“Thanks to the millions of people across the country who got involved in the political process — many for the first time — we now have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.” These were the triumphant words of Bernie Sanders as he prepared to endorse the candidate who beat him, Hillary Clinton, for president.
The Democrats’ platform, passed early on at the party’s convention in Philadelphia, has been held up as the most tangible evidence that the Sanders campaign had an impact on the party, despite the hostility of its established leadership.
But a closer look reveals that the 2016 platform is far less progressive than Sanders delegates argued for.
For example, the platform calls climate change an “urgent threat” and proposes that the U.S. should be powered by 100 percent clean energy by 2050. But every one of Sanders delegate Bill McKibben’s proposals on how to get there were voted down: no carbon tax, no ban on fracking, no to keeping fossil fuels in the ground. In short, nothing tangible to back up the rhetoric.
On the Middle East, the platform declares, “We will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, including by retaining its qualitative military edge, and oppose any effort to delegitimize Israel.” Proposed language from Cornel West and Maya Berry calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements” was blocked.
Even the much heralded and certainly welcome inclusion of support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage was more vague than it needed to be about tying the minimum wage to the inflation rate.
Not exactly a smashing victory for progressive politics. But even if Sanders supporters had managed to win more concessions from the party establishment, would it matter? Would a President Hillary Clinton be bound in any way by the platform that delegates passed this week in Philadelphia?
To get a sense of how much the Democratic Party platform affects actual policy, let’s take a look at some of the more progressive planks from the 2008 platform passed by the convention that nominated Barack Obama and see how they have fared under the Obama administration.
1. Affordable, Quality Health Care Coverage for All Americans
From the platform: Families and individuals should have the option of keeping the coverage they have or choosing from a wide array of health insurance plans, including many private health insurance options and a public plan. Coverage should be made affordable for all Americans with subsidies provided through tax credits and other means …
Families should have health insurance coverage similar to what Members of Congress enjoy. They should not be forced to bear the burden of skyrocketing premiums, unaffordable deductibles or benefit limits that leave them at financial risk when they become sick.
The reality: The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is at once the most acclaimed and most disparaged accomplishments of the Obama administration.
As Elizabeth Schulte wrote fro SocialistWorker.org, “While portions of the ACA made welcome improvements — for instance, banning the previous practice of denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and providing subsidies for low-income people — the ACA doesn’t come close to covering all the millions of people who need health care. In fact, for many working-class people, the new system has made things worse.”
The average deductible has tripled since 2006, seven times faster than wages, according to a September 2015 report from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust, reported on by the Los Angeles Times.
Already high premiums are set to increase in 2017. In California, for example, premiums “will rise by an average of 13.2 percent next year — more than three times the increase of the last two years,” according to the LA Times.
And some 33 million people in the U.S. still don’t have health insurance, reports the FiveThirtyEight.org website.
Democrats did claim that they were fighting to have, as was promised in the platform, a so-called “public option” included in the health care legislation — a government health program to be offered as one of the choices for people required to obtain insurance through the ACA’s exchanges.
The public option was included in the House proposal but got dumped from the Senate version that became the blueprint for the ACA. As Socialist Worker reported, it turned out that Democrats had made a deal with the health care industry that the public option would be dropped from the ACA. The promise was cynically dangled in the platform and during negotiations, then dumped.
Achieving the stated aims of meaningful benefits, universal coverage and affordable health care would require the Democrats to work toward a single-player system that eliminates private insurers from health care. But that was never even under consideration when the Obama administration started negotiating the ACA.
2. Cut Poverty in Half Within 10 Years
From the platform: When Bobby Kennedy saw the shacks and poverty along the Mississippi Delta, he asked, “How can a country like this allow it?” Forty years later, we’re still asking that question…One in eight Americans lives in poverty today all across our country … Nearly 13 million of the poor are children. We can’t allow this kind of suffering and hopelessness to exist in our country … Working together, we can cut poverty in half within 10 years.
The reality: There are two years remaining on that commitment to cut poverty in half, but it’s not looking good. Official poverty levels have grown, from 13.2 percent in 2008 to 14.8 percent in 2014, and the number of poor children jumped from 13 million to more than 15 million in the same period. Apparently, “suffering and hopelessness” has been allowed to continue.
Some may object that Obama inherited a recession and an increase in poverty was inevitable.
But the Great Recession, while severe, is long in the past, and those at the top of U.S. society have recovered quite well. According to University of California-Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez, the top 1 percent richest households captured an estimated 95 percent of income growth during the 2009-12 recovery period, with their pre-tax incomes growing 31.4 percent after adjusting for inflation. The pre-tax incomes of the bottom 99 percent grew 0.4 percent during the same period.
By 2012, the top 10 percent of households had a 50.4 percent share of the pre-tax income, the highest level since 1917.
What would it have taken to actually cut poverty in half? A good start might have been the “green jobs” program proposed by Van Jones, who was appointed as the Obama administration’s “green jobs czar.” But even leaving aside whether Jones’ proposals would have achieved what he claimed, he came under fire from the right-wing press, and the Obama administration did nothing to defend him as he was hounded to resign. And that was the end of “green jobs.”
3. A World Without Nuclear Weapons
From the platform: America will seek a world with no nuclear weapons and take concrete actions to move in this direction … We will maintain a strong and reliable deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist, but America will be safer in a world that is reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and ultimately eliminates all of them. We will make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
The (terrifying) reality: After Democrat Al Gore proclaimed in 2000, “If you’re not careful, you could have a reduction of missiles and a more dangerous world,” this 2008 Democratic Party platform point was a welcome shift in direction.
Unfortunately, the reduction of nuclear weapons has slowed under Barack Obama. In fact, Pentagon figures show “that the current administration has reduced the nuclear stockpile less than any other post-Cold War presidency,” according to a report in New York Times.
Rather than work toward the eradication of nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has launched an “atomic revitalization” plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which will cost up to $1 trillion over the next three decades.
This is horrific in terms of the cost in the face of increased poverty. But perhaps worst of all, part of the Obama plan is to make nuclear weapons more precise, with smaller yields — which would make the unthinkable more likely: the actual use of these weapons of mass destruction.
4. Open, Accountable and Ethical Government and Reclaiming Our Constitution and Our Liberties
From the platform: In Barack Obama’s administration, we will open up the doors of democracy. We will use technology to make government more transparent, accountable and inclusive. Rather than obstruct people’s use of the Freedom of Information Act, we will require that agencies conduct significant business in public and release all relevant information unless an agency reasonably foresees harm to a protected interest …
We support constitutional protections and judicial oversight on any surveillance program involving Americans. We will review the current administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. We reject illegal wiretapping of American citizens, wherever they live.
The reality: ProPublica writes that according to NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, “the Obama administration has expanded the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international Internet traffic to search for evidence of malicious computer hacking.”
After getting caught red-handed expanding the “illegal wiretapping of American citizens” that the Democratic platform denounced when George Bush was the culprit, the Obama White House went after the whistle-blowers.
Edward Snowden remains in exile, with his passport provoked. The NSA surveillance apparatus that he unmasked continues to gather data generated by the communications not just of Americans but people around the globe.
Chelsea Manning languishes in a military prison with a 35-year sentence for the “crime” of providing government transparency” — by releasing what came to be known as the “Iraq War Logs” and the “Afghanistan War Logs,” including the “Collateral Murder” video showing civilians and journalists being indiscriminately slaughtered in a Baghdad air assault.
The Obama administration hasn’t been held accountable to its promise to “open the doors of democracy.” Instead, it has slammed them shut on anyone who tried to open them.
Alright, finding five inspiring promises from the 2008 platform proved to be something of a trial. It was surprising how meager many of the platform pledges were on closer reading. And even then, the results of the half-promises after nearly two terms under Obama included a few progressive moves — but they were almost always accompanied by setbacks, major compromises or less-than-stellar outcomes.
On women’s rights, the Democrats promised and delivered the Lilly Ledbetter Act to make it more possible for women to sue against workplace discrimination. But they failed to get the Paycheck Fairness Act passed, even while both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats.
Women today earn on average 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, an increase of a few pennies from when the 2008 platform was written — but pretty much the trajectory it has been on since the late 1960s.
On immigration, the promises were notably vague considering the huge mega-marches of the past two years before the 2008 convention against Republican legislation to criminalize all 12 million undocumented people in the U.S. The platform offered nothing more specific than this: “We are committed to pursuing tough, practical, and humane immigration reform in the first year of the next administration.”
Nothing of the sort was introduced in 2009, even though — to repeat — Democrats controlled Congress in the first two years of Obama’s presidency. Instead, under Obama, federal immigration policy has been merely tough and practical — practical in expelling as many immigrants as possible, that is.
Proposals from Democrats and a handful of Republicans for “comprehensive immigration reform” combined stepped-up border patrol and enforcement with proposals for a highly complicated “path to citizenship,” or at least legalized status for a minority of the undocumented. But the Democrats allowed the “reform” side of the combination, as compromised as it was, to be stripped away, leaving only the enforcement.
That’s why Barack Obama, seen by supporters of immigrant rights as the obvious “lesser evil” in 2008, instead presided over more deportations than his “greater evil” Republican predecessor, George Bush.
Notably absent from the 2008 platform was any major promise to people of color or African Americans. Beyond a few platitudes — and noting that “Hispanics” and African Americans were hard hit by the housing crisis — the main civil rights promise was to “work to fully protect and enforce the fundamental Constitutional right of every American vote.”
Ironically, and tragically, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act during Obama’s time in the White House. While Obama wasn’t responsible for that decision — his administration was on the other side of that court case — as Tavis Smiley observed, “Black folk, in the era of Obama, have lost ground in every major economic category.’
We could be accused of picking and choosing for this article — and that’s exactly what we’ve done: We picked the platform statements that most reflected the spirit of “hope and change” that people felt as Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, and examined them to see how they held up in practice.
We could also look through that 2008 document and focus on some of the points where the Democrats delivered: They promised to escalate the war on Afghanistan, and they did. They promised to aggressively negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, sanctions and the threat of force as the carrot and the stick. They provided U.S. police with more deadly “technology” to deploy in U.S. cities, and they defended Israel and kept of the steady flow of U.S. aid.
The 2008 platform was less progressive than the 2016 platform in many ways, but not all. For example, the 2016 platform no longer promises to halve poverty in 10 years, and it added the clarifying term “eventually” to the Democrats’ supposed vision for a nuclear free world.
The usual Democratic explanation for the failure to achieve the worthy reform proposals in their 2008 platform is that they were prevented from doing so by the obstructionist Republicans. Yet Obama was elected in 2008 with what even ruling class commentators typically hostile to the Democratic Party recognized was a mandate. Neither the mandate nor control of both houses of Congress produced the kind of progress Obama supporters expected.
Yet now, the Democrats, led by Bernie Sanders, are asking us to vote for Hillary Clinton because she’ll make a “wonderful president,” in Sanders’ words — and if you have any doubts, just look at “the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party” she agreed to.
We’ve heard that one before.
So much more is needed urgently to combat racism, climate change, poverty, inequality and war. It clearly won’t come from any Democratic president or officeholder, or from the platform they pass at the party’s convention — but from organizing in our workplaces, on our campuses and in our communities to put our demands first, not fake platitudes.