The Democratic Party has completed work on its 2016 platform, and though there may be a few changes before it gets ratified at their convention, the major provisions are clear. What's also clear is that this is the most progressive platform the party has ever produced. Many people have noted in recent years how far the Republican Party has moved to the right; it's clear that the Democratic Party is also moving to the left. But more importantly, Democrats are no longer acting like they're ashamed of what they believe.
Let's look at some of what this year's platform will be advocating:
- An increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, indexed to inflation
- Abolishing the death penalty
- Breaking up banks that pose a systemic risk to the economy because of their size
- A "multi-millionaire surtax," an increased estate tax, and what sounds like a new version of the "Buffett Rule," which would impose a minimum tax on those with very high incomes
- An increase in Social Security benefits
- Allowing either a Medicare buy-in or some other form of "public option" in health coverage
- A call for America to get half of its energy from clean sources in 10 years, and all of its energy from clean sources by the middle of the century
- The repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds for abortions
- Support for states legalizing marijuana, though not federal legalization
That all sounds like a smashing victory for Bernie Sanders, and with the exception of Cornel West (who abstained), all of Sanders' representatives on the committee voted in favor of this version of the platform. Sanders himself issued a statement saying that while there are some good things there, he wanted more, like a ban on fracking, a carbon tax, and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Clinton has come out against the TPP, but it didn't make it into the platform). Which is to be expected, if Sanders' role now is to keep pushing the party to the left no matter how far it actually moves.
But it would be absurd to deny that it has in fact changed. And much of the movement comes in the form of taking what Democrats already believed and being more emphatic about it. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment, for instance, demonstrates that Democrats aren't going to be apologetic about abortion rights; perhaps after watching the comprehensive war on those rights Republicans have waged in recent years, Democrats are finally fed up with the "safe, legal, and rare" language Bill Clinton used and are more willing to be forthright about abortion.
In other areas, the platform has taken what were already consensus or at least majority positions among Democrats, like abolishing the death penalty or (sort of) supporting marijuana legalization, and saying them out loud. In other words, Democrats may move to the left, but what's really striking is how much more confident they seem in their own views.
Look at the recent sit-in in the House of Representatives over gun legislation. After two decades of living in fear of the NRA and hoping nobody would bring up guns, Democrats are now ready not only to advocate new legislation but to use the issue against their opponents. To anyone who knows how timid they've been on this issue, the change is remarkable.
Perhaps this new confidence comes from Democrats' understanding that they have majority support in the country, and simultaneously realizing that there's little they can do to win over the voters who despise them, particularly in the South. After years of approaching conservative white voters on their knees — Watch, I'll go hunting! I'll go to a NASCAR rally! Will that make you happy? — Democrats have decided that they don't really need those voters, and they'd do better to serve the people who might actually vote for them.
That's possible because there are fewer and fewer Democrats who actually depend on those voters to get elected. It's a story of our country's polarization, which has its roots in the party realignment that began in the 1960s. After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he told his press aide Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." And he was right — conservative Southern whites who had been Democrats since the Civil War began to migrate to the Republican Party, eventually pushing moderate Republicans out. There remained a few white Southern Democratic politicians, but fewer and fewer with each passing year.
As this sorting process proceeded, the parties grew farther apart. But for a long time, particularly since the 1980s, the Democrats slowly got more liberal, while the Republicans rapidly got more conservative (you can see change in these graphs charting polarization in Congress). At this point it's hard to imagine how the GOP could get any more conservative unless it started advocating burning witches at the stake. Republicans' growing ideological extremism may have freed Democrats up to be themselves without worrying about whether they might alienate some white guy from Alabama whose vote they were never going to win anyway. And the spreading understanding of the Democrats' demographic advantage — where they have strong support among most of the groups whose proportion of the population is growing — serves to make them even more bold.
Bernie Sanders may be able to take some of the credit for a Democratic Party platform that's more liberal than ever before. But the truth is that it would probably have happened with or without him. Democrats may have ground to make up in Congress and on the state level, but more so than in an awfully long time, they know who they are and what they believe, and they aren't scared anymore to say it.