The Rainbow Platform
The progressive left is suffering from two contradictory problems: The abundance of single-issue political litmus and purity tests threatens base cohesion and coalition building; Yet, also, the lack of a broad platform of specific policy proposals leaves the Democratic party feeling like a party without a cause.
How can a progressive party adopt a specific platform to rally people around it, while still building a broad coalition that appears to a breadth of voters and lawmakers? Indeed, California Rep. Jim Costa expressed doubt in the Democrats’ “Better Deal” platform along these lines, saying “Just as there isn’t one kind of Democrat, there [is] not just one kind of message that works.” The Atlantic’s Emma Green is concerned that the Democratic party is having progressively less room for religious people, with this issue becoming more pressing as the issues of Muslim and LGBT Americans interact.
Conversely, Lindy West points out in the New York Times that the Democratic Party has been too willing to compromise on women’s issues.
What is the right way to stand for something while still forming a broad coalition?
Here are a few insights:
1. The Reds: There will always be litmus tests
Parties are absolutely right in expecting a minimum level of commitments to some views. Defining those minimums is a difficult but crucial conversation to have.
There are obvious litmus tests that most mainstream parties are expected to honor. That genocide is unequivocally bad; that slavery and human trafficking are bad; that bribery and nepotism are wrong. Apart from what is hopefully obvious, however, any serious conversation on what a political party stands for must lead to a set of issues. While the aspirational planks for each of these issues might look one way, deviation can and should be allowed. Infinite deviation, however, devalues the party and what it stands for.
Take the federal minimum wage. If a lawmaker believed it should be abolished, they will probably rightly fail a Democratic litmus test. But what if they supported a $12 federal minimum wage? The party, at some point, needs to decide how big its tent is, and that likely will involve putting a number on what is and is not okay.
Take abortion. I’m inclined to agree with Lindy West that some type of litmus test is needed. A party that claims women’s empowerment as one of its issues cannot be campaigning for lawmakers who oppose all forms of abortion for all cases. If a lawmaker supported legal, safe, and rare abortions, but opposed late-term abortions, would they pass? If a lawmaker supported abortion in cases of rape and health of the mother only, would they pass? If a lawmaker supported legal access to abortions, but also the Hyde Amendment, would they pass?
We need to be having these conversations. These conversations are us ultimately asking “Who are we, and what do we stand for?”
Here is how that conversation could look like for LGBTQ issues in the Democratic party:
“We are a party that embraces the full rights of LGBTQ people as citizens and legal residents of this country.” That’s a good start. Now we can begin imagining different lawmakers and constituents and see what kind of policy proposals we require, are comfortable with, and are uncomfortable with.
Imagine a Muslim lawmaker who votes in favor of LGBTQ marriage, adoption, and gender identity nondiscrimination. We saw something similar happen in Germany. When asked about their personal beliefs on LGBTQ people, suppose they say they believe the mainstream religious perspective that they are sinners. The Democratic Party’s tent might want to make room for them.
What about a secular lawmaker who supports LGB marriage, adoption, employment nondiscrimination, but is uncomfortable with protection of transgender individuals under hate crime law? I suggest this person ought to fail the LGBTQ litmus test.
We can run these thought experiments come up with a litmus test in the shape of “minimum policy proposals” that we expect someone who shares our values to hold.
2. The Violets: Be Aspirational
Platforms should also include pipe dreams and bold policy. The progressive faction of the Democratic party’s $15 minimum wage platform shouldn’t be dismissed as counterproductive by moderates in the party (at least without a tangible economic reason why it might be counter-productive).
Different factions of the part care about different issues and can push the higher-end of the spectrum in their issue further. The Sanders contingent pushes for leftist economic policy, the Clinton contingent pushes for bold policy on abortion and women’s healthcare, others push on race relations, police reform, prison reform, campaign finance reform, clean energy and climate change issues, and others.
3. The yellows, greens, and blues: Resist purity tests and individuals’ all-or-none stances
We should expect a leftist lawmaker who supports a $15 federal minimum wage to vote in support of a $10 wage. To do so is not to abandon the pipe dream, but to accept that a half-way improvement is more impactful than none. The tendencies of some lawmakers to fear appearing “impure” by supporting lesser versions of their pipe dreams must be resisted.
The Rainbow Platform
Take the visible light spectrum, a relatively narrow range of frequencies in which electromagnetic radiation is visible. The spectrum also holds infinite variation of frequencies, all infinitesimally separated from each other. The spectrum starts with reds at the lowest frequencies, and ends with violets with the highest frequencies. The rainbow it forms is how I think we should view the belief systems of political coalitions, on a per-issue basis.
A political party defines its values. As it does, it is defining a range within a large spectrum (for each issue) in which it lies. For each issue, we define our Reds (the litmus tests) and Violets (our pipe dreams), and welcome lawmakers and constituents who, for each issue, lie anywhere on these spectrums. We spell out our platform by articulating the Red and Violet for each issue, and perhaps a progression of Greens and Blues.
If we do so, perhaps we won’t be afraid to articulate a vision. Perhaps we will learn about what we believe in, and what we expect from our fellow neighbors. Perhaps we will build broad coalitions that win elections without betraying the values we hold dear.
The spectrum cannot be too narrow. For practical reasons, but also because that is an indictment of a society in which discourse is weakness. It also cannot be too wide — what can our values be if they are infinitely conceded?