In a political system featuring entrepreneurial politicians who work to fashion their own images, and in an era of weak parties, commentators commonly dismiss the significance of party platforms.
“Who cares what ‘the party’ says,” the conventional wisdom goes, “candidates will do what they want.”
While there’s some truth in this caricature, history suggests it’s fundamentally faulty. Party platforms often prove to be significant determinants of politicians’ actions, especially over the long term.
At the most basic level, platforms signal to elected officials, and those seeking to join that group, where their activist core stands.
But they also create political pressures, and even constraints, that influence politicians’ positions.
Consider two examples.
Democrats, the party of slavery and segregation, became the party of civil rights in important part because of platform changes at the state level, and then the federal level.
As political scientist Eric Schickler documented, at the outset of the New Deal, civil rights was nowhere on the agenda. But by the mid-1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations and African American groups reached agreement on remaking the Democrats as an urban, liberal, pro-civil rights party.
Northern state platforms reflected the changed vision beginning in 1944, adopting pro-civil rights planks. Four years later, buoyed by those state party actions, Sens. Hubert Humphrey (Minn.) and Paul Douglas (Ill.) fought for a civil rights plank at the Democratic National Convention, which prevailed by just 69 votes out of 1,234 cast.
Twelve days later, President Truman issued an executive order that began desegregating the military.
Until 1948, African Americans split evenly between Democrats and Republicans in party identification. By 1950, the community favored Democrats by some 25 points.
Cognizant of Democrats’ new black support, candidate John F. Kennedy phoned Coretta Scott King to express concern over her husband’s imprisonment.
After his election, Kennedy, and later Lyndon Johnson, promoted a civil rights agenda, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Democrats’ transition from the party of segregation to the party of civil rights was propelled by platform changes.
So was the transition of the Republican Party to an anti-abortion party.
Going into the 1976 Republican Convention, GOP abortion rights advocates could be excused for feeling fairly confident.
In the 1960s, it was Republican governors like Ronald Reagan of California, John Love of Colorado, and Dan Moore of North Carolina who led efforts to liberalize state abortion laws. So had Nelson Rockefeller of New York, who was the sitting vice president in 1976.
First lady Betty Ford was decidedly for abortion rights, lauding Roe v. Wade as a “great, great decision.” So was former President Dwight Eisenhower, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the House GOP leader, and former presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
In 1976, polls still showed grassroots Republicans were no less for abortion rights than Democrats.
Meanwhile, Reagan had switched to an anti-abortion position and used the issue against Ford during the 1976 primaries.
At the convention, Bob Dole, who believed he won his 1974 post-Watergate reelection on the strength of his opposition to abortion, was maneuvering to obtain the vice presidential nomination (Rockefeller having announced he was no longer interested in the post).
That platform change began the movement of white evangelicals into the Republican Party and the movement of almost every pro-choice elected Republican either out of office, out of the party or to an anti-abortion position.
Democrats adopted a pro-Roe platform plank for the first time also in 1976. Over time, Democratic presidential candidates who began their careers as anti-abortion advocates — like Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Jesse Jackson — switched.
Platforms don’t require politicians to change their positions, but the history of these and other issues demonstrates that, over time, elected officials find good reasons to bring their own views into alignment with their party’s official positions.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for more than 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.