Bernie Sanders's optimistic freedom on display in debate

The first Democratic debate seems to have confirmed an impression that I suspect many had formed by midsummer: simply calling things as you see them, without hedging or weaseling or triangulating in any way, is liberating. It is liberating of the candidate and of the audience alike. That means all of us.

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Consider Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead Senate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate MORE (I-Vt.), for example. The first question posed to Sanders in yesterday's debate was whether, as a self-declared "socialist," he thinks himself electable. My guess is I wasn't alone in expecting at least some form of back-pedaling by the senator. That is how accustomed that I — like millions of others, I'd wager — have become to hemming and hawing and "'splaining" by political figures in response to all putatively "tough" questions.

But Sanders did nothing remotely resembling that. Instead, he forthrightly "owned" the label — strictly speaking, the "Democratic socialist" label — and proceeded to say what it means and why it's worth trying. Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he noted, are democratic socialist societies, and do much better than we do on nearly every measure of national well-being: healthcare, literacy, higher education, middle-class prosperity, crime rates, prison populations and so on. What's not to like about that?

This was extraordinary enough; I've literally never seen anything like it in an American presidential debate, especially from a front-runner who has plenty to lose. But at least as remarkable as that was the audience response. The cheering was wild, explosive, much more enthusiastic than any all night — apart, perhaps, from that which greeted Sanders's call for the media to end its apparent obsession with Hillary Clinton's emails. The sense of relief that seemed to hover behind it was palpable.

How to account for this? How has the "game" come to "change" so?

My bet is that what we saw was a form of collective catharsis. For decades now, Americans have been watching with worry as the nation's greatest accomplishment — its large, prosperous, ever-advancing middle class — has reversed course and steadily dwindled. Jobs that pay living wages or salaries have ebbed away, even as healthcare and education and other staples of life have grown ever more expensive and unaffordable. Meanwhile, all throughout this tragic spectacle — a crisis that demands serious diagnosis and treatment — there has been a strange sort of taboo, first against uttering the word "inequality," then against uttering any political value-word other than "freedom." To speak of anything else — e.g., dramatically worsening inequality — was condemned as "class warfare," as though those who decried the problem, rather than those who were perpetrating it, were the war-makers.

In 2011, the Occupy movement at last put the first chink in the "no talk of inequality" armor, and the results were explosive. Decades of pent-up concern over our worsening state were set free, and we have been talking about it ever since. A wonkish book on the subject, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, even became a runaway best-seller last year. All the talk was of "Pikettymania."

But that was only the beginning. Since then, "Berniemania" has swept much of the nation — a development that surely would have looked just as unlikely four years ago as the "Occupation," and as a French economist's gaining rock-star status here in America.

And now the same improbable release from taboo has occurred before a nationwide live television audience. Sanders ducked no question or label. He showed no reluctance to say what he — and, it seems, scores of millions — believe sorely needs saying: We are in trouble. Our peer nations outclass us on nearly all measures of social well-being. It didn't used to be this way, and it doesn't have to stay this way.

We can recover what was best about us, and make it yet better. All we need do is call the problem for what it is and deal with it, without fear of labels or "thought-crime" taboos. Without running from questions or denying who we are or what we believe in.

This is what Sanders stands for, it seems. And in "owning" it publicly without flinching, he seems to be registering a confidence in this nation that other candidates can't seem to muster. For he seems to be confident that simply calling things for what they are without hedging or sugarcoating or avoiding scary words will suffice to get him elected to where he can begin doing something about all our challenges.

Isn't this ironic? The fellow whom some have called a "zealot" is actually the optimist. And the fellow who's farthest from the faux "freedom"-enthusiasts who call themselves "Republicans" is the one who has set us most free. Doubt that? Just ask those in tonight's debate audience whose explosive cheers gave expression to that sense of long-sought freedom from labeling-taboos that was so palpable at the debate. We were freer and more optimistic tonight than we've been in decades.

Hockett, a regular contributor to The Hill, is Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University, senior consultant at Westwood Capital Holdings, LLC and a fellow at the Century Foundation.