Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Last month, NBC News described the recently released final draft of the Democratic Party platform as the “most progressive platform in party history.” Bernie Sanders has said that’s thanks to him, continuing his campaign through the last primary and withholding his endorsement of Hillary Clinton until after the Democratic platform had been finalized, essentially forcing the party to the left. And while he has successfully done so, at least to some extent, Clinton still has enough room to pivot back to the center.
This year’s Democratic platform is indeed a progressive document, but so was the 2012 Democratic platform. In this age of party polarization along ideological lines, the Democratic Party is the party of progressivism. During the first decades of the 20th century, though, this wasn’t the case.
Until the 1950s, both parties had progressive and conservative wings, and the choice between them was often characterized as a choice between Tweetledum and Tweetledee. Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated by conservative Democrats who resisted parts of his New Deal agenda, undertook the first steps to transform the Democratic Party into a party of progressivism when he attempted a purge of conservatives in his own party. Roosevelt’s purge failed, but over the next 30 years, the ideological party system he longed for emerged anyway.
Is this year’s Democratic platform significantly more progressive than the 2012 version? Sanders takes particular pride in having committed the Democratic Party to raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The 2016 platform states, “We should raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over time and index it…” This does provide a specific target that was missing from the 2012 platform, which more vaguely stated, “We will raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation,” but the “over time” qualification in the 2016 platform provides flexibility for a Democratic president to phase in this reform very slowly if the results in California, which recently raised the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, demonstrate an adverse impact on job creation.
Sanders had hoped for a blanket rejection of further Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations; but, due to the opposition of Clinton delegates, he had to settle for an amendment that called for tough restrictions on trade deals but that did not explicitly reject TPP. Clinton currently opposes the TPP, which she helped negotiate as secretary of state, even calling it the “gold standard” of trade deals in 2012, but there is little doubt that she could reverse course again if elected. She correctly noted in her memoir, Hard Choices, that the TPP would “be incredibly powerful for American companies who, up until this point, have often been locked out of those markets,” and that it was a “strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the United States in Asia” (69).
On issues like tuition-free college, extending Medicare to make it available to anyone 55 years or older, providing a public option under Obamacare, and expanding Social Security (and resisting attempts to raise the retirement age), the 2016 Democratic platform pushes in a more progressive direction. It even hints at a carbon tax to accelerate the transition to green energy.
While Sanders did push Clinton somewhat to the left in the primary campaign and in the drafting of the Democratic platform, she has retained enough flexibility to pivot back to the center during the general election. Her choice of Tim Kaine over Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D – MA) or Sen. Sherrod Brown (D – Ohio) for vice president is a good indication that she isn’t trying to fundamentally recast the Democratic Party in a more progressive mold in the way that Sanders would have. The distinguished political scientist Moisey Ostrogorski may have gone too far in describing platforms as a “farce” in Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (138-139), but reasonable voters would be well-advised to focus more attention on the merits and character of the candidates than on the all-to-often hollow promises of a party platform.