The Thin Blue Line: Elizabeth Warren Visit to Seattle Shows Her Campaign’s Strategic Priorities

Last weekend,Elizabeth Warren arrives in Seattle Center to a rapturous crowd of Seattle liberals. According to the campaign, over 15,000 people crammed into the open space next to the Space Needle to hear the Massachusetts Senator speak of her plans and vision for the country. 

There were numerous moments of great agreement in the crowd, as the senator noted how no one is on “the sidelines” anymore as we barrel towards climate catastrophe and deal with massive income inequality that is leaving the next generation behind the prospects of their parents. To her most ardent supporters, watching “the next president of the United States” was a true “rockstar” moment. 

There was, however, a moment of great confusion and disgust from many hardcore Warren supporters during the speech that resonated across the left-liberal alliance that makes up much of the opposition to the established power centers in the city’s politics. Warren, the stalwart progressive liberal who made her name in the Obama era by calling out monopoly capitalism’s greatest villains as an advisor and senator, gave what could be described as a linguistic bear hug to Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, valorizing the mayor’s record as a progressive champion as the mayor waited backstage. 

This seeming contradiction struck many in the audience as a shocking betrayal of their assumptions around Warren’s own political project. After all, Durkan is considered by her critics to be the Mayor From Amazon, receiving massive donations from the company and high level employees and helping scrap an employee head tax that looked to raise revenue for housing and public services for the most vulnerable communities in one of the most unequal cities in the country. This is on top of the mayor’s record of continuing sweeps of homeless encampments, consistently endorsing center-right city council candidates, and prioritizing the needs of homeowners and NIMBY organizations like Safe Seattle over the needs of the growing percentage of renters that make up the majority of Seattle. 

This moment of seemingly ideological dissonance for local activists and politicos brought groans out of corners of the audience and a flurry of reactions on social media. “Did she not speak with local activists?” decried numerous members of the anti-Durkan coalition, from individual activists as well as members of left wing political organizations like Seattle DSA and The Seattle People’s Party, whose Nikita Oliver ran a close race challenging Durkan and nearly making the runoff general election in 2017. 

On the heels of a New York Times article centered around Warren’s appeal to Democratic insiders, however, this alignment with a market focused liberal mayor makes a lot more sense. As Joe Biden’s senile #NotAllSegregationists appeal falters and Kamala Harris’s supposedly tough campaign is appearing to be a paper tiger, Warren is quickly becoming the back-up plan for a Democratic establishment terrified of an insurgent takeover of the party.  While she has shown herself to be an excellent foil to bank executives and other predatory capitalists in senate hearings, this doesn’t preclude someone of her political leanings to associate herself with a figure like Durkan. 

Once one examines Warren’s platform and voting record, this seeming ideological dissonance makes a lot more sense. According to the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Adam Clayton-Matthews, Massachusetts ranks second per capita for the medical devices industry. Any serious healthcare plan looking to curtail costs and increase access will have to confront the interest of this industry, who have made billions overcharging sick people because the market allows it. During this campaign Warren has been unclear around healthcare, arguably the most important economic issue of the 2020 primary. While “she has a plan” for everything, even friendly columnists like the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman have noted her lack of a healthcare plan

Similarly to Mayor Durkan, Warren could have make a stand explicitly against entrenched localpowers, but both chose to punt on issues that may be them at risk of alienating the monied interests that make up large sections of the Democratic power base. This goes right in line with the presentation of herself as a “capitalist to her bones” who wishes for a better managed capitalism as opposed to a socialist or social democratic approach that looks to recenter sectors of the economy away from profit driven incentives.

Some may call this “savy” or representing her constituency, but if we are going to create large structural change as she has spoken of at length, challenging all industries that profit off of the misery and fraud of the healthcare system will be necessary. After all, it’s not only the insurance company’s fault that Americans spend more on healthcare than any other nation for worse health outcomes. Technocratic tricks and regulatory strategy will not be enough. We need a mobilized movement outside of traditional power centers and, as the Obama administration taught us, one of the easiest ways to diffuse a political movement is trying to be all thugs to all people. 

As the Democratic primary continues, it is becoming clearer by the day that Warren is here to stay, and to be clear, she has more admirable qualities than basically any other national liberal politician out there. However, confusing her politics as being of a different kind than the politics of a figure like Jenny Durkan is a massive mistake. 

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