For Mass. Democrats, a troubling gap between party platform and practice

Democrats in office must be held accountable for backing the positions their party adopts

THIS WEEKEND, thousands of Democrats from across the Commonwealth will be descending upon Worcester (or joining virtually) for the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s annual convention. As a nominating convention, it will focus on determining which candidates qualify for the September primary.  

But rather than talk about the five contested races at the convention (there’s plenty I could say), I want to shift some focus to the results of last year’s convention: the Massachusetts Democratic Party Platform.  

Having a robust platform is a notable point of distinction between the Mass Dems and the Mass GOP. The Mass GOP’s platform consists of merely seven sentences, whereas the Mass Dems platform contains 25 pages (excluding introductory material and a table of contents). The document also distinguishes the Mass Dems from other state Democratic parties, not all of which have a platform of their own. The New York Democratic Party’s platform, insofar as it exists, has typically just been a photo for their governor. Maine’s is just a series of “We believe” statements. Some state Democratic parties simply adopt that of the national party. 

So the fact that the Mass Dems have a robust platform and one of the most, if not the most, progressive platforms in the country should be a point of pride. But it raises the question: Does it even mean anything?  

A platform is, in theory, an actionable agenda for a party, a promise of what that party will do when in office. But the Massachusetts Democratic Party platform says quite little about what our Legislature’s large Democratic majorities intend to do.  

Our party platform supports same-day registration, a reform that most of our neighboring states have embraced that would allow voters to register to vote or update their registration at the polls. The state Senate voted to pass same-day registration last fall (as well as during its election reform package in 2014…and even before), but the House has consistently refused to take it up. Earlier this year, a majority of House Democrats voted to block it from consideration in their voting reform package.  

Our party platform calls for every public school to have comprehensive, medically accurate sex education. The Senate has passed the Healthy Youth Act, which would require that any schools that teach sex ed do so in a way that is comprehensive and medically accurate, multiple times now, and it has yet to advance in the House.   

Now, we shouldn’t give too much credit to the Senate. Other planks of the Mass Dems platform don’t register with House or Senate leadership. The Mass Dems platform embraces the concept of universal public goods, calling for a single payer health care system, free public higher education, and fare-free public transit – which would treat health care, education, and mobility as basic rights. But instead, we face some of the highest health insurance premiums in the country, a growing student debt burden, and chronic underinvestment in public transit. And the platform is much bolder on tax justice, housing justice, police accountability, and criminal legal reform than either chamber is willing to be. And the platform’s call for public financing of campaigns? Well, we know how the Legislature feels about that 

The divide between the Democratic Party in practice and the Democratic platform is a breakdown of both Democratic and small “d” democratic accountability. A platform is a statement of values, a vision, and a promise. Although it is written by party activists, and not written in the back rooms of Beacon Hill, it should have some meaning for those seeking to run with a “D” next to their name on the ballot.  

The party has existed in an awkward space for the past eight years with overwhelming Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature (the Senate Republican caucus can fit a small sedan) yet a Republican governor. It is hard to lay full blame of inaction on the governor when the Legislature ultimately does not need his blessing to legislate. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the party and the party’s officeholders change next year if we have a Democratic governor, as the polling indicates will happen.  

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Regardless, the work of making the values and visions espoused in the Democratic Party platform mean something will continue to rest with the grassroots activists and advocates, both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, working year-round to increase engagement with state-level politics, build broad issue coalitions, and hold all of our elected officials accountable.

Jonathan Cohn is a member of the Democratic State Committee and policy director for the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts.