Dems must start now to build a ‘people’s platform’

With an enormous field of possible candidates, it is impossible to know who will win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020. But there are some predictions that we can make with confidence. At some point, the field will narrow to two finalists, and one of them will be seen as the choice of the party establishment and the other will be defined as a progressive insurgent. Whoever ultimately gains the nomination, there will be bad blood between the two sides since such contests always generate intense emotional attachments and deep polarization.  

But we also know that, regardless of who wins, unifying the party in support of the nominee can be the difference between victory and defeat that November. In 1972, George McGovern’s candidacy was doomed when centrist Democrats abandoned him, and defections on the left were critical to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDOJ backs ex-Trump campaign aide Rick Gates's probation request The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list MORE’s electoral college loss in 2016.  

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Moreover, the lesson of the 2018 midterm elections is that Democrats can win when there is energy at the grassroots with millions of activists knocking on doors, registering voters, calling, texting, sending postcards and dragging voters to the polls. But a bitter presidential primary easily could leave many of those potential grassroots activists on the sidelines, risking that Republican dark money and voter suppression could again squeeze out a narrow victory.

One strategy to prevent a destructive and polarizing primary battle is for Democrats to construct a “people’s platform” — in advance of the actual primary season. Voters could then insist that the candidates embrace that platform, and those who refuse to do so likely would lose support. After the campaign, whoever won would be better positioned to unify the party by adopting the platform at the Democratic National Convention. For this strategy to be successful, the people’s platform cannot be simply the wish list of the party’s progressive wing; it would have to represent a genuine compromise between the center and the left of the party.   

The grounds for such a compromise exist because of the gap between goals that are bold and visionary and the measures that could actually be enacted by a Democratic administration. At best, in 2021 the Democrats could have only a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate and the new administration would be hemmed in by a judiciary stacked with conservative jurists.

So, for example, on health care, the visionary part of the people’s platform would say, “We will not rest until every American is free from worrying about the financial consequences of illness or accidents.” This means ensuring universal access to affordable health care but also requiring a public insurance system that compensates households for lost income when illness or accident keeps a family member from working. But in the more pragmatic part, the platform might promise that the Democrats would fix specific gaps and problems in the Affordable Care Act by opening enrollment in Medicare to everyone at age 50; by establishing a public insurance option in every state to make up for the lack of private providers; and by empowering the government to impose controls on the prices of prescription drugs.

To be sure, it would not be easy to get the right mix of visionary commitments and concrete pragmatic policy proposals and to broker compromises that both the left and the center of the party would embrace. But not everyone has to agree with every plank of the platform; the document would strongly endorse reproductive rights, immigrant rights, gun control and bold action on climate change, even though the party has outliers on all of those issues. If done right, the people’s platform could hold the Democrats together and inspire millions to mobilize in support of the party’s ultimate nominee.

Moreover, there is a perfect group of people to take charge of producing the people’s platform: the newly elected Democratic members of the House of Representatives. This ideologically, ethnically and geographically diverse group of 66 new members is ideally suited to take charge of drafting such a document. The freshmen are a natural bridge between the grassroots energy that got them elected and the established centers of power in the party. They understand that the Democratic Party has to do a much better job than in the past in explaining to voters how it will govern.

But if this is going to happen, it needs to start right away. The first six months of 2019 should include listening sessions in which the House members drafting different planks gather input from policy experts, other elected officials and grassroots activists. The second half of the year would be taken up with successive drafts to work out compromises between factions in the party.    The goal would be to have a final version for public release around Jan. 1, 2020 — a month before Iowa voters go to the polls to start winnowing the Democratic field.  

There is no time to waste, and the stakes could not be greater.

Fred Block is a research professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is “Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion.”