by Will Beaman
Watching the Democratic National Convention play out on television was a bit like watching an overture of the next few years of Democratic politics. The Sanders movement was based entirely on rejecting the democratic establishment, while Clinton tied her political vision to the legacy of Barack Obama and a unifying fear of Donald Trump. As Clinton and prominent Democrats tried to put the fractious primary behind them, Sanders used his speech to publicly tie Clinton to the democratic platform measures that her side was opposed to. Whether they are Sanders supporters or a “progressives who likes to get things done”, all progressives should view the finished platform as one chapter in a longer story about party realignment.
Superficially, the Democratic Party platform is an improvement on previous platforms. The Sanders side even scored some surprise victories on a $15 minimum wage, reviving Glass-Steagall, and implementing a financial-transactions tax. The platform is also full of “unity measures”—compromises between the Sanders and the Clinton vision. The Sanders proposal for universal free tuition became free tuition for families with incomes of up to $125,000; the Sanders proposal for Medicare for All became a medicare expansion with increased funding for community health centers and the National Health Service Corps. However, these halfway measures deserve sharp criticism from progressives—not because we don’t understand pragmatism, but because means-testing programs is a dead end politically. It is not enough that policy is technically sound and has wonk support; good policy has to bring together a constituency that will fight for it and defend it. This is why means-tested programs, even when they are improvements in the short term, are not victories for progressives. Means-tested programs are first on the chopping block when the next fabricated debt crisis puts austerity on the agenda because they are seen as benefitting a privileged group of Americans at the expense of everyone else. If you accept that universal programs have a ratchet quality where they are easier to increase than take away, then these are the pragmatic demands. Finally, there were the outright disappointments, and they weren’t small. The platform failed to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership because Democratic congressmen didn’t want to embarrass Obama; it failed to affirm the basic rights of Palestinians; it failed to oppose fracking.
Ultimately, the platform’s weakness is the weakness of the Democratic Party as a whole: it lacks a coherent vision for the future. At a time when the majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and anti-establishment anger is at an all time high, the Democratic Party cannot skate by on a negative foundation in opposition to Donald Trump. This will become apparent when Hillary Clinton wins the election and the Republican Party is in total disarray. The most compelling argument against Sanders’ brand of politics, the immediate need to stop Conservative advance, will be dissolved. Without Republican extremism as a foil, the Sanders-Clinton dynamic will favor the Sanders side. Over the next four years progressives will see their efforts frustrated not by Republican extremism, but by Democrats who are held back by their commitments to capital. The emerging left wing of the Democratic Party is under no obligations to “pay back” the Clinton campaign for its concessions in this platform. “Party unity” is a bogus argument in a “big tent” party with no ideological requirements. At any given time, the Democratic Party’s consensus reflects the balance of power between its competing interests. For progressives, the narrative must be that it would have been better were it not for the party establishment. Because that’s the truth.
Editorial Director: Will Beaman, Northeastern University