Elizabeth Warren, presidential hopeful. Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

July 2, 2019   4 mins

The Democrats have any number of ‘progressive’ candidates this year, and any number of agreed policies that are well to the Left of anything that has gone before. Some might be popular. According to exit polls released last November, 59% of voters in the congressional elections favoured ‘stricter gun-control measures’.

Others are potentially riskier: in a show of hands, all the candidates at the first Democratic candidates’ debate said they would extend cheap healthcare insurance rights to undocumented immigrants, something that Obamacare explicitly does not do. It could fly, but plainly it’s a change, and a risk.

My point is that the argument about leftism versus centrism is now over: the sands have shifted. The whole party has moved; of that there is no doubt. Even Joe Biden senses it, standing there at the second debate like an elderly fish out of water, eyes bulging, mouth gulping, waiting for the coup de grâce to be delivered.

But here is the challenge for the party. If Biden is despatched, or when Buttigieg burns out and Beto O’Rourke completes a political implosion matched only in recent times by Jeb Bush, can there be an organising theme to the Democratic party; a theme that brings together its range of new positions and says to the nation ‘This is what we see America looking like, feeling like, in the decades to come’?

The party is facing a gulp-and-go-for-it moment much more significant than campaigning for tighter gun control or socialised healthcare for all, or free college or reparations for the descendants of slaves.

One top-tier candidate is offering a proper revolution, a wrenching and highly visible change from the politics of the last few decades. That candidate is Senator Elizabeth Warren, and revolution is a promise to destroy the cosy relationship between the Democrats and corporate America – all of it, but one section of it in particular. Elizabeth Warren is promising to blow up big tech.

To understand how subversive this is, you have to look at how interlinked have become the interests and the personnel of the Democratic party and the tech giants. The tech firms employ entire air-conditioned minibus-fulls of former Obama White House people. All the swankiest Martha’s Vineyard parties bring together Googlers and Facebookers and Cisco Systems nerds with the bigwigs of the Democratic party.

When Uber was on the up and wanted to open up business in a new American city, it used to begin with a call to the mayor from David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign chief, who moved seamlessly to the ride-share company, and would begin his patter thus: “Sure love your city, I’m now working for Uber and would love to talk.”

Few Democrats failed to call back. These were pals talking to pals. Never mind the working hours of the drivers or the fate of unionised taxis. All hail, the match-up of the uber-rich tech trendies with their knowledge of, well, everything everyone does and thinks, and the Democrats. A match made in the cloud.

Even their enemies saw it as potentially mutually beneficial and genuinely threatening to all those who might oppose these forces. As a result, the geographer Joel Krotkin predicted last year that the post-Trump Democratic party was heading into a new political settlement:

“Oligarchical socialism allows for the current, ever-growing concentration of wealth and power in a few hands — notably tech and financial moguls — while seeking ways to ameliorate the reality of growing poverty, slowing social mobility and indebtedness. This will be achieved not by breaking up or targeting the oligarchs, which they would fight to the bitter end, but through the massive increase in state taxpayer support.”

Krotkin saw the tech bosses using government spending – provided by the Democrats – as the only politically sustainable way of keeping the populist pitchforks away.

“Theoretically, the Democrats moving to the left should terrify the oligarchs. Yet increased income guarantees, nationalized health care, housing subsidies, rent control and free education could also help firms maintain a gig-oriented economy since these employers do not provide the basic benefits often offered by more traditional “evil” corporations in energy, manufacturing and basic business services.”

Elizabeth Warren will have none of this. Alone among the likely winning candidates – of Left and further Left – she is committed, expressly and repeatedly, to breaking up big tech. And in case the giants of the West Coast think it’s a shtick to placate rubes in flyover states, her campaign team have paid for a billboard that greets commuters leaving San Francisco for Menlo Park (home to Facebook), Mountain View (Google) and Sunnyvale (Apple). It reads: Break Up Big Tech. It has a number to call to join the team.

Her reasoning is simple but intensely discomforting for Democrats. Tech (and Wall St, and the health insurance industry) have too much of a hold over the US economy, and more importantly too much hold over democracy. She would refuse their money. She would not take their calls. She would do to Facebook what the Supreme Court did to Standard Oil in 1911.

This would free up the nation to take decisions about taxation, about healthcare, about every area where, at the moment, lobbying clogs up the system. ‘Corrupts’ is the word she uses.

This is what change looks like. It is possible now because (as Bernie Sanders showed in 2016) in the age of social media, viable campaigns can be run without corporate money. But it is also useful – in the age of Trump – to have some demons upon whom critical eyes can focus. This could be a properly populist campaign about who runs America. The Democrats could come out for the little guy more convincingly with Warren than with any other candidate. A plan to reset the United States along more egalitarian lines is not to be sniffed at.

I know, President Trump calls her Pocahontas in honour of her ludicrous claim of native American heritage (she has the same claims as millions of other Americans) and she is lacking in humour and perhaps in likeability.

But Warren is a proper radical. She has a plan to strangle oligarchical socialism before it is born, a plan to combine a leftist agenda with an old-style concern for ordinary working people. Of all the Democrats standing this year, she feels like the most serious, the most focused, and I suspect the most threatening to America’s modern aristocrats.

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.