understand. The one thing that unites all of us, however, is the desire to create a working-class base that is conscious and exerts power. This is as true of Bernie Sanders style Social Democrats as it is of revolutionary anarchists. No matter where any of us individually fall along the spectrum, the Sanders proposal is a hugely positive step in the right direction.
When you tax someone, you do more than take their money. If you tax the working class, say at the point-of-sale, you damage their ability to consume. That 5 or 6 percent tax that is imposed on them at the gas station each time they make a purchase or at Ross where they buy clothes can quickly add up. That sum paid to the state might mean they run out of money and don’t eat for the last two days before their paycheck finally comes on the 15th. Or, as the millennials call it, “fasting.” This example makes clear that the way in which a state captures revenue goes beyond numbers on an Excel spreadsheet. It has sociocultural implications. It shapes both individuals and communities.
Conversely, progressive taxation has serious implications for the wealthy. As every single person left of Joe Manchin will tell you, the United States used to have top marginal tax rates of between 80 and 90%. It’s the Godwin’s law of progressive politics. So why was that a time for which the left feels nostalgic? Is it because the state had more revenue to invest in things like infrastructure and education? That was certainly true, and that’s clearly a part of the equation, but it also represented a time when we had a flatter hierarchy of power. Rich folks still dominated the country of course, this is capitalism after all, but they didn’t get whatever they wanted no questions asked. Workers, as long as they could organize, had a say in how they wanted the country to function. They could demand higher wages and better benefits, and there was a decent chance they would succeed.
And then Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, and things started to change. Top marginal tax rates had already been precipitously declining, but Reagan slashed them from 70 percent to less than 30 percent. In the meantime, he set out to destroy organized labor, liberalize the economy, and privatize anything he could get his hand on. The results were profound, and again they stretched far beyond the economy. Labor lost almost all of its power, and power abhors a vacuum. Every semblance or solidarity among the working-class washed away as the wealthy recaptured control over all relevant institutions.
Things have gotten worse since the disastrous Reagan era in a surprisingly consistent trend. One would think there would be a pendulum swing between Republican and Democratic administrations, but one would be wrong. Reagan passed the baton on to Bill Clinton, who decided the best way to beat the Republicans was to become one of them. Rather than creating a new center as many had supposed, Republicans correctly decided their best option was to just keep moving right while democrats incorrectly decided their best move was to chase after them. This led to two fundamentalist, authoritarian, right wing presidents in George Bush and Donald Trump. Sandwiched in between was Barack Obama who promised to break the right-wing Democratic consensus and then proceeded to do no such thing. Rather than use the opportunity of financial crisis to implement a Keynesian economic program to get workers back on their feet, Obama bailed out the bankers and, you guessed it, increased their power.
The question at hand in the 2016 election, then, was how would the left respond? Conservatives had quintupled down on the xenophobia, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism and it was clear to all the Barack Obama’s presidency was a failure. Sure, Obama’s policies ensured that the economy didn’t fall off the cliff, and he’ll always deserve some form of credit for that. Even his further left critic should understand how much worse things could have gotten. The problem is that the so-called “economic recovery” traces a graph of inequality nearly perfectly over the same period. The economy is good again for rich people and the stock market. The working class has seen but a tiny fraction of the same gains.
The Democratic Party made the decision of how to succeed the Obama presidency for us. The answer to losing 1,000 Democratic seats nationwide as the Republicans cemented their institutional control over government and blocked a hearing on a SCOTUS justice was more of the same. Not only was Hillary Clinton going to be the nominee, Democrats spent 2014 and 2015 clearing the field to make sure she was unchallenged on her record and would waltz through the primary. Elizabeth Warren, considering a challenge, consented to the coronation and the field was set. It was going to be Hillary Clinton against three no names that had zero chance of stealing more than 3% in any given primary – Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lawrence Lessig. Then, just when it appeared the issue was decided, a grumpy old Senator from Vermont announced his presidential run to about 12 reporters on his lunch break.
We all know what happened next. Sanders ran a brilliant insurgent campaign, shocking the entire country and winning 45 percent of the Democratic primary vote but ultimately falling short. In the process he activated a base of people to both realize and develop their left politics by revealing the truth; it doesn’t have to be this way. There are more choices on offer than corporate interventionist Democrat A or corporate interventionist Democrat B.
But ultimately, the Democrats got their coronation in 2016 despite the bumpy road, and Hillary Clinton was the nominee. The political world was stunned when the most qualified candidate in the history of the human species lost to a sundowning racist reality TV star who had just emasculated the entire Republican Party by calling their wives ugly and claiming he had a much larger penis than them.
And thus, we are left with the same question we were faced with in 2016, how will the left respond? This time around, there actually is a left response. A healthy and robust one, even. Despite the fact that the frontrunner, Joe Biden, is a Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama redux, the second and third place challengers are on the left wing of the party. Bernie Sanders is running once again, with a much stronger campaign team and an even further left campaign than last time around, as is Elizabeth Warren. Warren is running as a sort of New Deal Democrat, a strong progressive with a litany of detailed plans for how to restructure and regulate capitalism for the working class. Sanders is challenging capitalism as a concept.
And herein lies the big difference. We on the left have been saying for quite some time now that this primary should be between Warren and Sanders. Joe Biden represents an old, losing politics whereas Warren and Sanders both represent a significant shift to the left that would actually empower working people. We on the left, at least the more reasonable of us who haven’t concocted a narrative in our head that paints her as some neoliberal in progressive clothing, also would be happy to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I would donate money to her campaign and do everything in my power to ensure that she defeated Donald Trump if she were to become the Democratic nominee. She would make a very good president.
For Warren supporters, though, this has led to a dumbing down and flattening of the Democratic primary process in a very similar vein to what we saw from Clinton backers in 2016. As Nate Silver was keen to point out, Hillary Clinton was basically just as progressive as Bernie Sanders because they voted the same way 93 percent of the time! Never mind that 7 percent difference was on pivotal issues like war funding and surveillance, or that the kind of bills Bernie Sanders would have liked to be voting on never got brought up in the Senate in the first place, or that they only served together for 2 years. They’re the same. There is no difference, they’re just as progressive as one another, and because that is the factual reality we might as well pick the younger woman. The problem with the similar argument being employed in the service of Warren is that it’s much more plausible. Elizabeth Warren really is close to Bernie Sanders on policy, so it’s more convincing to individuals with more than a half a brain when you say Warren and Sanders are the same than when you tried to make the case that Hillary Clinton was also a Democratic Socialist.
Despite the fact that it’s more plausible, it’s fundamentally untrue. I began this piece by discussing Bernie Sanders new college debt relief proposal because it’s illustrative. Elizabeth Warren has a student loan debt relief proposal as well, a really good one! But despite being good, it wouldn’t wipe out all student debt. Some students would still owe as much as half of their current loans under the Warren plan. A similar discrepancy arises in healthcare, where Sanders wants a pure Single Payer system that eliminates private insurance while Warren talks about “multiple paths.” Sanders climate policy is more ambitious than Warren’s, as is his criminal justice platform.
When it comes to foreign policy, Sanders and Warren are actually pretty far apart. Many leftists, myself very much included, critique Sanders’ foreign policy for not being great, but Warren’s is flat out bad. Sanders has advocated for slashing the military budget, Warren has not. Sanders has criticized Israel numerous times for various behavior while Elizabeth Warren simultaneously refused to do, most notably in the 2014 massacre in Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians lost their lives. Elizabeth Warren supported the Trump administration designed coup in Venezuela by recognizing Juan Guaido’s illegal claim to the presidency while Sanders refused to do so. Warren voted for all three (!!) of Trump’s military budgets while Sanders voted against them. These are critical differences on policy that are very important.
Perhaps even more important is the rhetoric they employ. Even a presidency that goes perfectly by the book will likely only see a few big policies passed, so there’s a fair chance their different positions on healthcare or criminal justice won’t even end up mattering. What the President does have a huge amount of control over, however, is public perception via the bully pulpit. Anti-Bernie liberals love to downplay the importance of having a socialist in the oval office, but they’re fundamentally wrong. Sanders, as a Senator from the tiny state of Vermont, has already shown an immense amount of power. He called out Jeff Bezos and Amazon repeatedly over Twitter and in speeches to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, and it worked! He has since moved on to McDonald’s and Walmart, and there is some suggestion both are considering raising their wages as well. This is a huge fucking deal. These three companies, combined, employ 2.1 million people, and Sanders is successfully pushing to raise wages for the vast majority of their employees. He’s also joined the picket lines of Verizon workers and California teachers on strike. This kind of support from the oval office means that in the worst-case scenario, one where Democrats aren’t able to command a congressional majority, President Bernie Sanders could still accomplish a lot! He would support unionization, pressure for increased wages, and assists in the expansion of worker cooperatives through executive order. This is the most important difference between Sanders and Warren.
I find it important to stress, and I’m talking to my fellow leftists here, that we shouldn’t downplay the opportunity presented to us by Bernie Sanders. A lot of us have become so jaded that we’re not even really that invested in whether Sanders wins or not. He’s far from perfect and Republicans will just block his more ambitious programs anyways. Our government is irreparably broken. This cynicism isn’t counterproductive because it’s wrong, it’s counterproductive because it turns us into liberal institutionalists. It’s the same kind of thinking that excuses Obama’s drone strikes on the premise that they’re less destructive than boots on the ground, and thinks that the rule of law determines what is just.
If history teaches us anything, though, it teaches us that nothing stays the same. Society can and does change, and in the past two centuries has done so rapidly. A single generation can see a country’s politics shift so dramatically that it’s basically unrecognizable to that which preceded it. I’m not saying this is going to be the result of a Sanders presidency, it almost certainly won’t be and such predictions would be little more than spurious conjecture, but he offers us a possibility that we’ve never had.
Elizabeth Warren would be a redux of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the best president this country has ever had. That’s a good thing. Bernie Sanders offers us something greater than we’ve ever had. That’s even better. Let’s stop pretending they’re the same.