You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Will Bernie Sanders Win the Platform?

In the Democratic platform hearings, the party's past is on trial.

Jewel Samad/Getty Images

“This is not some rote exercise where we phone it in and a document gathers dust on a shelf,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz last week in Washington, convening the first of four sets of field hearings on the party platform, which will be approved at the convention in Philadelphia in July.

In a typical election year, you could assume that Wasserman Schultz was blowing smoke. Typically the party platform is a mere transposition of the victorious campaign’s existing promises, set in bland enough language to not pin them down on any particular issue. But the vigorous primary this year, and Bernie Sanders’s desire for a “fundamental transformation of the Democratic Party,” has made the 2016 platform unusually consequential.

Sanders made it clear last night just how much he and his “revolution” are staking on the platform debate. Prior to his summit with Hillary Clinton, he told a hastily assembled news conference he’d be pushing her for “the most progressive platform” ever passed at the party’s convention next month, along with reform of the nominating process.

Because of the unusually high stakes—and scrutiny—that’s come with Sanders’s focus on the platform, the hearings that continue this week in Phoenix (with St. Louis and Orlando to follow) have become a kind of public trial on the party’s future. If the first week’s hearings were any indication, stakeholders are signaling to Clinton that the party’s sins of the past will no longer be tolerated.

The left wing of the party has never been given more power to shape the platform. Sanders appointed five of the 15 members of the platform drafting committee, with six allotted to Hillary Clinton and the other four to the DNC. That’s a big variation from past practice: Clinton lost by a smaller margin to Barack Obama in 2008, and got zero slots on the platform committee.

“The last few times I came to Washington, D.C., I ended up in jail, so this is much nicer surroundings,” said Bill McKibben, environmental activist and one of Sanders’s five choices, at last week’s hearings. The others are professor Cornel West, Congressman Keith Ellison, Native American leader Deborah Parker, and Arab American Institute president James Zogby.

This gives a serious presence to avowed liberal activists on the platform committee, compared to the mostly elected officials and policy advisors of 2008. (Warren Gunnels, Bernie Sanders’ policy director, also is a non-voting committee member.) On controversial issues like fracking or Israel/Palestine negotiations, Sanders’s choices bring career-defining positions into the debate.

Clinton’s allies, if they’re intent on seeking the typical broad coalition heading into the general election, could simply outvote the Sanders faction and brush aside their viewpoints. But on several issues, that would put Clinton at odds not just with Sanders supporters, but with the mainstream of the party.

Listening to the first two days of testimony, I was struck by the witnesses’ desire to wake up the political establishment to realities outside the Beltway. Multiple experts and ordinary people testified that the U.S. economy simply isn’t working for most of its citizens. And they pointed to some interesting root causes. For example, Sabrina Shrader, Vice President of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families, blamed oligopolistic electricity companies in her state for high heating costs. “One runs the northern part and another runs the southern part,” she said.

In fact, monopolies are one issue that activists want the platform to address. For over 100 years, the Democratic platform included a plank on antitrust enforcement. Bill Clinton took it out in 1992; it could return this year, as even the nominee has decried the effects of lack of market competition.

Elsewhere, Hillary Clinton will have to decide whether to maintain her half-step in Sanders’ direction or shift further to placate the party rank-and-file. She supported a $12 minimum wage; Sanders (and most of the testifiers) endorsed $15. She endorsed a modest Social Security increase for low wage-earners; Strengthen Social Security’s Nancy Altman argued for a much broader increase in her testimony, referring to how Sanders “has made it today a united position of the Democratic Party.”

During the primaries, Clinton also shifted toward Sanders’s position on trade, and the platform hearings suggested she would have trouble shifting back. Michael Smith, a union factory employee for Nabisco, testified that his job in Chicago was sent to Mexico, “where workers earn in one week what I and my other laid-off coworkers made in several hours.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged the committee to formally reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it “would perpetuate a failed corporate model of trade that has bled jobs and repressed wages for decades.” Even Kurt Campbell, a diplomat who worked in Clinton’s State Department, and who was clearly brought in to tell the committee to not abandon global trade, had to admit that “trade and globalization has profoundly disrupted the middle class, and we as a nation have not done enough to prepare or protect our workers.”

Not only would opposition to TPP in the platform repudiate a sitting Democratic president, it could push Clinton into a corner. Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch testified that, even if the trade deal passes in the lame-duck session of Congress after the election, the next president must give a notice of implementation for it to be enacted. Forcing Clinton to agree to a platform plank stating that the next president will not assent to TPP could kill the agreement.

The rejection of Obama policies on trade was not an isolated incident; those testifying made it clear they are not fired up for a second Obama presidency. Hector Sanchez of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda criticized the “obsession with deportations that we have seen in this Administration.” Teachers insisted that testing should not drive schooling, in contrast to policies of the early Obama administration. Despite the president’s popularity, party stakeholders have shifted to his left, and are more concerned with issues than political personalities.

Two debates in the Washington platform hearings, seemingly disconnected to specific platform language, signaled a major difference among the party factions. When former Attorney General Eric Holder testified on criminal justice reform, Cornel West asked him to address why “there’s not an equal application of rule of law to Wall Street as opposed to Main Street.” Holder claimed that the Justice Department would have brought cases against bank executives if they could have made them, but that the standard of proof on corporate crime was just too high a burden.

Former Democratic Congressman Brad Miller, asked to assess Holder’s answer the next day, replied, “there clearly is a two-tiered system of justice now.” He cited the $1.9 billion HSBC money-laundering settlement, a punishment law enforcement touted. “That’s five weeks of profit and you’re not bringing criminal prosecutions against any executive or against the bank?” Miller stated incredulously.

Miller was there to testify about financial reform, arguing that “we need to break up the concentration of economic and political power on Wall Street.” The Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden, Clinton’s former policy director, asked about shadow banks, the unregulated patchwork of lenders and investment funds. Hillary Clinton contended during the primaries that by focusing on shadow banks, her reform plan was more comprehensive than Bernie Sanders’s.

“The strongest reform of the shadow banking system that I have seen is the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act,” Miller said, referencing Elizabeth Warren’s legislation—supported by Sanders—that eliminates the preferential treatment for derivatives contracts in bankruptcy. That changewould almost certainly mean that lenders would not continue to lend in the shadow bank system,” Miller concluded, in a sharp retort to Clinton’s go-to technique to deflect from Glass-Steagall restoration.

These arguments presented real choices between aggressive restructuring of the financial sector or accommodation with it, detached from the identities of the candidates who initially forwarded them. Whoever wins the argument can use the results as a tool to get the party in line, and to test future candidates on their fealty to Democratic values.

The platform is only as powerful as those willing to use it, and last week’s events suggest great interest in making it a foundational document rather than an afterthought. In the short term, the platform can build a peace between Sanders and Clinton. In the long term, it’s how lasting change gets forged.