Shaky Steps in Building the Party Platform

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Humorist Will Rogers once famously remarked: “I’m a member of no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” That decades-old quip appears to be today’s political reality on the left, as tensions continue to mount between the camp of presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the partisans supporting Bernie Sanders, raising questions about the achievability of Democratic Party unity in the upcoming election.

Last week, the two candidates participated in the appointment of the 15-member Democratic National Convention platform committee — with five people appointed by Sanders, six by Clinton and four by party leadership. And as that process unfolded, it was Sanders’ appointments — which included Cornel West, James Zogby and Rep. Keith Ellison — that raised eyebrows.


For pro-Israel Democrats, the appointments of West — a fiery, leftwing social activist — and Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, are particularly troubling, given their prominent support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. And there is concern as well regarding Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress. Although Ellison has close ties to his home state’s Jewish community and has said that Israel’s security must be taken into account as part of any peace deal with the Palestinians, he has nonetheless been a vocal critic of Israel on the issue of Palestinian rights.

While there is good reason to be concerned about the participation of West in any policy development for the Democratic Party — after all, he argued in 2014 that the crimes of Hamas “pale in the face of the U.S.-supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians” — the real issue is whether anything done by the platform committee actually matters and whether the policy positions articulated in the party platform make any difference.


As a practical matter, it is highly unlikely that the next president will be guided by positions taken in her or his party’s platform. And that will be nothing new. Think, for example, of the plank, shared by both parties in past elections, to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: lots of words and lots of emotion, but no policy changes and no results.

Indeed, the same practical assessment is being made by supporters of West. For example, Bruce A. Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, commented: “At best, West and the other four Bernie people will be able to insert a few of the traditional empty promises, which are in no way binding upon the next president.”

But just because the words in the party platform may not matter doesn’t address the concern about the judgment and views of those who have appointed controversial advocates as their proxies in the policy debate. As they approach their nominating convention with an eye toward achieving party unity, Democrats need to consider the message being sent by their choices if they are intent on keeping the party a friendly home for the pro-Israel community.

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