Given Donald Trump’s tenuous connections to party leaders and deviations from conservative policy positions, many Republicans running this year hoped the platform would put some distance between themselves and their party’s nominee. While conceding to Trump on some positions, most notably on free trade and a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, the platform has created a firewall between what the party stands for and what Trump stands for. Looking ahead, the platform therefore provides down-ballot candidates the opportunity to run on the party’s conservative policies, especially on those issues where Trump might differ.
Meanwhile, Democrats are making changes of their own to their party platform. They will vote to adopt the platform when their convention begins on July 25 in Philadelphia. Following their party’s rules, the 15-person Platform Drafting Committee led by Representative Elijah Cummings has been working since mid-May, and has solicited testimony from 114 witnesses.
The context in which Democrats have been preparing their platform this year has differed greatly from that of Republicans. Hillary Clinton, the party’s presumptive nominee, faced a much stiffer challenge than expected during the primary season from Bernie Sanders, who developed a following of ardent supporters. Throughout the primary campaign, Sanders continually dragged Clinton leftward on policy. Leading up to the national convention, Sanders insisted that the party adopt “the most progressive platform ever passed.”
A recent draft of the platform foregrounds themes of economic inequality, channeling some of Sanders’s populist animus toward Wall Street by calling for a reimposition of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act to regulate banks. In fighting for revisions, Sanders has shown that he attaches great importance to the platform, seeing it as an instrument for legitimating his ideas and enshrining them as a starting point for future Democratic Party thinking.
So it goes: Trump proposed policies at odds with many conservative positions, and Sanders moved the Democratic Party’s platform to the left. The result is a greater degree of intra-party tensions than usual, making 2016 the most interesting platform process of this century. Yet it would take an event of far more dramatic proportions than has occurred so far to restore the platforms to anything like their previous role—when they were the documents that defined the “vision” of the national party. The more modest place of the platform today has resulted from big changes in the method of selecting nominees, in the relationship between party and nominee, and in communications technology.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, nominees were chosen at the party conventions, with the platforms being written and approved before the nominee was selected. For most of the 19th century, candidates rarely campaigned publicly either for the nomination or for the presidency itself, and they did not attend, let alone address, the national party conventions. Franklin Roosevelt was the first to break with this tradition, in 1932, when he attended and addressed the Democratic National Convention.