Every four years, delegates gather to draft platforms for their respective parties, creating documents that will eventually be approved by their conventions and then ignored by everybody. So why does this year’s Democratic platform matter?
The party platform is supposedly a uniform statement of belief that both unites a political party and provides a framework for governing should that party actually win an election. And yet it’s a document that very few in the public actually read, and its impact on the fall elections seems to be virtually nonexistent.
Platforms do have an impact, however. Vox.com reporters asked political scientists about the impact of platforms, and found that party members actually do tend to cast their vote in Congress in line with the promises outlined in the platform over 80 percent of the time. This percentage has risen since the 1980s, when it was about 66 percent. Therefore, party platforms really are a much better indicator of how parties will vote and what they’ll try to accomplish than they were 30 years ago.
But there’s a chicken-or-the-egg question here; do party platforms lead the party toward certain objectives, or do they simply codify what the majority of the party’s membership already believes?
That may be a more complex question to answer than it seems. Party platforms are often crafted by activists, who are obviously trying to lead the party toward positions they support. More moderate or incrementalist positions are often given a nod, however, as the platform committee looks toward the fall election. Much depends on the chair of the platform committee, who usually selects the committee’s members.
This year, thanks to the Sanders campaign’s complaints about committee chairman Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, who endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary and had some choice words about Sanders’ embrace of gun rights, the composition of the platform committee was a bit different. The members were chosen by the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, as well as by Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That actually may be fairer, but it did mean that the platform was a lot more liberal than it might otherwise have been.
So what’s actually in the platform? It calls for a $15/hour federal minimum wage, an expansion of Medicare, free community college, and free in-state tuition at state universities for families making less than $125,000/year. It boosts unions by making membership easier, proposes a public option for Obamacare, and demands criminal justice and police reforms in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In short, as Malloy himself and many others have said, it’s an “extremely progressive” platform, the most progressive ever written by a major American party. This platform is being hailed by Sanders supporters as a way of dragging the party as a whole to the left.
But that’s not the whole story. Democrats in general have been getting more liberal over the years, and issues like the $15/hour minimum wage and expanding Medicare and Obamacare are areas of wide agreement among the party’s members. As for the Black Lives Matter movement, Democrats are by far its strongest supporters, with 64 percent of members either strongly or somewhat supportive.
So what this platform represents is both the ascendance of liberal activists within the party and the fact that the party membership as a whole is moving to the left. This is why it’ll be easier for elected officials to keep promises to vote for what’s in the platform; it’s what they and their core voters already believe. The platform codifies the younger, more liberal party that already exists.
If platforms are a window into the soul of the party, what does that say about the Republicans? Their platform is, to be blunt, a nightmare. They call for presumptive nominee Donald J. Trump’s wall to be built on the Mexican border. They want the Bible to be taught as literature in public schools. They define marriage as between one man and one woman, and they want to restrict which bathrooms transgender people may use.
And yet, this seems to be where the majority of the GOP actually is right now. How else to explain a party where Donald Trump’s angry, xenophobic, neo-fascist populism was the path to primary victory?
Party platforms, then, do matter as explicit statements of where the two parties are going. For both Democrats and Republicans, the platforms of 2016 represent the continuing sharp ideological, racial, age, and geographic divisions between the two parties, and between the two competing versions of America they represent.
Whether the moderate middle of American politics will get a platform, or if that middle even still exists, remains a mystery.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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