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Senator Bernie Sanders' Third Way: A Way to the White House? Senator Bernie Sanders' Third Way: A Way to the White House?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-02-21 12:56:32
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Bernie Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire showed that his campaign has some serious legs which could take him all the way to the summer convention, even to an eventual nomination and the presidency of the US. He won 6 of 10 voters and led in virtually every demographic category, except for those over 65 and households earning more than $200,000. This is a movie we have seen before, in 2008. Slowly, Sanders has been undercutting Hillary Clinton's electoral strength and is tied in Nevada and even nation-wide. The question naturally arises: but can a democratic socialist win a general election in America, in a post Ronald Regan era? Let’s see.

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In the first place it is worth mentioning that Sanders' political appeal is based on much more than the thrill of an anti-establishment insurgent or some unexpected love affair of millennials (those born after 1986) with a Brooklyn socialist. Part of what has given Sanders his strength is how mainstream many of his standard political arguments are. If one listens to what he has been saying, it is possible to see that Sanders is not that radical at all. In many respects, his campaign directly addresses fundamental concerns that a wide range of Americans have about their future.

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The best known issue in Sanders' arsenal is the claim that in the present political system in America there is too much money in politics. The government is constantly unable to respond to the concerns of many Americans, not because the parties don't like each other or because the mainstream media creates a destructive environment, but because big interest groups and lobbyists have disproportionate power in Washington as a result of their donations. In their landmark book, "Winner Take All Politics," the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson provide a powerful account of how the growth of corporate lobbies in the 1970s produced changes in public policy that greatly worsened income inequality. The breakdown of the post-Watergate campaign finance system, culminating with the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, has produced a political process where there are almost no barriers to flooding politicians with dollars.

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As a young man from Brooklyn, New York

Without reforming this process, it is unrealistic to expect that any president or Congress will be able to enact substantive changes that challenge the status quo. When Sanders speaks about this issue with passion and principle, it is difficult for Hillary Clinton to counter the argument (given her ties to big money through fund raising, speech-making and the Clinton Foundation), in fact, even the attempt to counteract makes her claims inauthentic and makes his arguments ring even more true with many Americans. For as William James wisely wrote: if you wish to know what people really believe in, don’t listen to what they tell you, watch their actions. For many years now, social scientists have demonstrated how middle-class Americans have become much less secure as a result of cuts to the social safety net and the exodus of good, secure jobs overseas while the separation between the rich and poor becomes more extreme.

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The Robin Hood of the Poor?

Americans tune in when Sanders says that "It is the tragic reality that for the last 40 years the great middle class of our country -- once the envy of the world -- has been disappearing." His campaign, Sanders argues, is about "creating an economy that works for all, and not just the 1 %." Sanders promises that as president he would double down on programs that benefit the middle class. He would fight for government policies that create incentives for job growth here in the United States and programs that help to elevate the economic health of working Americans, including progressive tax policies and a robust public works program to build the nation's infrastructure while giving people work. He has also proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

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As Mayor of Burlington, Vermont

This is not radical at all. Although Sanders is a democratic socialist, much of his rhetoric is really just that of an unrepentant New Deal liberal. He thinks government is a good, he supports the expanded use of government to help social conditions, and he believes that much of what federal officials do helps society. For too long, the conventional wisdom has argued mistakenly that Americans reject government. We are children of Ronald Reagan, they say, seeing government as a problem not the solution. Many Democrats have agreed and have worked hard to push the party to the center. Bill Clinton famously said in 1996 that the era of big government was over. But the Sanders campaign is on to something. Polls have consistently shown that Americans like government much more than the pundits suspect.When asked generally about government, Americans can be negative. But when asked about specific programs like Social Security or the minimum wage they jump with approval. If you listen to Sanders' speeches they often include a long list of things that government has and continues to do well. Though conservatives will argue this is radical, in many states, including red states, polls show something different. A Clinton strategy that simply relies on dismissing Sanders as left of center or quixotic won't work. His arguments don't match this image, and his ideas will continue to excite many Democratic voters.She will need to develop a more coherent and more compelling set of ideas that she can call her own. She ought to have learned that important lesson the first time she ran for the presidency against Barak Obama: A campaign based on the promise of "getting things done" will continue to be ineffective against a campaign about a set of powerful ideas, a "political revolution," that continues to make sense to large portions of the American electorate.

But there is another powerful reason why Bernie Sanders may become the next president of the US. It is the brilliant analysis of Thomas Piketty, whom many consider one of the most influential economic thinker economist of our times. He wrote an article for Le Monde which was subsequently republished in English by The Guardian. In this article Piketty explains why he is impressed by the rise of Senator Sanders. He outlines why in his opinion the ascent of the populist senator spells the virtual “end of the politico-ideological cycle begun by Ronal Regan in 1980. Even if he does not win, Sanders will have created a necessary opening for similar candidates in the future who could conceivably change the face of the country as now constituted.

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What is particularly interesting in Piketty’s analysis is that he doesn't see Sanders as following in the footsteps of Europe's social democratic models, the Scandinavian countries being the best example, but rather leading the United States toward a possible return to the nation's pioneering 20th century experiments with extremely progressive taxation and social spending. Piketty points to the fact that, prior to Reagan, 20th century fiscal policy in the U.S. was aggressive in taxing the wealthy — much more so than the European counterparts that American leftists are so fond of looking to for inspiration today. He writes that "In the interwar years the country invented a highly progressive income and estate tax and set up levels of fiscal progressiveness never used on our side of the Atlantic. From 1930 to 1980 — for half a century – the rate for the highest U.S. income (over $1 million per year) was on average 82%, with peaks of 91% from the 1940s to 1960s (from Roosevelt to Kennedy), and still as high as 70% during Reagan's election in 1980." Those rates beat any taxation by any Scandinavia country. Without bringing in the scare tactics of Communism which are sure to be employed by Sander’s Republican opponents, it bears pointing out with Piketty that those rates were a tremendous help in creating social equality in America for the government to provide robust social programs (at first dubbed socialist) introduced during Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. Moreover, estate taxes were established which were extremely steep and dwarfed rates in France and Germany. That all changed after Reagan won the White House. In a bid to "restore a mythical capitalism to have existed in the past," as Piketty put it, he took an axe to the tax code and lowered the rate for the highest incomes to 28%. 

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Since Reagan, the Democratic Party has largely operated within the paradigm carved out by Reagan: very high tax rates are somehow un-American; keeping the deficit low is of paramount importance even if children are poisoned by bad water; and spending on social services are worthwhile but should not be overly generous to prevent welfare queens to go shopping with food stamps in their cadillacs…. For Piketty, Clinton is "another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime," while Sanders represents a meaningful break from it a return to a third way in between the archconservatives and the ultra-liberals. As Piketty writes "Sanders success today portends the fact that much of America is tired of rising inequality and these so-called political changes, and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism.”

While most of the media is busy covering the inanities and vulgarities of Donald Trump and him minions, a political revolution is going on which is being all but ignored and may ultimately surprise the political pundits too busy to attend to it. Meanwhile, it certainly provides some food for thought! 


        
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