Bernie’s Revolution Needs to Transform America’s Political Institutions

If we want to make Bernie Sanders’s political revolution a reality, we can’t just propose bold policies to make people’s lives better — we have to rebuild popular confidence in the possibilities of politics itself. And we can't rebuild that confidence without democratizing the United States's decidedly undemocratic political institutions.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a New Year's Eve campaign event on December 31, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Stephen Maturen / Getty

If Labour’s crushing loss in the recent British election taught us anything, it’s not that left-wing economic ideas are unpopular. The specific policy proposals in Labour’s election manifesto, as well as its overarching vision for a green industrial revolution, resonated widely among the British electorate. From nationalizations to tax increases on the rich to worker representation on corporate boards, the popularity of the policies that comprised Jeremy Corbyn’s program ranged, in the words of one preelection report, “from quite popular to ridiculously popular.”

Nonetheless, Labour suffered its worst defeat since the 1930s as the vaunted “red wall” fell before the Tory onslaught. The election was effectively a second referendum on Brexit, which unified and energized voters on the Right while splitting Labour’s base along class and geographic lines. Corbyn attempted to displace the Brexit question with his unabashedly radical manifesto, but the gambit didn’t work, and Labour was left without any clear policy on the campaign’s most important and divisive issue.

In retrospect, there was no easy answer to this problem. Two-thirds of Labour MPs were Remainers representing Leave-voting constituencies, and any clear-cut Brexit policy the leadership might have adopted would have alienated a substantial section of its electoral base. In any case, as Richard Seymour has bluntly put it, “the options were bad and we chose badly.”

Brexit was not, however, simply a matter of tactical or conjunctural importance. Nor is its relevance limited to the British political context. The fact that Labour’s fortunes were dashed on the rocks of Brexit should give US socialists working to elect Bernie Sanders pause.

Like Corbyn, Sanders raises economic policy demands that enjoy widespread popular support. Years of unremitting class war from above have made the need for a radical redistribution of wealth and income plainer than ever. The problem for us is that this same phenomenon has lowered people’s expectations and shattered their faith in the possibilities of collective action, not least because New Democrats and New Labour alike did so much to disorganize the working class and facilitate the rule of the 1 percent.

The resurgent left has no trouble offering an economic program that would substantially improve the lives of the vast majority. But in electoral oligarchies like the US and UK, a decisive swathe of the public has become fundamentally mistrustful of politics, politicians, parties, and government action in general. The drive to Brexit is one of the main symptoms of this transatlantic anti-political mood.

Socialists want to use politics and state power as a vehicle for improving people’s lives. But so many of us — particularly those who would benefit the most from a radical governing program — look askance at such a seemingly hopeless prospect. Considering the low, dishonest decades we’ve lived through, when government action has so often been reduced to politically constituted rip-offs for the wealthy and well-connected, who can blame them?

We cannot overcome this basic dilemma simply by making bigger and better appeals to material interest, as important as that is.

The US left’s problem has never been that our economic proposals are unpopular. There is a long-standing gap between public support for progressive policy measures and the actual content of government policy, which tends to reflect the wildly unrepresentative preferences of the wealthy. In order to make good on the unprecedented political opening before us, we have to restore people’s faith in the idea that politics and collective action can give genuine substance to the all-too-effective Brexit slogan “take back control.”

For all Corbyn’s radicalism, the Labour Party he led tended not to foreground a vision of radical democratic reform and popular political empowerment. The slogan “For the many, not the few” certainly gestured in this direction, and some left-wing MPs like Jon Trickett raised the banner of democratic revolution. But for the most part, the party’s electoral appeals tended to focus on ending Tory austerity and massively increasing government expenditures.

These proposals were broadly popular and sorely needed, and Labour was undoubtedly right to make them an important part of its campaign manifesto. But as Duncan Thomas observed in one of the most incisive election postmortems, the huge spending figures that garnered headlines and excited grassroots party activists simply did not seem credible to many voters on the doorsteps. The erosion Labour’s social substratum, the encompassing web of trade unions, local party branches, and associations which inculcated the notion that working-class people could in fact build a world of their own making, has also eroded popular confidence in the possibility of making radical change through collective action.

Here in the United States, we don’t even have the memory of a deeply rooted mass labor party to mourn. Our country has long been distinguished by, in the words of Engels, its “purely bourgeois culture” and corresponding lack of a mass working-class counterculture, even at the height of the US labor movement’s organizational and political strength. The last forty years of neoliberalism pulverized the limited institutional and cultural resources built up during earlier periods of working-class and popular struggle and cast people adrift on a sea of private misery. Politicians and political institutions are held in widespread contempt, and rightfully so.

Officeholders from both major parties don’t just fail to act on the needs and interests of the vast majority. They simply have no idea what people actually want in the first place.

Bernie Sanders is well aware of how deep the rot goes. His current campaign, even more so than the 2016 campaign, is doing everything it can to spark what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination — the connection of private troubles to public issues — in millions of Americans. This is absolutely indispensable work in a country marred by profound social disorganization and political disillusionment, the first step in creating the conditions for a new period of mass popular struggle and organization. This is why participating wholeheartedly in his campaign for as long as it lasts is the single most important immediate task for American socialists today.

Sanders has made a massive contribution to the cause of political regeneration by introducing the concept of “political revolution” to American political discourse. This is the sort of overarching, integrating theme the Corbynite project lacked and which the British right found in Brexit. It also differentiates him from Democratic Party politicians who have no problem proposing ambitious spending programs but lack Bernie’s lifelong commitment to a genuinely insurgent, anti-establishment brand of politics.

Even so, Bernie’s conception of political revolution is not without its silences and limitations. He tends to define it as big economic demands — Medicare for All, tuition-free public education, a jobs guarantee — plus increased voter turnout. This is, of course, a vast improvement on everything else that’s been on offer in the last forty years.

But the movement behind Sanders must reckon with the fact that even if a demand like Medicare for All enjoys widespread favorability, many people still don’t think that a victory on that scale can be won through the fundamentally anti-democratic institutions of the existing political system. Cynical as this may be, they are probably right, even if a President Sanders tries to use his bully pulpit to rally popular support for his policy agenda.

It therefore falls to the democratic-socialist left to develop Bernie’s call for a political revolution into a movement to radically transform the political system.

Leading figures on Britain’s Labour left seem to have taken up the challenge in the wake of Corbyn’s defeat. As Rebecca Long-Bailey, the socialist standard bearer in the party’s leadership election, put it in her rousing Tribune pitch, “people across these islands are sick of the British state’s distant and undemocratic institutions. They have no trust in politicians to deliver, and have a deep desire for political as well as economic transformation.”

She’s calling for a war on the British political establishment, a “constitutional revolution” to redistribute power downward and outward, away from the seat of government in London. This is a welcome echo of Jon Trickett’s plan for a participatory constitutional convention that would lead a reconstruction Britain’s archaic political institutions.

By contrast, Sanders tends not to highlight the challenge of state transformation. As he began to bow out of the 2016 campaign, he called on his supporters to “start running for school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and governorships” as well as seats in Congress. The Squad heeded the call, and their emergence has had a dramatic impact on the Democratic Party and the national political debate in short order.

Fortunately, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems willing to take the idea of political revolution further, into hitherto uncharted territory. Her common-sense observation that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party” set off a storm of controversy which, to her credit, she has not backed away from.

There is consistent public support for a transformation of the electoral system, but it’s largely passive. Sentiment will be turned into action only if leading political figures like AOC and Bernie put it on the agenda, and democratic socialists and our allies work to organize a movement behind it.

How might we start making “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a substantive reality and not just a line from a textbook? One possibility is the formation of a convention movement to discuss and promote measures for overhauling our country’s broken political system. It would take inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement that swept northern black communities before the Civil War, which articulated numerous demands and promoted the establishment of new political organizations. These would be informal gatherings lacking official sanction, but over time they could potentially gain legitimacy and serve as a source of popular pressure and demands that politicians would ignore at their peril.

The Left has grown unaccustomed to addressing these kinds of political and constitutional questions. But if we want to make Bernie’s political revolution a reality, these are the kinds of questions we need to start asking and giving answers to. If we don’t, other more destructive forces won’t hesitate to offer answers of their own.