Bernie’s Political Revolution Requires Radical Democratic Reform

The political revolution needs mass protest mobilization. But to be completed, it will also require a radical reconstruction of the United States’ undemocratic political institutions.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd after speaking at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders began his first campaign for president in 2015 with an extremely ambitious declaration: “Today, we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, socially, politically, and environmentally.” Four years later, Sanders has gone from a largely unknown outsider to the most popular politician in the country, a genuine figure of the Left who stands a realistic chance of winning the White House in 2020.

People across the country, not just Vermonters and progressives, know who Bernie is now. But do we have a clearer sense of what he means when he calls for a political revolution in the United States?

The answer is yes and no. “Political revolution” is still something of a floating signifier for Bernie’s insurgent, antiestablishment brand of politics rather than for any specific program or vision for a new political order. The closest he gets to defining the concept is when he speaks of the need for millions of ordinary people to mobilize and confront the entrenched power of the billionaire class, which will fight tooth and nail to combat Medicare for All, tuition-free public higher education, and all of his other signature issues.

The formula is a good one: big demands plus street heat equals political revolution.

Bernie’s call to hit the streets isn’t just cheap campaign talk. In recent months, the Sanders campaign has used its impressive communications infrastructure to turn supporters out to picket lines and labor solidarity rallies across the country. Earlier this week, it sent pizzas to the Kentucky coal miners blocking a train to protest unpaid wages. According to a recent report in Politico, the campaign “has sent hundreds of thousands of emails and a half-million texts to his supporters to push them to attend more than 50 strikes, protests and other events this year.”

This is a major contribution to stimulating collective action from below, particularly in the wider context of social disorganization that defines the present moment. It also reinforces the crucial message that Bernie won’t be able to accomplish everything on his own, even with the power of the presidency behind him. This is the meaning of his campaign slogan, “Not Me, Us.”

Bernie has succeeded in putting his signature issues near the top of the national political agenda and has forced the other Democratic primary candidates to position themselves in relation to him. He has also built a large-scale campaigning infrastructure that he will keep in the field even if he wins the presidency — unlike Barack Obama, who effectively mothballed Organizing for America to avoid upsetting the political establishment.

This is all a very strong start. But Bernie and the forces behind him must broaden the concept of political revolution to encompass not just mass protest, but a far-reaching program of radical political reform in a country that desperately needs it — one that links popular economic demands like Medicare for All and higher wages to the democratic restructuring of government institutions.

Improper or Wicked Projects

The basic failure of the US political system is that it does not translate the needs, interests, and preferences of the vast majority into government action. In short, it’s fundamentally undemocratic. This situation prevails, to a significant extent, because of the massive economic pressure that capitalist interests can bring to bear on the political system. But it is also a result of the many counter-majoritarian aspects of the constitutional order, which make it very difficult for ordinary people to exercise popular control over the government.

This is, of course, by design. The founders were deeply concerned with preventing an “interested and overbearing majority” from pursuing “improper or wicked” projects like a redistribution of property or the abolition of debts. They established a republic in which representation was a means of avoiding, not instituting, democratic control of government by filtering popular opinion through a complex of elite-dominated institutions like the Senate and the judiciary.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood argued in Democracy Against Capitalism, their practical task was to “sustain a propertied oligarchy with the electoral support of a popular multitude,” a goal that required “a redefinition of democracy, which would disguise the ambiguities in their oligarchic project.” This was premised, first and foremost, on the violent exclusion of indigenous people, slaves, and free African Americans from political life. But it also entailed the assumption that men of property must speak on behalf of the lower orders as a whole, even where they enjoyed the right to speak, assemble, and vote.

The oligarchic tendencies of the political system are exacerbated by the fact that it has a strong built-in bias against any kind of policy change, not just those preferred by a popular majority. The political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page attracted a great deal of attention in 2014 with their finding that ordinary Americans have essentially zero independent influence over politics and policymaking at the national level. Less remarked upon, but no less remarkable, is their finding that even the richest and most influential Americans often fail to translate their preferences into policy.

Wealthy people and corporations almost always succeed at blocking government action they oppose, particularly higher taxes on the rich and redistributive social programs. But according to Page and Gilens, even policy changes overwhelmingly supported by the rich have only a fifty-fifty chance of being adopted. The deliberately byzantine design of the US political system — separation of powers, federalism, veto points, and more — can make it difficult to achieve much of anything through political action, no matter which class or interest group is involved.

Such a system will not be amenable to the agenda a President Bernie Sanders and his supporters will pursue, even if we can maintain a high level of popular mobilization after the election.

Toward a New Republic

Sanders has been in Congress for thirty years, so he is surely too familiar with the deeply undemocratic features of our political system. He recently called for the abolition of the Electoral College, a welcome intervention that should continue to build popular sentiment against that vestige of aristocratic privilege. But the Electoral College is just one of the many impediments to effective popular control of government that must be addressed if Bernie’s ambitious agenda is to become a reality.

Too much of today’s “crisis of democracy” discourse seeks to defend the existing political order against something called norm erosion, as embodied by eroder-in-chief Donald Trump. But it’s this very order that made the emergence of a figure like Trump possible in the first place.

Instead of defending the existing regime, all those forces concerned with protecting and expanding democracy in America must advance a comprehensive program of political reconstruction: expanded multi-member districts for the House of Representatives; abolition of the Electoral College and the Senate; radically reducing judicial power over fundamentally political decisions; and ending the imperial presidency. A future Congress under (small “d”) democratic control might also combat state-level assaults on democracy through seldom-used but potentially powerful constitutional provisions like the guarantee clause to prevent reactionaries from using federalism for political advantage.

The fortunes of political democracy and social equality are inextricably linked, and progress on either front requires progress on both fronts. The present political order is arranged precisely to forestall the implementation of a Sanders-style program of large-scale income redistribution and social spending. Conversely, a wide array of positive proposals to overhaul the political system have floundered because they lack a meaningful base of popular support.

By linking these two sets of demands, the forces behind Bernie wouldn’t just be supporting an election campaign or a potential President Sanders. They would be laying the groundwork for a long-term, hegemonic political project. The main vehicle for such a project cannot be “social movements,” but political parties in the Gramscian sense: the “permanently organized and long-prepared force” capable of scrapping the old political regime and replacing it with a new one. This task will fall, first and foremost, to the nascent socialist left, which should embrace it as its primary mission for the next generation.

Bernie’s core base of support is disproportionately urban, working-class, women, and non-white. In short, precisely those popular sectors that the prevailing constitutional order has pushed to the political margins since the country’s founding. Yes, the political revolution will need protest mobilization on a huge scale. But it also needs a vision for a new birth of freedom through a new American republic.