How to Make the Democratic Party Platform Actually Matter

Bernie Sanders’ delegates have shaped the most progressive platform ever. History shows what it takes to turn that into policy.

Maurice Isserman

IN THE FALL OF 1967, Robert Kennedy gathered a select group of trusted advisers at Hickory Hill, his family home in McLean, Va., to discuss his disenchantment with the Vietnam War and his political future.

Among those present was historian and former White House aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In his 1978 biography Robert Kennedy and His Times, Schlesinger recalled what was said that evening.

Liberal activist Allard Lowenstein urged Kennedy to launch an anti-war challenge to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in the upcoming Democratic primaries. Schlesinger, for his part, warned Kennedy of the political risks of disloyalty to his party and president, suggesting that the senator instead organize a campaign for a peace plank in the 1968 Democratic Party platform. Kennedy was ambivalent about running, but thought Schlesinger’s proposal a pretty weak substitute. He asked, “When was the last time millions of people rallied behind a plank?”

We are, perhaps, about to find out. On June 16, in a speech streamed to several hundred thousand supporters, Sen. Bernie Sanders did not formally concede the Democratic presidential nomination to rival Hillary Clinton, but he implied the time had come to pivot from his candidacy to platform issues. He urged his supporters to rally behind a plank, or rather, a set of planks.

“I look forward in the coming weeks,” he said, “to continue discussion between the two campaigns to make sure your voices are heard and to make sure the Democratic Party passes the most progressive platform in its history.” He pledged to transform the party into one “that has the guts to take on Wall Street … and the other powerful special interests that dominate so much of our political and economic life.”

Soon after the June 14 Washington, D.C., primary cemented Clinton as the presumptive nominee, Moveon.org began sending out email appeals to its several million members soliciting funds to help “cement Bernie’s agenda into the Democratic Party platform.”

In truth, the platform fight is likely to be a relatively tame one, at least in the realm of domestic policy. Hillary Clinton can’t afford to alienate Bernie Sanders’ millions of supporters, particularly younger and first-time voters, and will seek to secure their loyalty by embracing at least some of the economic justice issues that lie at the heart of the Sanders campaign.

In late May, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced Sanders could choose five of the 15 members of the party’s platform drafting committee. Clinton was given six seats to fill, and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz would choose the remaining four.

“With five good members on the platform drafting committee,” Sanders told the Washington Post, “we will be in a very strong position to fight for an economy that works for all of our people, not just the 1%.”

Sanders’ choices included fellow democratic socialist Cornel West and environmental activist Bill McKibben. Clinton also picked some reliably progressive voices, including American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union official Paul Booth and former EMILY’s List director Wendy Sherman.

The recommendations of the platform drafting committee, handed down on June 25 following a two-day meeting in St. Louis, will be considered in Orlando, Fla., by the full committee, whose 187 members are apportioned between Sanders and Clinton supporters based on the results of each state’s primary or caucus. That larger committee draws up the final version that will come before the national convention in Philadelphia at the end of the month.

“We won’t get the entire Bernie agenda in the platform,” Robert Kraig, head of Citizen Action Wisconsin and a Sanders delegate to the Orlando gathering, acknowledged in a phone interview. (Full disclosure: Kraig is also a member of the In These Times Board of Directors.)

Sanders expressed his displeasure over the committee’s foot-dragging on issues like climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and an explicit call to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Yet, the final recommendations of the platform drafting committee feature policy positions, like breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, that wouldn’t have been on the party’s radar without the influence of the Sanders campaign.

The difference this bounty of bracingly progressive planks will make in the election to come, and, more importantly, in the policies adopted by the incoming Clinton administration (barring an increasingly unlikely Trump victory), is less clear.

Kraig concedes that “platforms usually don’t matter,” but thinks that this time will be different.

“Bernie has already had an impact on Hillary’s campaign promises, moving her leftward on a number of issues,” he says. “The platform itself is being hammered out very publicly, which means its supporters will have a lot of leverage down the road in holding a Clinton administration accountable.” He believes that if progressive Democrats inspired by Sanders remain mobilized past the November election, they will have the clout needed to ensure that President Hillary Clinton fulfills her promises.

To determine whether that’s the case—and what kind of strategies can get us there—a look back at Democratic Party history is instructive.

CARTER, KENNEDY AND THE CLINTONS

In retrospect, Robert Kennedy may have been too dismissive of the value of the planks debated and adopted at party conventions. There have been times in U.S. history when they made a significant difference, not necessarily in determining who would win the general election, but on influencing the future direction of national party politics. In 1896, the Democratic Party adopted a populist-inspired plank calling for the free coinage of silver, an inflationary measure benefiting debt-ridden farmers but anathema to banking and industrial interests. Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan campaigned on the free silver platform (“You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”) and went down to defeat in the general election that followed. But the 1896 campaign proved a first step in the Democratic Party’s subsequent transformation from the party of states’ rights to the party of the welfare and regulatory state. In 1948, the Democrats’ adoption of a civil rights plank (reluctantly supported by incumbent Harry Truman) had the negative effect of prompting a convention walkout by “Dixiecrat” delegates from the Deep South, but also proved the following November that Democrats could retain the White House without the electoral votes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina—a salutary lesson in terms of the future of civil rights legislation.

One of the last times that the Left played a significant role in shaping the Democratic Party platform was in a largely forgotten episode during the 1976 convention—and in that earlier history lies a complicated and cautionary tale.

The 1968 and 1972 presidential races, famous political disasters for the Democrats, set the stage. Robert Kennedy was assassinated before he reached the 1968 nominating convention in Chicago, Eugene McCarthy’s campaign stalled out, there was violence in the streets and tumult on the convention floor, and, at the behind-the-scenes insistence of Lyndon Johnson, the peace plank that anti-war liberals brought to the convention floor was voted down. The plank’s defeat, in the eyes of some knowledgeable Democratic insiders, helped guarantee the victory of Republican candidate Richard Nixon over Humphrey in November, both by reinforcing the impression that the Democrats had no idea how to end the fighting in Vietnam, and by showing Humphrey as nothing but a puppet of Johnson.

Far from banding together in 1972, the Democrats were, if anything, even more divided. Humphrey caricatured primary rival George McGovern as the candidate of “acid, abortion and amnesty.” As in 1968, the all-too-visible display of party disunity allowed Republicans to portray their opponents as incapable of governing themselves, never mind the country, and Nixon won in a landslide.

THE DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST IMPACT

The Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation and a wave of victories in the 1974 midterm elections revived Democrats’ hopes for 1976. In a vigorously contested primary season, with Sen. Scoop Jackson (Wash.) on the right and Rep. Morris Udall (Ariz.) on the left, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter charted a middle path to the nomination. Beneath the surface, relations among Democrats remained fractious as usual, but Carter knew that he needed to project an image of party harmony to dispel lingering memories of 1968 and 1972.

To that end, the Carter camp agreed to accept a party platform written largely along lines drawn by liberals and labor. Influential in that effort was a newly created advocacy group called Democracy ’76, a kind of pre-internet Moveon.org, determined to influence the balance of power within the Democratic Party. The group was created at the initiative of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), itself founded three years earlier in 1973 after the old Socialist Party met a sadly ironic demise when it was, in essence, captured by a pro-Nixon faction. Harrington and DSOC activists Jack Clark and Marjorie Phyfe devised a plan to “build a programmatic tendency of the democratic Left in the Democratic Party” in a coalition effort to shape the 1976 platform. Democracy ’76 attracted the financial and organizational support of progressive unions like AFSCME and the United Auto Workers (UAW), allowing it to hire staff and open a Washington office, and, as Harrington later wrote in his 1988 memoir, The Long-Distance Runner, giving DSOC the wherewithal “to play a role quite out of proportion to our very modest numbers.” At the time, DSOC had only about 3,000 members.

Harrington testified before the convention’s resolutions committee on behalf of Democracy ’76 and was well satisfied with the results, writing shortly afterward that the 1976 platform was “probably the most liberal in the history of the Democratic Party.” Since the early 1960s, when his book The Other America: Poverty in the United States helped spark the War on Poverty, Harrington had been pushing Democrats to establish massive jobs programs along the line of the New Deal’s public works projects. The Johnson administration, determined to fight its “unconditional” war on poverty on the cheap, and increasingly preoccupied with Vietnam, turned a deaf ear to Harrington’s economic strategy. But front and center in the new platform was the promise of federally guaranteed full employment.

“Jobs are the solution to poverty, hunger and other basic needs of workers and their families,” the first plank proclaimed. “Jobs enable a person to translate legal rights of equality into reality.” The platform also included pledges that the next Democratic administration would support legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions, make the tax code more progressive and institute national health insurance.

With Carter’s victory in November, Democracy ’76’s strategy seemed one of the great (and rare) success stories of the American Left in recent memory.

WHERE’S THE PRESIDENT?

But having, in effect, outsourced the writing of the 1976 platform to the Left, would Carter abide by its pledges once in office? As political scientist Sam Rosenthal writes in a forthcoming history of liberal activism in the 1970s, “Ultimately, the outcome of the convention consisted of a full-throated liberal party platform and a nominee whose commitment to either the platform or the activist ranks of his own party was highly questionable.”

The political honeymoon proved short-lived. Within months of taking office, it became clear that job creation took a distinct second place in Carter’s list of legislative priorities as he increasingly embraced policies of economic austerity intended to tame inflation. The pledges to promote labor law reform, tax reform and national health insurance were similarly consigned by the Carterites to the dustbin. On the first anniversary of Carter’s victory, in November 1977, Harrington’s Democracy ’76, now renamed Democratic Agenda, staged a candlelight march on Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington to “make sure that President Carter … keep the promises contained in the 1976 Democratic platform.”

Carter was unmoved, but his administration kept a wary eye on Democratic Agenda. In December 1978, Democrats were scheduled to hold a midterm convention in Memphis to discuss policy issues. (The first midterm convention was held in Kansas City in 1974, a concession from the party establishment to liberal activists.) As early as May 1977, White House staffers warned Carter that the following year’s conference “can very easily be used by certain elements … to embarrass the president and the administration.”

In the weeks leading up to the midterm convention, Democratic Agenda contacted delegates across the country, seeking endorsements for a series of resolutions that, taken together, amounted to a repudiation of the Carter administration’s austerity policies. The DNC had set a high bar to bring the resolutions to the floor. They needed to be endorsed by a quarter of the 1,600 delegates, with the supporting petitions delivered to DNC headquarters three days in advance of the meeting. But the Agenda’s staff and volunteers managed to reach the magic number to get four of their resolutions on the agenda, including one calling for national health insurance.

Both sides mobilized for an all-out fight. The Carter camp deployed its most talented operatives, including a young lawyer named Hillary Rodham, wife of the newly elected Democratic governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who served as a Carter floor whip. Both sides understood that what was ultimately under debate was who would head the Democratic ticket in 1980: Carter or Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

At a gathering of Democratic Agenda supporters in Memphis before the convention kicked off, Harrington declared, “The road to victory in 1980 lies in implementing the 1976 platform.” Many delegates to the convention sported “Ted Kennedy for President” buttons.

Kennedy had yet to avow an open challenge to Carter’s renomination in 1980, and administration operatives were eager to dispel any hint that they were concerned by that prospect. Thus there was an element of political calculation when Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told reporters, “The dispute which appears to be on the horizon in Memphis is not between the President and Sen. Kennedy, but between the administration and the Democratic Agenda.” Still, that a three-year-old Left advocacy group was being named by the spokesman for the president of the United States as its chief opponent at the convention was definitely an example of a rag-tag band of democratic socialists punching above their weight.

Democratic Agenda got its four resolutions to the floor. All were voted down, but the midterm convention was far from a Carter triumph. The president’s own speech to the gathering received a tepid response. That was not the case when Kennedy addressed the gathering on its final day. “The Party that tore itself apart over Vietnam in the 1960s,” he declared, prompting a standing ovation, “cannot afford to tear itself apart today over basic cuts in social programs.” New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith suggested that “the fact that nearly 40 percent of the party’s activists were willing to go on record against Mr. Carter … was firm indication of the schism that has developed between the White House and the liberal wing of the party.” And according to the Congressional Quarterly, “At the Memphis gathering, there is no doubt that the Left was the dominant force.”

Kennedy finally decided to challenge Carter, and for most of 1979 ran ahead of the president in public opinion polls. But Kennedy’s own weaknesses as a candidate and Carter’s “Rose Garden” strategy during the Iran hostage crisis secured his renomination. In the end, of course, Ronald Reagan was swept into the White House in 1980, with many of Kennedy’s blue-collar primary voters, determined to oust Carter from the White House one way or the other, casting their ballots for the Republican candidate.

In the aftermath of this debacle, the Democratic establishment saw to it that Democratic Agenda never had another chance comparable to the Memphis gathering to influence party debate. The DNC restricted attendance at the 1982 midterm conference in Philadelphia to party appointees and officials and thereafter abolished the midterm meetings altogether. Democratic Agenda, so formidable a force in 1977-1978, crumbled in the early 1980s without a trace. Democratic Socialists of America, founded as DSOC’s successor in 1982, continued to follow the Harrington strategy of being “the left-wing of the possible,” backing progressive Democratic candidates.

SO OVER THE RAINBOW

Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1988 was another attempt to bring a Left agenda to the fore in a presidential campaign. Jackson won primaries or caucuses in 13 states, including Michigan, campaigning on themes of racial and economic justice that in some ways anticipated both the Obama and Sanders campaigns. But despite this electoral success, the Rainbow Coalition ended up functioning as a vanity vehicle for Jackson, doomed to wither away after a brief moment of influence.

The history of Democratic Agenda’s fizzling in the 1980s does not suggest that history will necessarily repeat itself, and that any influence Sanders delegates bring to bear on writing this year’s Democratic platform is wasted effort. Forty years separate 1976 and 2016, and political history is not an endless loop. The Democratic Party has changed in many ways over the intervening decades, with labor far less important as a constituency, but people of color, women and young people far more so. Carter easily secured the presidential nomination in 1976 by defeating a collection of fairly standard conservative and liberal Democratic rivals. Hillary Clinton had to work a lot harder to defeat a rival who was anything but standard-issue politically: a self-identified democratic socialist.

Carter came into office following eight years of Democratic exile from the White House, and believed he could secure his re-election and political legacy by backing away from his party’s liberal heritage. Hillary would succeed a twice-elected Democratic president with a solid record of progressive achievement. Whatever her inclinations in domestic policy may be, political logic will likely push her in a more progressive direction—certainly in the fall election, and likely beyond.

Conservative triumphs over the past four decades have been policy rather than candidate-driven. George H.W. Bush was not a true believer in Reaganite supply-side fantasies (which he famously denounced in the 1980 primary season as “voodoo economics”). But by the time he came into the Oval Office he knew better than to challenge his own party’s orthodoxy on such questions (“Read my lips…”) The rigidity and unreality of the dogmas favored by policy-driven conservatism would be a poor model for the Democratic Left to emulate. But the organizational drive of movement conservatives to make their ideas count, to make their policy preferences felt—year in and year out, within the Republican party, and at every level of government—is a model worth considering.

The events of the 1970s are a cautionary tale about overestimating the importance of platform planks. That doesn’t mean that the planks now being debated by Democrats are unimportant. Some will become law and policy in the years to come.

I can’t speak for a long-departed Michael Harrington, but my gut feeling is that were he around today, even after the bruising experience with Jimmy Carter, he’d say it’s worth giving Hillary a chance to prove her fidelity to the party platform adopted by the Democrats in Philly. Harrington liked to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was in turn quoting 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker), to the effect that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It will be interesting to see just how that arc bends in the coming Clinton years, and important to respond accordingly.

Maurice Isserman, a charter member of Democratic Socialists of America, teaches at Hamilton College and is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000)

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