The American political system is sick, and Bernie Sanders is the cure.
Sanders kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign by raising almost $6 million from more than 220,000 donors in 24 hours, easily eclipsing the first-day haul of every other Democratic contender. Sanders is now the front-runner for the Democratic nomination — and for that I am glad.
Let me be clear. I am an economic conservative and wholehearted defender of global capitalism. I don’t think Sanders’s policies are good for America. I do think, however, that a Sanders candidacy would bring to forefront the fundamental economic debate that this country so desperately needs.
The establishment wings of both major parties have increasingly failed to represent the interests of ordinary working Americans. This has led to a confused and dysfunctional political environment that has undermined both the legitimacy of U.S. elections and the basic norms of government.
The problem is easy enough to describe in broad strokes: The political center of the country has shifted left over the past two decades while the elite political class has remained locked in place. To an economic conservative this might sound like a good thing. The collateral damage, however, has been enormous.
Instead of debating economic policy, both parties have increasingly focused on cultural issues. As a result, every election is not just a contest of competing visions, but a referendum on America’s moral values. Partly as a result, elected officials can’t work across the aisle without being seen as compromising those values. And when you view the other side as evil, the basic norms of politics and governance break down.
In 2016, there were signs that Democrats, at least, were prepared to put economic issues front and center. While Donald Trump powered his way through the Republican primary as a pure culture warrior with an incoherent economic platform, Sanders led an economically focused insurgency. But he fell short of the nomination.
A Sanders candidacy for the 2020 nomination will give the Democrats another opportunity to recalibrate their center. Of all the Democratic hopefuls, Sanders is least likely to get sucked into a culture war with Trump.
His wariness about increased immigration and antipathy toward free trade make it difficult to cast him as a globalist. His gruff, authentically populist demeanor frees him from associations with snobbish coastal elites. In short, he has the potential to use the campaign to have a more fundamental debate about which economic philosophy should guide the U.S.
Should the economy be primarily directed by individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses, with the government filling in the gaps and providing for the needy? Or should it be one that is guided by a democratically determined vision of the just society, with businesses and workers playing according to a strict set of rules? Faith in capitalism is declining across the board, and especially among the young. Voters are more likely than ever to give Sanders’ economic philosophy a try.
If elected, he is likely to resist any attempts to water down his agenda — and to embolden House progressives in pushing theirs. Republicans will put up an intense resistance, of course. And that will serve to highlight the differences between the parties and keep the focus on the fundamental economic debate.
Under these circumstances, the Republican Party will almost certainly be forced toward the center on economic issues. And America will end up with an economic policy that is somewhat to the left of where it is now. That’s a small price to pay, however, for a healthier political climate — and a possible return the norms of governance that have served the U.S. well for decades.
Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina's school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior.