Warren, Sanders, and American Left Politics in the Age of “Authenticity”

In the wake of Elizabeth Warren releasing a plan for a staged, gradual implementation of Medicare-for-All I’ve been seeing increased concern about her candidacy in some corners of my twitter feed and wanted to weigh in.

Actually, I mostly didn’t want to weigh in, given my sense that our current moment is sectarian enough that I may offend people whose opinion I respect by voicing my ideas in public, but I’ve decided to write this anyway.

One thing I notice is that when Warren backs away from or limits her commitment to the most aggressive version of left-leaning policy (as she has now has with Medicare-for-all) critics seem to read her deviation through the lens of a particular narrative about Barack Obama. In this narrative, the reason the Obama administration was unsuccessful in achieving a progressive policy agenda is that Obama was insincere about his politics in 2008. Obama, in this narrative, may have run as a leftist but was really a centrist in his heart. He failed to achieve left goals in office because he never really wanted to achieve left goals. He was really a Trojan horse for the status quo. When Warren seems less than fully committed to Medicare-for-All or the Green New Deal, these critics seem to suggest that she too is trying to fool leftist voters into supporting a centrist agenda of support for the status-quo.

For me, this narrative about the Obama administration is not very convincing. For one thing, it seems obvious to me that, while the ideal set of policies Obama might have wanted to pursue might have indeed been a bit to the right of the policies you or I might prefer, the actual outcomes of his administration were set not by those ideals, but by the massive GOP resistance he met with after the Dems lost control of the House in 2010.

More importantly, my memory of the 2008 election is that what excited us about Barack Obama was that he was running, not as a leftist, but as an authentic outsider someone untainted by the Democratic Party Establishment and in particular by association with the disastrous war in Iraq. Someone who was more genuine and less scripted than traditional politicians. Someone who could deliver “change” (to cite half his slogan) because he was not beholden to the existing establishment.

Ultimately, this “outsider” frame seems to me more harmful to the Obama administration’s ability to achieve progressive goals than any centrist ideology. Without institutional expertise to move legislation through the relatively friendly Congress of 2009-2010, the administration was left with little demonstrable “change” to excite supporters going into the 2010 election. The Tea Party wave swept in, and now here we are.

For me, the rhetoric of outsider authenticity seems to have been very much taken up by the Sanders campaign, and that’s a big reason why I prefer Warren. I think that, in a world so heavily mediated as our own, it’s understandable that we yearn for something that feels genuine and sincere. As our media environment has become more context-collapsed, we’ve become ever more aware of the shifting performances of politicians, celebrities and other public figures, which only seems to heighten that desire for the “authentic.” Ultimately, though, I’m not at all sure that that yearning can ever be fulfilled.

Furthermore, sincerity doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective method of persuasion, outside of rather narrow audiences. Expertise and savvy alliance-building, with all the slippery code-switching that might entail, seem more promising, if devilishly hard to pull of in a social-media saturated world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *