Echoing Trump, Elizabeth Warren Pledges a Platform of ‘Economic Patriotism’

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign rally Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

Senator Elizabeth Warren vowed on Tuesday to pursue an agenda of “economic patriotism,” casting herself as a president would enact policies to create more American jobs, strengthen American industry, and accelerate economic growth.

Echoing the “economic nationalism” of President Donald J. Trump, Warren blamed America’s economic woes on unnamed politicians adhering to “free trade principles” and multinational corporations with “no loyalty or allegiance” to America.

Warren, writing in a post on Medium, Warren unveiled the initial outline of what she promised would be a broader platform focused on aggressively protecting American workers.

“If we want faster growth, stronger American industry, and more good American jobs, then our government should do what other leading nations do and act aggressively to achieve those goals instead of catering to the financial interests of companies with no particular allegiance to America,” Warren wrote.

At least at the level of rhetoric, Warren’s new economic patriotism bears more than a passing resemblance to the economic nationalism of the president she would like to run against. Like Trump, Warren said that America’s economy had suffered from a lack of patriotic political and business leaders, as well as the actions of other nations that had “aggressively” acted in their own interest.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump pointed the finger at “a leadership class that worships globalism” and said trade policies had only benefited the “financial elite.” He called out companies by name for off-shoring jobs and has continued to do so as president, much to the chagrin of Nabisco, Harley Davidson, and General Motors.

As a policy manifesto, Warren’s Medium post was an attack on the economic orthodoxy that has informed many of the fiercest critics of President Trump’s trade policies. Trump’s critics have frequently said that his America First policies could not bring back jobs or entire industries lost to “globlalization” or “automation.” And they have castigated the president for alienating allied and neighbor nations.

Writing in the New York Times, Columbia historian Adam Tooze described Trump’s willingness to call out companies and nations by name as “ugly rhetoric.”

One of the president’s favorite taboo-breaking moves is that he likes to name enemies, especially those hiding in what is supposed to be America’s own camp. In doing so, he not only offends Atlanticist decorum but also violates a more specific injunction, which permits politicians to talk as much as they like about global competition but not about specific competitors. Normal talk about globalization and competitiveness is directed inward, to the nation. It serves as a call to discipline and hard work. Mr. Trump is taking the idea and pointing it outward, calling out his supposed foes. In so doing, he deliberately fosters economic nationalism.

Warren also attacked American companies by name—including Levi’s, Dixon Ticonderoga, and General Electric—for moving jobs to Mexico, Canada, and Germany, and she tore apart arguments that claimed globalization and automation were responsible for the plight of American workers.

Some people blame “globalization” for flat wages and American jobs shipped overseas. But globalization isn’t some mysterious force whose effects are inevitable and beyond our control. No — America chose to pursue a trade policy that prioritized the interests of capital over the interests of American workers. Germany, for example, chose a different path and participated in international trade while at the same time robustly — and successfully — supporting its domestic industries and its workers.

Others blame “automation” for American job losses, especially in manufacturing. It’s a good story — robots and other new technologies made American manufacturing workers more productive, so companies needed to hire far fewer actual human beings. A good story, except it’s not really true. Recent research finds this story is based on a widely-held misunderstanding of the data on American manufacturing output, and a statistical quirk about how productivity is measured in our computer industry. There is actually no “evidence that productivity caused manufacturing’s relative and absolute employment decline” in America since the 1980s. Meanwhile, Germany has nearly five times as many robots per worker as we do and has not lost jobs overall as a result.

The contrast with recent Democratic presidents was stark. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and his administration ushered China into the World Trade Organization. Barack Obama aggressively pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and mocked Trump’s pledge to restore American manufacturing by asking if Trump had a “magic wand’ that could bring back jobs. In some ways, her message harkened back to the economic policies once popular with labor-oriented progressive Democrats–think Dick Gephardt–but largely shunted aside by Presidents Clinton and Obama and their allies.

And that shows the deep challenge Warren faces in seeking to put economic patriotism at the center of her agenda in the presidential race. She is asking Democratic primary voters to embrace what many of the party’s leaders and supporters have not only rejected for decades but also spent the past two-and-a-half years disdaining as “the economics of nostalgia.”

But for all the rhetorical resemblance, on policy Warren did not embrace Trump’s toughest trade stances. She did not, for example, voice any support for Trump’s tariffs, instead formulating a more technocratic, wonky set of policy ideas she claims could shift the balance in favor of U.S. workers. Those ideas include actively managing the value of the dollar to promote exports, subsidizing exports more aggressively through the Export-Import Bank, and creating a new Department of Economic Development to create four-year economic plans and manage trade policy.

Warren also called for more federal R&D spending–with a big focus on “clean energy” tech–and policies to ensure that technologies developed through U.S. R&D are produced in the United States. She said federal spending should “whenever possible” be used to purchase American-made products, a policy the Trump administration has also pursued, but added a “Green New Deal” twist by saying expenditures should also be directed toward “clean, renewable, and emission-free products.”

While many of her rivals for the Democratic nomination have concentrated on opposition to Trump, Warren has been busy building her campaign around detailed policies aimed at specific challenges faced by working Americans. Her Medium post did not mention Trump once.

By laying claim to “patriotism” as the basis for her plans for the economy, Warren broke with the most progressive elements of her party who have sought to cast the election as one of socialism against capitalism or frame the election around social justice issues such as race relations. And the contrast between her economic patriotism on trade issues and her party’s embrace of open borders for the benefit of U.S. corporations seeking lower wage workers and to aid foreigners seeking refuge from poverty and violence may yet trip her up.

But she is clearly looking to attract working-class voters in swing states by proposing to pursue a version of the America First economic agenda that led so many to vote for Trump against Hillary Clinton. If she stays with the message of economic patriotism, her campaign could become a test if that message still resonates with the Democratic party faithful who will vote in the party’s primaries and caucuses.

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