By Andrew O'Hehir
Bernie Sanders is not going to be president. But in defeat he has accomplished something extraordinary, probably something more important than anything he could have achieved in four or eight frustrating years in the White House. For the first time since the end of the Cold War — and perhaps since the beginning of the Cold War — large numbers of Americans have begun to ask questions about capitalism. Questions about whether it works, and how, and for whose benefit. Questions about whether capitalism is really the indispensable companion of democracy, as we have confidently been told for the last century or so, and about how those two things interact in the real world.
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Bernie Sanders did not invent those questions or cause them to emerge, to be sure. They have emerged from a whole range of objective conditions and subjective perceptions, including the dramatic worsening of economic inequality, the near-total paralysis of our political system and the awakening of an entire generation of young Americans, supposedly from the non-poor classes, who have graduated from college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. But Sanders has served as an important channel or catalyst for such questions and the shift in consciousness they represent. He or his advisers appeared to see or sense a rising current of discontent that took nearly everyone else by surprise.
After several generations in which a capitalist economy dominated by the neoliberal policy prescriptions of tax cuts, deregulation, privatization and fiscal austerity has been understood as the natural order of things — and as the oxygen necessary to nourish democracy around the world — the Western world’s entire leadership caste has been startled to encounter a resurgence of systematic nonbelief. To the bankers and politicians, it feels almost as if a crusty old Vermonter had come close to stealing a major-party presidential nomination on a platform of Flat-Earthism, or by professing that the moon landing was a fake. (Those politics, to be fair, are largely confined to the other party.)