What on earth is happening in the land of the free capitalist and the home of the brave citizen?
Wonders, we have been told more than once, will never cease, but we just might be witnessing a wonder that is too wonderful for words. A self-professed socialist has just become a credible candidate in the race for America’s White House. Grey-haired Bernie Sanders, with the demeanor of an academic and manner of 1970s leftist, also – gulp – tells his cheering audiences that his candidacy marks the beginning of a revolution.
Socialist. Revolution! What on earth is happening in the land of the free capitalist and the home of the brave citizen? The answer is not complicated. The young are happening once again, and they are tired of a financial system that is loaded in favour of a one-percent elite that is shoveling off an indiscriminate proportion of the wealth of the nation.
Just a decade ago any American politician foolish enough to claim any infection from the dread ideological virus called socialism would have been locked up in the political equivalent of a lunatic asylum. It is not as if the world’s predominant economic superpower never had a left, but it never crossed the fringe. There were idols in the star-crossed Seventies and Eighties like Ralph Nader, but they were consumer activists and trade unionists who worked to a limited agenda. When they did try and get into a national race they barely got two percent of the vote. Even they faded along with the 20th century, their mission partially achieved since they did induce practical reforms and improvements in products they targeted. Their very success made them irrelevant. The big beasts of Wall Street remained masters of the economic jungle, distributing their middle class-to-millionaire dreams with dexterity, and redefining their capitalism with aplomb without ever making the mistake of compromising their leadership.
It worked. The voters, by a huge majority, bought the line that capitalism was synonymous with the flag, and who can blame them? This track had a record. It had made America the richest nation in history, fueled by opportunity and supported by income growth that improved ordinary lives. Americans saw red, literally, at the mention of socialism, a belief-system they equated with the grave threat that the post-World War 2 generations faced, the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It was the defining conflict of the second half of the century, fought with the tense and consuming fervor that only an existentialist threat can generate. The threat of nuclear annihilation hovered over the Cold War. Victory in the Cold War, logically, reinforced faith in the market philosophy that had defeated.
And then, the American right became a victim of its own success. The turning point was surely the financial collapse in the first decade of this century. The malady was diagnosed: greed, or more accurately, avarice beyond belief. Income disparity rose to cynical heights. The bankers could do no wrong, even when they were palpably caught out during the housing collapse. America bailed out Wall Street instead of holding its architects accountable.
The reaction was not immediate, but it had to come. It first became perceptible when books proved, and movies projected, that Wall Street had become a villain after a century of life as a hero. The hit of the moment is a film called The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ book. Lewis rails at the immorality of bankers, now a tribe that had become a law unto itself.
But it is not so easy to change the meaning of symbiotic term in popular culture. How did ‘socialism’ become acceptable in public discourse?
I discovered the answer from a television debate on CNN. American news shows are tough, but fortunately no one is allowed to scream. Television restricts the brawl to a spectator sport like fake wrestling. You can actually hear what someone is saying. One astute commentator explained that ‘socialist’ owed its rise to the summit of politics thanks to the most right-wing news channel, Fox News. For nearly eight years, ever since Barack Obama became President, Fox News has been describing Obama as a socialist in the hope of vilifying him. But viewers like what Obama was doing, and if this was really what socialism was all about, then they had no problem with it.
In a fascinating twist, the surprise ascendance of both Sanders and his extreme opposite, Donald Trump, is because they have instigated the middle class and the poor against an establishment that is beholden to conventional powers, most notably the power of money. Trump shrieks; Sanders is mellifluous. Trump is racist, Sanders inclusive. But one leads an insurrection from the right, and the other a rebellion from the left. Both demand the death of a status quo that caters to the miniscule.
No one knows how this will momentum will shift in a fortnight, let alone how it will end. But one thing is certain. Americans have changed. Politics must follow.