Last week, the Republican National Committee adopted its 2020 platform—the official, written principles and policies the party will put to a vote at their convention, now set to be split between Charlotte, N.C. and Jacksonville, Fla., the week of Aug. 24. The only problem: the RNC executive committee declined to update the document, leaving it identical to the 2016 version drafted when Barack Obama was in office, including multiple, damning references to the failings of the “current President.”
“What dummies,” David Bergstein, director of battleground state communications at the Democratic National Committee, told Vogue. “We agree, for once, with the Republican platform, which decries President Trump’s performance in office. It seems they’ve taken as little care with their party’s foundational document as Trump has taken with the running of our country."
Democrats aren’t likely to skate by with a similar copy-and-paste when they decide on a platform this summer before formally nominating Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention still slated—still in a form TBD—for August in Milwaukee. Democrats are confronting a high-stakes moment in history on a host of issues that strike at the heart of the progressive party: the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 100,000 lives nationwide, highlighting healthcare and environmental disparities and leaving 40 million Americans unemployed. The pandemic hit black and brown communities—a backbone of the Democratic party—disproportionately harder, laying the groundwork for a movement of racial protests to sweep the country after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I’ve been saying that we experienced 10 years’ worth of change in 10 weeks,” former Democratic presidential nominee Andrew Yang told Vogue. “The government needs to think much, much bigger.”
While the center-left Biden clinched the nomination, the ideals of further-left Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and more progressive candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren—both advocates of structural changes like Medicare for All and income inequality measures like tuition-free college—feel newly urgent. When President Trump-signed coronavirus stimulus checks were mailed to millions of Americans in April, Yang’s campaign proposal of universal basic income, or monthly payments of $1,000, suddenly seemed less fringe. (See also: the trending #YangWasRight.) It reminded Sanders’s staffers of his once-scoffed-at call for a $15 minimum wage that has since become party line.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic of COVID-19 and the pandemic of white supremacy is showing how important Bernie’s progressive agenda is to bringing the Democratic party back to being the party of the working class in America,” Belén Sisa, former Latino press secretary for Bernie 2020, told Vogue. “This moment brings back memories of being laughed at by the Establishment when years ago we were demanding an agenda the people deserve. Now they have no other option but to listen because we’ve been joined by the majority of America in these cries for justice.”
According to DNC rules, after winning the nomination and the majority of delegates bound for the Democratic National Convention, Biden also won the overwhelming majority of slots on the DNC's platform committee, which drafts the party’s core document and votes on it internally before submitting it to a full vote by delegates at the convention. But the Democratic socialist Sanders could have more representation than runner-ups past in determining the party platform, thanks to the special "unity task forces" formed by the Biden and Bernie camps.
After Sanders endorsed Biden via Zoom in April, the pair announced six policy-specific groups staffed with surrogates from both camps, including Sanders supporter Alexandria Ocasio Cortez co-chairing the climate change group with Biden ally John Kerry, and House Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an advocate for Medicare for All, co-leading the health care task force with Obama-era surgeon general Vivek Murthy. The task forces will make recommendations both to Biden and to the DNC platform committee, potentially allowing Sanders, who ran galvanizing, grassroots campaigns in 2016 and 2020, to potentially push the party platform left.
“I believe, from my conversations with Joe, that he's open to different policies and solutions, because he recognizes the enormity of the crisis that we’re in,” Yang said. “He's not ideological in his approaches. He’s very pragmatic and driven by consensus.”
Despite losing the primary, both Yang and Sanders have sought to influence the platform; in April, Yang sued the New York State Board of Election over its initial decision to cancel the New York primary; Sanders condemned the cancelation as “a blow to American democracy.” Though both had dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, winning more delegates in New York gave the progressive candidates a chance to send more delegates to the convention and be part of the platform conversation. A judge agreed with Yang, and the New York primary was reinstated for the delayed date of June 23.
But some former Sanders staffers remain skeptical about a Biden-led convention adopting key facets of Bernie’s agenda. “The next few months will be an incredibly telling moment for the Democratic Party,” Sisa said. “They have the choice of fighting for the working people of this country by putting their money where their mouth is or continue to give the people most impacted by the current crisis, watered-down solutions that don’t truly fix the problem.”
Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Sanders’s 2020 campaign, points to Biden’s rejection of Medicare for All and, of late, his suggestion to funnel $300 million into police reform amid cries to defund the police. “The words that have come out of his mouth tell me to be skeptical of his willingness to make the kinds of changes that are necessary in this moment,” Gray told Vogue. While his big ideas seem more relevant than ever, Gray says she doubts Sanders would have had a better chance to win the nomination if the primary had not ended pre-pandemic. "People didn't not vote for Bernie because they didn't like his platform," she said. "At the end of the day, what people cared about the most was electability, and it was extremely difficult for Bernie Sanders to cut through."
Looking to the convention, MSNBC political analyst Zerlina Maxwell, author of the forthcoming book, The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide, says she hopes the protests could bring about a more expansive framing of racial issues beyond the knee-jerk impulse to reduce black voters’ interests to criminal justice or mass incarceration and focusing on the ways in which black people have been discriminated against in education, healthcare, housing and wages.
“I do think that one of the things the party needs to recognize is that our base is not white,” Maxwell said. She said she writes in her book about Biden’s impulse to “appear moderate” to appeal to mythical moderate voters, while actually being more progressive than many realize. “I don't need you to look like you're trying to bend over backwards to get those Trump-Obama flipped voters. I need you to do everything you can to get the black people in Milwaukee who did not vote to vote, because there are more of them.”
Yang plans to attend the convention, whether virtually or in-person—the DNC continues to weight its options—but he doesn't see it as a loss if the convention goes digital. "I think voters are really smart and people know who Joe is," Yang said. "Introducing him to the American people is not the nature of the task at hand."
In the midst of a pandemic and racial strife, Maxwell would welcome a virtual convention that puts the hyper-produced, overpriced made-for-TV event in its place. With so many dire issues on the party's plate, she said, “it’s completely the wrong moment to do that."