Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

The upcoming presidential election is starting to look as though it will feature something extraordinary, even revolutionary: a genuine debate about whether American capitalism needs an overhaul. The only surprising thing may be that it took a decade after the worst financial crisis in 80 years for us to get deep into this discussion.

It isn’t just happening in the presidential race, but that’s also where this kind of debate can play out in the most high-profile, attention-grabbing way. With everyone thinking about 2020, a proposal such as the Green New Deal immediately gets tossed into the presidential campaign, with candidates forced to take positions on it and their own proposals compared with it. And though not all of the Democratic candidates were prepared to get down to the fundamental question of what sort of capitalism we ought to have, they may have no choice.

You can call it a result of the Democratic Party “moving left,” but that may be too simplistic a way to think about it. It’s also about a new refusal among liberals to accept that the system as it exists now is how it has to be.

To those who think the status quo is just fine, the idea that the political debate might get down to that kind of foundational level is an extraordinary threat, and they're reacting with horror.

To take just one example, child care is incredibly expensive, in ways that make working parents’ lives extraordinarily challenging and limit the opportunities available to families who aren’t wealthy. Republicans may think that’s unfortunate, but they don’t think it’s a political problem that requires government to come up with a solution. Democrats disagree, and when they set out proposals to address the problem, the reaction from Republicans is somewhere between panic and terror.

Here, for instance, is Fox News host Tucker Carlson warning that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)’s child care plan is actually a nefarious plot to dramatically increase immigration and force you to let government raise your children. The Green New Deal suggests that high-speed rail could be an efficient substitute for air travel in many places, and Republicans cry that Democrats want to outlaw airplanes and cars.

What we see play out over and over again is some version of this kind of exchange:

Democrat: It would be good if every American could have access to health care and child care.

Republican: My god, are you insane? That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard. What’s next? You’ll say everyone should get a pony?

That’s what a defense of the status quo looks like: It presents the way things are now as the only possible way they could be and defines anything else as not even worth discussing because it’s so bizarre. So there must be only two alternatives: capitalism as it is currently constructed in the United States, or Venezuela-style crisis and misery.

But of course, that’s not true. The system we have is the product of choices we made in the past and are still making. It wasn’t handed down from above on a set of stone tablets. We can change it whenever we would like. And changing it doesn’t mean we no longer live in a capitalist system; it means we decided that we would like our version of capitalism to work differently.

Building that argument means defining certain things as problems; once we agree that something is a problem, we move on to debating which solution would be better. There are areas in which the left and right agree that a problem exists (such as crime) and disagree about whether something is a big problem or a manageable one (such as illegal immigration), but more so now than in a long time we’re arguing about what is and isn’t a problem at all.

Take, for example, economic inequality. Though there are countries with worse inequality than the United States, almost all of them are poor countries in Africa and Latin America. Our peer countries in Western Europe have far lower levels of inequality than we do, and it’s not because they don’t have any rich people. Instead, they developed a model that’s much like what Democrats are now proposing: a capitalist system, but with greater oversight of markets to make sure they’re not distorted and a more comprehensive structure of social supports.

But if you think inequality isn't even something we should worry about — as Republicans do — then the ways we might go about addressing it aren't even worth discussing.

And if others insist that we should discuss it, the response is often panic; this segment from “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” has a nice montage of hosts and commentators on the Fox Business Network expressing their dismay that anyone is criticizing the billionaires, who are truly the most virtuous among us.

Which is why I would recommend that while they’re considering what a better brand of capitalism might look like, liberals force conservatives to admit their real position. Ask them: Yes or no, are you saying that the status quo is right and inevitable? Do we have to accept the current distribution of wealth and power as the way things will always be? Are we not allowed to make changes if we’re not satisfied with the system?

If the answer to those questions is “no,” then we can start talking about solutions. And I expect that as the primary season goes on, the Democratic candidates are going to be forced to articulate their policy beliefs in these terms. At least two of them, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Warren, already do: Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist and explicitly cites Scandinavian countries as a model, while Warren says she’s “capitalist to my bones” but explicitly describes her plans as creating a new version of capitalism. (One of her bills is called the Accountable Capitalism Act.)

The other candidates should expect to be asked what kind of capitalism they favor, not just what specific policy changes they want to make but how they would like to alter America’s economic system as a whole. If they haven’t thought about it yet, they ought to. Because they’re not going to have a choice.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Memo to the media: Stop asking dumb questions about ‘socialism’

Max Boot: Here’s the right lesson liberals should learn from Scandinavian ‘socialism’

George F. Will: It’s common to praise socialism. It’s rarer to define it.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s war on socialism will fail