Progressive Platform Changes Bode Well for Democratic Party Unity

The first draft of the Democratic Party’s platform has been released , and so far the changes are promising for progressives on numerous subjects ranging from Wall Street to climate change to the minimum wage:

Highlights include saying that American workers should earn at least $15 an hour, the death penalty should be abolished and that no bank can be too big to fail — issues that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders championed during his primary campaign run.

“We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America,” the platform read, in a departure from the party’s 2012 platform, which said “the death penalty must not be arbitrary.”

In another significant win for Sanders’ positions, the draft also calls for an expansion of healthcare through “Medicare or a public option,” and new Social Security taxes on “some” income after $250,000.

So far it isn’t everything that many progressives wanted: amendments relating to Medicare for All, a ban on fracking, opposition to TPP-style free trade agreements, and a variety of others were shot down by Clinton allies. But given that Clinton did win the nomination, the left-side pressure from Sanders-aligned liberals seems to have a serious impact on the process, creating what is (in draft form, at least) the most progressive platform the Democratic Party may have ever had.

Many hurdles remain: the platform now moves to the Platform Committee for review and possible amendments, then to the floor of the convention for more potential changes before adoption. But assuming that all goes well, it should make the cooler heads in Sandersland happy enough to ensure an endorsement and party unity heading into the the convention. Greg Sargent agrees:

Gunnels told me the Sanders campaign has mostly been satisfied with the process and the outcome so far.

“There are some very good initiatives in this platform that will create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class,” Gunnels said. “This document is not perfect. We hope to improve it. But we’re off to an excellent start, and we look forward to continuing to work with Secretary Clinton’s campaign to make this the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. The process itself has been very good.”

To be sure, Sanders will continue to fight for more in coming weeks, such as a commitment to oppose any Congressional vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during this session. And we can’t be certain whether Sanders will endorse Clinton before the convention or if he is unsatisfied with the final platform product.

But it looks as if this process is going better for progressives and Bernie supporters than previously suggested. And this perhaps makes it more likely that, in the end, Sanders could end up backing the nominee and helping to unify the party with less discord than expected.

Does all of this brouhaha over the platform actually matter? It depends on whom you ask. For many, the platform is an irrelevant document that serves only to anger both sides in a war of pointless posturing–and that is possibly true assuming that candidates ignore the platform. But platforms signal the expectations of the party’s base, which is increasingly important as elections become more about turning out one’s base rather than appealing to a shrinking group of persuadable voters. While Sanders and Clinton supporters will fight endlessly on social media and comment threads over who is the “real” base of the party, the reality is regardless of whom they voted for, members of the party’s base (and ideologically aligned independents) generally want to see a true universal healthcare system as in most other industrialized countries, higher taxes on the wealthy, much more stringent climate protections, a curb on Wall Street’s activities, solutions to the student loan crisis, etc. Having those desires reflected in the party’s platform creates a signal light by which Democratic candidates can navigate in the future. It also creates a blueprint for state and local Democratic clubs and central committees around the country to align their own platforms and for use in evaluating candidates for endorsement from governors and senators to local service board members.

In any case, the platform is about as far to the left as Sanders can expect to make it from the second-place position, given that Clinton won the nomination and therefore sets the direction. Sanders’ path forward to progressive influence doesn’t lie in contesting the presidential nomination or attempting to move the Clinton camp. Sanders’ influence, as in the case of Howard Dean before him, lies in control of his email list and whether he chooses to make it the basis for a permanent organization dedicated to electing economic progressives in his mold from the local level upward. Endorsing Clinton well before the convention and ensuring party goodwill and a prominent speaking role there will be far more useful to that goal than holding out to the end for a few platform policy concessions.

I suspect that Sanders is aware of this, despite any lingering resentments he might still feel. We’ll likely see an endorsement of Clinton from him fairly soon, allowing the Democratic Party to celebrate a better platform with a united front and single-minded focus on defeating Donald Trump in November.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.