Bring Back The Platform!

Political textile advertising the Republican ticket of McKinley & Hobart (1896)
1896 textile proclaiming the principles and candidates of the Republican Party.
Courtesy Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons.

I get tired of the politics of personality, and when that happens I find myself wishing that the party platform was still an important part of American politicking.  Back in the day, the platform was a formally arrived-at set of principles that all the party’s candidates “stood upon.”  Platforms had “planks”, and these were “hammered out” at the same conventions where party delegates settled on a presidential nominee.  Being on the platform committee was a big deal, and sometimes battles over planks were as suspenseful and heated as the question of who the party’s nominee would be.  The platform was important, because it was binding and because it charted a course for the party.  During the long period in our history when most Americans never so much as glimpsed the people they were electing, platforms gave citizens another, perhaps more reliable, way to identify not so much with a candidate, as with a party.

Buttons advertising the 1896 Democratic ticket
Campaign buttons advertising the stands of the 1896 Democratic Party.  Nominee William Jennings Bryan ran on a platform of reform and a silver-backed currency.  So-called “silver bugs” hoped to triumph over the “gold bugs” of Wall Street.
Image courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons.

The parties still have platforms, but they’re unimportant today.  At least as far back as Eisenhower, parties began fudging on their platforms, in the belief that bland compromises would maximize the votes their candidates could snag.  The platform received another blow in the television age.  When the networks began live coverage of the conventions, they decided that the platform was boring.  Why give air time to such a tedious process?  As for the parties, they worried that strife over the platform would embarrass them and make them look iffy.  So the platform was eventually removed from the stage.

Too bad, because platforms efficiently accomplished many important ends, and, today, increased reliance on them could carry many advantages.  For instance:

1. Platforms make best use of the ideas floating around within a party.  To create a compelling platform, party members must consider what interlocking set of ideas will best serve their larger interests and aims.  In what amounts to an exercise in “wholesale politics,” pols pause to consider how to make their stands palatable to the voting majority.  In such an exercise, Democrats might be forced to consider, for example, how their desire for greater equality and opportunity could be made to gibe with the smaller, more efficient, government Americans crave.

2. Platforms differentiate between dominant and minority views.  This sort of clarity is badly needed in the Republican party, where extreme views, whether social or fiscal, are in danger of tearing the party in two.  Platform debates create an opportunity to air and resolve some potential sources of strife before party members take office, and provide a definitive gauge of when a minority view has gained enough traction that all members of a party accept and endorse it.  Does the GOP as a whole really want to embrace the balanced-budget pledge that some members have signed?  Does it really want to repeal universal health care?  Oppose same-sex marriage?  If so, put it in the platform.  If not:

3. Political minorities know who they are.  By establishing which are minority views, platforms enhance party discipline and make it clear when individual politicians are deviating–not just on the stump but when governing.  Rather than allowing political minorities undue influence, as we do today, we should be encouraging them to form their own distinct parties, thus forcing them to confront the weakness of their position vis-à-vis the voting majority.  The Republican Party has made a terrible mistake in allowing its conservative wing so much influence, when it has been clear since at least 2008 that American voters as a whole abhor ultra-conservative views such as those that Rick Santorum has been articulating.

4. Platforms constrain the executive, while making the job of president easier.   Historically, the president has been styled as the “standard-bearer” of a party.  Up until the time of Teddy Roosevelt, it was understood that the president was a party figurehead, who, besides carrying out his constitutional duties, would faithfully adhere to a course of action that his party had already articulated and communally endorsed.  The presidency requires independent judgment and action, of course, but, as we have seen in the Obama administration, chaos results when the president gets too much ahead of his party and insists on acting as an engine of change.  Party platforms promote smooth governance because, through them, the president and his party’s representatives in Congress are bound to a mutually agreed-upon set of ideas and to what are judged to be attainable goals.

Overall, an emphasis on shared ideas could mitigate our increasing preoccupation with individual actors and their opinions.  Our political system demands that majorities organize themselves and act harmoniously, and it requires leaders in the legislative and executive branches who can acknowledge and embrace their interdependence.  Platforms, by emphasizing what is mainstream and attainable, contribute to the achievement of these aims.

McKinley Campaign Poster
1896 poster envisioning the consequences of the Republican Party’s protectionist platform vs. that of the Democrats, which called for free trade.  Note how nominees are depicted as flag-bearers who will advance what a whole party believes.
Courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons.

8 responses

  1. The modern Tea Party has a very clear and defined platform. In fact, they are all platform and no personality (and no a lot of other things). In a parliamentary political system they would not be Republicans. They may yet evolve into their own party (by mutual consent).

    • The modern Tea Party’s “platform” is not clear and defined; if it were, there would not be so many disparate candidates claiming to “represent” their ideas.

  2. I liked this article very, very much. I too recall the days when the party platform was VERY important. I think I also remember the days when the actual proceedings of that committee were televised……….I agree wholeheartedly with this well thought-out essay. Wish it could be published in a major paper like USA Today.

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