Democrats took the debate stage in Las Vegas at a crucial moment in American history. As wealth inequality metastasizes to unsustainable levels, rich Americans and powerful corporations wield unprecedentedâ€”and growingâ€”control over our politics. Voters are demanding answers.
This deep dissatisfaction has fueled the surprising rise of Bernie Sanders, who now leads Hillary Clinton in several key primary states. In Las Vegas, the candidates largely followed his lead: There was a substantive discussion about free college tuition, government action to raise wages, prosecuting Wall Street criminals, and expanding Social Security. There was even an exchange about the merits of socialism. Early in the debate, Anderson Cooper actually had occasion to ask, â€śIs there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?â€ť
The Democrats leaned eagerly left throughout the evening. Forty-two percent of Americans make less than $15 an hour, and both Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin Oâ€™Malley favor a federal minimum wage of at least that much. Hillary Clinton wants a $12 hourly wage in most of the country, though she supports $15 in large urban areas. Paid sick leave is also a consensus position among the major Democratic candidates, as is pay equity. Clinton in particular repeatedly pushed â€śpaycheck feminismâ€ť during the debate.
These arenâ€™t stale, market-based solutions, but ones that stress government intervention for the public good.
The same is true of the candidatesâ€™ plans for Wall Street: Both Oâ€™Malley and Sanders want to resurrect the Glass-Steagall restrictions on commercial banks playing the market with their depositorsâ€™ funds, and both want to break up too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Clinton, unfortunately, doesnâ€™t favor either approach, but her Wall Street reform plan is a serious proposal nevertheless: She wants to strengthen the Volcker rule and boost financing for desperately underfunded Wall Street cops like the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. She decried the lack of federal prosecutions against Wall Street malefactors under President Obama, and she lamented that â€śnobody went to jailâ€ť following the 2008 financial crisis.
In recent years, progressives have launched a successful counteroffensive to protect the social safety net, seeking to expand vital programs instead of simply defending against cuts. All three major candidates agree on this, though once again Clinton prefers a more timid approach: She backs â€śenhancingâ€ť Social Security but did not explicitly support expanding benefits across the board.
The list goes on. The major candidates all favor debt-free college education, financed by federal and state governments. They oppose the dangerous corporate power grab that the Trans-Pacific Partnership represents, and they want a serious commitment to infrastructure and public-works spending.
This populist counteroffensive comes just in time. According to The New York Times, 158 families have donated nearly half of the money going to 2016 candidates, and the donors are overwhelmingly white men, many in the finance and energy industries. While polls show broadening support for economic populismâ€”a majority of Americans now favor taxing the wealthy in order to expand aid for the poorâ€”these donors are trying to buy the democratic process for themselves.
We need to hear more debates like the one in Las Vegas. The Democratic National Committee should drop its foolish prohibition on nonsanctioned debates, an undemocratic position highlighted by the DNCâ€™s decision to exclude Representative Tulsi Gabbard from the Las Vegas eventâ€™s audience after she questioned the policy. There should also be a serious focus on foreign policy in the upcoming contests, a realm in which the leading Democrats have not shifted left at all. But for now, on the economy, Democrats are playing the right notes.