Elizabeth Warren, Economic Nationalist
“She’s got a plan for that.” So goes presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren’s new and highly effective campaign slogan. On its face, it’s a fairly socialist-sounding catchphrase. It promises that no matter what issue our society is facing, our wise and benevolent ruler will have a plan to fix it—a plan imposed by the government. But Warren is not really a socialist. In fact, when it comes to economic issues, she has a lot in common with conservatives.
We tend to think of conservatism as the antithesis of economic interventionism, but this is not quite correct. While it is true that since the Reagan administration, conservatives have generally supported more market-oriented policies (e.g., tax cuts, deregulation, reducing trade barriers), earlier traditional conservatives were much more skeptical of capitalism. They worried that free trade and unfettered markets would encourage the concentration of big business, depress wages, tear apart families and communities, and lead to cultural degradation.
Therefore, it should have been less surprising than it was when conservative commentator Tucker Carlson came out in favor of Warren’s proposal for “economic patriotism.” After all, Warren’s plan contains a great deal that traditional conservatives have historically found attractive. “Many of Warren’s policy prescriptions make obvious sense,” Carlson asserted. He praised her proposals as “pure, old-fashioned economics, how to preserve good-paying American jobs.”
Far and away what entices Carlson about Warren’s plan is her trade policies. “She sounds like Donald Trump at his best,” he gushed. It’s difficult to disagree with this. Indeed, much of Warren’s rhetoric on trade is indistinguishable from Trump’s. Both view international trade as a zero-sum game, in which some nations “win” and others “lose.” Warren triumphantly declares, “If our workers are on a level playing field, I know they can take on any challenger and win.”
While Warren’s proposal downplays the role of Trump’s preferred policy tool (namely tariffs), she does seek to achieve Trump’s goals through similar means: using the power and purse of the federal government to help American workers (specifically those in the manufacturing sector) compete in a global market. Complaining that foreign governments often manipulate their currencies for their own benefit, Warren suggests retaliation. We should “produce a currency value that’s better for our workers and our industries,” she writes.
Warren also proposes voluminous new subsidies to American companies in order to increase exports. Again, this is meant to counteract foreign governments, particularly China, which subsidize exports to a much greater degree than does the United States. Warren further said that the federal government should purchase American-made products whenever possible. Though trade interventionism has by no means been solely the purview of conservatives, “Buy American” is a distinctly right-wing mantra.
For conservatives who lament American manufacturing’s decline, Warren seemingly offers a solution for that too. She will create a new federal agency, the Department of Economic Development (DoED), which “will have the single goal of defending good-paying American jobs and creating new ones.” According to Warren, the DoED will help to promote domestic industries via direct investment, especially those in rural communities and smaller cities.
While conservatives may object to the enlargement of federal bureaucracy, they can hardly quibble over the intent. The Right has long complained that the new “global” economy has left many Americans behind, wreaking “carnage” on what were once vibrant industrial regions. In a recent essay for First Things, Daniel McCarthy argued that the loss of manufacturing jobs in rural areas has made it impossible for many to fulfill the American Dream. “A family wage, lifelong work, retirement guarantees, and brighter prospects for one’s children and grandchildren are not part of the bargain anymore,” he wrote. “Economic growth is concentrated in cities and college towns, leaving everyplace else to wither.”
Beyond raising tariffs, however, McCarthy and his fellow economic nationalists have put forward very little in the way of concrete policy. But neither have they explicitly eschewed more governmental intervention. In fact, some nationalists, such as John A. Burtka IV here at TAC, have called for the federal government to adopt an industrial strategy that puts American workers first and protects our “vital national interests.”
On this score, Warren may be a bigger economic nationalist than even Trump himself. She promises that her new federal department will be responsible for drawing up a “national jobs strategy,” with an eye towards revitalizing regions that have been struggling to compete within the global economy. This national strategy will “establish clear goals for American jobs and American industry that will guide how the Department of Economic Development prioritizes its investments and direct its programs.”
The idea that the federal government ought to help “guide” the economy has not been a popular one amongst post-Reagan conservatives, but it appears to be catching on with a growing contingent of right-wing economic nationalists. Matthew J. Peterson of the Claremont Institute, for example, recently argued that conservatives have historically favored not only protectionism, but large-scale government investments. He enthusiastically reminded his readers that President Abraham Lincoln “signed the ‘Western New Deal,’ using the powers of the national government to promote westward expansion: passing The Homestead Act to give away public lands, the Pacific Railway Act for national infrastructure, creating the land grant college system, and the Department of Agriculture.”
The programs praised by Peterson are not substantially different from those proposed by Warren. If suggested by Trump, many of Warren’s policies would undoubtedly be endorsed by populist conservatives. The spirit of central planning beats just as strongly within the breast of the nationalist conservative as it does within the nationalist progressive.
Warren’s plan to break up large tech companies is yet another example of her convergence with populist conservatives. In a recent policy outline, Warren argued that a few tech firms have become too powerful and ought to be put in check. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon not only reduce competition and innovation, but, according to Warren, are a direct threat to democracy.
This is a critique shared, if somewhat less enthusiastically, by many on the Right. Though nowadays conservatives are often perceived as defenders of “big business,” there has always been a significant group who are just as skeptical of powerful corporations as they are of big government. As the tech industry has become more concentrated, some conservatives are rediscovering their “anti-monopoly” roots.
Like Warren, these conservatives worry that “modern-day robber barons” have created an intolerably uncompetitive economy, stagnating growth and severely limiting economic freedom. More than that, though, they are concerned about the political power that large firms wield. “The stronger companies become, the greater their stranglehold on regulators and legislators becomes via the political process,” writes Jonathan Tepper. “This is not the essence of capitalism.” While antitrust laws have historically enjoyed bipartisan support, many on the Right think of “trust busting” as a core tenet of conservative economics.
It is, of course, debatable whether one can say that any of these policies are distinctly conservative. But it cannot be denied that much of Warren’s rhetoric on economic issues differs sharply from that of her fellow progressive and self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders, and often mirrors that of the current Republican president. She also has disavowed the socialist label, claiming that she is “capitalist to my bones.”
To be sure, Warren is still far from a social conservative. She is radically pro-abortion and soft on illegal immigration. She wants to implement a federally controlled daycare program, something conservatives have vehemently opposed.
Nonetheless, if it weren’t for her socially progressive positions, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Warren on a Republican debate stage. In fact, she was once a registered Republican. And at the rate populist conservatives are going, it may not be long before they offer Warren her party membership back.
Tyler Curtis works as a lender at a community bank in Missouri. He holds an undergraduate degree in economics from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and his work has been featured at the Mises Wire and the Foundation for Economic Education.