Bernie Sanders, having recently emerged victorious from the Michigan primary, brings to light many questions concerning the nature of American politics. Although the uncertainty of national polling entering “Super Tuesday” indicates a highly contested race between Sanders and his Democratic opponent, Hilary Clinton, the very fact that a self described “socialist-anything” is finding success is remarkable. It goes without saying that not too long ago, both the media and electorate dismissed anything that closely resembled far left politics – a product of over 100 years of vilification and condemnation. Ultimately, Sanders represents the end of an era in US politics that shunned socialist rhetoric and was extremely sensitive to ideas accused of being “socialist” or “leftist”.
Two arguments can be made to explain Sanders’ insurgence. The first seems to be that the empty rhetoric surrounding concerns over “communism” from the Cold War Era have hollowed out. The legacies of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover made it easy for US politicians to label their adversaries as communists and discredit their message. For over 50 years, public policy analysts and campaign strategists advised candidates to tow a moderate line that equated right wing nationalism and neoliberal economics with patriotism – a strong prerequisite for being elected in the US. The legacy that is Bernie Sanders has proven that irregardless of the results of the pending election, this once powerful rhetoric has eroded. Americans have now certainly realized that many of the policies they agreed with can be described as “socialist” ideas. Social security, expansion of healthcare, retirement security and subsidized higher education are all popular programs that when evaluated on their merit can make a candidate incredibly popular. Thus, by eliminating the label and focusing on the substance of public policy, a large portion of the population has been able to liberate their minds of the stigma “socialism” carried for so long.
For an extended period, the megaphone in US politics has belonged to establishment views. Careful and calculated politics that touch upon conservatism from the Democrats, and the tugging by Republicans towards the right of the spectrum, has been largely the status quo since the 90s. Thus, the shift in paradigm towards Sanders did not appear out of simple reflection of public policy by the masses, it was also incited by changing circumstances. Sanders has been screaming a similar message since he joined the House as Congressman in 1991 and Senator in 2007, often towards deaf ears. The changing atmosphere that have permitted his ideas to pierce the anti-socialist rhetoric that dominated US politics for so long resemble the same circumstances that allowed Eugene V. Debs to gain a following at the turn of the 18th Century. The Gilded Age, a time of enormous income inequality, poverty and political corruption has replicated itself in contemporary society. This reality has allowed dissatisfied Americans to voice their displeasure by rejecting conventional “wisdom” and breaking the chains of what was dubbed to be acceptable thought.
The circumstances that led to the Great Depression that where so prominent in the Gilded Age, and later the 20s, have been outlined by economists, such as Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stieglitz, as a warning of things to come. However, it has taken a man such a Bernie Sanders to embody these feelings that many Americans have started to sense. The enormous income inequality, a political and economic system that feels rigged and campaign finance laws that tip the scales towards private interests have been bundled up into a list of policy positions that represent the pulse of American displeasure with current affairs. When this happens, voters become numb to established rhetoric and begin evaluating situations with a clean slate void of prejudice. This point can be similarly made when discussing Donald Trump, as the Republican primary has demonstrated how the long held boundaries of traditional right wing policy have been rejected in favour of a political restructuring that has pushed the envelope in what was traditionally seen as “moderate” positions.
By rejecting the long held attitudes towards socialism as a symptom of discontentment with the political and economic system, American voters are indicating that they have lost trust in the entrenched political leadership and are ready to explore horizons that circumvent what was once considered mainstream. Sanders is no abnormality – historical precedent and political winds point towards the potential for a major upset in the primaries and general election. If voter dissatisfaction holds, we might see an unlikely President in the White House as soon as November.
– Yianni Papadatos
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