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A collage featuring Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Zac Freeland/Vox

The Democratic platform, explained

What’s in the platform, what’s controversial about it, and what it all means.

The main order of business as Democrats gather for their virtual convention is to make their nominations for president and vice president official. But they’re also going to make a statement on what, exactly, their party stands for.

That will be in the platform — a written document of guiding principles and policy promises that Democrats are running on in 2020. The final version is at this link. Delegates have been voting remotely on whether to approve the proposed platform, it’s certain to be adopted, and that result will be announced this week.

Though Sen. Bernie Sanders supports the platform, it’s certainly not the agenda of the left’s dreams. There’s no endorsement of Medicare-for-all, no call to defund the police, no call to abolish ICE, no call to ban fracking, no support for legalizing marijuana nationwide, and no backing of free college for all. So hundreds of Sanders delegates decided to vote no on the platform in a symbolic protest.

But it’s hard to characterize this platform as moderate — because it calls for doing a whole lot of stuff. Over the course of 92 dense pages, there are hundreds of liberal policy proposals or commitments — far too many to fully do justice to in this article.

On health care, the platform calls for free Covid-19 testing, treatment, and vaccines for all, for making a generous public option for health insurance available to all Americans, and for empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. On the climate crisis, the platform calls for major new clean energy spending, and for eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 (an earlier target than Democrats previously proposed). It proposes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, significantly increasing the child tax credit, and aggressively increasing the supply of housing (including affordable housing).

The platform also calls for overhauling the criminal justice system “from top to bottom,” for decriminalizing marijuana use (and giving states the option to fully legalize it), for creating a roadmap to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, for making Washington, DC a state and giving Puerto Ricans a process to decide whether Puerto Rico should too, for repealing the amendment stating federal funds can’t be used for abortion, for making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, and for bringing “our forever wars to a responsible end.” The list of policy proposals goes on and on.

But as much as the platform is the most progressive document to come out of a major national party in US history, it’s far from clear this is anything close to what a possible Biden presidency would achieve or even push for. The platform isn’t written to take into account practical constraints, legislative trade-offs, or the hard-nosed political calculations that every president has to make — it exists in the world of ideals. “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” as the late Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY) once said.

What is a platform?

A platform is essentially a political party’s summary of what it stands for. It’s what Democrats are “running on” in the 2020 elections — an explanation to voters of what they hope to do if Biden wins the presidency, and where they think the country should go more generally.

It is, however, an aspirational document, not an operational one. While it does contain many specific policy promises alongside broader goals and ideals, it doesn’t particularly reckon with the features of the political system that trend to thwart change. It’s not written as legislation — which makes sense, considering we don’t know who will control Congress next year. Additionally, since this is a public-facing document, it’s Democrats’ attempt to make their agenda sound appealing — they’ll emphasize the stuff they think is popular.

Of course, vanishingly few voters will ever read the platform or become aware of more than a handful of its proposals. So in practice, the people who take the greatest interest in the platform’s details tend to be activists.

“Platforms obviously don’t have the force of law, they’re symbolic,” says Boston College political scientist and political parties expert Dave Hopkins. “Some people care a lot about symbolism and some people don’t. Activists often care and they will put a lot of energy into trying to push the platform in one direction or another.”

Indeed, platform deliberations are a venue for activist groups to try and flex their muscles — to demonstrate their sway within the party and influence on the presidential nominee. It’s a lower-stakes warmup for the kinds of fights that will eventually unfold within the party over governing, should they win.

Meanwhile, Hopkins continues, the main priorities for the presidential candidate in the platform-drafting process are to avoid being “embarrassed by the platform,” and to try and pull off “a nice happy unified convention.” Achieving the former would entail pushback against some activist demands, achieving the latter involves making the activists happy.

Those activists include Sanders and his acolytes. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders was the runner-up for the nomination, and he wanted a role for his team in shaping the platform. As a result, in both years, the Democratic platform discussions were a venue in which members of the “establishment” and the pro-Sanders Democratic factions have negotiated and tried to reach agreement. (They were often quite tense in 2016, but less so in 2020.)

Research has shown that, in general, members of Congress usually end up voting in accordance with promises made in their party platforms. So the platform is significant, because it is Democrats’ most concrete statement, as a party, of what they stand for. It shouldn’t be taken literally — but it should be taken seriously.

Who wrote the platform?

This year, there were 15 members of Democrats’ platform drafting committee — a mix of politicians, longtime Biden aides, union chiefs, and advisers to Sanders. But unofficially, the opinions that matter most are from Biden’s team. He did, after all, win the nomination.

Biden wants to keep Sanders happy, which is why several months ago he agreed to form joint task forces with Sanders allies to come up with policy recommendations. (Many of the same people worked on the joint task forces and the platform drafting committee.)

But everyone was well aware that Biden won the nomination (rather decisively) while spurning pressure to move further to the left on issues like health care. So there was never really any chance that he would, say, agree to back Medicare-for-all as a concession to the Sanders team during negotiations.

Still, Sanders allies fought for what they could get, and those involved in the process sound happy with the outcome. “I truly believe this platform lays out the most progressive vision of America” for any Democratic convention “in our lifetimes,” Josh Orton, a senior adviser to Sanders, said at a livestreamed platform drafting committee meeting in July.

Another Sanders ally on the platform drafting committee, Analilia Mejia, tweeted earlier about the unity task forces: “I wish we could #BernItDown and move an agenda that immediately guarantees justice to all, but we would be foolish to not take every opportunity we have to erode the obstacles that stand before us with persistence and grit.”

What’s in Democrats’ 2020 platform?

A lot! The platform is divided into 10 main sections, covering pandemic response, the economy, health care, criminal justice, climate, immigration, education, foreign policy, voting rights, and identity-related rights issues.

Each section contains a mix of principles and policy promises (at varying levels of specificity). There are too many to possibly summarize them all here, but here’s a sampling:

Health care

  • Make Covid-19 testing, treatment, and eventual vaccines widely available and free to everyone
  • Create a public option for health insurance available to all Americans that would cover all primary care with no co-payments, and auto-enroll the lowest-income Americans in it without premiums
  • Empower Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices

Economy

  • Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour
  • Significantly increase the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit
  • Make “make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families earn less than $125,000,” and community colleges tuition-free for all
  • Take aggressive steps to increase the supply of housing, including affordable housing

Criminal justice

  • Overhaul the criminal justice system “from top to bottom”
  • Decriminalize marijuana use, but leave the choice of whether to fully legalize it for recreational purposes up to individual states
  • Pass “a domestic terrorism law” (to combat violence from “bigots, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, and white supremacists”)

Climate change

  • Work to eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2035
  • Invest in infrastructure and clean energy

Voting rights

  • Make Washington, DC, the 51st state, and create a process for Puerto Ricans to determine whether Puerto Rico should become a state
  • Restore protections under the Voting Rights Act

Immigration and foreign policy

  • Create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants
  • Prioritize alternatives to detention for migrants
  • “Bring our forever wars to a responsible end,” but keep a small military presence in Iraq to “ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS”
  • End US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen
  • Stop the “race to war with Iran” and attempt to restore the deal negotiated under the Obama administration
  • Continue an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security, while supporting a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Some of these would require new legislation from Congress, while others are within the president’s powers for unilateral action. But overall, it’s fair to say these are the sorts of things a Biden administration would try to do.

Overall, the platform isn’t a radical break from Democrats’ past — this is Joe Biden we’re talking about — but it contains a very wide-ranging suite of progressive proposals.

What were some of the sticking points?

The highest-profile dissension was over Medicare-for-all — which the proposed platform does not support, in keeping with Biden’s views.

This wasn’t a deal-breaker for Sanders himself, but several hundred Sanders-supporting delegates, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), decided that they’ll vote against any platform that doesn’t include Medicare-for-all, and they followed through in remote voting.

In an ordinary year, this would mean an embarrassing spectacle showcasing cracks in the Democratic coalition on the convention floor, with hundreds of televised no votes on the party platform. But there will be no convention floor to speak of this year, due to scaled-down proceedings because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as such this rebellion has gotten little attention.

Other wrangling unfolded behind the scenes. David Klion has reported in some detail on lobbying over the language of the Israel plank from both left-leaning and right-leaning groups. (Those on the left were happy that the draft platform condemned “settlement expansion,” but are disappointed that the word “occupation” was not used.)

Specific linguistic choices in the platform like this will have zero effect on a future Biden administration’s approach to Israel. Yet the results in these disputes can be revealing about the shifting politics of Israel-related issues inside the Democratic Party. DNC member and Sanders ally James Zogby told Klion that wrangling like this is not really about policy, but instead “about whether or not one side can get the party to jump through a hoop.”

Here, as on many other issues, the Biden team has allowed some movement to the left, but has made sure things won’t go beyond where Biden is comfortable. Indeed, the decision of whether to use the word “occupation” was taken to Biden himself, according to Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch.

Then, just this week, the Huffington Post’s Alexander Kaufman reported that “language calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks” was “quietly dropped” from the final version of the platform, with a DNC spokesperson claiming it was included as an error.

How much of these platform promises would a Biden administration deliver on?

That is far from clear. The platform is written without concern for the institutional barriers to change that inevitably frustrate politicians.

For instance, when it comes to proposals that would require new legislation — a significant chunk of this platform — two crucial questions matter most. First, will Democrats take the Senate? And second, will Democrats abolish the filibuster?

If Republicans hold the Senate, Democrats can kiss any hope of passing new progressive laws goodbye (barring a sudden and remarkable change with how the Republican Party behaves). But even if Democrats take the Senate, the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for advancing legislation means that they’ll need Republican support to pass almost anything (since the chances of Democrats getting 60 Senate seats are quite small).

There has recently been some momentum for filibuster reform, with former President Obama recently saying it should be abolished if Republicans keep using it to block change. But Biden and key Senate Democrats are not yet fully behind the idea.

Should Democrats abolish the filibuster, it would be at least possible for them to pass a sweeping progressive legislative agenda — though likely one that would have to meet the approval of red state Senate Democrats who would be the swing votes, and who would face intense lobbying and political pressure. If the filibuster stays, though, Democrats could only pass new laws through the special budget reconciliation process, which has many limitations.

Many other policy proposals in the platform could be advanced by a Biden administration through the executive branch, without new legislation. (The American Prospect’s Max Moran counted 277 such policies mentioned in the Biden-Sanders unity task force reports.)

But there are barriers to change in the executive branch too, though they can be more opaque. Particularly important here will be personnel: Will Biden appoint aggressive reformers throughout the executive branch, or will he opt for appointees who are more politically cautious and friendlier to entrenched interests?

Finally, but crucially, Biden’s own choices about what to prioritize and fight for will be crucial.

Biden’s ambitions for a governing agenda have grown considerably since the coronavirus crisis, as my colleague Ella Nilsen recently reported. But when some of these initiatives become embroiled in public controversy, as they inevitably will, he may have to make some difficult political choices.

More broadly, politicians would often like activists to believe that yes, they’re with them all the way, and they’re doing everything they can. But that is often not quite the truth. Appealing to the median voter may mean spurning the demands of activists who want more aggressive change. Biden and his team’s political instincts and substantive preferences could, in many cases, mean going slower.

But for now, Democrats are still in the “poetry” phase — they have a great deal of appealing-sounding things they want to get done, and the only way they’ll be in a position to do them is by beating President Trump in November.


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