Breaking the usual parameters of election season discourse, Democratic presidential hopefuls Tuesday night debated the merits of capitalism on the national stage—a development that many attribute to the candidacy of self-described socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and rising inequality and discontent.
When CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Sanders whether he considers himself a capitalist, the Vermont Senator replied: "Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don't."
"I believe in a society where all people do well," he continued, "not just a handful of billionaires."
Cooper then asked the panel: "Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?"
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded with a vague defense of the capitalist system.
"Let me follow-up on that, Anderson," Clinton said. "When I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and make a good living for themselves and their families. I don't think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself."
While direct criticism of capitalism in mainstream politics is not unheard of in U.S. history, it is unusual for modern times.
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"From the late 1970s to fairly recently, this was certainly outside the norm as a combination of Cold War politics and Reaganomics and other dynamics made it taboo to criticize capitalism, especially on the national stage of presidential politics," Marjorie Wood, senior economic policy associate at the Institute for Policy Studies and managing editor of Inequality.org, told Common Dreams.
"But if you go back further, this kind of debate isn't all that unusual in America," Wood added. "In fact, debating the merits of capitalism was completely the norm during the first Gilded Age of extreme inequality and abuses of the democratic system. But still, it was a remarkable moment last night that reflects the new moment of inequality we find ourselves in."
During the debate, Sanders also offered a definition of what he means when he calls himself a democratic socialist: "And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of one percent in this country own almost 90 percent—almost—own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top one percent."
Some critics of capitalism who do not share Sanders' specific political vision argue that there is value in openly discussing alternative systems.
"Even if it’s not the definition of socialism that I’d prefer, in this country, with its history, it still feels significant," wrote labor reporter Sarah Jaffe in the wake of Tuesday night's debate.
Meanwhile, there are signs that among younger people and communities of color in the U.S., capitalism is falling out of favor.
A Pew Research Center poll from 2011 found that a plurality of young people (49-43 percent) have a positive view of socialism and a negative view of capitalism (47-46 percent). For African Americans, these numbers were more dramatic, with a majority (55-36 percent) holding a positive view of socialism and negative view of capitalism (51-41 percent).