It took the excitement generated by the political campaign of a self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders, to put into stark relief the extent to which the United States political system fails to reflect and respond to the aspirations of most Americans.
That's because decades of income stagnation have transformed political attitudes in ways that don't appear reflected in Washington. A recent Marketplace-Edison poll suggests that though they might not know it, many Americans, at one time hostile to socialism, have become democratic socialists. Their socialism is not the version that called for the public ownership of the means of production. Rather, what they support are programs that reduce the risks that accompany life in a market society.
The survey, released late last month, asked a representative sample of Americans about their attitudes toward seven different "safety net" programs -- the kind that characterize democratic socialism in Europe and are espoused by socialists elsewhere. As Bernie Sanders has put it: "20 years ago when people here thought about socialism they were thinking about the Soviet Union, about Albania. Now they think about Scandinavia."
The results of that survey were astonishing in their consistency across age groups, gender and ethnicity. More than 80% of respondents supported unemployment benefits for people who have lost their jobs, food stamps for the poor, college assistance for low-income families and job training programs.
Only slightly lower levels of support were recorded for subsidies for health care benefits (78.2%) and for college tuition assistance to middle-income families (75.3%). The weakest level of support was for programs to help pay mortgages, but even here a majority offered approval (56.4%).
Yet we have a campaign finance system that makes it almost impossible for someone actually advocating socialist ideas to woo enough of the handful of donors with deep pockets necessary to win.
Only a change in the way we finance elections will make the outcome more reflective of the will of Americans.
A socialist's Achilles heel
The attractiveness of socialist ideas in the United States is revealed by the large crowds Sanders attracts. Advocating for beefing up social safety nets is exactly what has propelled Sanders to 30% support in the latest polls, not so far behind Hillary Clinton's 53%.
Sanders' socialism has not prevented his candidacy from receiving extensive small-donor financial support. As of the end of September, the campaign has received US$41 million, almost none of which went to supportive outside groups and three-quarters of which were contributions of $200 or less. More than a million people have been willing to promote their left-of-center beliefs with contributions to the Sanders campaign.
But while this support is impressive, finance is the Achilles heel of socialist electoral politics. While democratic socialists may propose popular ideas, they are forced to rely on small donors. In contrast to Sanders, Clinton's campaign has received $77 million, which, when added to the $20 million received by outside groups that support her, amounts to more than twice the level of funding that is available to Sanders. And only 17% of the money Clinton has received comes in amounts of $200 or less.
While Sanders' credibility as an electable candidate benefits from his reliance on grassroots support, that same reliance places him at a decided disadvantage when it comes to mounting a campaign that could actually secure the Democratic Party's nomination. Small-donor contributions do not add up to the level required if victory is the goal.
A bias inherent in the system
Clinton's funding advantage faithfully reflects the bias that exists in a privately funded political system. Candidates receive financing from wealthy individuals and institutions and then adopt positions in harmony with donor preferences.
Whatever else might be said about Clinton, she is not a socialist. She is liberal, but moderately so. And so, since there are plenty of big donors who espouse moderate to liberal views and virtually none who are socialists, Sanders cannot win in the funding race -- the race that in our system determines electability.
Nevertheless, Sanders and his supporters have demonstrated that there is enough space in the political system for socialist ideas to be promoted. What he and they must next do is devise a strategy that will in the future allow a candidate such as Sanders to actually win an election.
To be realistic about candidates who advocate socialist principles becoming president, the handicap associated with private political funding has to be overcome.
For that to happen, those socialist principles need to be applied to the political sphere. Just as socialists advocate that the public sector act to offset the excessive inequality that emerges from the market economy, so it is that the same public sector can be enlisted to provide a counterbalance to the disproportionate power of private wealth in the electoral system.
What is needed is the option of running for office with sufficient public funds to make victory over privately funded candidates a realistic possibility.
Public campaign funding
The irony in this is that a partial public funding system for presidential primary elections and a full public funding system for the general election for that office already exists.
It began in 1976 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and has survived juridical scrutiny since then.
It has, however, fallen into disuse because the funding levels that it provides fall far short of the levels that candidates can raise from private sources. Because of that, fewer candidates are choosing to take the money (and the spending restraints that go along with it), culminating in President Barack Obama's decision to reject public funding in 2008. His opponent, Senator John McCain, accepted $84 million in federal funds that cycle, while Obama raised $745 million.
Can we change the system?
What would be required for the system to be resuscitated is increasing funding levels so that candidates using the system would no longer be placed at a debilitating financial disadvantage. Securing such increases would require reversing the entire thrust of cutbacks in government spending that has characterized the politics of the last 35 years.
That will be difficult to achieve. A massive grassroots political mobilization in its support will have to occur.
The potential for such mobilization does exist. It is present not only among the people who contribute to the Sanders campaign and those who in the primary elections will vote for him. It also exists among the majority of the public whose views were represented in the Marketplace-Edison survey.
To elect a president who will promote the democratic socialist positions endorsed in the survey, the country will have to first create a political dimension to democratic socialism: the generous public funding of election campaigns.