Policy Wonk vs. Movement Candidate

Elizabeth Warren may be the most progressive candidate after Bernie, but her proposal for a “green new military” shows the limits of her technocratic politics.

Warren speaks at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa

Last week, Massachusetts senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren dropped yet another of her Big Policy Ideas™ on Medium. The topic: climate change.

If ever there were a problem in need of Warren’s technocratic prowess, it’s the climate crisis. Our brightest, most progressive policy minds are urgently needed to flesh out the details of the ambitious Green New Deal resolution introduced by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this year, which Warren supports.

How, after all, will the Green New Deal’s federal jobs guarantee work? How will we rapidly decarbonize the economy while ensuring a just transition for frontline communities and workers? How will we acquire public ownership of our energy systems to ensure the wealth created by a “green energy revolution” will be equitably shared?

But these questions, apparently, are not on the front of Warren’s mind. Instead, she proposes a different approach to achieving the aims of the Green New Deal, announcing: “Our military can help lead the fight in combating climate change.”

Yes, you heard that right: Progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren wants to foreground the leadership of the U.S. military  —  arguably the deadliest, most environmentally destructive force in human history  —  in her approach to the climate crisis.

With her usual Oklahoma forthrightness, she explains that “climate change is real, it is worsening by the day, and it is undermining our military readiness.” She concludes on a hopeful note.

“We don’t have to choose between a green military and an effective one. My energy and climate resiliency plan will improve our service members’ readiness and safety, all while achieving cost savings for American taxpayers. Our military understands that, and it’s time our elected leaders did as well. Together, we can work with our military to fight climate change  —  and win.”

Now, I can think of about 99 gazillion problems posed by “climate change”  —  the impending extinction of 1 million species, the unleashing of ancient plagues from melting permafrost, the end of human coastal civilization as we know it. But the reduced readiness of the U.S. imperial military? Sorry, it ain’t one!

Warren’s “Green New Military Plan” is a staggering display of political tone-deafness. Imagine referencing the U.S. military’s obscene carbon footprint, as Warren does, without calling for an end to perpetual war, foreign invasions, and for the Pentagon’s budget to be slashed in half. Imagine suggesting that the U.S. military  —  which is deployed all over the world to defend the interests of the fossil fuel industry  —  will somehow deliver us climate justice and a Green New Deal.

Warren’s latest proposal may be the best evidence to date that yes, Warren was a Republican until 1996 and still harbors some good old-fashioned conservatism in her soul. It’s why, in 2017, she joined her Republican colleagues in voting for a $700 billion defense budget, outstripping even what was requested by the White House. It’s why Warren ,  in a climate of widespread dissatisfaction with the economic status quo , declared that she’s a “capitalist to her bones”  —  and why she gave her nemesis, the deplorable Donald J. Trump, a standing ovation when he attacked socialism at his State of the Union address. And, of course, it’s why Warren just couldn’t bring herself to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Beyond all that, Warren’s Green New Military plan is politically nonsensical. There is absolutely no constituency in the world  —  conservative or progressive  —  fired up about transferring billions of taxpayer dollars to the military so that it might “green” itself. (Zero-carbon Marines and electric fighter jets anyone??). Leaning on such a strange, uninspiring frame when addressing the impending climate apocalypse reveals an uncomfortable truth about Elizabeth Warren: She has very poor political instincts.

What else could explain why Warren chose to launch her presidential campaign with a video defending her fraudulent claims to Native-American identity on the basis of a DNA test? Liberals might look past DNA-gate, but one shudders to think what sorts of gaffes Warren would make on the campaign trail in a general election match up against Trump.

Of course, had Warren run her DNA video idea by a tribal leader, she might have learned what a disaster awaited her and avoided the fall out. By the same token, one wonders why Warren didn’t run her Green New Military proposal by someone in the peace movement, or the environmental justice movement  —  someone like Naomi Klein or Angela Davis or Medea Benjamin. They might have explained to her that a Green New Deal must challenge the U.S. war machine  —  not fund green imperialism.

Warren’s failure to engage with such figures speaks to a larger problem with “wonks”  —  even brilliant, progressive, well meaning ones like Warren  —  who are untethered to social movements. Instead of taking policy cues from the millions of people to whom she is accountable, Warren crafts proposals behind closed doors with a handful of staffers and academics, many if not most of whom worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Sometimes those proposals are fantastic and catalyzing, like her plan to partially forgive student debt. Other times, you get…green imperialism.

Meanwhile, as her campaign team churns out one white paper after another, Warren cannot even be relied upon to give a full-throated defense of Medicare for All  —  the Left’s number one policy priority, which has been fully fleshed out in a bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and which has the support of a majority of Americans. Instead of standing strong with the movement for single payer, Warren waxes poetic about the “many paths” to universal health insurance, and reassures the private insurance industry that she has no plans to eliminate it.

Warren has been running her presidential campaign like it’s a D.C. think tank  —  selling Americans on policies instead of values, and on her I.Q. instead of her ability to mobilize a movement. But white papers and brains — important though they may be  —  are no replacement for a coherent economic ideology, grassroots movement building, and plain old political courage.

On these fronts, Bernie Sanders is the superior choice. He appreciates that all of his big ticket policy proposals  —  including the Green New Deal  —  will be staunchly opposed by the billionaire class (and the army of politicians that do its bidding). To get anywhere with a progressive agenda, what is required is an organized, mass movement of working people  —  a movement that will stand up to capital to demand a dignified life and a habitable planet, a movement capable of electing not just a president, but a Congress full of AOCs and Rashida Tlaibs. To build that movement, sound policies are not enough. Ordinary people must be convinced that in the wealthiest nation on Earth  we should all have a right to healthcare, housing, education, climate stability, and economic prosperity. They must believe that if they stand together and fight for that vision, they can win.

As the Sanders campaign slogan aptly puts it, making change is not about any single politician  —  no matter how smart or charismatic. It’s about us.

Republished from The Detroit Socialist

Natasha Fernández-Silber is co-chair of Detroit DSA and a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus.