In 2013, New York reverted to type and elected a populist Democrat as mayor. His name is Bill de Blasio and, together with the crusading Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, he supposedly represents a new direction for the Democrats.
“Critics and boosters alike have crowned the two pols leaders of the same movement, albeit with centrists warning that it represents an electoral ‘dead end’ and liberals cheering the clarifying virtues of the new ‘progressive populism.’”
However, as Noam Scheiber argues in a brilliant analysis for the New Republic, de Blasio and Warren actually stand for very different visions:
“Start with de Blasio, who famously made social and economic inequality the centerpiece of his campaign… [He] assailed the privileges of the wealthy… He championed affordable housing, and promised a local minimum wage and more sick leave for workers. His signature initiative would raise taxes on New Yorkers making over $500,000 to fund universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.”
In other words, the de Blasio programme is all about redistribution. Warren, by contrast, seeks to tackle a more fundamental issue:
“Her signal preoccupation is the way financial institutions have amassed enormous economic and political advantages at the expense of everyone else. She has co-sponsored a bill that would break up the megabanks. She has labored to expose why it is that federal regulators never take big banks to court. She decries the way reform battles in Congress pit a few dozen activists against thousands of industry lobbyists, an asymmetry that virtually guarantees victory for the status quo.”
In Scheiber’s opinion, this makes Warren the real reformer:
“De Blasio’s rhetoric sounds more leftist, implying a relentless competition between underclass and overclass. But the substance of Warren’s agenda is far more radical. She wants to upend a fundamentally corrupt system… By contrast, de Blasio implicitly accepts ‘the system’…
“[He] accepts that today’s rich and powerful will continue to be rich and powerful; he just thinks they should do more to help the rest of us.”
With the possible exception of Greece, there is no such thing as an electable socialist government anywhere in the western world. Conventional politicians – whether of the left, right or centre – all seek to keep the current system in place, while redistributing from the winners to the losers.
The conventional left may appear to be the radicals in that they want as much redistribution as they can get away with – but this makes them more not less dependent on the rich and powerful. The last Labour Government was a prime example: pushing up taxation, while at the same time enabling the reckless speculation that allowed the rich to get even richer. Like all the best protection rackets, the conventional left really does provide protection – in return for a fat slice of the profits.
Indeed, if you don’t want to nationalise the private sector, but do want to run a bloated public sector, then having the wealth of the nation concentrated among relatively few people is rather convenient. Having the money all in one place makes it much easier to get hold of. Tax avoidance may be a problem, but – in a democracy – the struggle to tax a small number of rich people will cost fewer votes than taxing a large number of ordinary people.
Of course, if government allows the undeserving rich to get away with their dodgy speculative schemes (as Labour did) then we still end up paying the price. The difference is that compared to the transparency of straightforward taxation, there’s plenty of scope for dodging the blame (as Labour has).
Elizabeth Warren’s message provides an alternative to the conventional left – and, for that matter, to the conventional right. After all, in identifying crony capitalism as the enemy, it’s not capitalism she wants to get rid of, but the cronies.