The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats shift to the left in this past weekend’s platform fight

ORLANDO — If party platforms matter — and the jury is out on that — what happened this weekend in a sweltering Hilton conference room was remarkable. The Democratic Party shifted further to the left in one election than perhaps since 1972, embracing once-unthinkable stances on carbon pricing, police reform, abortion rights, the minimum wage and the war on drugs. It did so with very little ideological resistance and a lot of comity between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

"We have produced by far the most progressive platform that this party has seen in multiple generations," said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D), co-chairman of the platform committee. At one point, Sanders wanted Malloy to quit the committee over his endorsement of Clinton, and Sanders voters protested what were seen as betrayals in his state's budget. Yet there he was, after midnight, announcing that the progressives had gotten their way.

They got it for three overlapping reasons. The first was organizing. It was clear after March 1 that Sanders was unlikely to be the Democratic nominee for president. As early as mid-April, when Sanders was fighting for a New York primary that early registration rules made unwinnable, his more experienced allies were looking at the platform as a way for the candidate to continue his revolution. "He's going to have more delegates than Jesse Jackson did in 1988," former Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen said at the time, before a day of campaigning in upstate New York. His implication: Jackson was the last runner-up to change the platform, and Sanders could go even further.

In New York and elsewhere, the Sanders campaign absorbed existing progressive movements and organizations. The anti-fracking ("fracktivist") movement was perhaps the most prominent, and in states where such hydraulic fracturing was active, Sanders reminded voters that he wanted a ban on fracking while Clinton thought it could be a "bridge" to clean energy for the entire world. But Sanders also sought out, and won over, Native American rights activists, Palestinian freedom activists, Black Lives Matter activists, the "Fight for $15" minimum-wage campaign and labor unions whose leadership had not already hardened behind Clinton. They were all working in Orlando, from inside the Democratic Party.

"There is a political revolution going on in this country, and a lot of it is because of fracking," said Josh Fox, the director of the "Gasland" series of documentaries who spent the entire weekend negotiating for the strongest climate language possible.

The second reason for the platform shift was perfect timing. As recently as 2009, the party held a majority of statehouses, Senate seats and seats in Congress, thanks to an uneasy coalition of white progressives, white Southern conservatives and nonwhite voters. The Obama era saw a wipeout of the party's conservative wing, with Democrats losing almost every state legislature and almost every statewide office in the South and Appalachia.

That meant that the remaining progressives faced no serious ideological resistance. Where in 1988 there were legions of conservative white Southern Democrats resisting Jackson's changes, in 2016 many of the South's delegates are African American progressives. Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and a delegate for Hillary Clinton, remarked that the old "Democrats for Life" seemed to have vanished, putting up no fight when the party condemned the antiabortion Hyde and Helms amendments for the first time in any platform.

The ideological shift revealed the third reason for the platform changes: The desires of Clinton supporters did not actually differ all that much from those of Sanders supporters. Overwhelmingly, Clinton allies had more political experience. (This was obvious when an amendment to end "racial gerrymandering" was shot down, and Sanders supporters did not immediately see that the language contradicted some of the goals of the Voting Rights Act.) But the overall tone of the Sanders delegates was that the Clinton allies wanted to agree with them and were hamstrung by a desire not to make President Obama look bad. When Sanders delegate Brent Welder remarked that Clintonites were "bloc voting," it hit home — it was up to pro-Clinton labor unions, for example, to prevent the strongest anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership and anti-fracking language from passing.

But one reason that the committee meeting took so long — on both Friday and Saturday, it started two hours late and ended after midnight — was that the rival camps kept seeking "unity" amendments. The most dramatic was a police-reform plank, committing Democrats to "require the use of body cameras," stop "racial profiling" and "stop the use of weapons of war that have no place in our communities." That language was introduced by former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and Trayvon Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump — Sanders and Clinton delegates, respectively, who literally embraced as they passed the amendment.

What else did the Sanders forces win? Support for the senator's college-tuition plan (also backed by Clinton) and tough new antitrust language. What, besides the well-covered trade amendment, did the Sanders forces lose?

Fracking ban: The fracktivists fell short in one of the most-watched debates, but they walked away with language that prioritized the building of solar and wind plants before natural-gas facilities. That contradicted eight years of consensus that natural gas was a "bridge" to energy independence and did so without much harming of labor groups that favor more energy production for the jobs it can create.

Medicare for all: The early Saturday agreement between Clinton and Sanders, whereby she agreed to back a public option, effectively neutered the push for one of Sanders's platform planks. "Let's build on the Affordable Care Act," said former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, a Clinton delegate who endeared himself to progressives by launching an effective exchange in his state. Just 66 of 187 delegates backed the rival plank.

Palestinian territory. In one of the most heated debates, led by Sanders appointee Cornel West, progressives failed to pass new language committing Democrats to ask for "an end to occupation and illegal settlements" in Palestinian territory.

Public financing of elections. A proposal to not just undo the Citizens United decision but to cap donations to campaigns at $100 and require public financing failed after heckling from the audience.

The revolving door. Sanders delegates could not muster the votes for an amendment that would have banned lobbyists from regulating their industries, or regulators leaving to become lobbyists, for four years after their jobs ended.

As the meeting went on, and especially after it all ended, some of the people who lost condemned the party for selling out. The raw feelings between Sanders and Clinton supporters were exposed, seemingly by accident, when Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, fought for language to congratulate Clinton and Sanders for a campaign well run. Loud heckling — "she's not the nominee yet!" — forced the amendment to be withdrawn.

That fight may continue at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Sometime in the next few days, the Sanders delegates may also back a minority report of the amendments that did not make it and decide whether to push for them again at the convention later this month. In the meantime, Sanders supporters were celebrating more victories than losses.

"We wouldn't even be having this discussion without Bernie Sanders," West, the Sanders campaign's most eloquent and dogmatic representative, said Saturday.