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What's the Point of Political Party Platforms?

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Recreational reading, they are not.

But if you want to cut through some of the election spin and get an idea of what each political party "officially" stands for, party platforms are a good place to start.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties draft new platforms during presidential election years, as do most third parties, including the Green Party and Libertarian Party. The documents are long, dry roadmaps spelling out each party's positions  on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues.

Every four years, the Democratic and Republican parties select platform committees -- a group of elite party members representing different states and a range of political interests -- who debate and vote on positions that become the basis of their party's platform.  Both parties' platforms were unveiled in July, shortly before the national conventions.

In 1840, the newly formed Democratic Party generated the first national political platform. It contained nine planks and fit onto a single page, a steep contrast to the lengthy documents that each party produced this year. Republicans got into the game in 1856.

So how important are they?

“On the one hand they are the most important documents that a political party produces, wrote Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel in a 1993 essay in Political Science Quarterly.  "On the other hand, they are worthless pieces of paper.”


Let's address the latter point first:

Party platforms are nonbinding documents; candidates and elected officials are in no way required to adhere to the specific policy recommendations and guidelines spelled out in the platforms. And, as one might expect, they often don't.

But in doing so, a politician can risk alienation from the party establishment and become more vulnerable to attacks from opponents (as was learned all too well by President George H.W. Bush, who defied his party's platform and broke his own campaign promise when he famously supported a tax hike in 1990, a move that contributed to his failed re-election bid).

In one study, reported by Vox,  Democratic and Republican lawmakers voted in line with their party's platforms more than 80 percent of the time (based on an analysis of platforms and votes from1980 and 2004).

The platforms represent each party's political identity and direction, the product of intense intra-party debate and soul searching.  Every iteration is a bit different from the last, reflective of current presidential candidates and the evolving makeup of the political establishment.

Platforms also offer clues into a party's longer term direction, writes Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari,  in a recent article in FiveThirtyEight. When a party platform changes policy positions or focuses new attention on a major issue, those shifts are likely to last for a long time, she notes.

The 2016 Democratic Platform, for instance, is noticeably more left-leaning on certain economic issues -- like raising the minimum wage to $15 and expanding social security -- than it was in 2012, a concession to the left-leaning former candidate Bernie Sanders.

Likewise, the Republican Platform has moved further to the right on certain social issues, like same-sex marriage and immigration. Interestingly, this year's Republican platform also shifts away from the party's long-time support for free-trade policies, instead adopting the protectionist positions advocated by Donald Trump.

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