In an already enormous Democratic field that seems to grow more crowded every week, every candidate is looking for something that can separate him or her from the pack. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign has appeared to click into gear after months of post-DNA-test sputtering, has an odd edge: She, unlike any of the other contenders, used to be a Republican.
That seems to shock the casual political observer, as does the fact that Warren didn’t change her registration until she was in her late 40s. In a lengthy piece about Warren’s political evolution, Politico noted that “the information often comes as a surprise even to Beltway politicos and longtime Warren allies.”
But the story of Warren’s transformation from a law professor entranced by Reaganomics isn’t politically so potent because it hints at the bipartisan ideal to which many candidates pay lip service. Instead, it’s important because it allows Warren to detail the current state of American capitalism, how she became one of its most piercing critics, and how her policy-heavy political campaign aims to fix it. It’s also potentially the strongest argument Democrats have against the GOP’s facile attempts to turn the 2020 election into a contest between socialism and capitalism.
Warren’s right-of-center beliefs were ingrained and long-held. Her high school friend Katrina Harry told Politico that the two “talked politics a lot, taxes and welfare and such…. Liz was a diehard conservative in those days.” That conservatism carried over into her early work as a law professor at the University of Houston. In one of Warren’s first papers, she argued that “utility companies were over-regulated and that automatic utility rate increases should be institutionalized to avoid ‘regulatory lag,’ in spite of consumer advocate concerns,” per Politico’s look at her political orientation. “Liz was sometimes surprisingly anti-consumer in her attitude,” law professor Calvin Johnson, who worked with Warren at the University of Houston, said.
Her shift from right to left began in the mid-1980s. Previously, Warren’s work had been theoretical, but research on bankruptcy took her to courts across the country to study individual cases. “I’m studying families that go bankrupt,” Warren said at a Monday CNN town hall, “and the credit card companies, half a dozen giant credit card companies, figure out that if they can get the bankruptcy laws changed, that what will happen is they can improve their bottom line by just a little by keeping people locked out of bankruptcy.”
“Never mind,” Warren continued, “that those people are head over heels in medical debt, that they’ve had job losses that put them way behind, that they’ve had a death or divorce in the family. They’ve been cheated by credit card companies and mortgage companies! Never mind any of that. Just improve the bottom line for the credit card companies.”
It’s almost a parable. An economist who was instinctively right-wing and content with a theoretical approach that pushed for the inherent good of free markets, encounters the real world for the first time. Once she does, the false front of an entire worldview begins to fall away. Previously, she had believed that maximizing the efficiency of businesses and markets would naturally benefit everyone; but traveling to bankruptcy courts, she sees the devastating effects that this ideological, theoretical approach had on real people’s lives.
“I looked around in the middle of that fight and I realize: all the money was on one side, and all the hurting was on the other,” Warren said during the televised town hall. “And that’s when I jumped in politically. I got in that fight, and I fought it for ten years. And by the end of that fight, I fully understood that every Republican stood there for the banks—and half of the Democrats did.”
“So my party,” Warren concluded, “was the party that at least we got half of them to stand up for working people, and that was the big change for me.”
The political nature of this conversion—Warren’s shift from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, which happened in 1996—has gotten the most attention. That’s no surprise, given Warren’s standing as a progressive, and her current position in the Democratic presidential field (often casually lumped into the “far left” with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in much of the political coverage and analysis). But it’s the shift in economic ideology, of recognizing the inherent and destructive flaws of conservative economics, that is most powerful. Warren can effectively and personally argue about how she recognized the rampant corruption in American business, and how that infected politics. Her detailed set of policy proposals—covering everything from forgiving student loan debt to breaking up “big tech”—become a kind of road map, pointing to a grander vision of reforming a system that has been dysfunctional for decades.
Donald Trump and other Republicans have worked hard to label these progressive proposals—whether they come from democratic socialist Bernie Sanders or the avowed capitalist Elizabeth Warren—as proof of a quasi-Stalinist conspiracy on the left. Though ridiculous, these attacks have forced every Democrat to take a stand. Pete Buttigieg has borrowed from Warren, calling himself a “democratic capitalist,” as she does, although he so far has not issued any semblance of a plan to make capitalism more democratic. Others, like Joe Biden, have responded to Sanders’s ascension by denigrating the rise of socialism within the party—and practically endorsing the current systemic inequality in the process. Speaking to reporters after a speech earlier this month, Biden mewled that “The definition of progressive now seems to be changing. It is are you a socialist?” while arguing that he was the real face of the party’s progressive wing. Warren, along with Sanders, are the only presidential hopefuls to articulate the U.S. economy’s innumerable flaws in any kind of coherent way; Warren is arguably the only candidate with a detailed set of prescriptions to deal with those flaws.
This also positions Warren well in a potential fight against Trump. The president’s decision to paint the 2020 election as a choice between capitalism and socialism forces him to defend the “rigged system” he decried in 2016—a system whose corruption has grown exponentially since his inauguration. Warren’s history allows her to turn this on its head, asking voters to choose between the Trump-GOP’s brand of crony capitalism and a different, fairer future.