The Democratic platform process is finally underway, and the main issue is this: Did the campaign of Bernie Sanders really alter the Democratic Party? The answer is not yet entirely clear, but on many key issues so far the Hillary Clinton campaign has been unwilling to commit to delivering specifics about fundamental change in America, which have been at the heart of Sanders' campaign.
I’ve had a front-row seat to the first round of the process, as 1 of 5 delegates Sanders named to draft the platform. (The Clinton campaign named six, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, added four more.) We spent two weeks listening to powerful testimony from citizens around the country, and then on Friday in St. Louis we started taking votes.
"We need not platitudes but a platform. Not aspirations but commitments."
And it was there that the essential dynamic quickly emerged. The Clinton campaign was ready to acknowledge serious problems: We need fair trade policy, inequality is a horrible problem, and unchecked climate change will wreck the planet. But when it came to specific policy changes, they often balked. Amendments against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and backing Medicare for all failed, with all the Clinton delegates voting against.
At which point we got (about 11 p.m., in a half-deserted hotel ballroom) to the climate section of the platform, and that’s where things got particularly obvious. We all agreed that America should be operating on 100 percent clean energy by 2050, but then I proposed, in one amendment after another, a series of ways we might actually get there. A carbon tax? Voted down 7-6 (one of the DNC delegates voted with each side). A ban on fracking? Voted down 7-6. An effort to keep fossils in the ground, at least on federal land? Voted down 7-6. A measure to mandate that federal agencies weigh the climate impact of their decisions? Voted down 7-6. Even a plan to keep fossil fuel companies from taking private land by eminent domain, voted down 7-6. (We did, however, reach unanimous consent on more bike paths!)
In other words, the Clinton campaign is at this point rhetorically committed to taking on our worst problems, but not willing to say how. Which is the slightly cynical way politicians have addressed issues for too long—and just the kind of slickness that the straightforward Sanders campaign rejected.
Happily, the process is only one-third complete. And Team Sanders has claimed some victories: a strong stand against the death penalty, for instance, and remarkable in-depth language on Native American rights. Now the platform discussion heads to Orlando, where 187 delegates will weigh it in more depth. And the issues on which they still can’t agree can then be raised on the convention floor in Philadelphia.
To some, the point of the whole exercise is unclear. Platforms don’t matter, right? But this is a new kind of election: The Sanders campaign has been about issues, issues, issues. I mean, the guy gives 90-minute speeches every day that are entirely about actual things that need to change. It seems weird in an American political context, which is normally about posturing and spin, but for many of us it’s refreshing.
To others, pushing for a strong platform seems risky. Won’t it somehow help Donald Trump if we keep airing these questions? Shouldn’t we just shut up and fall in line behind Hillary?
No one wants Trump to win. But many of us look at the Brexit vote and see that unenthusiastic centrism has a hard time beating zealous craziness. We need unions and working people and environmentalists fully engaged this time around, backing the Democrats with passion and energy. Above all we need young people, who voted for Bernie by a 7-to-1 proportion.
Which is why we need not platitudes but a platform. Not aspirations but commitments. Not happy talk, but the fully adult conversation that Sanders engaged the country in for the past year. Cornel West, with his usual succinct eloquence, said that in the end the platform debate came down to telling the truth. The truth is, we’re in a world of hurt. That hurt—economic, social, environmental—is driving the unsettling politics of our moment. That hurt needs to be addressed.
Orlando and Philly are the two places left where that can happen; I’m willing to bet the platform will get substantially stronger before all is said and done, because I think the Sanders run really has changed the party, and very much for the better.