The 2012 party platforms offer a perfect case study in polarization. Democrats now support "the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples," while Republicans stiffened their opposition, blasting judges who have broadened marriage rights as a "serious threat to our country's constitutional order" and "an assault on the foundations of our country." Democrats stop short of endorsing the Dream Act, but they still favor a "comprehensive solution" for immigration, including rights for undocumented migrants. The Republican plank, meanwhile, talks almost exclusively about enforcement, border security, and policies to "encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily" — Mitt Romney's promised "self-deportation." Democrats want to increase the minimum wage annually, while Republicans lament that it "seriously restricted progress in the private sector."
The debate, it turns out, is no longer within the parties, but between them.
Platforms are still useful, but not the way they once were for that year's election. They tracked the evolution of the parties, identified issues that weren't being resolved by the government in Washington, and heralded the arrival of ideological insurgents. The faction that has secured the nomination is often willing to concede platform points to mollify a vanquished candidate. Nominee Richard Nixon, for instance, gave Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's eastern wing of the GOP all it wanted on the 1968 platform, and President Ford made similar moves for Ronald Reagan's supporters in 1976, even though the planks contradicted policies that Ford was currently implementing, such as détente with the Soviet Union.
The result was the modern high point for the party platform. A defeated Reagan insisted that he would campaign only for the platform and not for its nominee; he compared the GOP and Democratic documents in commercials. "I hope you'll get copies and read them," said Reagan, who asked, "Do you want more big government? More inflation? I don't think so. Neither does President Ford. He's running on this platform."
But no nominee in either party has paid much attention to his platform since 1976. Bob Dole even said in 1996 that he would not waste time reading that year's document and did not feel bound by its provisions. That renders the platform merely a historical document — useful only to party activists, political scientists, and historians.
That was true of the first-ever platform, in 1840, when Democrats opposed a national bank, almost all spending, and federal efforts to restrain slavery or states' rights. Then, and for most of the next 60 years, there was no room in the Democratic platform for small issues. (Of course, the early platforms were rarely more than two pages or 2,000 words in length. By contrast, the 1980 Democratic monstrosity had 38,000 words and the unreadable 2004 GOP behemoth had more than 41,000.)
Education was never mentioned in early platforms, as neither party saw a federal role. That started changing for Republicans in 1876 and Democrats in 1908, and today, education planks are a big part of both platforms. Similarly, guns were never mentioned until the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy thrust gun control onto the agenda. Abortion cropped up after the 1973 Supreme Court decision. And the importance of marriage didn't come up until 1988; that year, the GOP addressed sexual relations and contraceptives, and the Democrats followed suit in 1992.
Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who has helped write several GOP platforms, said, "A party platform is like a creed." Not everyone follows it, but as she wrote recently, people "recite their creed over and over again to strengthen their faith in what they believe."