The “s” word

Posted: 1 February 2016 in Uncategorized
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“Surprise” is one such word. That’s what would happen if Bernie Sanders comes within five points of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus tonight. We forget that, just a few months ago, the democratic socialist candidate was down by 15 points. Now, he’s narrowed the gap, and the outcome is all going to depend on the turnout.

It’s no surprise, of course, that liberals have taken to attacking the left-wing Senator’s proposals—such as single-payer healthcare and public funding of higher education—as too costly, ultimately unfeasible, and, when all else fails, as opening the door to a November victory for one of the Republican candidates.

That’s their response to the potential surprise in Iowa.

But there’s another surprise, and that’s conservative commentator Peggy Noonan’s column on socialism’s “second life” in the Wall Street Journal.

Clearly struck by Sanders’s ability to connect with his audience—with a message that is “somber, grim, even dark” but also “clear and easy to understand,” Noonan’s explains that “what he says marks a departure from the ways the Democratic Party has been operating for at least a generation now.”

Formally, since 1992, the Democratic Party has been Clintonian in its economics—moderate, showing the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council. Free-market capitalism is something you live with and accept; the wealth it produces can be directed toward public programs and endeavors. The Clinton administration didn’t hate Wall Street, it hired Wall Street. Big government, big Wall Street—it all worked. It was the Great Accommodation, and it was a break with more-socialist approaches of the past.

All this began to shatter in the crash of 2008, not that anyone noticed—it got lost in the Obama hoopla. In March 2009, when Mr. Obama told Wall Street bankers at the White House that his administration was the only thing standing between them and “the pitchforks,” he was wittingly or unwittingly acknowledging the Great Accommodation.

The rise of Bernie Sanders means that accommodation is ending, and something new will take its place.

As Noonan sees it, the new tendency Sanders represents is “here to stay.”

For so many, 2008 shattered faith in the system—in its fairness, usefulness and efficacy, even in its ability to endure.

As for the young, let’s say you’re 20 or 30, meaning you’ll be voting for a long time. What in your formative years would have taught you about the excellence of free markets, low taxes, “a friendly business climate”? A teacher in public high school? Maybe one—the faculty-lounge eccentric who boycotted the union meetings. And who in our colleges teaches the virtues of capitalism?

If you are 20 or 30 you probably see capitalism in terms of two dramatic themes. The first was the crash of ’08, in which heedless, irresponsible operators in business and government kited the system and scrammed. The second is income inequality. Why are some people richer than the richest kings and so many poor as serfs? Is that what capitalism gives you? Then maybe we should rethink this!

And Mr. Sanders makes it sound so easy. We’re rich, he says; we can do this with a few taxes. It is soft Marxism. And it’s not socialism now, it’s “democratic socialism” like they have in Europe. You’ve been to Europe. Aside from its refugee crisis and some EU problems, it’s a great place—a big welfare state that’s wealthy! The French take three-hour lunches.

Socialism is an old idea to you if you’re over 50 but a nice new idea if you’re 25.

Do you know what’s old if you’re 25? The free-market capitalist system that drove us into a ditch.

I think that’s right. 2008 was a watershed, and not just for those under 25. The fact is, capitalism has failed in terms of its own premises and promises—”just deserts,” stable growth, full employment—and, while liberals continues to defend it (with perhaps a few more interventions and regulations), socialists like Sanders argue that we can do better.

What that means is that socialism is losing a great deal of its fear factor and has acquired a new set of resonances for workers, both young and old. It represents what we’ve done right in the past, and what we can do even better now and in the future.

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