As the Democratic National Convention wraps up, most of the public’s attention has been focused on the pomp and circumstance. While this year’s DNC looks nothing like one would expect, there is still plenty of praise to heap on the powerful speeches and stories provided over the four-day virtual convention. Lost in the parade of praise for Joe Biden and his vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, is a discussion of the actual policies the Democratic ticket is running on.
Most speeches have been centered on character and the unique crises facing the country while skimping on the actual counterargument Biden and Harris offer. This is because a discussion of policy would reveal the hard turn to the right that the Democratic nominees have taken since shoring up the primary. By leaving Medicare for All (M4A), marijuana legalization, and a progressive climate plan off their platform, the Democrats revealed just how committed to change they are in 2020. These policies are wildly popular and enjoyed a groundswell of support via the campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as an array of progressive representatives and senators. With all of this support not translating to an actual commitment from the party, only one question remains: why are Democrats so afraid of the Progressive Left?
While the 2020 Democratic platform is more progressive than any other in recent memory, it has rejected many popular left-wing policies. The platform ultimately proposed by the Democratic National Committee attempts to balance centrist and progressive interests within the party. Clearly, the majority of Democrats have taken up the centrist banner as they prepare to nominate an establishment bulwark, Vice President Joe Biden. However, the party also faces an insurgent left led by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris, who ran a somewhat progressive primary campaign, has been lauded as an in-road for this insurgency. This means that ideological differences from the primary were litigated by committee votes on the platform. Both Medicare For All and federal marijuana legalization were rejected by the committee members by votes of 36-125 and 50-106, respectively. Other proposals, like opening up Medicare eligibility, significantly reforming the criminal justice system, and ending fossil fuel subsidies, were also rejected. Hundreds of progressive party members voted against the platform because it left out these crucial planks. This revolt shows the internal pressure that’s pushing for these policies to alleviate healthcare and criminal justice crises should Biden/Harris win in November.
That pressure will likely build from outside the party as well, since both Medicare For All and marijuana legalization have broad public support. On more controversial issues, Democrats are expected, if not encouraged, to err on the side of caution. Ideas like a federal jobs guarantee and Universal Basic Income, which were proposed during the primary cycle, are still gaining political traction and may be too bold for a national party platform. However, both Medicare For All and national marijuana legalization share a passionate activist core and popularity among voters. Both policies have been in the mainstream since Bernie Sanders’ first run for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Further, they both poll well with Democrats and the general public. According to Pew, M4A is supported by 78% of Democrats and 57% of the public. Marijuana legalization is supported by 78% of Democrats and 67% of the public. There is a double-digit difference between public support and opposition for each policy: +17% for M4A and +35% for marijuana legalization. These numbers indicate that neither policy is unpopular enough to be left off of the Democratic platform. Both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, M4A and marijuana legalization are fairly safe bets, meaning there is no reason to reject them because of data-driven electability concerns.
These policies hold particular importance in light of current social unrest. The two most pressing national issues in 2020 are the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement against systemic racism.
In a public health crisis, it is vital that people receive the medical care they need when they need it. America currently has a healthcare system built on insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and hospital systems. These corporate interests have left many Americans with high medical bills, as well as a confusing and costly system to navigate to pay for healthcare. The lack of universal health insurance means that many Americans’ healthcare is tied to their employment. COVID-19 has left millions of people in the United States unemployed, taking away their health insurance when they need it most. Medicare for All ought to be at the forefront of the Democrats' response to COVID to ensure that no one will be denied treatment for the virus due to lack of health insurance. It would also help standardize care across the country, alleviating disparities in hospital staffing, PPE access, and infection rates. Yet, the DNC rejected adopting M4A to its platform, seemingly in defiance of its benefits as a response to COVID.
Similarly, a push to legalize marijuana offers a tangible reform to a broken criminal justice system. Black Americans face higher incarceration rates than white Americans for similar offenses, particularly in drug conviction rates. One in three Black men will be imprisoned in his life, and of Black men in their 30’s, one in ten is imprisoned at any given time according to The Sentencing Project. Black Americans face higher incarceration rates for drug possession despite using drugs at similar rates to whites. In every state, Black people are more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana; in some states, Black people are almost ten times as likely to be arrested. Further, Black people use marijuana at higher rates than whites, who tend towards harder drugs like heroin. This means that a disproportionate amount of Black people in America are imprisoned for marijuana possession, 3.69 times more than white Americans.
Federal legalization of marijuana would cause a seismic shift in this imbalance, reducing the number of Black people incarcerated for drug possession and encouraging the release of millions of people from prison. This would answer the cries for justice from Americans and people across the world who have taken to the streets to protest policing and racial injustice. While George Floyd, whose murder ignited the protests, was not targeted for a drug offense, many Black people killed and harassed by police are. National anger over George Floyd’s death and its reflection of a racist system is reaching a fever pitch, yet Democrats missed the chance to channel some of that anger by rejecting marijuana legalization.
In addition to these specific circumstances, Democrats have a unique electoral position in the 2020 election that ought to lead them to push for more ambitious policies. Even if the current mood suggests Medicare for All and marijuana legalization ought to be national policy, hesitancy towards the policies might be permissible when faced with a tough or volatile election. It’s on these grounds that Democrats justify their platform. One of the main goals of every Democrat who ran for president in 2020 was defeating Donald Trump. Most people who said they will vote for Biden and Harris in November claim that their primary motivation is defeating Donald Trump. As a result, most party officials believe that rocking the boat too much on policy may lose crucial swing voters and lead to another upset by Trump.
This calculus seems to follow a pragmatic approach to elections, but it may be more flawed than first thought. 90% of Biden supporters would not consider voting for Trump, and 67% of them say they are voting against Trump rather than for Biden. Considering Biden currently holds a sizable lead over President Trump both nationally and in key swing states, these types of voters are assumed to be the majority of the voting public. If a broad swath of people will vote for Biden simply because he’s not the current president, then why should electability concerns limit his policy? As several articles suggest, Democrats are worried that a significant portion of voters lost by Biden in November will be progressives. If Biden is indeed facing an enthusiasm gap, why shouldn’t he come out in favor of popular policies which would earn him the support and enthusiasm of progressives? Clearly, most of Biden’s current support will not be swayed by policy shifts. If this is the case, Biden can comfortably move to the left on key issues and still maintain his lead.
Yet, the Democrats have signaled that they have no intention of moving in such a direction. After Biden announced Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick, there was a media frenzy over her promise as a nominee. Yet for progressives, Harris represents a dream deferred in the primary. She initially supported M4A, but backed off the position after an early debate. After the subsequent drop in the polls, Harris dropped out of the primary race. This capitulation tracks with a larger souring on healthcare reform, as sources in Congress claim the party would back away from a public option fight if Biden wins in November. Ads run by an anti-Medicare for All group during the DNC reinforce this pushback against healthcare reform.
Similarly, the lineup of speakers at the convention doesn’t offer much hope for progressive change. Former Republicans, including anti-union-former governor John Kasich, have been given center stage to show off Biden’s appeal across the aisle. However, their placement ahead of popular progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who only spoke for 60 seconds to formally nominate Bernie Sanders) shows that progressives aren’t prized as “junior partners” in the future Biden administration. While the current Democratic coalition is composed of diverse groups and interests, it shouldn’t give special recognition to former political rivals. Heralding moderate Republicans while shirking populist change is a recipe for disaster, especially for a party facing an identity crisis and lack of confidence from voters. The solution to this would be to put forward a bold platform which demands justice in many flawed systems. Yet, Biden and the Democratic establishment refuse to take this step, instead inviting the support of corporate interests and political enemies.
This again raises the question: why won’t Biden move to the left? Pundits may speculate that Biden’s centrism is what won him the nomination, but again, the majority of Biden supporters like him because he is not Donald Trump. Claims that Biden will be publicly destroyed by Republicans if he adopts these policies are also flawed. Also missing from the Democrats’ 2020 platform is a promise to “defund the police,” a common demand from BLM protestors. Yet, the Trump campaign is still running ads linking Biden to this policy, hoping to frighten swing voters into re-electing him. Clearly, the Right is not concerned with whether Biden supports or opposes a particular policy in his official platform. They also have painted Sen. Harris in the same light, decrying her as a radical leftist poised to assume power once Biden’s time is up. Republicans don’t care about accuracy or civility—they only care about winning. Attempting to reason with the GOP by cozying up to their former champions ignores the warped nature of the party. No points are given for playing nice, and the narrowing lead Biden has over Trump proves that voters expect a true alternative to the current national chaos, not a rebranded version of George W. Bush’s Republican Party. If Biden and Harris truly want to crush Trump and leave no doubt in November, they ought to offer a bold alternative, rather than foolishly attempting to reason with an unreasonable political opposition.
The popularity of left-wing policies, the current political climate, and the unique voter motivations of this election all suggest that the DNC ought to adopt policies like Medicare for All, marijuana legalization, and broad criminal justice reform into their platform. Yet, the party rejected these reforms and showed how thin their progressive veneer truly is. No electoral argument can justify rejecting M4A or marijuana legalization. The only arguments that remain are political, and they are exactly the arguments progressives made during the primary season. While Biden may be appealing because of his electability, polling shows that said electability is only helped, not hurt, by individual policy positions. Further, the most common argument given to progressives who threaten not voting for Biden is that Trump is a unique threat, while Biden can be pushed to the left should he win in November. If the DNC follows through with its shift to the right, then this promise is demonstrably false. In this case, the biggest obstacle to left-wing reform may be the Democratic party itself.