Last weekend, as the nation reeled from the violence in Minneapolis, New Orleans and Dallas, the Democratic Platform Committee met in Orlando to debate the party’s pledges for the future. Once again, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his delegates, despite some setbacks, made progress in trying to transform the party’s agenda. Where Sanders has succeeded and where he has been frustrated provide a clear map of how far the people’s movements he represents have gotten, and how far they have to go.
Sanders’s most notable impact has been in driving elements of an expanded economic bill of rights into the platform. On education, Democrats committed to tuition-free education at in-state public colleges and universities for all those making under $125,000 a year. Sanders praised the Clinton shift as a “very bold initiative,” even if it didn’t embrace his call for making college free for all.
On retirement security, the platform adopts Sanders’s call for expanding Social Security, going beyond previous platforms that simply pledged to protect the program. Sadly, his call to lift the cap on payroll taxes was defeated, as was the call for a more accurate cost of living adjustment that reflects seniors’ real expenditures.
On work, the platform committee sided with Sanders’s push for a federal minimum wage of $15.00 an hour, a stunning triumph for his campaign and the Fight for $15 movement. The platform pledges to index the minimum wage to inflation and to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers and those with disabilities. The platform also calls for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, vows to “fight for” workers having the right to seven days of paid sick leave, and pledges “to encourage” employers to provide paid vacation. These policies represent a first step toward more humane rules around the workplace.
On health care, the platform committee rejected Sanders’s call for Medicare for all, but it did back a public option in Obamacare and for allowing those 55 and over to buy into Medicare. Clinton also endorsed Sanders’s signature call for more than doubling support for community health centers that provide primary health-care services, particularly in rural areas. The platform also repeats the Democratic Party pledge to empower Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs.
The platform contains bold pledges on social issues, a reflection of Democrats’ increasing confidence in standing for equal rights. Perhaps most significant are the promises on criminal justice reform that largely mirror the demand of the Black Lives Matter movement. They call for an end to mass incarceration, reform of mandatory minimum sentences, closing “private prisons and detention centers” and extensive reforms to make police more accountable to the communities they serve.
Sanders’s impact on the platform is reflected in how it challenges the central pillars of the bipartisan neo-liberal economic consensus that has driven American policy since the Reagan years. Consider that the platform endorses expanding and defending the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively. It not only endorses card check, but it calls for a “model employer” executive order that would give preference in government procurement to employers who provide their workers with a living wage, benefits and the opportunity to form a union. It gives progressives across the country a pledge to lobby executive officials at every level: Democrats stand for putting their thumb on the scales in favor of workers and unions.
Wall Street also comes under pressure. The platform backs Sanders’s call for a 21st-century Glass-Steagall Act to keep banks from gambling with taxpayer-guaranteed deposits. It pledges to break up banks that are too big to fail and calls for a financial transaction tax — an anti-speculation tax — but one limited to “excessive speculation.” It also shuts the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, calling for a ban on golden parachutes for bankers taking government jobs, limits on conflict of interest, and a two-year ban on financial services regulators “from lobbying their former colleagues.”
On taxation, the platform pledges to “end deferrals” so that American corporations “can no longer escape paying their fair share of United States taxes by stashing profits abroad.” It supports clawing back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, eliminating tax breaks for big oil and gas companies, and cracking down on corporate inversions. It calls for a “multimillionaire surtax,” for closing the egregious hedge-fund billionaire “carried interest” tax dodge, and for raising taxes on multimillion-dollar estates. The platform also contains Sanders’s and Clinton’s pledge to offer “tax relief” to middle-class families, reflecting less an economic theory than a political strategy.
At the same time, centerpieces of the market fundamentalist consensus remain: The platform pays continued tribute to fiscal conservatism. It worries about the debt, and insists on paying for each of its programs. Despite intense lobbying from Sanders, the White House successfully kept any opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership out of the document. (The platform committee adopted an amendment offered by pro-Clinton labor leaders that didn’t explicitly condemn the TPP but held that “all free trade treaties had to be held to a strict standard that protects US workers.”)
On climate, the platform includes a Sanders-backed declaration of a “climate emergency,” yet amendments to ban fracking and to levy a tax on carbon emissions were defeated. The platform expresses the hope that the United States will be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century, but there is little policy to make this so.
On foreign policy, the platform will disappoint progressives. Climate change gets remarkably little priority. There is no call to cut the military budget, only the boilerplate promise to tackle waste. The platform pledges to continue military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. No lesson is drawn from the serial failures of our global war on terror. The platform committee reaffirmed current U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine, voting down a condemnation of illegal settlements and a call to end Israeli occupation.
Candidates are not bound to the party platform. Yet the platform is important as a measure of where the party assembled stands. For citizen movements in motion, the platform can provide an important measure to challenge Democratic Party candidates and state and local officials. The Fight for $15 can use the platform to push Democratic mayors and state legislators to raise minimum-wage laws. Any Democrat in executive positions should be pushed to pass “model employer” regulations giving preference to employers who respect their employees’ right to organize. Students can use the platform as they mobilize to make college affordable. Black Lives Matter can push Democrats at the local and state level to fulfill the promises of the national party. The environmental movement, however, is clearly put on notice: Even in a Sanders-influenced Democratic Party, catastrophic climate change still does not get the prominence and priority it merits.
Yes, Sanders is clearly moving toward an endorsement of Clinton. But though his campaign hasn’t announced if it will force a floor fight at the Democratic convention on key amendments that were voted down, it has every reason to demand debates on the TPP, Medicare for all, a ban on fracking, and on U.S. policy in the Middle East. And the movement he helped to build can hold Democrats at every level accountable to the platform that was passed. Establishment economic consensus is shaken, not toppled. The “political revolution” hasn’t been won yet, but there has been real progress.