by James J. Zogby
The quadrennial process of party platform writing is more of a political exercise than a policy deliberation. When party leaders sit down to debate what will or will not go into their platform, their eyes are less focused on what will constitute sound policy. Instead they consider the politics involved in the positions they want in the document: will they cause concern with important constituencies; will they result in negative press; and will they provoke donors? Given this, I feel good about what we accomplished with this year’s Democratic Party’s platform. I say this not only as a proud member of the five person team Bernie Sanders picked to serve on the Platform Drafting Committee, but also as the first Arab American to have served in that capacity.
Much has been written about the planks we lost or how the platform didn’t go far enough, but what shouldn’t be dismissed is that the Democratic Party is now on record embracing some of our positions and adopting some of our goals. All this is a clear recognition of the power of the progressive movement that was galvanized by the Sanders campaign and the role that Arab Americans played in that effort. The document includes: a call to abolish the death penalty; the goal of establishing a $15 an hour minimum wage; an expansion of the Social Security program; a recognition of the need to provide for public option health insurance; a call to eliminate Super PACs and overturn Citizens United; and the need to put a price on carbon emissions to deal with climate change. Bernie Sanders has referred to the final product as “the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party” and has called for a sustained effort to insure that, after November, the goals recognized in the document become law.
What didn’t receive coverage, but should also be noted, are the many “little victories” we won during the platform deliberations. Sometimes they were simple, but important, word changes or additions we suggested that were ultimately endorsed by all sides.
For example, we were able to add language condemning the rise of “Islamophobia”. And we were able to insure the absence of any terms disparaging of Islam. We also included the protection of civil liberties as a priority concern and expanded on the definition of “racial profiling” to include “religion, ethnicity, or national origin” thereby making the called for ban on “un-American and unproductive” profiling, the most comprehensive ever.
In the section on “Fixing our Broken Immigration System” we co-authored with the Clinton campaign language recognizing that “immigration is not a problem to be solved, it is the defining aspect of the American character and our shared history”. We also called for reforming “the current quota system [that] discriminates against certain immigrants” and we rejected “attempts to impose a religious test to bar immigrants or refugees from entering the United States.”
The platform also proposes a way forward to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda and end the wars in Syria and Iraq without seeing American forces mired down in prolonged conflict in the Middle East. The document recognizes that there must be “more inclusive governance in Iraq and Syria that respects the rights of all citizens”. And calls for “providing more support and security assistance for Lebanon and Jordan, two countries that are hosting a disproportionate number of refugees; and recognizes the importance of “maintaining our robust security cooperation with Gulf countries.”
On the matter of refugees, the platform explicitly supports “President Obama’s call for an international summit to address this crisis so that every country assumes its responsibility to meet this humanitarian challenge” and pledges to “look for ways to help innocent people who are fleeing persecution.”
There was, to be sure, great disappointment in our failure to change the language on Israel/Palestine. We wanted to have the platform clearly state that the occupation and settlements must end, that the suffering of Palestinians must be acknowledged, and that excessive language on BDS and Jerusalem should be removed. We argued that it was commendable to call for two states, but the refusal to note that the major impediments to the realization of that goal are the occupation and settlements calls into question the commitment to achieving a two state solution. We also argued that our reading of their proposed language on BDS denied Palestinians the right to peacefully protest occupation and the language on Jerusalem was contradictory since, on the one hand, the platform states that “Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations” and then says that “it should remain the capital of Israel, an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
Since our Sanders’ team was outnumbered, we did not win, but from our lengthy debate on these issues (a small victory, in itself), several observations can be made. The draft prepared by the Clinton team sought to preempt our concerns. This is the first platform in history to speak of the recognition of Palestinians as having rights not merely, as Peter Beinart has noted, “as a matter of Israeli self-interest”. The platform calls for providing “Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity”. And, in another place, says that “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity”. On this subject, earlier platforms were confused, at best, insulting, at worst.
Finally, on the issues of BDS and Jerusalem, the Clinton campaign sought to explain their language by noting that they “were very careful not to say outright that we oppose BDS”, but rather to oppose it only it if it delegitimized Israel. And one Clinton supporter offered a caveat regarding Jerusalem noting that nothing in their formulation would preclude Jerusalem from also being the capital of a future Palestinian state.
As a reflection of the state of play of American politics, we should see this platform not a defeat but an acknowledgment that there has been a change. Change we made possible. We were able to impact the debate. In some instances, we were able to win changes in the platform and, even when we were not, we were able to force debate on critical issues of concern. That is why I was proud to be a part to be a part of the Sanders campaign and why I endorse his call to continue our forward march. We must remain a part of the progressive coalition working with our allies to elect Hillary Clinton, defeat Donald Trump, continue to transform the Democratic Party, and keep progressive ideas in the mainstream, and not on the fringes of American politics. Within this coalition we can continue to fight for progress. Outside of it, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves and our issues.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.