No one believes Sen. Bernard Sanders could win election as president in 2016. Sanders himself says someone would have to be crazy to wake up in the morning thinking he should be president. So why is Sanders trooping through New Hampshire, South Carolina and a long list of other states, sending up the liberal battle cry about economic inequality and encouraging the thought that he might run?
Politics in the United States is a continual struggle between the center and the edges. The center exerts a constant, powerful gravitational force. In the center are the many groups that have an interest in preserving power and the great corporate structure of the economy. The money and momentum of the center draws politicians toward the center, and few are strong enough to resist its demands.
Bill Clinton was a consummate politician of the center, able to forge alliances with corporate America while charting a moderately liberal course. Even as a moderate, he found his powers to be limited. His effort to enact health care reform crumbled in the face of resistance from the powers that be.
But there is a role at the edges of the system for people who want the nation to change direction. On the right and the left, it is possible for leaders to tap into popular discontent and to chart a new course. At the outset they are called radicals or extremists, and sometimes the labels fit. Without the power of the center behind them, they seldom have stature enough to become president, but sometimes they gain a toehold on power that allows them to harness the power of the people to lead in a new direction.
In recent years, it has been the right that has most successfully parlayed a radical vision for change into electoral success. The anti-government, anti-tax message of the right has produced a movement with leaders whose views would have been off the ideological charts a few years ago. They have moved the system so far to the right that the very idea of cooperating with President Barack Obama has become anathema. Their obstruction makes Obama’s major accomplishments all the more remarkable.
The left, meanwhile, has struggled to find its voice. Occupy Wall Street fizzled, in part, because the movement eschewed politics. But the reality of economic inequality has become so harmful to the welfare of the nation that Obama lately has defined inequality as the great issue of our time.
During his tenure, he has been far from a tribune of the left. His Justice Department has failed to hold Wall Street to account for the criminality that led to the meltdown of 2008. Because his political power was always circumscribed by the gravitational force of the center, his reforms have been modest. But as the gap between rich and poor has widened and the extreme right and its patrons have become bolder in their demand for special treatment, voters on the left have yearned for a countervailing voice.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been a strong voice for the interests of ordinary Americans against predatory banks and other forces of exploitation. But she has said she is not going to run for president. Hillary Clinton presents herself as a defender of the middle class, but she has a long history as part of the center.
Thus, there is a niche that Sanders may feel inclined to try to fill. Clinton may be happy for Sanders to enter the race if it allows her to define herself as reasonable and moderate, in contrast to Sanders, a democratic socialist. Then again, someone like Sanders could excite a popular movement strong enough to force centrist candidates to veer leftward, the way that right-wing candidates pulled Mitt Romney to the right.
Sanders understands that the public good requires that the forces in any system tending toward oligarchy require constant resistance if their grasp for power is to be restrained. It is a message that, increasingly, resonates around the nation.
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