Democratic platform is progressive wish list

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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The draft of the Democratic Party Platform, written by the party's drafting committee, was released just before the Fourth of July weekend. It is a wish list of progressive proposals that builds on the achievements of the Obama administration but carries them forward way beyond anything the Republican Congress would consider.

The platform is clearly influenced by Bernie Sanders' supporters, who pushed the party beyond the positions adopted by Hillary Clinton or the president. The "greed and recklessness of Wall Street" takes more heat than establishment Democrats have been willing to apply in the past.

The draft can still be changed by the platform committee when it meets on July 8 or by the convention when the Democrats meet July 25-28.

There is much in the platform that is consistent with Catholic social teaching and even with the U.S. bishops' document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

To raise incomes and restore economic security, it calls for:

  • Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour
  • Support for labor unions
  • Equal pay for women
  • Paid family and medical leave
  • Increasing the supply of affordable housing
  • Protecting Social Security and retirement plans

All of this is consistent with Catholic social teaching and the positions taken by the U.S. bishops.

As Pope Francis wrote, "Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one's own human potential."

The platform also promises to create good-paying jobs through:

  • Investment in infrastructure
  • Support for manufacturing
  • Clean energy jobs
  • Investment in research, technology, and science
  • Support for small business
  • Jobs for youth

Again, all of this is consistent with Catholic social teaching. As Pope Francis says, "There is no worse dispossession than not being able to earn one's own bread, than being denied the dignity of work."

The platform then pledges to fight for economic fairness and against inequality, the platform promises to:

  • Fix our financial system
  • Stop corporate concentration
  • Increase taxes on wealthiest Americans and largest corporations, including taxes on Wall Street traders and foreign profits of U.S. corporations
  • Make sure future trade agreements do not allow our trading partners to undercut American workers by taking shortcuts on labor policy or the environment

Pope Francis' concerns about the economic system are well known. Inequality, he writes, "results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good."

Pope Benedict went further than the Democratic platform in condemning grave imbalances between the rich and the poor, and he strongly supported the role of government in "pursuing justice through redistribution" of wealth.

But while Catholic social teaching would certainly support protecting labor and the environment in trade agreements, a univocal focus on what is good for America is not in the Catholic tradition. It is noteworthy that when the American bishops were working on their 1986 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All," the Vatican intervened insisting that they listen to their brother bishops in Latin America who saw trade as a way of improving the lives of their people. As a result, their letter parted company with their labor union allies on this topic.

In addition, Catholic progressives in the developing world are critical of American exports of government-subsidized farm products and of long-lived patent protection, issues that the platform does not touch. Although American farm products have helped feed the world, they have also put millions of peasant farmers out of business and forced them into city slums looking for work.

The platform also promises to bring Americans together, remove barriers, and create ladders of opportunity. Specifically, it commits the Democratic Party to:

  • Fight to end institutional and systemic racism and close the racial wealth gap
  • Reform the criminal justice system, including abolishing the death penalty and allowing states to legalize marijuana
  • Fight for comprehensive immigration reform, defend the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, and support due process for those fleeing violence in Central America, especially children
  • Fight to end discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability
  • Support comprehensive federal non-discrimination protections for all LGBT Americans and push back against state efforts to discriminate against LGBT individuals
  • Find ways to support the good work of people of faith and religious organizations

Catholic social teaching supports the struggle against racism and discrimination. The U.S. bishops have been strong supporters of comprehensive immigration reform and have opposed the death penalty. The platform's brief reference to the good work of people of faith and religious organizations is welcome, although it could have been stronger.

The U.S. bishops would be concerned that government support for LGBT rights not interfere with what they consider fundamental religious freedom. The pope and the bishops have also opposed legalizing drugs.

The platform believes "that we can pay for ambitious progressive investments that create good-paying jobs and offer security to working families without adding to the debt by making those at the top and the largest corporations pay their fair share." This is also believed by many supporters of Catholic social teaching, although there are few economists who agree with them.

The platform also has a strong section on the environment with promises to combat climate change and to build a clean energy economy. All of this would be consistent with Laudato Si', Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. No mention is made of a carbon tax, the policy that is most recommended by most economists who have studied the issue.

Education is also treated at length in the document. "Cost should not be a barrier to getting a degree or credential," it says, "and debt should not hold you back after you graduate." It has nothing to say about holding down costs, but it does make sensible recommendations for refinancing student debt and allowing such debts to be covered by bankruptcy law.

The platform takes a crack at for-profit schools, mentioning Trump University, but says nothing about Catholic schools. It says that states and schools will be held accountable for raising achievement levels of all students, but says nothing about holding teachers accountable. The teachers' union is a strong force in the Democratic Party.

In its section on health care, the platform speaks of health care as a right, not a privilege, the same language used in Catholic social teaching. It supports the expansion of Medicaid in the 20 states that have not yet approved it. It also calls for insurance to cover mental health care.

It calls for expansion of public health services and of treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

It promises to "keep costs down by making premiums more affordable, reducing out-of-pocket expenses, and capping prescription drug costs."  There are few specifics on how to control health care costs except that to permit citizens to purchase drugs from Canadian pharmacies and allow Medicare to negotiate better deals with pharmaceutical companies.

In "Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice," the platform breaks with Catholic social teaching and opposes "federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman's access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment." The Hyde Amendment forbids the use of Federal funds for abortions. In the foreign policy section, the platform calls for repeal of the Helms Amendment that bars U.S. funding of abortion abroad. Elsewhere it states a person's position on abortion should be taken into consideration in the appointment of judges.

While it speaks of abortions being "legal and safe," the draft does not say "rare," as Clinton did during her 2008 run for president. The platform says that family planning services will help reduce the need for abortions. And in what almost looks like an aside at the end of this section, it says it supports a woman's decision to have a child, including adoption and support services.

Sadly, there is no recognition that some Democrats have problems with abortion. On two other issues, the platform recognizes a diversity of views in the party, but not here. The Sanders and Clinton delegates could not agree on a financial transaction tax nor on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but those who wanted a tent big enough for pro-life Democrats were spurned.

The platform then turns to the role of the United States in the world, where it pretty much supports the foreign policy of the Obama Administration. It believes that the United States can be a force for peace and prosperity in the world. It attacks Trump's foreign policy views as disastrous for the country and the world.  

It looks to "the conclusion of long-term nation-building with large military footprints," and promises "to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems and ensure our security with a more agile and more flexible force."

"We will strengthen our homeland security, deal wisely and firmly with those who seek to imperil America or our partners, deter aggression, promote peace, and use all the tools of American power, especially diplomacy and development, to confront global threats and ensure war is the last resort."

It says we must defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda, and continue as part of a broad coalition to destroy ISIS's stronghold in Iraq and Syria. But it promises to "press those in the region, especially the Gulf countries and local forces on the ground, to carry their weight in prosecuting this fight." It continues Obama's opposition to torture and his support for closing Guantanamo prison.

"We are horrified by ISIS' genocide of Christians and Yezidis and crimes against humanity against Muslims and others in the Middle East," say the drafters. "We will do everything we can to protect religious minorities and the fundamental right of freedom to worship and believe."

In short, on the environment, the poor, and economic issues, the platform is pretty much in sync with Catholic social teaching. If anything, papal teaching would probably be more to the left than the platform. Likewise, in foreign policy, Catholic social teaching would emphasize negotiations, diplomatic solutions, and peace making and put less stress on military solutions than does the platform. The U.S. bishops will also object to its strong support for abortion and it silence on their concerns about religious freedom.

[Update July 8, 7 PM EDT: In the foreign policy section, the platform committee changed "freedom of worship and belief" to the more expansive phrase "freedom of religion," protecting themselves from attacks from Republicans. Sanders delegates are still pushing for inclusion in the platform of indexing the minimum wage for inflation, and opposition to fracking and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.]

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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