An amazing thing is happening in the primary elections for the American presidency – and it’s not Donald Trump. Mr Trump, in any case, “doesn’t like losers” and, having lost in Iowa, should presumably now be “re-considering his position”.
The amazing thing is happening on the other side of the political divide. The Iowa primary ended in a virtual dead-heat between Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner and assumed shoo-in, and 74 year-old Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont, who started the race as a virtual no-hoper.
Hillary Clinton, by far the best-known of the Democratic candidates, carries some baggage as a consequence, and there will be those who claim to have foreseen that her less than spotless record would eventually catch up her. But the real surprise is not her relatively poor showing, but the rise to prominence of the elderly and hitherto little-known Bernie Sanders.
It has been widely assumed that Senator Sanders is to all intents and purposes unelectable. His age and relative obscurity would in any case count against him, but the real disqualification, it is believed, is that he is a self-declared socialist.
It is hard to think of a label that would more surely destroy a candidate’s chances in an American primary election. This is a country in whose politics even the term “liberal” is a dirty word and is used as an attack weapon in much of the political discourse.
A “socialist” is even further beyond the pale. The political right in the US has invested huge effort and resources in convincing American voters that socialism is akin to – even identical with – communism, and is fundamentally un-American.
No candidate in his or her right (or even left) mind would willingly allow even a whiff of such a label to taint their campaign. So how does a candidate who not only embraces it and uses it proudly as a banner manage to do so well with the voters – in Iowa and possibly elsewhere as well?
He is, after all, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, not only in the US but in much of the English-speaking world. Left-of-centre politicians in New Zealand, the UK, Australia and Canada, long ago conceded that to be labelled as a socialist is the kiss of death.
That concession is, of course, all of a piece with the loss of intellectual self-confidence that has afflicted the left in the English-speaking democracies. Not content with failing to challenge the right on their analysis of what constitutes a successful economic policy, or of how a strong and healthy society can tolerate growing inequality, or of what is the proper role of government, left politicians have conceded the language of politics as well.
The banner that was once flown proudly by those who proclaimed the virtues of greater equality, of a fair deal for all, of an inclusive economy that allows everyone to contribute and to derive the benefit from being members of society has now been fearfully disowned.
So, what explains the surprising courage that Bernie Sanders has shown, and the success that, so far at least, he has enjoyed? Even if his campaign were to stall from this point on, and he were to return to decent obscurity, how are we to account for the fact that his willingness to describe himself as a socialist did not immediately knock him out of the race?
The answer lies in listening carefully to what he says. He hasn’t used his socialism as either a sword or a shield. He has instead carefully explained what he means by it. He has assumed, rightly it seems, that people are willing to look behind the label – a label whose meaning has consistently been misrepresented to them – and to understand what it really means.
When Bernie Sanders says he wants “an economy that serves the interests of working people and not the billionaire class”, when he laments the plight of graduates who end up with low-paid jobs and deep in debt, when he commits to equal pay for women, he recognises that the natural tendency of a “free-market” economy is to concentrate wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, leaving the majority to fight amongst themselves for what is left.
His message – that unless democratic government intervenes to regulate the “free” market and its outcomes, the rich will get richer and the poor poorer – is, it seems, well understood by a large swathe of more thoughtful voters. In describing himself as a socialist – someone who sees that we are all in this together and that there is such a thing as society – he also creates the advantage for himself of pointing up how much he differs from Donald Trump.
Trump is of course the archetypal “free” marketer. He is a cartoon version, a parody, of what the “free “market means. He is a self-obsessed “winner”, he hates “losers”, and he is used to grabbing what he can and devil take the hindmost.
Bernie Sanders shows that people will respond to his very different message, but only if they hear it – and that requires someone with the courage to deliver it to them. Some of that courage would not come amiss in other western democracies.
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This post was written by Bryan Gould