Is the Soul of a Political Party In Its Platform?

At FiveThirtyEight over the weekend, Nate Silver conducted an analysis that was in equal measures interesting but potentially very misleading: a search for patterns of partisan polarization via a word count of the terms “equality, fairness, freedom and liberty” in major party platforms from 1948 through 2012. He concludes that the two parties are reassuming positions in the use of these terms characteristic of the politics of the 1970s and the 1980s. With a lot less documentation, he speculates that Republicans may be executing the long-awaited move to “the center” via talking more about fairness and inequality, while the fairness-and-inequality preoccupied Democrats may be about to move to “the left.”

Putting aside these concluding thoughts, I have to say that using party platforms–especially as analyzed in such mechanical ways–as keys to a party’s ideology or “soul” at any moment, much less over decades, is a perilous endeavor. A fundamental shift in the function and origins of party platforms occurred in the 1980s, when they quickly became the province of the nominee’s staff rather than convention platform committees. Prior to then, they were largely just jumbled-together position statements, often carried over from prior conventions, with little attention paid to how they hung together. The 1980 GOP platform is, I’m pretty sure, regarded as the first true “thematic” platform. After that, the documents have been an amalgam of the thematics the nominee chose for his general election campaign, with constituency and advocacy groups policing scattered “planks” for fidelity to party ideology and their own priorities.

The few Democratic platforms I had some involvement in illustrated the highly variable manner in which they were drafted. In 1988, the whole production was subcontracted not long before the convention to Ted Sorenson, who gave the platform his signature dialectical angle (“not this but that”). In 1992, the document was organized around the Clinton campaign’s ORC framework (Opportunity, Responsibility, Community), which had an ideological edge and political purpose, but wasn’t necessarily a reflection of where the whole party was. In 2000, a very young Gore staffer was the principal drafter, and he gave it a distinct New Economy flavor. And in 2004, the Kerry staff wrote the whole document in a big hurry, under instructions from the campaign’s pollsters to be careful about excess partisanship.

In all those enterprises, an enormous amount of attention was paid to placating activists on “their” issues without giving ammunition to the opposition for use with swing voters. The abortion plank in both parties’ platforms has been a big preoccupation since 1980. As recently as 2008, every word in that plank of the Democratic platform was the subject of intense wrangling within the nominee’s camp. And it should go without saying that when an incumbent president of either party is running for reelection, the party platform is entirely a White House operation.

The main point I want to make is that since at least 1980, party platforms have mainly only mattered to a small community of activists and to the staff of the party nominee. They are of variable quality, and of variable coherence. Looking at them to divine party differences probably makes a lot less sense than looking at presidential nominee (or primary candidate) speeches or debate transcripts or campaign ad scripts or at the language used in legislative battles. Giving them greater significance than other “markers” is always a risk and sometimes just an outright mistake.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.