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Feb. 25, 2020, 8:54 a.m. EST

Bernie Sanders can win because this isn’t Ronald Reagan’s America any longer

How to understand Sanders’ appeal to those who’ve lost faith that the status quo can deliver the American Dream

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By Alexander Friedman


Drew Angerer/Getty Images
People who quickly dismiss Bernie Sanders as too far left don’t understand that he’s tapped into his supporters’ most basic hopes and fears. That’s why he’s winning.

JACKSON, Wyo. ( Project Syndicate ) — For the past 50 years, almost every U.S. presidential election has brought a new swing of the national political pendulum.

Richard Nixon’s shifty administration gave way, after Gerald Ford was in office long enough to pardon his former boss, to the choirboy Jimmy Carter. Four years later in rode Ronald Reagan, and then, following George H.W. Bush’s one-term interregnum, came America’s first baby boomer president, Bill Clinton.

An impeached (but brainy) philanderer, Clinton was succeed by Bush’s son, the moralizing and anti-intellectual George W. Bush, who then gave way to the Spock-like Barack Obama, before the pendulum’s widening swing extended all the way to the unprecedented fringe of Donald Trump.

Why defend a status quo that leaves you deep in debt, tenuously employed, badly housed and one medical emergency away from economic ruin?

So, is it any wonder that as the Democrats muddle through their nominating contest, their most extreme candidate is running away with the race? After the Nevada caucuses, Sen. Bernie Sanders has more than just wind at his back. He represents exactly the type of partisan reaction to Trump that should be expected, and he is the latest manifestation of the national political pendulum’s steepening arc.

Sanders, a lifelong democratic socialist who has never joined the Democratic Party, embodies the opposite of America’s 1980s-style, greed-is-good incumbent.

Why has the arc of the United States’ electoral swings become so wide?

Candidates had to embrace hope

Once upon a time, successful presidential candidates had to embrace hope and optimism. This made sense, for the world’s wealthiest country was on a more than century-long upswing, living large in its fevered American Dream.

When leaders deviated from this script in periods of national difficulty (think of Carter’s “malaise” speech ), or were blamed for temporary recessions at odds with rising-tide expectations (Bush père), the electorate showed them the door.

Then, the millennium turned and the American Century was laid low by three successive existential body blows: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, misconceived and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2008 global financial crisis. For more than a decade since the crisis, policy makers have tried everything to boost economic growth, for nothing lifts more boats.

The last decade of ultra-loose monetary policy widened wealth inequality so much that many in the middle class fell into the resulting chasm, taking flagging faith in the American Dream with them.

And yet debate still rages about what can be done to restore 4% annual gross domestic product growth . The answer is probably nothing sustainable, as extreme tax cuts have shown.

A century of abnormal growth

Simply put, the U.S. economy grew abnormally fast for the century after the Civil War, because human life spans almost doubled and productivity soared, owing to breakthrough discoveries that rarely come around (for example, vaccines, antibiotics, electricity, and microchips).

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