I really liked this Harold Meyerson piece, considering where the Democratic Party is after the primary. He argues that both Clinton and Sanders won the primary because the latter won the battle of ideas and represents the new direction in the Democratic Party, even if the former is the nominee.
Clinton changed her positions to embrace his—and the number of issues on which Sanders changed his positions to embrace hers. By my tally, the presumptive nominee reversed her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership to one of opposition; reversed her stance on slowing the rise of Social Security benefits to increasing those benefits; opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, which as secretary of state she’d said she was inclined to support; moved to embrace a $15 minimum wage in some cases; and backed off her earlier enthusiasm for charter schools.
Sanders’s challenge was far from the only reason she switched her positions, of course: The unions and environmental organizations that backed her also pressured her to shift her stances; Senator Elizabeth Warren also mounted a powerful challenge to many of Clinton’s initial positions; and the party as a whole was clearly moving left: The percentage of Democrats who call themselves liberal has doubled since the 1970s. But if Sanders hadn’t mobilized millions to his cause, it’s hard to imagine Clinton repudiating so many previous positions in favor of more progressive ones.
As to the number of issues on which Sanders changed his positions to embrace Clinton’s: I can’t think of any. To be sure, as the campaign developed, he became more comfortable discussing issues of social, and not just economic, inequality, but he began that transition when first challenged by Black Lives Matter protestors, well before the Clinton campaign was paying any attention to him.
The second, and more fundamental, measure of Sanders’s ideological victory was his success at placing the issue of economic inequality, and a range of remedies to combat it, at the center of Democratic discourse. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the broad prosperity of the postwar period, the Democrats, under Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, rightly redefined their mission as one of extending the rights and economic security that white working- and middle-class men had won under the New Deal Order, to those left out of the deal: At first, African Americans, then women, immigrants, other racial minorities, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. During those decades, however, the vibrant and relatively equitable economy that existed at the time of Johnson’s pivot slowly crumbled, as unions were decimated, manufacturing offshored, jobs subcontracted, and income shifted from labor to capital. The diminution of the middle class was an issue to which the Democrats came late, and it’s taken Sanders’s candidacy to re-position that issue at the center of the party’s concerns.
The question now for Meyerson is how to build upon this. For him, the answer is for organized labor to take the lead on making issues of racial, social, and economic justice central to the Democratic Party platform in Philadelphia.
Indeed, there’s a happy precedent for unions pushing a center-left presidential nominee to embrace a more progressive, and popular, platform. In 1948—the last time the Democrats held their convention in Philadelphia—President Harry Truman, the party’s nominee for re-election, favored a bare-bones, insubstantial civil rights plank. The CIO unions, particularly Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers, had joined with other progressive organizations to back a full-throated civil rights plank, though the White House did not encourage their efforts. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey had said he’d give the speech putting the plank before the convention, but fearing White House disapproval, he decided the night before not to speak. UAW attorney Joe Rauh argued with Humphrey all night, until, at 5 a.m., Humphrey agreed to give the speech. When he did, the following day, it was a stemwinder, sweeping the delegates off their feet. At the prompting of their union-member fellow delegates, they voted for the plank; four Southern state delegations walked out and formed the short-lived Dixiecrat Party, which ran South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president. But the plank, which Truman then embraced and ran on, won him much liberal support and enabled him to reduce support for the third-party candidacy of former-FDR-Vice-President Henry Wallace to just 2 percent in the November election.
Will the unions do for Clinton what they once did for Truman? Will they play the role they’re well positioned to play, helping shape a progressive program that will appeal both to Clinton and Sanders supporters and the electorate at large? They’ve worked hard to win the votes they’ll wield at the convention. They should put them to good use.
It’s somewhat interesting that it’s 1948 Meyerson uses as his touchstone, not because it’s inaccurate but because some on the left still call the CIO sellouts for not backing Henry Wallace. In any case, despite its weakened state, organized labor is in better shape for pushing this agenda within the Democratic Party than in 1948. First, there are no Dixiecrats to worry about. The party is united and farther to the left on many issues than it has ever been. Second, the largest unions are also the most politically progressive unions–SEIU, AFSCME, AFT, and NEA. Sure, some of the building trades folks are going to vote for Trump, but those unions have never been nearly as close to the Democratic leadership as the UAW and USWA used to be and SEIU and AFT are today. Third, those unions have done a ton of work in the last 4 years fighting against inequality, including SEIU’s work on the Fight for $15 and UFCW’s now largely defunct but still somewhat important Walmart campaign. And it’s not just a chip they can cash in; it’s become the central message of the Democratic Party in 2016 because it’s the central message the Democratic Party base wants to hear and demanded to hear. Bernie Sanders deserves a lot of credit for this of course but so does organized labor, especially for doing a much better job than Sanders of connecting economic struggles with racial inequality. Let’s hope for a vigorous platform fighting all forms of inequality.