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Bernie's Revolution Needs to Transform America's Political Institutions – Jacobin magazine



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.

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Dozens arrested in Hong Kong on Tiananmen crackdown anniversary



Police in Hong Kong have detained dozens of people on charges of “breaching public peace”, including a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers and a man who held a candle, during a crackdown on commemorations of the anniversary of the bloodshed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Restrictions in Hong Kong have stifled what were once the largest vigils marking the anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese troops on pro-democracy demonstrators, leaving cities like Taipei, London, New York and Berlin to keep the memory of June 4, 1989, alive.

Near Victoria Park on Sunday night, the previous site of yearly vigils, hundreds of police conducted stop and search operations, and deployed armoured vehicles and police vans.

Police took away more than a dozen people at the scene, according to the Reuters news agency, including activist Alexandra Wong, 67, who carried a bouquet of flowers, a man who held a copy of “35th of May”, a play on the Tiananmen crackdown, and an elderly man standing alone on a street corner with a candle.


“The regime wants you to forget, but you can’t forget… It [China] wants to whitewash all history,” said Chris To, 51, who visited the park in a black T-shirt and was searched by police.

“We need to use our bodies and word of mouth to tell others what happened.”

In a statement, police said 11 men and 12 women aged between 20 and 74 were detained on suspicion of “breaching the public peace at the scene”.

A further four people had been arrested on Saturday for “seditious” acts and “disorderly conduct”, and four more on suspicion of breaching the peace.

‘Shameful campaign’

Discussion of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square – when China’s Communist Party sent in troops and tanks to quash peaceful protests – is highly sensitive for Chinese authorities and commemoration is forbidden on the mainland.

Hundreds – by some estimates, more than 1,000 – were killed.

Commemorations of the event have also become increasingly off-limits in Hong Kong since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, effectively barring anyone from holding memorial events.

After the enactment of the security law, Tiananmen-related visual spectacles, including statues at universities, were also removed. Three leaders of the group that used to organise the vigil were charged with subversion under the law. The group itself was disbanded in 2021 after being informed by police that it was under investigation for working on behalf of foreign groups, an accusation the group denied.

Most recently, books featuring the event have been pulled from public library shelves.

Ahead of the anniversary, senior officials in Hong Kong warned people to abide by the national security law but refused to clarify if commemoration activities were illegal under the legislation. Authorities also tightened security across Hong Kong, deploying as many as 6,000 police, including riot and anti-terrorism officers, according to local media.

Following Sunday’s arrests, the office of United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a tweet that it was “alarmed by reports of detentions” in Hong Kong and called for the “release of anyone detained for exercising freedom of expression & peaceful assembly”.

Amnesty International also condemned the detentions, saying the use of colonial-era sedition charges against activists and the persistence of non-conforming voices “lays bare the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience”.

It added: “The Hong Kong government’s shameful campaign to stop people marking this anniversary mirrors the censorship of the Chinese central government and is an insult to those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.”

Despite the anniversary crackdown, some Hong Kong individuals and businesses quietly marked June 4.

A shop gave away candles, while a bookstore displayed Tiananmen Square archival material. Jailed Hong Kong activist Chow Hang-tung, one of the leaders of a group called The Alliance, which used to organise the June 4 vigils, said on Facebook that she would hold a 34-hour hunger strike.

‘Clear conclusion’

In Beijing, meanwhile, Tiananmen Square was thronged with tourists taking pictures under the watchful eyes of police and other personnel but with no obvious sign of stepped-up security.

Ahead of the anniversary, a group of mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen crackdown sought redress and issued a statement renewing their call for “truth, compensation and accountability”.

“Though 34 years have passed, for us, family members of those killed, the pain of losing our loved ones in that one night has tormented us to this day,” the group said in a statement released by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights in China.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning, when asked about the government’s response to events around the world to mark the anniversary, said in Beijing on Friday that the government had already come to a “clear conclusion about the political turmoil in the late 1980s”.

In democratically-governed Taiwan, the last remaining part of the Chinese-speaking world where the anniversary can be marked freely, hundreds attended a memorial at Taipei’s Liberty Square where a “Pillar of Shame” statue was displayed.

Kacey Wong, an artist who is among dozens of Hong Kong residents who have moved to Taiwan, said more than 30 years of commemorating the 1989 protests had made it a part of life.

[“Detained” below]

Wong said an artist friend, Sanmu Chen, had been detained along with others while attempting to stage a public street performance in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.

“So, it’s all engrained in our subconscious that we should care and practise our sympathy towards other people who are yearning for democracy and freedom,” Wong said.

Taiwan Vice President William Lai, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in next January’s election, wrote on his Facebook page that the memory of what happened in Beijing in 1989 must be preserved.

“The event commemorating June 4 has continued to be held in Taipei, which shows that democracy and authoritarianism are the biggest differences between Taiwan and China,” he said.

Vigils were also held around the world, from Japan to Australia, with people standing with candles next to images of the brutal crackdown.

In Sydney, dozens of demonstrators rallied at the Town Hall, chanting “Free Hong Kong”, while holding up yellow umbrellas, the symbol of pro-democracy protests since 2014, and placards.

And in London, before marching to the Chinese embassy, protesters staged a re-enactment featuring a blow-up tank and women dressed in white, emulating a statue to liberty set up on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A 59-year-old poet from China’s Sichuan province told the AFP news agency at the Trafalgar Square rally that his family fled soon after the Tiananmen crackdown.

“Chinese people in my generation know what happened but the younger ones, not really,” said the man, who declined to be named for fear of Chinese reprisals.

“Their parents, their grandparents, need to keep up the knowledge and we all need to remember at events overseas like this.”



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Trudeau continues to stand by David Johnston despite calls for him to step down



Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is committed to keeping David Johnston in place as Canada’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, despite a majority of MPs voting to call on him to resign.

Trudeau said in Toronto Friday that he looks forward to public hearings the former governor general is expected to hold “across the country” over the coming months before he releases a final report by the end of October.

“He is taking very seriously this question and he is digging into the facts,” Trudeau said.

The House of Commons passed an NDP motion earlier this week, with the support of Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs, that urged Johnston to step aside and asked the government to call a public inquiry.


Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in Winnipeg today that Johnston has to go but wouldn’t name a potential replacement.

“All the parties in the House of Commons should come together and agree on someone who is not partisan, not connected to any party leader and who has a track record of objectivity, preferably as a judge,” he said.

Poilievre has criticized the special rapporteur role as a “fake job” and questioned Johnston’s ability to objectively scrutinize the Liberal government’s handling of alleged foreign meddling because of his ties to the Trudeau family.

David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, arrives to present his first report in Ottawa on May 23, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Poilievre is refusing to review a classified portion of Johnston’s initial report into foreign interference, saying it would prevent him from publicly criticizing the federal government on the subject.

Johnston has defended his integrity and downplayed his connections to the prime minister, saying this week he intends to stay on in his role.

“When I accepted the mandate to act as independent special rapporteur, I did so with full knowledge of the fact that the work ahead would be neither straightforward nor uncontroversial,” Johnston said in a media statement earlier this week.

“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes the government. I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed.”

Trudeau accused Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet of letting political arguments and political attacks get in the way of facts.

“They have refused to get security briefings on the actual facts surrounding the intelligence and the question of foreign interference, because they want to continue to smear a man of unimpeachable integrity and deep commitment and service to Canada,” Trudeau said.



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From power to powerless: The high costs of a political life



Life after public office is not always a stream of plum assignments. Dealing with defeat can be devastating

Current Liberal House Leader Mark Holland has spent nearly his entire career in politics except for one four-year gap after losing a close race in the 2011 federal election. That loss was so crushing he attempted to take his own life.

“I volunteered and lived in my community my entire life,” Holland told the National Post. “You put your heart and soul on the line, and when you lose, it’s hard not to take it personally. You feel personally rejected, and that’s really hard to get over. You feel like your neighbours and the people you’ve been working alongside forever have suddenly rejected you.”


Holland told the story of that loss last October while testifying before the procedure and House affairs committee. He made the shocking public admission of his suicide attempt in front of his peers.

“Because I had thrown my entire universe into this enterprise at the expense of unfortunately a lot of other things I should have taken better care of, I was in a really desperate spot,” Holland said during his testimony.

“I was told I was toxic, Conservatives hated me, no organization would want to hire me. My marriage failed, my space with my children was not in a good place, and most particularly, my passion, the thing I had believed so ardently in and was the purpose of my life was in ashes at my feet.”

Attempting to end his life served as the “genesis” of Holland seeing his life differently and “reframing the choices” he faced.

When Bill Morneau resigned as Finance Minister in 2020 he went on to a fellowship at Yale, joined CIBC’s board of directors and wrote a book released earlier this year. Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney landed at Calgary law firm Bennett Jones. While many Canadians assume life after politics is a stream of board appointments and plum assignments, it isn’t always an easy landing. Being an elected official is a unique profession as the job’s singlemost important qualification is appealing to people and garnering the most votes on election night. Being defeated can be a devastating blow to one’s self worth.

You put your heart and soul on the line, and when you lose, it’s hard not to take it personally

Mark Holland

Holland told the National Post that being a politician in an all-encompassing career, and having it suddenly taken away was traumatic. “It’s so much part of your identity, that it takes a while to get over,” he said.

Léo Duguay, who until 1988 represented the Winnipeg-area riding of Saint Boniface-Saint Vital for the Progressive Conservatives, said that Holland’s experience is not uncommon among former MPs transitioning to private life after politics.

“Some were very lucky, I was one of them. Some people right away find a job and something they like, and they’re good,” he said.

“Some people never expected to lose — so there’s that shock of people you thought were your friends and supported you and voted for you, to find that a whole bunch of people didn’t vote for you, and you’re out.”

Leo Duguay (left) with Don Mazankowski and Jim Prentice in 2010.
Leo Duguay (left) with Don Mazankowski and Jim Prentice in 2010. Photo by Postmedia

Dugay, who has served as president of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, said depression and suicidal thoughts aren’t unheard of among their ranks. “For the people who lose, and even those who planned their loss, the shock is much greater than they thought,” he said.

Tiziana Casciaro, a professor of organizational behaviour at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said “transitional trauma” is a very real phenomenon, rooted in the gain and sudden loss of power. “It’s a basic need that we all have, to feel that we are in control, to some extent, of our existence, that we can influence the world around us,” she said.

“When you’re in politics and voted into office, you’re given control over resources that many value, and therefore you become important in their eyes.”

Losing an election, she said, is a blow like nothing else in the corporate world. “A position in a corporate or business environment is accomplished through the work you do,” she explained, saying that your continued employment in most jobs is based on your perceived value.

“You don’t have to put your name out there in front of thousands or millions of people — depending on the scope of the election — and be judged by them. In a sense, you’re much more vulnerable.”

Some have no idea how to look for a job, because they’ve never done that

Léo Duguay

While MPs who’ve accumulated at least six years of service qualify for a government pension, Dugay said about 40 per cent of former parliamentarians aren’t eligible. In nearly all cases, MPs who resign or are voted out are eligible for a one-time severance allowance of 50 per cent of their annual salary, as well as access to transitional benefits including education funding.

“We’ve found people who didn’t say a word and went back to their communities, and five months later are unemployed — they don’t know what to do,” Dugay said. “Some have no idea how to look for a job, because they’ve never done that.”

For Sue Barnes, who represented London-West for the Liberals for 15 years, the realities of her narrow October 2008 election-night loss hit fast.

“One of the things that affected me immediately was going from masses of emails and your calendar being filled every weekend with events … because somebody’s replaced you,” she recalled.

Sue Barnes, left, shakes hands in London, Ont.
Former Liberal MP Sue Barnes (left) in London, Ont.

Barnes said she experienced feelings of grief over her loss for at least a year. “Not for the job, but what it meant to me,” she explained. “The connection to people working hard and solving problems —I really missed the intellectual stimulation of the job.”

People don’t know what to say to you — it’s very socially isolating

Holland, who lost by less than 3,300 votes to Conservative candidate Chris Alexander in the 2011 election, had similar recollections.

“You move from your calendar and phone constantly being filled to suddenly all of that being displaced and being completely silent,” he said. “You realize how voracious this life is, how much it takes over so many elements of your life, and you’re left to fill those back in.

He also found that after leaving office some people just avoided him. “It’s not that people don’t like you anymore, it’s just awkward,” he said. “People don’t know what to say to you — it’s very socially isolating.”

Casciaro, who co-authored a book on the topic titled Power for All, said serving at the will of the people — and suddenly having those same people take your power away — can impact one’s sense of self-worth.

“You lose that, and you lose at the same time two of the most basic things that any human being really has — protection from harm and the uncertainty of life, and you feel like you’re at the whims of the world and this notion that you don’t matter as much because you aren’t in control of things that are highly consequential for a lot of people.”

While Holland would eventually run again and win in 2015, he spent much of his four-year hiatus rebuilding his life.

“When you do this work, as a member of Parliament, there’s no plan B,” he said. “It is all-consuming, you give every inch of yourself, you don’t have time to plan what you would do if you were to lose — you can’t go into an election thinking you might lose.”

Barnes, who was a lawyer before politics, had to face the realities of being an unemployed 56-year-old looking for a new line of work. “I was 15 years out-of-date,” she said about the possibility of restarting her law practice.

She recognizes that her pension-eligible years of service left her in a better spot financially than others, which she credits with giving her some options.

“I loved the work, but I was exhausted by it,” she said. “It catches up to you after a while.”

If you’re thinking about suicide or are worried about a friend or loved one, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1.833.456.4566 toll free or connect via text at 45645, from 4 p.m. to midnight ET. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.


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