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Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not 'the same'. One of them thinks it's OK to buy elections

Unlike Sanders, Warren has only vowed to reject corporate and super PAC money during the primary contest. If she's not willing to put our democracy up for sale during the primary, then why should a general election be any different?

Rose Asaf
In New York
Thursday 29 August 2019 19:33 BST
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Democratic Debate: Sen. Elizabeth Warren says Donald Trump 'disgraces the office of president every single day'

A question that pundits, activists, and progressives have been asking since the onset of primary season is a frustratingly familiar one: are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren essentially the same? This question has largely defined, and sometimes divided, the progressive approach to the 2020 Democratic primary. Some say yes, others say no and most fall somewhere in between. But while this is being asked sometimes ad nauseam, it is still crucial to consider.

The most recent Monmouth University Poll showed Sanders and Warren deadlocked for first place with former frontrunner Joe Biden plummeting 13 points and falling to third place. If things continue apace, then it is realistic to expect Sanders or Warren to take on President Donald Trump at the general election.

Conspicuously absent from the endless Sanders-Warren comparisons, however, is Warren’s rebuke of unilateral disarmament. “I’m just going to be blunt,” she said on MSNBC in late February of this year. “I do not believe in unilateral disarmament. We got to go into these fights, and we gotta be willing to win these fights.”

Despite its warlike flavor, the unilateral disarmament Warren speaks of has little to do with actual war, although that may depend on whom you ask. By rebuking “unilateral disarmament,” Warren means this: All options are on the table for funding her potential general election campaign against Trump. While she, like other Democratic candidates, have vowed to reject corporate and super PAC money during the primary, the general election is a different ballgame. To beat Trump, we have to play like Trump, she argues.

Democratic debate: Bernie Sanders says he is 'fed up with Democrats who're afraid of big ideas'

Superficially, Warren’s vow is a commendable and relatable one. Why would we not use all the tools at our disposal to oust Trump? She is situating herself as a fighter ready to take on Trump, which resonates strongly with Democrats and communities that have bore the brunt of Trump’s reign. But the truth is that Warren is completely missing the mark.

In 2015, Sanders made headlines when he vowed not to accept super PAC money and run a grassroots campaign funded by small donors. At the time, this was a radical and inconceivable idea. But today, it is the model that many 2020 candidates are following, including Warren.

Rejecting corporate funds, super PACs and dark money is more than a symbolic gesture. The reason this approach has resonated so strongly with voters is that we are well aware of the undue influence that special interests and corporations have had on politics. Quite simply, we are tired of it. People-funded campaigns mean that oil executives and weapon manufacturers lose their agenda-setting power and that Wall Street bankers and private health insurance companies will no longer be able to shape our country to fuel their for-profit machine.

The thing is, Warren entirely understands this. At a campaign event in Iowa, she said “I don’t believe democracy should be for sale to billionaires and giant corporations. I don’t take corporate PAC money. Shoot, I don’t take PAC money of any kind.” But if Warren is not willing to put our democracy up for sale during the primary, then what makes the general election any different? We are left to wonder whether Warren is just paying lip service to take on the billionaire class, which she apparently plans to cozy up to during the general election.

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Ultimately, Warren is wrong when she suggests that rejecting corporate money during the general election constitutes “unilateral disarmament.” It is actually quite the opposite. Money does not win elections people do. We need to look no further than to 2016, when Hillary outspent Trump and still lost.

People-powered campaigns are the most powerful tool that Democrats have. When we give that up, we admit not only to ourselves but also to the voters that our tactics (and donors) are largely the same as Trump’s. And that the fundamental fabric of our society is by and large going to remain untouched. This is where Sanders and Warren differ the most.

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