Democrats have changed a lot since 2012
Moving left on economics — but also on climate, race, and a bunch of other things
In “Republicans have changed a lot since 2008,” Matt argued that the Elon Musk/Colin Wright meme depicting a leftward-moving left versus a steady-state right underrated the extent of change in the Republican Party. But contrary to many of the takes online, the Democratic Party has changed, too.
One way to see this is in the evolution of the party’s platform, which is why Milan carefully read the 2012 and 2020 Democratic platforms in their entirety. The point of this exercise isn’t that the mass electorate scrutinizes these documents in detail, but that the statements are a chance for party leaders to tell the world what the party aspires to be and do. It’s of course possible that a party could smuggle some totally obscure new policy commitment into the platform that doesn’t reflect anything other than platform-writing. But that’s really not the case here.
The 2020 platform has some new sections on Covid-19 and Donald Trump that are not present in the 2012 platform for obvious reasons. But more broadly, comparing the two clearly shows a Democratic Party that has adopted new left-wing commitments on race, climate, and other policy areas while somewhat de-emphasizing bread-and-butter economics. But importantly, even on economics, the party has shifted left.
Democrats have moved left on economics
The table below summarizes the 2012 and 2020 platforms’ economic planks. The shift on corporate taxes arguably just reflects a change in the underlying policy status quo, but in other areas, you see clear ideological and policy movements in a more ambitiously progressive direction.
You could put these changes in three buckets:
In 2012, Democrats simply touted Obama's first-term accomplishments in areas like health care and financial regulation while in 2020 they said they wanted to go beyond what he’d done in these areas.
In 2020, Democrats reformulated several 2012 commitments (“raise the minimum wage”) in more aggressive and specific ways (“raising the federal minimum wage so it reaches $15 an hour by 2026”).
By 2020, Democrats explicitly committed themselves to whole new policy ideas like a national plan for subsidized child care and a national preschool program.
The party’s officially stated position in 2012 was oriented around preventing cuts to the then-extant welfare state, defending the legacy of the Great Society and its recent expansion. The overall thrust of the 2020 platform is different, calling for the expansion of multiple existing programs (Social Security, Medicare, ACA, and SSDI) while also creating new ones and expanding the regulatory state into new areas. Concurrently, Democrats dropped a 2012 commitment to reduce the deficit by cutting wasteful spending and raising taxes on the rich. The 2020 platform only uses the word “deficit” once, and not in the context of federal budgeting. Instead, the platform calls for tax increases to finance a significant expansion of the welfare state.
While it now seems clear that this isn’t going to happen, Democrats really did try. The Build Back Better Act as proposed by the Biden Administration originally had a price tag that was something like triple the size of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. And while the ACA contained significant elements designed to “bend the curve” and reduce aggregate national health care spending, there was no such wonky austerity in Biden’s proposals. If more people had voted for Democrats in 2020, then a really big expansion would have happened. And part of what’s striking about this is that welfare state expansion isn’t even necessarily the thing Democrats were saying was most important.
A softer line on crime
Some of the biggest changes from 2012 to 2020 are on the topic of criminal justice. From the 2012 platform:
In the last four years, rates of serious crimes, like murder, rape, and robbery, have reached 50-year lows, but there is more work to do. President Obama and Democrats are fighting for new funding that will help keep cops on the street and support our police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. Republicans and Mitt Romney have opposed and even ridiculed these proposals, but we believe we should support our first responders. We support efforts to ensure our courageous police officers and first responders are equipped with the best technology, equipment, and innovative strategies to prevent and fight crimes.
We will end the dangerous cycle of violence, especially youth violence, by continuing to invest in proven community-based law enforcement programs such as the Community Oriented Policing Services program. We will reduce recidivism in our neighborhoods. We created the Federal Interagency Reentry Council in 2011, but there’s more to be done. We support local prison-to-work programs and other initiatives to reduce recidivism, making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money. We understand the disproportionate effects of crime, violence, and incarceration on communities of color and are committed to working with those communities to find solutions.
The 2012 platform also argues that “the death penalty must not be arbitrary” and that Democrats have reduced racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes and support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Here’s the criminal justice section from 2020:
Democrats believe we need to overhaul the criminal justice system from top to bottom. Police brutality is a stain on the soul of our nation. It is unacceptable that millions of people in our country have good reason to fear they may lose their lives in a routine traffic stop, or while standing on a street corner, or while playing with a toy in a public park. It is unacceptable that Black parents must have “the talk” with their children, to try to protect them from the very police officers who are supposed to be sworn to protect and serve them. It is unacceptable that more than 1,000 people, a quarter of them Black, have been killed by police every year since 2015.
Democrats also recognize that all too often, systematic cuts to public services have left police officers on the front lines of responding to social challenges for which they have not been trained, from homelessness to mental health crises to the opioid epidemic. We can and must do better for our communities. Democrats know we can end the era of mass incarceration and dramatically reduce the number of Americans held in jails and prisons while continuing to reduce crime rates, which have fallen steadily from their peak nearly three decades ago. This is the moment to root out structural and systemic racism in our criminal justice system and our society, and reimagine public safety for the benefit of our people and the character of our country.
In a narrow sense, this reflects the increased public awareness of problems with police misconduct — it’s a big shift, but not a mysterious one.
But the shift on criminal justice issues is much broader than that, with the 2020 platform not just expressing awareness that police officers sometimes do bad things but adopting a thoroughgoing skepticism of punishment. Today’s Democrats say that people under 21 should not be sentenced to life without parole and that juvenile records should be automatically sealed and expunged. The 2020 platform calls the War on Drugs a failure, opposes jailing people for drug use, and supports federal legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization for recreational use. It also calls for eliminating cash bail, the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity, and the death penalty.
Democrats got much more aggressive on climate
The 2012 platform clearly aspired to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change. But it also invoked an “all of the above” energy policy in a way that recalled Jesse Jackson’s affection for domestic oil production and was appreciative of the critical role of natural gas in promoting decarbonization:
We can move towards a sustainable energy-independent future if we harness all of America’s great natural resources. That means an all-of-the-above approach to developing America’s many energy resources, including wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, oil, clean coal, and natural gas. President Obama has encouraged innovation to reach his goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. Democrats support making America the world’s leader in building a clean energy economy by extending clean energy incentives that support American businesses and American jobs in communities across the country. It’s not enough to invent clean energy technologies here; we want to make them here and sell them around the world. We can further cut our reliance on oil with increased energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and homes, and through the promotion of advanced vehicles, fuel economy standards, and the greater use of natural gas in transportation.
The most fundamental 2020 change is that Democrats adopted a new, more aggressive target of 100 percent of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 rather than the 80 percent goal from 2012. But they’re also promising to make the building sector carbon-neutral by 2030 and have the country hitting net-zero overall by 2050.
By 2020 the only mention of “fossil fuels” is in a line about holding oil and coal companies accountable for pollution and environmental damage. Instead of touting domestic oil and gas production, Democrats “support banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands.” The platform does still emphasize the jobs that clean energy could create, with specific promises to direct investments towards creating union jobs and “delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits to disadvantaged and frontline communities.” The 2012 platform does not mention union status or disadvantaged communities.
This is part of what’s probably the most discussed change, which is that Democrats both became more concerned with questions of race and racism and also adopted some substantively new ideas in this area.
Centering race in a new way
Democrats first adopted a civil rights platform plank in 1948, in which they said the party “commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious, and economic discrimination.”
The 2012 platform civil rights plank differs from 1948 largely in expanding the categories to which the concept of non-discrimination is extended while retaining the same core concept of anti-discrimination:
We believe in an America where everybody gets a fair shot and everybody plays by the same set of rules. At the core of the Democratic Party is the principle that no one should face discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability status. Democrats support our civil rights statutes and we have stepped up enforcement of laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace and other settings. We are committed to protecting all communities from violence. We are committed to ending racial, ethnic, and religious profiling and requiring federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to take steps to eliminate the practice, and we continue to support enforcement of Title VI.
Eight years later, the 2020 platform promises to “embed racial justice” throughout the governing agenda:
We will take a comprehensive approach to embed racial justice in every element of our governing agenda, including in jobs and job creation, workforce and economic development, small business and entrepreneurship, eliminating poverty and closing the racial wealth gap, promoting asset building and homeownership, education, health care, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, and voting rights.
You see that racial justice embedding at work in the climate plank’s promise of targeting “40 percent of the overall benefits to disadvantaged and frontline communities.” You see it in a promise to “prioritize support for Black entrepreneurs and other entrepreneurs of color” and to “end violence against transgender Americans and particularly against Black transgender women.”
The new platform invokes the racial wealth gap — an idea not present in the 2012 platform — on five separate occasions, while the 2012 platform mentions wealth only to condemn a Republican Party approach “that benefited the wealthy few but crashed the economy and crushed the middle class.”
And that’s a general trend. This chart illustrates the frequency with which specific words and phrases are mentioned in the 2020 and 2012 platforms; it shows a large increase in mentions of “health care” plus frequent invocation of terms related to race and identity categories.
Conversely, economic concepts like taxes and jobs take up less space in the new platform.
But again, part of what’s interesting about this is that while Democrats started de-emphasizing economics relative to climate and racial justice issues, they didn’t adopt a more moderate posture on economics to chase some hypothetical voter who’s super amped-up about racism but skeptical of the welfare state. They went left on economics, too, while also talking about it less.
A miscellany of increased progressive commitment
Here’s a quick roundup of some other miscellaneous differences between the 2012 and 2020 platforms:
The 2020 platform starts off with a land acknowledgment; the 2012 one does not.
Both platforms support self-determination for Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, but the 2020 platform promises increased federal money for the territories and calls for D.C. statehood, while the 2012 platform calls for voting representatives in Congress and stronger local governance rights but comes short of formally calling for statehood.
The 2012 platform opposes voter ID laws and Citizens United. The 2020 platform promises to overturn Citizens United, renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, ban partisan gerrymandering, make Election Day a national holiday, and move to public financing of all elections.
On guns, the 2012 platform promises to “preserve Americans’ Second Amendment right to own and use firearms” while supporting “reasonable regulation” such as an assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole. The 2020 platform does not have any pro-Second Amendment language and endorses much more sweeping changes, including universal background checks, a high-capacity magazine ban, and closing more loopholes in addition to an assault weapons ban.
Both platforms support marriage equality, but the 2020 one also includes support for letting transgender people serve in the military and promises to crack down on anti-transgender hate crimes and discrimination.
Both platforms also support Roe v. Wade and oppose efforts to restrict abortions, but the 2012 platform does not mention the Hyde Amendment while the 2020 platform promises to repeal it and codify Roe into federal law.
Part of taking on all these new ideas is that the platform expanded from 40 pages and 26,530 words to 92 pages and 42,735 words.
The new verbiage has also raised the reading level of the platform from what the computers say is a 13th-grade score (i.e., someone just starting college) to a 16th-grade score (a college graduate).
Stepping back from the details and comparing the two documents, you see a Democratic Party that has become more ideologically progressive but also somewhat less focused. The 2020 platform is more progressive than the 2012 platform on economics, but it’s also more progressive on climate change and racial justice and abortion and guns and voting rights. And while the 2012 platform is mostly talking about economic issues, the 2020 platform has something to say about lots of different issues. It’s not that the party has just gotten more socially liberal over the last decade — it’s shifted left across the board.
Elon Musk isn’t imagining things
This post has been very platform-centric because platforms are a convenient index.
But the ideological movement — not an overthrow of the party establishment by leftists, but the establishment leaders themselves taking on new ideas — is clearly visible in other forms. In June of 2016, Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox that “President Obama’s huge reversal on Social Security is a big win for liberals.” In July of that year, Victoria Massie wrote “Hillary Clinton said ‘systemic racism’ in tonight's speech. That's major.” On May 27 of 2020, David Roberts described a new consensus approach to climate policy on the left, and on May 28 he published a piece arguing that Joe Biden should embrace this consensus even though Biden “just won without them.”
You can see that both of those articles have July 2020 updates at the top noting that Biden had basically done what Roberts recommended and adopted the new progressive consensus. Pivoting left after winning a primary is a little odd, but it’s what Biden did, and progressives acknowledged it at the time.
There’s lots of room for debate about whether this was a good idea. But the people who yelled at Elon Musk that he was imagining this leftward transformation are being silly. The fact that DW-NOMINATE scores don’t pick up on it is a limitation of that metric — not to say that it’s wrong, but just that analysis of roll call votes only tells you so much.
Among Democrats, self-identified liberals started to outnumber self-identified moderates only in Obama’s second term. And at around that same time, mainstream Democrats started to embrace ideas that they would previously have shied away from.
That’s not a commentary on the wisdom of the ideas or of adopting them, but the shift pretty clearly happened. It’s very hard to reason clearly about the world if you don’t start by acknowledging the reality.
Thanks for presenting what we all know and feel so clearly. The change on race is particularly well demonstrated and shocking in how radical it truly is. From a party consistently committed to equality since the aftermath of WWII, to a party wishing to import to the States an India/South Africa style cast-based system where public resources are *officially* allotted to groups based on racial hierarchies. Chilling. I do hope the fever breaks soon.
The policy changes have their pros and cons but you could debate how much of it is really a move left versus evolving with society. I think the absolute biggest changes have been rhetorical. Fewer Democrats speak like normal people and pepper their language with university buzz words that, frankly, can be really loaded and alienating for anyone not on the far end of the progressive spectrum. I think that change is much more important to perceptions than any shift left in policy preferences, not that those don't exist.