The difference between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, according to a socialist

"What Sanders offers is an alternative set of politics, not just a set of policies."

Bernie Sanders is introduced by Elizabeth Warren during a 2017 event in Boston. Barry Chin / The Boston Globe

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders may appear to occupy the same political space in the 2020 Democratic primary.

They both support Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and other ambitious national proposals to tilt a “rigged” economy toward working-class Americans, funded through higher taxes on the wealthy.

However, according to Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, it’s how they got to those positions that makes all the difference.

“We want to build a progressive majority in the United States,” Sunkara told Boston.com. “Warren’s definitely not an enemy of building that progressive majority. She’s a part of it. But I think she comes from the liberal wing of the coalition, whereas Sanders represents something a little bit different.”


While the Vermont senator has advocated for things like single-payer health care and taking a comprehensive approach to climate change long before his 2016 presidential campaign earned national attention, Sunkara notes that Warren, a stalwart progressive in her own right, has only come around on Sanders’s more leftist ideas within the last few years.

Additionally, the Massachusetts senator maintains that she is a “capitalist,” who thinks the system needs fairer rules. Sanders unabashedly defines himself as a democratic socialist. And at a time when the word socialism is perhaps becoming less of a political bogeyman in American politics, Sunkara thinks the 77-year-old former Burlington mayor may even be more viable in a general election.

“[Sanders has] something more capable of tapping into the anti-establishment anger that is still out there, especially among people who wouldn’t vote for a regular Democrat,” he said.

In a recent interview, Sunkara explained his definition of socialism, how Sanders and Warren differ as candidates, and how they would differ as presidents.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited (and hyperlinked) for clarity.

So how exactly would you describe your political views?

I identify as either democratic socialist or socialist. I mean, there’s many different strands of the socialist tradition. Some morphed into authoritarianism.


I consider myself an anti-authoritarian socialist. So to clarify things, we normally go by democratic socialist. But socialist is fine, too.

What does that label mean to you?

First and foremost, it’s a commitment to democracy.

We want it expanded [in the political sphere] — we’re really concerned about voting rights and those things. But we also want to see it extended into the social and economic spheres as well. So, if democracy is a good thing, how do we realize democratic principles in our society?

Liberalism, for example, will today fight for something like freedom of speech, but how real is freedom of speech — or a free press, let’s say — in a country like India where half the population is still functionally illiterate?

So to be a socialist isn’t to be an anti-liberal, it’s to take our shared liberal ideals and to try to realize them. Let’s guarantee access to education. Let’s guarantee all these other necessities that allow people to reach their individual potentials. And then use the immense wealth and progress that we’ve made together as a society and actually make sure that the people who are helping to create the wealth of society are actually empowered to reap some of the benefits and reach their potentials.


So in a vacuum what do you think of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign so far?

I think Elizabeth Warren is a fine progressive in that she has been fighting for a lot of issues that I think are very important — financial regulation, chief among them. In a U.S. Congress that hasn’t had many people who have explicitly foregrounded the interests of working people, and not those of big companies and special interests, I think it’s very welcome — a lot of her service over the past few years.

So I’m generally favorably disposed to her. I think her strengths have been introducing concrete policies around, particularly, financial regulation but also more generally corporate governance to prevent extreme forms of corporate malfeasance. So I think it’s a good thing that Elizabeth Warren is around.

And Sanders?

What Sanders offers is something more potent. What Sanders offers is an alternative set of politics, not just a set of policies. His messaging is very clear and consistent: It’s working American versus millionaires and billionaires. He stands for a method of change where there’s more mobilization from below, there’s more struggle. And there’s more everyday people taking control of their destinies. Whereas Warren represents a type of politics that I think is about people banding together to elect good people who are going to pass legislation to make sure the rules of the game are fair.

There’s a difference in their mode of politics, but I’m not going to say that Elizabeth Warren is bad, right? I wish her the best, and I hope that she sticks around in the Democratic field, at least for awhile, because I think — there is a big gap between Warren and Sanders. I think there’s many reasons why Sanders is a stronger candidate. But I think there’s an equally big gap between Warren and the rest of the Democratic Party.


How do those differences manifest in the policies they’re proposing?

Not to avoid your question, but we might be in a stage where we should be more concerned, not necessarily about concrete policies, but about change in the conditions in which policy is written.

When I look at the success and the triumphs of [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], for example, I’m not necessarily looking at the exact text of the Green New Deal, I’m looking at the fact that this issue — the radical need to change to save the planet from global warming — was off the table and we were just debating purely things like the wall, right? And now it’s actually part of the national conversation.

Same thing with Sanders and Medicare-for-All. Obviously, I could dissect Sanders’s Medicare-for-All proposals — and by the way I think it’s an important point that Warren has been a very, kind of, uneasy and unreliable ally of Medicare-for-All — but I think what’s more important is that he is putting an alternative politics on the agenda. That’s the main thing for me.

Given the limits of the presidency, how do you think a Sanders presidency is different than a Warren presidency?

Well, I think Sanders would use the bully pulpit of the presidency differently. I think he would use to explicitly encourage unionization. He would use to encourage his supporters to stay active in organizations that are beyond his direct control, not just organizations like Our Revolution, but other labor-backed working-class organizations, community organizations.


We made a lot about the fact that Barack Obama had a background as a community organizer, but you wouldn’t actually know that from just looking at what he did in office, because he didn’t tell people, ‘Hey, go become organizers. Go become activists.’

I can’t imagine Warren — someone without any deep background in the left in any form — advocating that kind of, to use old-fashioned language, extra-parliamentary organization. I don’t think it’s disqualifying that Warren was a Republican pretty late into her life, but I do think it is to his benefit that Sanders was politicized in the socialist tradition, that he has this really clear and consistent compass about the interests of working people and the interests of the super rich in the society, and those interests don’t dovetail.

If we want to make reforms, we need to force concessions. We don’t need to have everyone sit together at the table.

Do you think that’s what Warren would do? She has been pretty combative at times as a senator, even when Obama was in office.

Yeah, depending on the issue. But it’s hard to say what’s rhetoric and what’s not. I think her initial campaign has been fine. It does worry me that she’s also doing the statements reassuring people that she believes in free markets and that she’s in her mind a capitalist.

At the end of the day, I think Sanders is a more consistently left candidate. I think he has a more dynamic theory of politics. I think he has a lot more grassroots energy around him. I think he’s more viable at the national level, and has higher name recognition. For all these reasons, I think he’s a stronger candidate — but I think very few Sanders supporters would say that Warren is standing in the way of progress or is on the other side of important issues.


Do you think they would have different priorities as president?

Warren would probably prioritize financial reform — so again, kind of corporate malfeasance and consumer protections and things like that.

And I think Sanders would prioritize particularly Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, and things around making it easier to unionize. His bread-and-butter focus would be a little bit different than Warren’s.

You mentioned that you think Sanders is more viable at the national level. Why is that?

Higher name recognition. Higher favorabilities.

If you look at the polls that were taken in November, Sanders was actually polling above Warren in Massachusetts. Warren herself hasn’t actually shown herself to be that strong of a candidate in Massachusetts even, compared to how Democratic the state is.

I mean, I think that Trump is a weak candidate and most Democratic candidates would be able to beat him in an election. I think Sanders is a surer bet.

The other thing that goes along with having high name recognition and higher perceptions of electability is the fact that Sanders has already been subjected to extreme national scrutiny for years. So all the dirt about Sanders has already been dug up. All the negatives about Sanders have already been pushed. I don’t know if there’s much more to come out.

Warren is more of an unknown, and to the extent she’s been hammered nationally over her background — the Native American stuff — I’m not sure she’s responded in the best way. Obviously, I think a lot of those attacks are unfair, but I just think Sanders is better known, more viable, and we’ve seen his fundraising apparatus. That has to count for something.