I have always believed “politics is the art of the possible.” This was well summarized in Barack Obama’s 2008 slogan “Change You Can Believe In.”
But, you also have to deliver. The slogan morphed into change you can barely see. Extreme wealth continued to grow by leaps and bounds at the expense of everyone else. And we continued to support right-wing military governments in the Middle East and Latin America, without any improvement in the lives of people in those regions.
In 2016, I signed up for the draft Elizabeth Warren movement. In both the Clinton and Obama administrations, she was a voice on behalf of consumers against the worst excesses of neo-liberal economic theory. Also, she would not expose supporters to the charge of being against the first woman president. But she did not run.
Bernie Sanders then began his unlikely campaign for president, defying the pundits and the corporate media. Sanders raised issues that had not hitherto been on the agenda since the New Deal: the shortcomings of full-blown capitalism, the impossible cost of higher education, the obscene growth of extreme wealth, our pursuit of empire, and the increasing threat of global warming, which free markets cannot cure.
Bernie’s success gave candidates in 2020 little choice but to speak of these things. And Elizabeth Warren has (except, notably, on foreign policy). But who is Elizabeth Warren really?
As a law professor, Elizabeth Warren began as a disciple of the law and economics movement, which originated at the University of Chicago and aimed to apply free market economic efficiency theory to legal rules. Her 1980 article in the Notre Dame Law Review, for example, argued that public utilities were over-regulated and that automatic utility rate increases should be instituted.
1980 was 39 years ago. People can and do change. Elizabeth Warren left the Republican Party because she believed the Republicans had become the party of crony capitalism and that the Democrats offered more possibility for reform to allow capitalism to function more efficiently.
Elizabeth Warren is 10 years older than me. In my era, many of my friends embraced the same ideas that she initially did. Since Soviet-style socialism was an abject failure, the temptation was to advance its opposite, free market capitalism.
The problem is that, as the 2008 financial crisis reminded us, there was already a third way, the social democratic policies of the New Deal that reached their greatest expression in the Scandinavian countries. For example, the Scandinavian countries have child poverty rates around 5%, whereas our rate of 20% is the highest among advanced economies. Furthermore, the Scandinavian countries offer greater opportunities for middle class people to become entrepreneurs. If your health insurance, college tuition, and pension are already taken care of, it is far easier for you take the risk and start your own business. And the meanness quotient is far less in those societies.
While the law and economics movement was seductive to many, I knew that history did not support the concept. As an employment and civil rights attorney, I observed how judges who adhered to that philosophy harmed the legal interests of working people. Most Americans are familiar with legal issues that get the most press coverage, like abortion. But damage is being done in the everyday evolution of legal doctrine that is under the radar.
When there is a better practical alternative, it is hard to get excited about a Democratic presidential candidate who did not know the ideals that came before the law and economics movement. It was the New Deal, not the neo-liberalism of Bill Clinton, that once made the Democratic Party the majority party in this nation. Indeed, neo-liberalism meant our decline and the election of Donald Trump.
In 2020, beating Trump is not enough. If we have another Obama-type presidency, without real change, we will eventually get Trumpism without Trump. It is time to abandon neo-liberalism, fulfill the promise of the New Deal, and deliver change. The question for Democrats is which candidate has shown a lifelong commitment to doing that?
This article originally appeared in the Albany, New York Times Union.