Last month, to even less fanfare than in a typical election year, the Democratic Party released its 2020 platform.
Platforms are generally seen as a sideshow: documents that read more like florid wish lists than serious blueprints for governance. And insofar as broken promises—think the elder Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge in 1988—tend to draw more media attention and partisan ire than fulfilled ones do, it’s easy to dismiss platforms’ importance.
But political scientists who study them argue that they are more relevant than conventional wisdom suggests. They reveal the balance of forces between factions within a political party and provide a decent guide, with plenty of caveats, to how that party will try to govern over the next four years if it assumes power.
Joe Biden may be a moderate, but the platform he’s running on includes a long list of progressive goals and language. In part, that’s a product of the Joint Task Force that the Biden and Sanders campaigns formed to forge shared approaches to major policy areas. Of course, Biden is free to pick and choose which parts of the platform he will embrace, ignore, or actively reject. But it would be wrong to entirely dismiss the document as a guide to what goals a Biden presidency might pursue.
One indication of the progressive influence on the platform comes in the introduction. For the first time, the Democratic Party includes a “land acknowledgment,” noting that the land on which drafters convened was “stewarded through many centuries by the ancestors and descendants of tribal nations” and that “our country was built on Indigenous homelands.”
Among the unsurprising but notable outcomes, the platform says it is committed to are universal health coverage, vigorous action to reverse climate change, reinstating the full power of the Voting Rights Act, restoration of “humanity and decency” to our immigration system, and championing LGBTQ+ and disability rights.
Reflecting the increasing impact of activists from movements like Black Lives Matter and the extraordinary swell of protest since the killing of George Floyd, the section of this year’s platform devoted to “reforming criminal justice” is more than three times longer than it was in 2016.
The phrase “police brutality” did not appear in the 2016 platform, despite the fact that BLM had already emerged as a major force in the wake of the killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and others. This year, drafters opined that “police brutality is a stain on the soul of our nation.”
More broadly, the platform repeatedly highlights racial and other inequities as fundamental obstacles to a more just America and outlines approaches for remedying those inequities.
The document is replete with specific policy proposals, including a $15 minimum wage, 12 weeks of federally mandated paid family leave (which is 12 weeks more than the current federal mandate), the provision of half a million EV charging stations around the country, statehood for Washington, D.C., and tuition-free public colleges and universities for students whose families earn less than $125,000 annually.
The platform is not, however, a giveaway to Sanders, Warren, or progressive activists more broadly. The phrase “Medicare-for-all” appears just once, to acknowledge that there are people in the party who support it. Instead, the path to universal health care will pass through a more robust Obamacare, including a public option. There is no call to “abolish ICE” or “defund the police.” The Green New Deal is nowhere to be found.
But with all those caveats, it’s not fanciful to hope that a Biden presidency, while it will surely disappoint in myriad ways, will pursue a range of progressive goals and strive to act on much of the platform. How successful it will be is another matter.
JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Comment on this column at email@example.com.
Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.