clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Democratic Party has moved left after Bernie Sanders’s run. The platform is proof.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and his wife in DC in June.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and his wife in DC in June.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After months of withholding his support, Bernie Sanders is set to endorse Hillary Clinton in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Tuesday.

What changed? For one, over the weekend Sanders won an additional string of concessions on the Democratic Party platform, pulling the party to the left on the minimum wage, environmental regulation, marijuana legalization, and the war on drugs.

"I think if you read the platform right now, you will understand that the political revolution is alive and kicking," Sanders’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, told NBC News, adding that campaign got "at least 80 percent" of what it wanted.

The platform just outlines the key "ideas and beliefs" of the party — it doesn’t bind any of its members to particular actions — but it’s supposed to represent a sort of blueprint for where the party is headed.

Now, it’s difficult to disentangle just what in the platform can be chalked up to Sanders’s advocacy in particular, and what reflects the more general leftward pull of the party over the course of the Obama administration.

Either way, Sanders’s camp is trumpeting the new platform as a win. We’ll have to wait until November to see if it’s enough to firmly shore up Clinton’s left flank — but it’ll at least give Sanders some cover to rally behind the Democratic Party without facing accusations from within his own ranks of selling out.

The party moves leftward on the minimum wage, carbon tax, criminal justice, marijuana

Meeting this weekend in Orlando, Florida, a committee of 187 Democrats held a series of votes on proposed amendments to the party’s platform. (The committee was composed of 90 Clinton supporters and 72 Sanders supporters, according to the Washington Post’s David Weigel, as well as other members of the Democratic National Committee.)

This new version — the one approved in Orlando — built on an earlier draft approved by a smaller committee late last month in St. Louis, Missouri. And it’s subject to more votes when Democrats gather on July 25 for their convention in Philadelphia.

Still, the platform that’s emerging from Orlando is widely expected to be close to the one that ends up being the official platform of the Democratic Party. And here’s where Sanders’s allies are saying they’ve scored some important victories:

$15-an-hour minimum wage: In 2012, the Democratic Party platform called for the party to push for a higher minimum wage and to tie it to inflation.

That was it. At meetings earlier this summer, members of the platform writing committee only agreed to write that "Americans should earn at least $15 an hour" — not that the party would push for a federal $15-an-hour minimum wage.

This weekend, however, Democrats took a big step forward, embracing a push for a $15 minimum wage, according to a news release from the Sanders campaign. (Vox’s Matt Yglesias weighs whether that’s a good or bad idea here.) It seems like Sanders’s most complete victory.

Stronger language on criminal justice: The platform draft also calls on the Department of Justice "to investigate all questionable or suspicious police-involved shootings," according to ABC News. That’s a major step up from the 2012 platform, which merely said the party should "fight inequalities in our criminal justice system."

The leftward move on criminal justice certainly can’t be chalked up to Sanders alone: Last week, Clinton announced that, if elected, she’d launch a $1 billion new effort to improve race relations in policing. Indeed, Weigel reported that this was one of the ballot changes that passed unanimously, though it was pushed by Sanders’s allies.

Marijuana legalization: The committee also agreed to include a "reasoned pathway to future legalization" of marijuana on the party platform. (The 2012 platform calls for a reduction in racial disparities in drug sentencing but does not mention marijuana.)

Delegates from Clinton’s campaign largely opposed the marijuana legalization language, and it carried by just one vote. (Clinton’s campaign has opposed the legalization of marijuana.)

Carbon pricing: The new platform also calls for carbon pricing, which would tax carbon to recognize its impact on the environment. (You can learn more about this policy from Vox’s David Roberts.)

This stronger language, too, had been shot down by earlier meetings of the Democratic committee — and represents a clear win for Sanders’s allies.

Where had the party platform already moved?

The wins for Sanders during this weekend’s conference in Orlando comes on top of several key victories his allies had won at previous Democratic Party meetings over the platform.

Here are some of the prior changes, sought by Sanders’s allies, approved of by the DNC’s committee:

  • Federal reserve reform: The new platform says the party will fight against allowing bank executives to sit on Federal Reserve boards.
  • Closing the revolving door: The party will also move to "ban golden parachutes for those taking government jobs" and seek to bar bank regulators from taking any action related to their former employers, according to the draft of the platform.
  • Wall Street reform: The party would also seek to crack down on Wall Street by severing banks’ ability to choose the credit agency that rates their products.
  • Postal Service banking services: "Democrats believe that we need to give Americans affordable banking options, including by empowering the United States Postal Service to facilitate the delivery of basic banking services," the draft of the platform states. (Vox’s Matt Yglesias explains that idea here.)
  • Loopholes for estates and hedge funds: The draft also has strong, Sanders-like language on the need to "immediately close egregious loopholes like those enjoyed by hedge fund managers, restore fair taxation on multimillion dollar estates, and ensure millionaires can no longer pay a lower rate than their secretaries."
  • Use closing loopholes to create jobs: The Post's Greg Sargent also notes that Sanders's aides cheered the commitment to put the revenue from closing loopholes toward rebuilding infrastructure and creating jobs.
  • Death penalty: The party’s platform also has new language calling for the eradication of the death penalty. "We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment," the platform states. "It has no place in the United States of America." That's a win for Sanders, who had called for absolutist opposition to the death penalty. (Clinton has backed its use in limited circumstances.)
  • Earned income tax credit: The 2016 platform’s draft language will call on a specific expansion of the EITC to "low wage workers who don’t have children and to workers age 21 and older," according a news release from the party. (The 2012 platform only praised President Obama for expanding the EITC in general, according to Weigel.)

Where did Sanders lose?

The biggest loss this weekend for Sanders came on trade, where he and his allies failed to push the party toward more explicit skepticism of international free trade deals backed by President Obama.

He’ll get another chance in Philadelphia, where he’ll have the opportunity to call for another vote on amendments to the party platform, according to James Zogby, a Sanders delegate I spoke to last month. Still, for now, Sanders looks headed toward defeat in changing the platform on:

Opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: The platform does acknowledge that there are Democrats who dislike the TPP deal brokered by the Obama administration, but Sanders’s aides failed to pass an amendment committing the party to opposing the trade pact.

"It’s clear the corporate wing of the Democratic Party wants the window dressing of populist language — Bernie Sanders language — but are not serious about it," Cornel West, a Sanders appointee to the platform writing committee, told the Wall Street Journal after their effort failed.

This is partly understandable — it’d be awkward for the Democratic Party to oppose a deal brokered and supported by President Obama — but it’s also odd given that Hillary Clinton herself also opposes the trade proposal, at least as a matter of record.

Stance on Israeli settlements: Sanders’s backers also failed to get critical language of Israel onto the party platform, an effort torpedoed largely by the Clinton delegates.

According to the Forward, Sanders’s allies wanted to pass an amendment "aimed at criticizing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, demanding ‘an end to illegal settlements’ and supporting the re-building of the Gaza Strip."

Fracking: Though they celebrated the new language around carbon pricing, Sanders’s aides failed to push through an amendment that would have called for an end to hydraulic fracturing, according to Weigel. (That fight, too, reflects an important fissure from the primary.)

The party stops short of calling for an end to fracking but does say it shouldn't occur in municipalities where the local government objects to it, according to the Orlando Weekly.

Does this really matter?

Commentators downplaying the platform’s significance note that it has no actual enforcement mechanism, and that there’s no guarantee a President Hillary Clinton wouldn’t jettison most — or all — of its main provisions.

"The activists can get something of a free hand with the platform because they can be the only ones who care," says Dave Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. "And then the candidates will think: ‘Well, if this makes the activists happy, and nobody else is paying attention, then there’s no harm done.’"

Something similar appears to be playing out in the Democratic primary, Hopkins notes: Sanders loyalists are winning some concessions on the platform, and Clinton wants to ensure that they come aboard for November.

But those stances are unlikely to really hurt Clinton in a general election, where so much other noise can drown them out. "There’s a lot of precedent for the platform to be controlled by the ideological activists," Hopkins says. "They’re the ones who care most about it."

And that’s true. But while the platform itself isn’t binding, it does represent the stated objectives of the Democratic Party. What it says is the clearest expression of what the party stands for and is, more broadly, one of the best ways to gauge the party's overall direction.

Given that it’s moving Sanders’s way on several key issues, it’s a good sign that even if Sanders lost the nomination to Clinton, his candidacy will have a lasting legacy on the party.

And that really could change the party’s members: Ryan Enos, a professor at Harvard University, told me in May that just by being aired, these ideas can gain currency and support among lawmakers.

"We know that voters in the public get pulled in the direction of the people with the microphone," Enos said. "If someone gets up there and tries pulling some issue to the left, the party can move in that direction."