Last night, CNN and Facebook hosted the first of six scheduled Democratic primary presidential debates, featuring Hillary Clinton, the long-time frontrunner, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who's emerged as her main challenger, Martin O'Malley, who hopes the debate will give him a Carly Fiorinia style bump, and two other candidates, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, who like O'Malley are also polling in the low single digits.
Unfortunately for O'Malley and the other also-rans, Bernie Sanders appears to have won the debate. He won the post-debate Facebook poll and did best in a number of post-debate focus groups. Professional political observers say Hillary Clinton won the debate, but they seem to be alone in that assertion. Bernie Sanders was also the most Googled candidate for most of the debate. His campaign says he raised $1.3 million in the four hours after the debate ended.
What did Sanders say at the debate? Most of the same stuff he's been saying for years, if not decades. Asked early on whether being a "democratic socialist" might hurt, Sanders said it wouldn't once Americans learn what "democratic socialism" is. He didn't quite define it, so much as he pointed to places like Sweden and Denmark as examples ("We're not Denmark," Clinton said after being asked if anyone else, like Sanders, rejects capitalism).
Sanders' invocation of Scandinavian countries to defend his "democratic socialist" label is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst. Regardless, it's not based on reality. Sweden hasn't been a socialist standard-bearer anywhere but in the uninformed minds of American leftists for some time, while Denmark's also tried deregulation to boost their economy. The welfare states in Scandinavian countries, such as they are, have helped keep birthright citizenship off the table. None of the Scandinavian countries have it. And while Sanders says he wants to bring America's undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows," he has not expressed support for any reforms that would make it easier for immigrants to come to the country legally moving forward.
Does it matter that Sweden and Denmark aren't as socialist as they once were, and as American leftists imagine? Probably not. It hardly even matters to Sanders that the failure of socialism in Sweden and Denmark helped bring on neoliberal reforms. Sanders, in his incredible and largely unprecedented rise in the polls, has found the missing element that's kept previous potential self-identified "democratic socialist" candidates from doing well in the polls—he offers free things not just for America's poorest and neediest, a social safety net not just for those who need it, but for every American, no matter how firmly they're entrenched in the middle class, or even if they're rich.
Asked at the CNN debate why Sanders wants to pay for Trump's children's college education, the candidate responded that people like Trump would pay higher taxes. Yet richer people are, generally, better at accessing services and resources, private and government, than poorer people. That's why they tend to be richer. So if income inequality is a problem for Sanders, offering free stuff across class lines is likely only to exacerbate it. But it also translates well in polling.