In terms of their significance in any one election cycle, I have described party platforms as “the fool’s gold of American politics” — prized by ideologues but virtually no one else. That has not always been the case. Back when party conventions were, more often than not, deliberative events, platform fights were sometimes genuine battles for the control of party leadership and messaging that took place in tandem with battles for the presidential nomination. That was true of the struggles over currency policy at the Democratic conventions of the late-19th and early-20th centuries and over foreign policy in the Republican conventions before and immediately after World War II. Perhaps the most spectacular platform fight ever occurred at the horrendously deadlocked 1924 Democratic convention, where a plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan was defeated by one-half of one vote, illustrating the divisions that extended that year’s presidential-nomination fight to 103 ballots.
But since the primary system made wide-open conventions a thing of the past, platforms have been controlled by the putative nominee. When there’s even a shadow of a doubt about the nominee, opponents will launch a platform fight in an effort to expose divisions in the leading candidate’s ranks and perhaps peel off some delegates; that was evident at the 1968 Democratic convention, when an antiwar minority report supported by some Hubert Humphrey delegates was narrowly defeated, and at the 1976 Republican convention, when a plank condemning “Lone Ranger Diplomacy” was offered to embarrass Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and perhaps stir the pot. Sometimes the putative nominee will simply concede platform planks to the opposition so they don’t threaten the nomination itself; that happened most recently in 2016, when Hillary Clinton chose to avoid any platform fights with Bernie Sanders supporters.
This year, Joe Biden’s and Sanders’s campaigns appear determined to head off any platform battles via advance negotiations, and they have drafted a consensus platform that shouldn’t make any waves, according to the Washington Post:
The 80-page document, produced by a 15-person panel of Democratic leaders including allies of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was released Tuesday to party members in advance of a July 27 meeting of the full Platform Committee, a body of about 180 delegates who will have an opportunity to make amendments and then forward the document for ratification by the full Democratic convention next month.
The draft recognizes in broad strokes the shift the party has undergone since 2016, with far more emphasis on issues such as climate change and police brutality, and a new proposal for a national commission to study slavery reparations and the lasting effects of other forms of institutionalized racism.
Yes, platforms often do reflect trends in how parties view particular issues, even if disagreements at any one time are papered over. A famous example of evolution in platform language involved the adoption in 1992 and deletion in 2012 of a Democratic commitment to make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” That formulation was designed to reinforce a basic pro-choice position while accommodating those who opposed abortion but didn’t insist on criminalizing it. But it also tended to stigmatize women who obtained abortions as immoral, which ultimately led to the deletion of the word rare.
This year, the ultimate disposability of quadrennial party platforms is graphically illustrated by the Republicans, who have simply decided to reuse their 2016 platform without changes.
There is a technical reason for this decision: When Donald Trump forced his party to divide the 2020 convention between the original site of Charlotte, North Carolina, where boring, old, routine party drudge work would be conducted, and Jacksonville, Florida, where Trump would have his apotheosis with an acceptance speech, the platform process was consigned to the former location. Team Trump didn’t want too many delegates and alternatives to choose Charlotte over Jacksonville, which might have happened if the platform were being debated and adopted there. So the RNC decided not to authorize a new platform process.
But there may have been more to it than that, as Alison Durkee explained last month for Vanity Fair:
Axios reported in May that a small number of Trump campaign officials, led by Jared Kushner, were working to streamline the sprawling document into a “single card that fits in people’s pockets,” creating more of a “mission statement” than an exhaustive detailing of the party’s views. (In an attempt to make the platform slightly more palatable to voters, Kushner was also trying to eliminate “alienating language” like references to gay conversion therapy.) But the conversations to pare down the platform were quickly criticized by Republican activists who wanted the platform to take a more detailed and specific stand. “The bottom line: We cannot afford to think of the platform as something that is just a marketing instrument that you can get and put in your vest pocket on a 5-by-3, 8-by-5 card. You just can’t do it,” conservative activist Ken Blackwell said on Family Research Council president Tony Perkins’s radio show.
In other words, Christian-right leaders didn’t trust Kushner to respect the hard-won gains the especially reactionary 2016 platform reflected, and they really didn’t want to countenance any abbreviation of the platform that might obscure or even extinguish party positions on abortion (since 1980, the GOP has supported a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions nationwide) and LGBTQ rights (opposed in every instance).
So from the right’s point of view, the GOP didn’t need a new platform, having achieved perfection in 2016, or even a revision of it to delete the document’s many references to the “current president” and “current administration” that were aimed at Barack Obama. Apparently, Trump will offer some personal “statement of intent” that will be announced at one convention site or the other to ratify the 2016 platform and sanitize its language, but the delegates will be encouraged to focus on 100 percent support for their warrior king and his electoral needs.
The muted Democratic and obliterated Republican platform processes of 2020 are arguably a by-product of the most radical changes in the conventions themselves since the advent of primaries in most states and the elimination of TV networks’ “gavel-to-gavel coverage.” Democrats will be able to quietly work out any last-minute difficulties with their platform before rubber-stamping it via the equally quiet online voting procedures they’ve approved. And for Republicans, it is clearer than ever that their convention is not simply a vehicle for the reelection of an incumbent president but instead a platform for the glorification of a Sun King. There’s no telling what party platforms may look like four years from now.