In his endorsement of Hillary Clinton for President of the United States, Bernie Sanders said the following:
“It is no secret that Secretary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues…but…there was a significant coming together of the two campaigns and we produced—by far—the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.
The Sanders campaign has been focusing its efforts for the past month on moving the party to the left via the platform. But what exactly does that platform contain? The party released a draft—written by appointees from the former Secretary of State, DNC Chair and longtime Clinton ally, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Senator Bernie Sanders—and, after continued meetings, is on the verge of finalizing a document.
But is it really the “most progressive” platform in the history of the Democratic Party?
The following is an excerpt from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, known as the Economic Bill of Rights, which he delivered in his State of the Union to Congress on January 11, 1944:
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
—The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
—The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
—The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
—The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
—The right of every family to a decent home;
—The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
—The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
—The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
With this remarkable manifesto in mind—which declared health care, housing, education, and a job as human rights—let’s examine Sanders’ claim.
Taking a step back, a party’s platform is supposed to be a detailing of its loftiest aspirations and goals, the achievement of which is meant to take time. The 35-page draft of the Democrats’ new platform (and subsequent resolutions) reads more like a battle plan, tempering its own expectations and abandoning FDR. While the document is cautiously progressive, it lacks the conviction, broad language, and ambition of the Economic Bill of Rights.
While the platform does contain language indicating commitment to health care as a human right, as FDR did, it does not mention support for single-payer at all, thanks to Clinton’s appointees. It does suggest future support for a public option, but for a party that has been dedicated to universal care for generations—going as far as to create both Medicare and Medicaid—this step is small to the point of near meaningless.
We believe as Democrats that health care is a right, not a privilege, and our health care system should put people before profits…Democrats will never falter in our generations-long fight to guarantee health coverage as a fundamental right for every American. As part of that guarantee, Americans should be able to access public coverage through Medicare or a public option.
Though FDR declared a good education a human right, the current Democratic platform also contains nothing about free higher education at public colleges and universities, beyond community colleges. However, today, when a college degree is as necessary as a high school diploma was a few decades ago, the party still treats it like a privilege. That said, Hillary Clinton did recently announce a plan to eliminate tuition at in-state colleges and universities—but this proposal is absent from the platform, as of now.
Roosevelt also declared it the right of business owners to not have to compete with monopolies and cheap labor overseas. But today, the party still cannot divorce itself from the Clinton/NAFTA legacy of supporting trade deals that force exactly that competition.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention has been over the anti-competitive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). While both candidates have disavowed the proposed trade agreement, the former Secretary, who started as an ardent supporter, appointed people whose actions bely her commitment. These appointees have repeatedly prevented the platform from reflecting her stated position. In the draft released before the most recent round of negotiations, the Democratic Party left wiggle room to support a trade deal that even its defenders acknowledge will likely harm American workers:
On the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), there are a diversity of views in the party. Many Democrats are on record stating that the agreement does not meet the standards set out in this platform; other Democrats have expressed support for the agreement. But all Democrats believe that any trade agreement must protect workers and the environment and not undermine access to critically-needed prescription drugs.
An important side note, of course, is that for this stated concern about the environment, the platform also does not even mention fracking—let alone banning the practice which is scientifically linked to earthquakes (causing them) and poisonous groundwater. This again, is due to Clinton’s appointees.
For some issues there is no direct parallel between Roosevelt and the modern Democratic Party, but the modern party’s handling of them in the platform are indicative of the trend to which I am referring in this article. The new platform’s position on campaign finance reform is a great example of this. The party essentially adopted Hillary Clinton’s (inadequate) plan, but with a minor tweak to address the revolving door. This is a good addition, but it is far from enough:
Democrats believe we are stronger when we protect citizens’ right to vote, not corporations’ and billionaires’ right to buy elections. We will bring an end to the broken campaign finance system, overturn the disastrous Citizens United decision, restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act, and return our elections to the American people…
We will nominate and appoint regulators and officials who are not beholden to the industries they regulate—people with a track record of standing up to power and safeguarding the public trust. We will crack down on the revolving door between the private sector—particularly Wall Street—and the federal government. We will ban golden parachutes for those taking government jobs. We will limit conflicts of interest by requiring bank and corporate regulators to recuse themselves from official work on particular matters that would directly benefit their former employers. And we will bar financial service regulators from lobbying their former colleagues for at least two years.
Ultimately, the proposal is just a step above the least they could do—which, considering that Clinton herself has flouted federal election laws in this primary, is no small feat. That said, this incomplete solution leaves unmentioned the fuzzy definition of “social welfare” that allows nonprofits to engage in tax-exempt political activity, it does not condemn the notion that money is a vehicle for speech, established in Buckley v. Valeo, and it abandons Bernie Sanders’ calls for publicly-financed elections.
Thus far, the draft platform’s proposal for Wall Street reform also mirrors Hillary Clinton’s plan with a twist, but still abandons FDR’s anti-monopoly promise. Rather than pledging to break up the banks, the draft indicates that the Democratic Party will scrutinize them more thoroughly so that if they do need to be broken up in the future, they can and will be. However, as Elizabeth Warren acknowledged, that point has come and gone. The size of the megabanks contributed to the scale of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, and they’ve only gotten larger since.
That said, there are several beacons of hope in the new platform.
The most widely reported victory for Bernie Sanders is the adoption of a $15 minimum wage. However, as I have explained in a previous article, that may be too low given the state of welfare in America. Such an increase without reforming welfare—which has a mandatory work requirement—might end up costing recipients hours or their benefits.
The draft contains support for a 21st Century Glass-Steagall, the Depression-Era banking reform bill passed by FDR that kept commercial and investment banks separate.
Democrats will not hesitate to use and expand existing authorities as well as empower regulators to downsize or break apart financial institutions when necessary to protect the public and safeguard financial stability, including new authorities to go after risky shadow-banking activities. Banks should not be able to gamble with taxpayers’ deposits or pose an undue risk to Main Street. Democrats support a variety of ways to stop this from happening, including an updated and modernized version of Glass-Steagall and breaking up too-big-to-fail financial institutions that pose a systemic risk to the stability of our economy.
On the issue of marijuana too, the party is showing signs of moving forward. The draft fell in line with Clinton, but subsequent discussions have advanced Sanders’ position. The draft initially read:
We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so. We support policies that will allow more research on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty. And we recognize our current marijuana laws have had an unacceptable disparate impact, with arrest rates for marijuana possession among African Americans far outstripping arrest rates among whites, despite similar usage rates.
This position seems outdated in light of studies indicating the extensive medical applications of cannabis, the numerous places in this country where it is legal, and most importantly, the few health risks associated with its usage.
However, the Democrats recently voted to add support for a “reasoned pathway to legalization,” bringing the party one step closer to the American electorate a majority of which supports legalization.
As of the released platform draft, a couple other big wins for Bernie Sanders are the adoption of a proposal allowing the Postal Service to provide basic financial services, as well as the party’s new position on Social Security:
Democrats will expand Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity and respect, including women who are shortchanged by the current system because they are widowed or took time out of the workforce to care for their children, aging parents, or ailing family members. And we will make sure Social Security’s guaranteed benefits continue for generations to come by asking those at the top to pay more, and will achieve this goal by taxing some of the income of people above $250,000.
Many party leaders, including Hillary Clinton, have been reluctant to call openly for the expansion of the politically embattled program—she was very much against raising the tax cap—and President Obama even offered to cut it with the chained CPI proposal in his ‘Grand Bargain.’ However, the current platform indicates a willingness to not only stand by this pillar of FDR’s Democratic Party, but to raise the tax cap, and expand it. Nowhere in sight are proposals to raise the retirement age.
On criminal justice reform too, there is an indication that the party is moving forward. The draft pledges to “eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and close private prisons.”
And of course, the modern party platform lives up to and expands on FDR’s promise that race, religion, or creed need not play factor into whether or not one is entitled to economic opportunity. On social issues like LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and immigration, the party has embraced multiculturalism.
A Decent Start But…
In spite of the many positive aspects of the platform the big takeaway is that any compromise between the new the progressive movement and the Democratic Party leadership will be inadequate. It could be argued that this is a historic platform, but it is very apparent that FDR’s “can do” progressivism has been replaced by Hillary Clinton’s cautious conservatism. That said, Sanders has made some historic gains.
However, if the party cannot, at the very least, support basic progressive policy goals such as a single-payer health care system or free tuition at public colleges and universities; if it cannot oppose openly trade deals that force American manufacturers to compete with cheap sweatshop labor overseas; if it cannot take a stand against fracking, it is safe to say the party has, at least half surrendered.
It is questionable whether the platform or Sanders’ endorsement will do anything towards uniting the party in November—but it will give progressives reason to keep up the fight.