Go to Top

Why Have A Party Platform?

Republican National Convention 2016 decal on a guitar (detail).
photo by Jason Zhang

Few things in presidential politics are more useless than the traditional party platform, a counterproductively controversial document that is otherwise a virtual dead letter as soon as the nominating convention adjourns.

So we have to credit (if that’s the right word) the Republican National Committee for carrying the platform concept a big step further. The RNC decided to simply re-adopt the party’s platform from 2016, verbatim.

Imagine going into a store to buy basketball shoes. A clerk tells you that they have not arrived and suggests that you wear ballet slippers instead. That is about how well the GOP’s 2016 platform fits 2020.

Start with the 58-page document’s dedication “with admiration and gratitude” to “The men and women of our military, of our law enforcement, and the first responders of every community in our land — And to their families.” We should still be grateful to those who put themselves and their loved ones in harm’s way to keep the rest of us safe, of course. But no timely document would address law enforcement, and certainly would not carry a dedication to it, without addressing those who suffer, sacrifice and work for a society that offers equal safety, opportunity and justice for all.

Readopting a document with that dedication this summer is not tone-deaf; it is oblivious.

The 2016 platform was hammered out in a week of negotiations among party factions. There are some semi-serious sops to social conservatives, who had ample reason to question whether the thrice-married impresario and reality TV star Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee, shared their cultural values. The platform denounces same-sex marriage, which had been legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court the year before, and favors various state and federal restrictions on abortion without directly calling for the reversal of Roe v. Wade. It also contains a sentence that POLITICO described as “a nod to gay conversion therapy,” although it could be read many ways. (“We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children,” the document states in a section on “Protecting individual conscience in healthcare.”)

None of this is the least bit helpful if the goal is to win elections, at either the presidential or congressional level, in 2020. Same-sex marriage is a done deal, and the few undefined boundaries around its implementation – mainly the ability of certain private businesses not to participate in it – are being resolved in the courts. Republican legislative candidates in socially conservative districts are invariably aligned with social conservative positions anyway, but their ability to get anything passed depends on GOP success in socially moderate, suburban swing districts. To the extent a platform ties any candidate to their party’s “brand,” this language only provides fodder for opponents to use against them.

At the same time, the 2016 platform says nothing about many of the issues that are most pressing and relevant this year. Come autumn, we still will be trying to overcome both the health and economic effects of a pandemic undreamed-of four years ago. Thousands of Americans have recently taken to the streets, and millions more support them while socially distanced at home, in a quest for better and safer police treatment of minorities; the 2016 platform says nothing about minority mistreatment, while deriding the prior administration’s “harassment” of police. The platform does not endorse any of the current administration’s positions or pre-pandemic accomplishments in employment, taxation, border enforcement, trade or international terrorism, because it was written before the current GOP administration took office.

Republicans did not set out to recycle their old platform, of course. Using the 2016 version is an expedient that they adopted because pandemic-induced social distancing limited the number of potential participants in a new round of preconvention negotiations, and because they had to bifurcate the convention itself.

A relative handful of party representatives will gather in late August in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, they will formally renominate Trump in a rump “convention” meant to meet the party’s contractual obligations. But because that state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, would not commit to a full-scale assembly of up to 19,000 people amid the pandemic, Trump will accept at a concurrent “celebration” held on the friendly Republican terrain of Jacksonville, Florida.

Almost everything is different this year because of the pandemic. So, as long as everything is different, why bother having a platform at all? Who does it benefit? The “platforms” that matter are the positions that individual candidates take on their websites, on their social media accounts (Trump has a new platform on Twitter practically every day), in their campaign speeches and – for those who have jobs of real substance, including the president – through the records they accumulate.

In some countries voters actually cast ballots for a party “list.” In those countries, they truly are voting for a party platform. Israel is an example. In other countries, like the United Kingdom, candidates run individually but their legislative votes are so tightly controlled, or “whipped,” that party platforms, or “manifestoes,” take on outsize importance. Party leaders can cast out or “remove the whip” from members who go against the party line without permission.

This is not the American system. We elect individuals, not parties. Lawmakers are free to buck their leadership when they choose, although not without a risk of consequences – it is politics, after all. But party leaders are as much accountable to their caucuses as caucus members are to their leaders.

In our system a party platform is, at best, a waste of time and effort. At worst, it is a tool for the opposition. The pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity to do without it. Why not junk it? It can’t be any worse than running on an outdated platform that speaks to the party’s priorities four years and countless news cycles ago. And in the case of the GOP, it would do less to confirm the suspicion among more than a handful of voters that the alternative to voting “progressive” is to vote for fossils.

, , , , , , ,