Two concepts of progressivism in Iowa

With two weeks from last night (Monday in the US) until the Iowa caucuses, the race remains much too close to call. Only a few points separate the top four contenders (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), and Amy Klobuchar in fifth place is gaining solidly.

But this is a good time to step back and look at the two so-called “progressive” candidates, Sanders and Warren, and two contrasting views on the relationship between them.

First, take Clare Malone writing last week at FiveThirtyEight. She describes the two as sharing common ideological ground but appealing to different demographic groups, due to differences that mostly concern style rather substance:

What’s curious, though, is that the rift isn’t over policy particulars. The Warren vs. Sanders progressivism fight seems to be more stylistic, an unexpectedly tense class war of sorts within the broader progressive class war. Should progressive populism be wonky and detail-oriented and appeal to college-educated former Clinton voters? Or a more contentious outsider assault on the powers-that-be from the overlooked millions of the middle and lower-middle class?

Sanders, on this view, depends on his authenticity, whereas Warren’s message is more inclined “to extend an ideological hand to the establishment Democratic voters” who backed Hillary Clinton last time. Hence the suggestion that Sanders more than Warren would be able to win over former Trump voters – although this is not accompanied by any investigation of where he might lose ground.

Contrast with a profile of Warren last month by Henry Farrell in Foreign Policy. For him, Warren is ideologically distinctive, reviving an intellectual tradition that “has been neglected for decades”:

Warren is not a socialist but a left-wing capitalist, who wants to use public choice ideas to cleanse both markets and the state of their corruption. …

The bet she is making is that capitalism can solve the major problems that the United States faces, so long as the government tackles inequality and defangs the special interests that have parasitized the political and economic systems.

Farrell doesn’t discuss Sanders’s views, but the contrast is clear: Sanders starts from a position of hostility towards capitalism. He may be willing to make his peace with it in practice (certainly his views have mellowed over the years, although the same cannot be said for all of his supporters), but his underlying attitude is one of scepticism.

I find Farrell’s account of Warren’s position to be persuasive. That doesn’t mean Malone’s picture of demographic difference isn’t also correct, but it rests on a philosophical difference that she doesn’t acknowledge. This is not a case of two candidates trying to do the same thing but using different skills.

Moreover, it seems to me that the difference between the two is typical of the choice currently facing the left worldwide. Do they throw in their lot with liberal civilisation, of which capitalism is a part? Or do they seek more fundamental change, even at the price of alliance with some of the forces of illiberalism?

The British Labour Party last month paid a heavy electoral price for taking the second of those routes. Sanders no longer positions himself quite so far from the centre as Jeremy Corbyn did, but the danger is certainly there, and it is by no means certain that the Democrats will take the lesson to heart.

It’s true that voters appreciate authenticity, but that appreciation has its limits. Corbyn had authenticity in spades, but it didn’t help. Our own Scott Morrison has it as well, but it hasn’t stopped him taking a hit in the polls.

Many even see authenticity of a sort in Donald Trump, and hope that Sanders, by duplicating some of his angry-old-white-dude style, can lure some of that support away. But the best that can be said for that is that it’s a high-risk strategy – and the price it ends up paying may be moral as well as electoral.


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