ON JUNE 28, Beto O’Rourke announced a plan for a War Tax—a system by which, upon the formal declaration of war by Congress, a progressive tax on families without service members or veterans would be levied to pay for the latter’s care. It was a bad idea and roundly mocked by the Democratic commentariat. The New Republic called it both “empirically wrong” and “deeply cynical.” Newsweek called it “not just dumb, but un-American.”
Almost exactly a month later, Kamala Harris announced a plan of her own—a plan for student debt forgiveness. Specifically: “a student loan debt forgiveness program for Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.” Harris’ plan was so bad that it is unclear whether it is entirely fair to call it an idea—it is more the well-articulated absence of an idea, the policy equivalent of the fake plastic food on display in a cheap restaurant. So bad that even the self-proclaimed neoliberals (or at least /r/neoliberals) of the world dunked on it with the creation of an online generator for poorly structured social benefit schemes.
Harris and O’Rourke’s plans were mocked for the same reason: both took obvious, pressing issues (the forever war! the student debt crisis!) and sought to solve them with overly complicated, confusing mechanisms that seem minuscule compared to the task at hand. They were plans without a theory of change, existing merely to signify their makers’ credentials as serious politicians.
But why would two candidates—especially two candidates who both had been feted as the new hopes of the party, with shiny rhetoric and visions of better Americas—get bogged down in the business of extraordinarily niche policy proposals months before the first vote? The summer before an election year is traditionally designated as time for presidential hopefuls to tool around Iowa and New Hampshire and performatively consume fried food, not to hash out plans for student debt relief. What—or who—would cause such a shift?
Elizabeth Warren. The continually rising star of the Democratic primary is the root of the plan obsession that has metastasized through the field. The senator from Massachusetts, now one of three consistent frontrunners in the race, has made Having a Plan into her main sales pitch: just check her merch! Warren’s appeal cannot be fully attributed to Having a Plan—she’s an experienced politician and a compelling rhetorician in her own right—but she’s made herself a household name through in-depth, almost memetically comprehensive plans she’s proposed on everything from environmental regulation and labor rights to breaking up big tech and the fortunes of billionaires.
But it’s important to note what Warren has made her base: high-information, high-education, predominantly white voters. While she’s expanding her coalition as she builds broader support in the polls, the core of Warren’s surge has been her appeal to wealthier, college-educated-or-above white voters who are paying close attention to the primary. While she still lags slightly behind Joe Biden—and often Bernie Sanders—in support from voters making less than 50k a year, her lead among higher income brackets has remained strong since August. Her position as the candidate of those with college degrees is even more secure—she’s the only candidate regularly polling at or above 30% with both groups. Not coincidentally, her supporters are also those most invested in the primary process—so-called political junkies, the watchers of the horse race.
It’s a coalition you can even see reflected on campus. Though Bernie Sanders still leads the 24-and-under set by a clear margin, Warren’s supporters among the Stanford cohort are far more vocal and organized. Cardinal for Warren is a full-fledged phone-banking and door-knocking operation; Cardinal for Bernie is a Facebook page.
Both locally and nationally, Warren’s base of support makes a lot of sense. Warren’s story—Great Plains working class kid turned debate champion turned law professor turned consumer advocate turned senator—is pretty universally inspiring. But it specifically appeals to the highly-educated, liberal professionals whom Warren hooked first: it’s a story of American meritocracy working to produce a true progressive champion. And the same principle applies to her plans. You don’t have to be a detail-oriented, process-focused reformist to support taxing billionaires or breaking up Facebook. These policies, contrary to the claims of Fox News anchors, are broadly popular among large swathes of the population. But focusing on the plans as plans alone (rather than vectors for “big, structural change”) is where some of Warren’s most ardent supporters reveal their hands. They see merely Having a Plan as an absolute good in itself.
Warren’s enrapturement of the professional class is most evident in her appeal to the rank and file of the financial industry that she’s talked a big game about regulating. We aren’t talking about the executive class—they lean Buttigieg—but the post-yuppies climbing the ladder at a Goldman Sachs or Sequoia. While there’s not a lot of polling on the precise political predilections of the financial industry, there’s enough smoke to fuel a fairly well-sourced Vox article about the “Wall Streeters who actually like Elizabeth Warren.” And while I’m sure that some on Wall Street are actually in it to soak the rich, the Warren backers quoted in that piece talk more about the existence of her plans than the progressive ideology that hopefully informs them—in the words of one supporter, “it would be hard to argue that she hasn’t done her homework.”
That way of thinking reflects the hollowness of a focus on plans. To the professional class, it’s a comforting vision of the world—it makes the case that the educated elite is the primary vehicle for social change, that the most powerful ideas rise out of spreadsheets and models rather than the lived experience of those who struggle the most. It’s a cloaked form of identity politics—not as a right-wing dog whistle, but as a form of political messaging that appeals to one identity group over another. If you’re a well-meaning Stanford polisci major, it’s easy to imagine yourself with a job in the nascent Warren administration, living out a West Wing fantasy among your fellow enlightened bureaucrats, bringing big, structural change from the top down.
It’s a compelling vision, but a painfully flawed one. By transforming the Plan from a policy proposal into a class-signaling shibboleth, the Warren campaign has divorced it from the actual, real world outcomes that a plan produces. Merely having the plan becomes the focus, rather than whether the plan is any good. Take Warren’s opening salvo on environmental policy—a May 2019 plan to let the U.S armed forces “lead the fight in combating climate change.” It’s a laughably bad proposal, one that would attempt to make the DoD carbon neutral without even considering cutting its budget. It’s emblematic of the problems with Warren’s strategy: plans front and center, deeper consideration of the underlying issues relegated to irrelevance.
It’s a stark contrast with the other leading leftist in the primary. Senator Bernie Sanders has opted for an inverse approach to Warren’s campaign—while the senator from Vermont also has a war chest of plans on everything from criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization to empowering indigenous peoples, rural Americans, and the people of Puerto Rico—his rhetorical focus has been blunter and less detail-oriented. Sanders’ campaign has been less about the plans he’ll put into action than the deep forces within American society that must be addressed before a plan is put into action. That difference is represented in the material divide between their coalitions—Warren winning the white technocratic elite, and Sanders the poorer, browner, dispossessed and precarious young people feeling America’s crises most directly.
Warren has the plans to implement any of her bold proposals, but seems largely disinterested in the plan that must come before the rest—a roadmap to winning a political mandate with a broad, radical base. Despite Warren’s status as an immensely skilled politician, her support has been predicated on a sort of anti-politics: little talk of mass movements or mobilization, just the idea that once she’s elected all of her plans will effortlessly slide into place.
It’s a strangely frictionless view, especially coming from a veteran of both the legislative and executive sides of the U.S. government. Even when she proposes ideas that interact with the underlying machinery of American politics, like her (very good!) plan to abolish the filibuster, she seems wary of thinking beyond the state itself. But political change has never been won through the simple election of a charming progressive—President Obama could tell us that. Any successful politician needs a plan for the political activation of as many Americans as possible, to center the people as the agent of political change—not just the object of Having a Plan.
We need a candidate who will fight for structural change in the way that policy gets made: in expanding workplace democracy and worker-owned cooperatives, in expanding and strengthening voters’ rights, and in encouraging and uplifting grassroots politics. Warren is not completely silent on these issues—she has plans for them, though they’re not her focal points—but she hasn’t run on them as she’s run on her mechanistic changes, or even as Bernie Sanders has.
In the long run, a candidate’s broader theory of change matters more than any individual proposal. Plans change. Power doesn’t.
Image of Elizabeth Warren courtesy of George Skidmore on Wikimedia.