Edited by Rachel Pott
“Is the era of big government back with President Sanders?” the CNN moderator asked Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic town hall in Des Moines, held a few days prior to the Iowa caucus, which marks the start of the U.S. presidential election. A lot is required to execute Sanders’ agenda: significant funding for his welfare and education programs, and an expansion of the federal government’s role for his policies.
Instead of saying “yes,” Sanders explained his policies in context: we live in a time that hasn’t seen this level of income inequality since the 1928 Great Depression; middle-class and working-class welfare have to be paid by increasing taxes on Wall Street and huge corporations. Requiring a yes or no answer from Sanders, the moderator persistently tried to get Sanders to talk about whether Sanders, as a president, would bring back “the era of big government.” Not falling for it, Sanders instead replied, “People want to criticize me, OK. I will take on the greed of corporate America and the greed of Wall Street and fight to protect the middle class.”
In American society, the phrase “big government” is taboo. This is partly why the founding fathers built mechanisms for the division of power into the Constitution, such as the separation of powers, which splits the federal government into three branches, and the states’ rights amendment. This ideal has settled deeply within not only the conservative Republican Party, but also the Democratic Party. In his 1981 inaugural address, the Republican Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Democrat Bill Clinton likewise declared, in his 1996 State of the Union Address, “The era of big government is over.” The fundamental belief is that the free market and the resulting growth of the economy are essential for strengthening welfare. Since Reagan, deregulation and free trade policies have been reinforced. American firms seeking to maximize profit moved their factories overseas, so as to shift their tax bases abroad. Between 1999 and 2011, 600 million jobs in manufacturing were lost with these changes. Although Wall Street’s financial industry and Silicon Valley’s IT industry boomed, it wasn’t enough to stop the decline of the middle class.
After losing his blue-collar support to Reagan, Clinton and other Democrats attempted reforms within Reagan’s new world. Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago Law School professor, suggests Barack Obama is no different and claims that the Reagan era from the 1980 still persists today. As an advocate of Democratic socialism, Sanders has thus been criticized by Hillary Clinton and the mainstream media as being radical. Upon receiving such criticism, Sanders always makes a reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. In one debate, he stated, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” referencing how the Eisenhower era saw a top marginal income tax rate of over 90 percent. On the other hand, Sanders has revealed his respect for how Roosevelt led America through the Great Depression and prioritized the maintenance of the social safety net. Although Roosevelt was in office from 1933 to 1945, the “Roosevelt era” can be said to have lasted until 1980, for his policies of progressive taxation, a social safety net and regulation were inherited by Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford’s Republican governments.
Sanders could appear “radical” by attempting to alter the political and economic policies that have been in place for 36 years, since Reagan. However, a deeper look at U.S. history shows that several eras were even more radical – the leaders just didn’t call themselves socialists. Furthermore, California and New York recently raised the minimum wage to $15, an example of how the mainstream theory of market economics, which depends on supply and demand, keeps breaking down in reality.
The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets have advised Sanders that his policies are not feasible, and that his supporters need a wake-up call. Within the Democratic Party, some claim Sanders should drop out of the race early to allow Hillary Clinton to prepare for her candidacy, because his delegate count renders him incapable of winning. However, Sanders and his supporters have no intention of retreating. They believe they are changing the course of history, regardless of the race results.
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