Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is running a presidential campaign unlike any we’ve seen before, and our media have no idea how to handle it. It’s a campaign not merely of ideas but of detailed policy proposals dealing with a host of ills that other politicians have ignored or tried to wish away. Yet The Washington Post compared her plans to the silly “booklet of policy ideas” issued by Jeb Bush before he flamed out in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Politico, for some reason, thought it worthwhile to get Steve Bannon’s views. (“You’re not going to beat Trump with policies,” Bannon said.) And New York Times columnist Bret Stephens actually called this meticulously prepared and intellectually challenging thinker a “Trumpian of the Left.”
In reality, her proposals address many of the phenomena undermining the nation’s republican values and commitment to equal opportunity. All appear to be based on consultations with progressive activists cognizant of the politics, as well as policy experts hip to the technical complexities. Without exception, her plans are bold, and in many cases they’re truly visionary. As with her call for Trump’s impeachment, made after she read Robert Mueller’s report from cover to cover, their successful implementation would require a sea change in the way politics is conducted in this country. But unlike every other candidate in the race—or in recent US history—Warren is providing a detailed road map for where she wants to take the country. With plans like her proposal to eliminate most college debt, she is revealing the values and commitments that she hopes will take the United States to what Robert Kennedy called “a newer world.”
I am competent to judge the efficacy of just a handful of her plans. And with our sclerotic political system and the influence that the super-rich enjoy in it, I have my doubts about one day seeing, say, a 2 percent wealth tax on households with a net worth of $50 million to $1 billion and an additional 1 percent tax on net worth above $1 billion. I don’t know how you reduce the Pentagon’s budget when its spending is spread across so many congressional districts and when so many defense contractors put money in the pockets of so many members of Congress. And I’d be amazed to see those members forbid themselves to own stocks or exploit lobbying opportunities after they leave office. But is Warren’s proposal for the federal manufacture of generic drugs the right one? Is her plan for postal banking ideal, given all the options? I couldn’t say. My guess, though, is that they are. She gives every evidence of having done her homework.
The proposals I can judge, however, are mighty impressive. My favorite is her plan to break up the big tech companies—specifically, Google, Amazon, and Facebook—which she laid out in a 1,700-word article on Medium. She defines the problem as follows: “Today’s big tech companies have too much power…over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.” She notes that “weak antitrust enforcement has led to a dramatic reduction in competition and innovation in the tech sector” and that these companies don’t have to worry about protecting people’s privacy or policing the lies and incitements to violence that appear so frequently on their sites. What’s more, they tend to “bully cities and states into showering them with massive taxpayer handouts in exchange for doing business, and can act, in the words of Mark Zuckerberg, ‘more like a government than a traditional company.’” In calling for the breakup of these companies, Warren says it would be in keeping with America’s long trust-busting tradition, especially during the previous Gilded Age.
She proposes legislation to forbid what she calls massive “platform utilities”—those with annual global revenue over $25 billion—from owning any participant on their respective platforms. They would also be prohibited from discriminating against users or sharing or transferring data with third parties. Smaller companies would have to meet the same “standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users” but would not need to be split apart from the participant assets they own. And to make sure this got done, she would empower federal regulators, state attorneys general, and injured private parties to sue any platform utility found to be in violation. It could also cost them a fine of 5 percent of annual revenue.
In addition, Warren says her administration would reverse the “illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers” allowed under Trump and previous administrations in order to “help America’s content creators — from local newspapers and national magazines to comedians and musicians — keep more of the value their content generates, rather than seeing it scooped up by companies like Google and Facebook.”
One cannot say for certain whether her ideas about tech monopolies will be the best ones put forward by a candidate, since in most cases, they are currently the only ones to have been put forward by a candidate. The problem may be that her competitors are afraid to take on the very corporations that enable them to communicate with voters—and can therefore punish them for it. Or it may be that the other candidates feel that the media tend to focus exclusively on personality, horse-race-style measurements like fund-raising and early, largely meaningless poll results, and that elusive phantom of likability.
Fine. How candidates want to run their campaigns is their business. But at the very least, it should be the press’s business to ask them to respond to Warren’s policies and proposals. Add that to the list of the media’s failures to ensure that this time, voters are able to make informed decisions about who and what they’re getting when they pull the lever to take back our country and restore our republic.