Transforming the State: “Bigger than Bernie’

Bigger than Bernie

How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism

by Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht, Verso Books, 2020

In their first book, Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism, Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht offer an engaging and accessible map of the recent history and major strategic debates in the U.S. socialist movement. Pitched explicitly toward an audience of socialist-curious Berners and new DSA members, Day and Uetricht give a tightly written tour of their approach toward electoral strategy, policy design, the labor movement, and the Democratic Party, all with links to a clear-eyed but sympathetic analysis of the Sanders campaign itself.

Re-reading this book in light of recent events — Sanders’s defeat in the primaries, the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the reemergence of anti-racist street protest — was bittersweet and somewhat emotionally jarring, but it offered a bracing, useful, and positive re-grounding in the basics of democratic socialist politics. [Full disclosure: The authors and I have all written for Jacobin, and I discussed some of the ideas in the book with both authors before the book’s publication.]

Many of the particular arguments or stances taken up by the authors reflect the official positions of DSA, especially after our 2019 Convention. In terms of electoral strategy and position toward the Democratic Party, they advocate running electoral candidates on the Democratic ballot line while simultaneously building up working-class and socialist political organizations with an eye toward an independent political party in the future. In addition, they emphasize DSA’s strategy of participating in campaigns for major reforms (such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal) to raise the expectations and confidence of the working class, build power and organization, and garner mass political support. One of the book’s real strengths is the on-the-ground reportage of both elected socialists and DSA-related campaigns during the past four years, effectively linking the broader historical and conceptual points to concrete tasks and questions of political organizing in our current context.

Because this book is oriented toward newer socialists and Bernie-sympathetic progressives,  its scope cannot address all of the major questions that socialists need to contend with. One of those questions regards the nature of the U.S. capitalist state and how socialists should approach transforming it. Day and Uetricht are clear that “If Sanders or someone like him became president, the United States would not immediately transform into a socialist society.”  The authors also point to key examples of  Salvador Allende’s Chile and Francois  Mitterrand’s France, where the election of a socialist government was stymied by both the capitalist class and structural elements of those respective states, not to mention U.S. imperial intervention. But I think this is an area of consideration that deserves more attention. Our movement’s strategic calculations need to be informed by a clearer understanding of what the U.S. state actually is, and what it will take to transform or overcome it. 

A good companion book for those wanting to go deeper on some of these questions is the newly expanded edition of The Socialist Challenge Today by Sam Gindin, Leo Panitch, and Steve Maher. This book addresses the historical failures of both Leninism as well as social democracy in the 20th century, and then takes a more forensic approach to three recent political phenomena — Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn in England, and Syriza in Greece — that have unsuccessfully tried to navigate a path through those contradictions. They argue that socialists need to take up a two-fold task of expanding the social reach of working-class membership organizations (such as unions, political parties, and tenant or community associations) and deepening democratic participation in the state. This strategy reflects some of the thinking of the Greco-French socialist Nicos Poulantzas, who argued that the democratic road to socialism would involve a long process of building up democratic nodes of power “on the strategic terrain of the State” as well as “the development of popular movements, the mushrooming of democratic organs at the base, and the rise of centres of self-management.”

We need to sharpen our thinking about the state not only because of its importance theoretically, but also because we are living through a moment of massive crisis in the U.S. state. The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant social and economic upheavals have laid bare the non-responsiveness of both federal and state governments in terms of maintaining the basic functionality of key systems such as health care and virus testing, unemployment insurance, mail service, and democratic elections. Some of this dysfunction is built into the fragmented state/federal structure, some of it is the intended design of the more reactionary wing of the ruling class, but it still underlines the deep crisis of the U.S. state. And, of course, we have also seen mass uprisings in defense of Black life and against state violence. In this sense, the triple crisis of the pandemic, economic depression, and both racialized state violence and the militant popular response to it have ratcheted up both the centrality and the urgency of thinking through a strategy for confronting and democratizing the U.S. state.

The insights of Bigger Than Bernie form a useful foundation  for democratic socialist strategy and practice. If socialists want to navigate our current moment and build a transition to a new society, we need to extend those insights to a clearer and more vital program aimed at democratizing the state. In the vein of the “structural reforms” such as  Medicare for All and a Green New Deal that Day and Uetricht rightly place at the center of our political program, socialists have begun to talk about defunding, disarming, or even abolishing the police, a key undemocratic element of our state. U.S. socialists  would also be wise to agitate and organize around abolishing or weakening the Senate, destroying the Electoral College, winning D.C. statehood, weakening the undemocratic courts, and expanding voting rights. And at the more radical edge, we need to talk about instituting public ownership of key sectors such as healthcare, transportation, water, electricity, telecommunications, and banking, and just as important, instituting worker and community control of public services. As Day and Uetricht note, “a political revolution is a tall order,” but carrying through a vision of that political revolution will mean a massive and democratic transformation of the U.S. state structure.