Bernie Sanders’ "political revolution" scored some impressive wins this weekend at the Democratic Party Platform Committee meeting in Orlando, adding to its victories last month in St. Louis. ABC News called the resulting document “exceptionally progressive.”
Apparently Sanders had more leverage after the California primary than his critics were willing to admit.
To be sure, there were also some losses – most notably on getting the party on record opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. But this new movement has already had a major impact on American politics. It's likely to have even more in the months and years to come.
Then and Now
Having spent a year working for the Sanders campaign, I know that it's all too easy to forget how far we've come since Bernie declared his candidacy last April. At that point there was no major opposition to Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination.
As the party’s then-presumptive nominee, and throughout the primary, Secretary Clinton struck a very different tone from the one in evidence today. She was against a $15 federal minimum wage and opposed the idea of tuition-free public college. She argued against major changes to the Affordable Care Act, saying she would make incremental improvements without saying exactly what those improvements would be.
Clinton would not commit to expanding Social Security. She had accepted campaign funds from lobbyists for private prison companies. As secretary of state she had spoken in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was widely assumed that she still supported its passage, as President Obama does.
Until the Sanders campaign began gaining momentum, Clinton was the Democratic Party’s de facto leader-in-waiting. Many observers assumed she would run a Republican Lite campaign once she secured the nomination, taking the party with her.
Today Clinton, working with Sanders, is on record as supporting major changes in our health care system. She has agreed to double the funding for community health centers, which already provide primary care to 25 million people at lower cost and higher efficiency than the private insurance-based system.
Clinton has also agreed to support a “public option” insurance plan as an alternative to private insurance, and to allow people 55 years and older to "opt in" to Medicare without endangering the current system.
Clinton and Sanders also agreed on a compromise proposal that would over time provide free tuition at public colleges and universities to all families earning $125,000 a year or less – a figure which includes 83 percent of all students.
The draft platform, to be voted upon by the full convention later this month, now calls for a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation. A criminal reform amendment includes federal guidelines for police body cameras; training for police officers on handling conflict; preferring “treatment over incarceration in handling addiction”; and Department of Justice investigations of all police shootings.
The draft’s banking language is much stronger than observers might have expected one year ago. It condemns "the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street” before proposing a break up of too-big-to-fail banks, a modern-day Glass-Steagall Act, and closing corporate tax loopholes.
The draft platform proposes ending the death penalty, progressive immigration reform, legalizing marijuana, and banning for-profit prisons. (Clinton returned campaign contributions from prison lobbyists during the campaign.) And, in a significant shift from Clinton's 2008 policy stance, it calls for expanding Social Security. It proposes "asking those at the top to pay more" and says "we will fight every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken" the program.
No issue is more important in the long term than the environment. A Sanders news release described the draft platform’s environmental plank as "the most aggressive plan to combat climate change in the history of the party." It proposes major investments in alternative energy technology and a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases commensurate with their environmental impact. The public would no longer have to foot the bill for massive environmental exploiters like Koch Industries.
“Thanks to the millions of people across the country who got involved in the political process – many for the first time – we now have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party,” Sanders said.
On the loss side of the ledger, the platform committee voted down an outright ban on fracking. While the draft calls for improving past trade deals and improving future ones, Clinton delegates voted down language introduced by former NAACP director Ben Jealous that explicitly rejected the TPP. (The debate over Jealous’ language makes for compelling viewing, especially after Jealous introduces his amendment 15 minutes into this video.)
Language regarding justice for Palestine was rejected. As the Orlando Sentinel reported, “the committee also shot down progressive-backed language to limit political contributions to $100 per person or entity and to publicly finance campaigns; to outlaw racial gerrymandering; and to prevent public officials from joining the industries they regulate."
These are significant losses. And while some of the platform’s policies can be enacted through executive action, most will remain moot as long as Republicans control Congress.
What’s more, it would be extraordinarily naive to assume that any elected official will feel honor-bound to follow the platform. As I wrote last week about the party’s banking platform, they will be under tremendous pressure from donors to surrender on critical issues.
The Revolution Goes On
But platforms are promises. That makes them useful in the hands of activists willing to hold politicians to them.
It's easy to lose faith when important battles are lost, or to become overconfident when they're won. But, in both defeat and victory, this revolution must go on.
This is the most progressive Democratic platform in history, but only because millions of people demanded it – with their votes and their activism. More activism is needed now. Minority reports may be filed on the planks that lost in Orlando. Future platforms must be stronger in their support for Medicare for All and other key initiatives. And Democrats will need to be held accountable after they're elected.
Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America and a close Sanders adviser, told me after the Orlando meeting: “Bernie Sanders and all of us who have worked for the past year, including millions of Americans in every state in the union, will continue the struggle.”
Added Cohen: “We’re happy that there have been some major improvements to the Democratic platform. It’s even more important to keep up the fight, so that we can win on these issues and others that matter to working people. The political revolution will continue."