In a Democratic primary debate that was dominated by Joe Biden's incoherence and Pete Buttigieg's smarm, the two most left-wing candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for the most part avoided addressing each other directly. But a political confrontation seems inevitable. That means Sanders needs to start naming his enemy, the thing that Warren has heaped praise on: capitalism.
The contradiction between the two nearly became apparent Thursday night in the way that each used the populist rhetoric of "corruption" to identify their political enemies. Both Sanders and Warren have described the present political situation as "corrupt," but each means something very different by the word: Warren using it to describe individuals who have taken advantage of flaws in the system—a kind of aberration—and Sanders using it to describe something that is fundamentally rotten.
Multiple times throughout the debate, Sanders condemned "the greed and corruption of the corporate elite," most often referring specifically to those profiting off of the privatization of health care but also naming the military and prison industrial complexes. "What we are looking at is a corrupt political system," he said, "whether it is the drug companies, or the insurance companies, or the fossil fuel industry determining what's happening in Washington or [the] NRA."
Warren also identified the fossil fuel industry and gun lobby as bad actors. "The question we need to ask is, when we've got this much support [for various gun control measures] across the country, why doesn't it happen? And the answer is corruption, pure and simple," she said in response to a question about working with Republicans on the issue. "As long as Washington is paying more attention to money than it is to our future, we can't make the changes we need to make," she said regarding climate change. "We have to attack the corruption head-on so that we can save our planet."
In Sanders's account, it is the political system that is corrupt; in Warren's, it is politicians who are. This is a fine-grained distinction to make and one that is only really possible thanks to what we know about each candidate outside of the context of the debate; moreover, it is a distinction that the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media are interested in obscuring.
In promoting the debate, media outlets framed it as fundamentally being a confrontation between Warren and Joe Biden, casting these two as the frontrunners despite Sanders's consistent polling at second or third place. This built on an argument that has been circulating about Sanders and Warren's apparent similarities: If Warren and Sanders are offering the same kind of left-liberalism, the thinking goes, why wouldn't you vote for Warren, who is not only a robust, policy-driven populist in her own right but a woman, and also younger than Sanders.
This might be persuasive but for the fact that it operates on a false premise: Sanders may not be the revolutionary Marxist some of his more radical supporters desire, but he is also decidedly not offering the same kind of left-liberalism as Warren, who has taken only a temporary hiatus from big money donors, has sought (however surreptitiously) an alliance with Hillary Clinton, and is at bottom aligned with the Democratic establishment. In her own words, she is "a capitalist to her bones."
As the long primary campaign drags on, Sanders will need to eat into Warren's support if he wants to claim the nomination. This doesn't mean attacking Warren personally, but it does mean making a case to progressives who seem increasingly enamored with her that her plans are, in his eyes, not good enough. Warren's proposals to reform the massive corporations that control American life might be a step in the right direction, but Sanders is the one calling for the abolishment of an entire industry with his Medicare for All plan, which would ban private insurers. (Warren has co-signed that plan, but relatively late and in what many observers regard as a strategic move.)
More to the point, Sanders's "political revolution" rests on building the power of workers to exert democratic control over their lives and the economy—a fundamentally anti-capitalist belief that Warren does not share.
There is no doubt that each could be a useful ally to the other, whether in the primary or general elections or in the White House, but Sanders and Warren are building fundamentally different political projects; at least, that is what Sanders's leftist supporters hope, and it is what the party establishment believes. While the American electorate probably isn't ready for a debate about property relations and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, Sanders needs to escalate, finding rhetorical space between his colloquial invocation of "millionaires and billionaires" and a full-throated condemnation of bourgeois class enemies.
If Sanders wants to put discursive distance between himself and Warren, he would do well to give the systemic corruption he describes a name: capitalism. Not unfettered capitalism, as he has said before, not unchained, not unmitigated—but capitalism, pure and simple.
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Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.