/How the Cool Kids of the Left Turned on Elizabeth Warren

How the Cool Kids of the Left Turned on Elizabeth Warren

No more. A selection of Jacobin headlines from November: “Elizabeth Warren’s Head Tax Is Indefensible,” “Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Finance Medicare for All Is a Disaster” and “Elizabeth Warren Is Jeopardizing Our Fight for Medicare for All.” In October, a story warned that a vote for Warren would be “an unconditional surrender to class dealignment.” Even a recent piece titled “Michael Bloomberg? Now They’re Just Fucking with Us” went out of its way to say that Warren is insufficiently confrontational to billionaires.

At some level, the picks and pans of an activist magazine with only a fraction of the readership of, say, pre-2016 Breitbart might not seem of much consequence as America heads into its next presidential election. But as the Democratic Party faces its intramural battle over how best to respond to the Trump presidency—with measured centrism, or an opportunistic and disruptive lurch to the left— Jacobin has emerged as a hard-to-ignore voice in defining what the latter should look like.

And in many ways, it’s winning its corner of the battle. Six years ago, the New York Times called the niche, neo-Marxist publication with a mere 2,000 subscribers at the time “an improbable hit.” Three years later, Vox dubbed it “the leading intellectual voice of the American left.” At that time, Sanders was still seen as a gadfly in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary; since then, his style of socialism has become its own kind of improbable hit in American politics, and Jacobin has grown to a paid circulation of more than 40,000 and draws more than 2 million unique visitors to its website every month. It has found fans not just in Bernie Sanders, who has shared almost a dozen of Jacobin articles on social media over the past couple of years, but also in liberal celebrities like John Cusack and even right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson—who said he reads Jacobin because he appreciates that it isn’t fixated on Trump but rather on “ideas and principles.”

As the 2020 campaign has unfolded, Warren has, if anything, tacked toward Bernie, embracing “Medicare for All” and free college, and making a wealth tax the centerpiece of her platform. Still, in the pages of Jacobin, Warren has gone from seeming like a close second to Sanders to being a member of the neoliberal opposition, perhaps made even worse by her desire to claim the mantle of the party’s left. The magazine’s newest quarterly print cover makes this point explicit in illustration: Sanders and his new democratic socialist comrades in the House are pictured cycling on Team Red in a race against Joe Biden and Warren on Team Blue.

So why the sudden turn against a candidate whose soak-the-rich politics would have thrilled the anti-establishment, anti-capitalist left not long ago?

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One easy theory is that Jacobin, beneath the clever historical name and the hip graphics, is essentially a house organ for the Democratic Socialists of America, the grassroots political organization that grew out of the now-defunct Socialist Party of America and has expanded from around 5,000 members before 2016 to more than 50,000 now. Bhaskar Sunkara, the magazine’s 30-year-old founding editor and publisher, has been a member of DSA since he was a teenager, and he was recently vice chair of the organization. DSA endorsed Sanders in 2016 and did so again this past March.

Sunkara rejects that theory—as do other DSA members. Technically, he points out, Jacobin and DSA are separate, neither taking its marching orders from the other, even if many writers are members. More broadly, where DSA focuses on supporting campaigns across the country that align with its socialist mission, Sunkara considers Jacobin’s role as more “abstract.” The magazine is still figuring out how, and if, it wants to be involved in electoral politics at all, he said.

“We can’t directly convert people,” he said. “What we can do is try to cohere together—from all these different strands and threads—some sort of left opposition to liberalism, give it a name and call it democratic socialism, and create a debating grounds for these broad sets of ideas.”

That broad set of ideas has included everything from the proposals now commonly referred to as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal to more radical concepts like prison abolition—all of which are also components of the Democratic Socialists of America platform.

The change in the publication’s treatment of Warren, Sunkara told me, was not a conscious decision or directive from higher-ups like himself. The publication, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, cannot formally endorse political candidates.

But it does reflect, he said, what Jacobin’s mostly young left-wing writers and contributors, many of whom are open Sanders supporters and even campaign volunteers, are thinking. Where a previous generation might have been more than satisfied with a candidacy that would have been a socialist dream a mere decade ago, a younger generation tired of tempering its hopes is hungry for what it thinks could be a more revolutionary outcome.

Warren’s ginger concessions to the center—be it her proclamations of “ faith in markets” or her refusal to say she’d raise middle class taxes to pay for single-payer health care—thus seem like a betrayal of necessary convictions.

“There probably has been, among certain writers, a disillusioning with certain parts of the Warren approach to things, and also it’s probably an attempt to push her to be more resolute,” Sunkara said. There’s a reason, after all, why the candidate who said she is a “capitalist to her bones” was not the socialists’ favorite to begin with. (POLITICO reached out to Meagan Day and other Jacobin writers for this story, but they declined to comment.)

Observers should be careful, he said, not to place the blame for the Jacobin-Warren divide only on the magazine’s writers, and not also on Warren and her team.

Maybe, Sunkara suggested, as Warren has refined her policy platform, she’s changed her stripes to try to “accommodate all wings of the Democratic party.”

“I mean, her record is quite admirable, and I think her personality is quite charming and whatever else, but she needs to be palatable to the establishment. She needs to not scare donors. She’s needs to not scare the markets, while at the same time she wants to maintain credentials as a left-wing policy person,” he said.

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Some Jacobin sympathizers who might be considered old leftists to this new generation are happy to see socialism surge into the mainstream. But they’re also nervous that the magazine’s dismissal of Warren is dangerously overzealous, especially as it discounts a candidate who seriously worries Wall Street, moderates and billionaires.

“It reflects a particular sensibility of a particular generation,” said Robert Kuttner, a co-founder and co-editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

“I think the Jacobin people represent the left wing of Sanders’ support,” he said. “They think it’s really important to self-describe as a socialist.”

Jacobin isn’t the only young lefty publication to turn on Warren. Nathan Robinson, the 31-year-old editor of the smaller but similar Current Affairs, wrote last week in a column in the Guardian that “progressives no longer need to wonder whether she’s with us or not. She’s not.” Regarding the Warren versus Sanders comparisons, he wrote: “She is not just a more wonkish and pragmatic advocate of the same politics. The politics themselves are very different.”

As Robinson’s piece suggests, the new leftist energy isn’t really a reaction to Trump—it’s a reaction to Obama and Clinton and a whole Boomer-era approach to liberalism. Summing up Jacobin’s generational critique of Warren, an article by Dustin Guastella in the latest print issue argues that Warren “favors the cool language of expertise and technocracy over white-hot tirades against the ruling class.” Not meant favorably, he writes that “Warren represents a certain continuity in the Democratic Party’s approach to politics.”

This all-or-nothing approach does not sit well with the older guard of American leftist thinkers. “If the plutocrats themselves think she’s just as dangerous as Bernie, why does Jacobin doubt that?” asks Rich Yeselson, a labor historian and journalist who’s written for Jacobin in the past and is a contributing editor of the leftist publication Dissent.

Yeselson admires Jacobin and its success. “Bhaskar is kind of a genius,” he says. “He’s a venture capitalist of socialism, and I mean that as a full compliment.” But he counts himself among those starting to have reservations about the magazine’s approach to the 2020 presidential election, and especially its treatment of Warren.

“If she were to be elected president, she would be the most leftist president in American history,” Yeselson said.

“If Sanders is elected, he’s going to draw from the same pool of left technocrats to people his administration as she will,” Yeselson added. “Is it liberal left? Is it socialist? Whatever. It’s to the left of Biden; it’s to the left of Obama; it’s to the left of Clinton. Neither of them is going to appoint officials from Goldman Sachs.”

Minor differences in the most ambitious legislative proposals—like Medicare for All payment schemes or different approaches to a Green New Deal—from Sanders and Warren are immaterial, Yeselson suggested, because neither will be able to get those programs through Congress. That said, there are real differences between Sanders and Warren on foreign policy, he said. “There should probably be more discussion of that.”

John Judis, author of The Populist Explosion, credits Jacobin as an important intellectual force, but says that the fine distinctions the magazine’s writers are drawing between Sanders and Warren are more “sectarian” than ideological. “They recall the battles among Lutherans and Baptists,” Judis said.

Michael Kazin, the co-editor of Dissent and a professor of history at Georgetown, points out that neither Sanders nor Warren is a true socialist, at least by international standards. Bernie calls himself a “democratic socialist,” but he also likens himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Still, Kazin says, both Sanders and Warren are “two of the most obviously left-wing candidates in American history.” (Sunkara said he disagrees, calling it “a strange and ahistorical claim,” though he concedes that “she’d be one of the best presidents in modern time.”)

Although his party and his publication are all-in for Sanders, Sunkara, who is also the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, said he doesn’t see a Sanders win in 2020 as the only barometer of the movement’s—and the magazine’s—success. “If it wasn’t bigger than Bernie, we would be really screwed,” he said. “I hope he wins, personally, but he’s a 78-year-old candidate, and we need to create something that extends far, far beyond him.”

To Sunkara, his magazine’s 2020 coverage is unremarkable—comparing and contrasting candidates is part of the primary process. “You air criticisms, you challenge people on their record, and the best politicians adapt and improve and make themselves stronger candidates as a result,” Sunkara said. They aren’t spreading falsehoods or making bad-faith critiques, he added. And they’re definitely not “getting together in a room and seeking to tank Warren.” They know there are far worse candidates, he said. Jacobin is publishing a full book about Joe Biden’s record and why he’s unfit to be the next Democratic president. “We don’t have a book on Elizabeth Warren.”

But as the 2020 election gets closer, others fear there won’t be a progressive politics after Bernie, much less a socialist future, if the rift between Democrats and democratic socialists stays this wide. Kazin, who wrote a history of the left in America and is currently writing a history of the Democratic Party, worries that Jacobin’s current strategy could hurt the cause in the short term as well as the long one. “I’m not someone who thinks that we should never criticize anyone on the left,” he said. “But right now, I think a big danger actually is a divided Democratic Party.”

Sunkara countered, “You can make an argument about holding punches for any centrists—center left or even center right if you hold that perspective.” He added, “You can take that logic to any extreme,” and “you would end up criticizing no one but fascists.”

But for some, this election is so important that it’s worth erring on the side of caution. “The final outcome is what, in the end, really matters,” Kazin said. “When Trump is president, we won’t have time to say: ‘Well, let’s fight another day. Too bad we didn’t win, but I’m glad I didn’t support Warren, because that would have been a betrayal of my principles.’”

He added, “You can’t change society unless you win elections.”

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