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National Issues

Bernie Sanders and the capitalist critique

For the first time in more than 100 years, a Socialist candidate is a significant political contender in a U.S. presidential election.

And, for the first time ever, the Democratic Party has a Socialist seriously competing for its presidential nomination.

But it’s not just Bernie Sanders. The first Democratic primary debate included a discussion on candidates’ views of capitalism, and frontrunner Hillary Clinton proclaimed the need to “save capitalism from itself.”

Serious critiques and questioning of capitalism by mainstream political figures are unprecedented in this country, even on the left. One of the most pro-capitalist governments in the world is questioning its economic values.

It’s hard to imagine this conversation happening a mere three years ago, when exit polls (pdf) showed conservative Mitt Romney had more widespread support on economic issues than incumbent President Obama.

Growing frustration with financial inequality has seemed to push the economic conversation further to the left. Recent polling shows that slightly under half of the American public would consider voting for a Socialist candidate, but over half the country supports the wealth redistribution policies that Sanders champions.

While Americans may be suspicious of Socialist ideology, there is growing consensus that systemic inequality is a problem and should be addressed by government intervention.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was often criticized for lack of leadership or a political agenda. It now appears that this decentralized movement was the harbinger of a new political era. Despite the reckless, speculative behavior that led to the financial crisis, no one served jail time. The lack of resolution, justice or substantial reform after the financial crisis has left a simmering “anti-1 percent” sentiment.

Public anger toward the financial elite has renewed itself in the Sander’s campaign. Increasing anger over financial inequality has shown up in the push for raising the minimum wage. Recent polling has shown that a growing percentage of Americans believe that the government should intervene to redistribute wealth.

Rather than dissipating, anger toward the 1 percent has intensified and transformed into a coherent political ideology. Americans want more than retribution for the 2007 economic collapse; they increasingly want an economic system where resources are more equally distributed.


Bronwen Wade, from Oakland, Calif., is a first-year Masters of Public Policy student at Duke.

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