The Zigs and Zags of the Democratic Party Platform
Last week, I dorked out on the Republican Party platform and concluded that the Party had stood still for the last 30 years, not only letting the progress of history pass it by, but also digging in to the most extreme conservatism on social issues. Today, I turn my historian's hat to the Democratic Party platforms through the years and find that where the GOP has buried its head, the Democratic Party has taken a circuitous, zig-zaggy, wibbly-wobbly route to 2012, at times thinking it was, is, and always will be 1932, then turning to the right, and finally becoming what a political party should be: an imperfect, yet broad-based and forward-looking coalition that can appeal to rational progressive minds from all corners of the country.
The central problem of today's Republican Party is that it is no longer a broad-based right-of-center party that can appeal to voters from Massachusetts to California. To be sure, at least a few Californians will vote Republican this term, but they will vote Republican simply satisfied that it offers a means of channeling their visceral distaste for President Obama. It is a party dominated by white Christian men and centered in the South.
Political parties should not follow that model, lest our system resemble a European democracy with scores of small, special interest parties. They should be broad-based, moderate coalitions of the reasonable. From its embrace of lower taxes to its acceptance of nuclear power and even to its embrace of marriage recognition, today's Democratic Party is the only reasonable coalition out there.
But it wasn't always. If Republican Party platforms seem unchanging over the last 30 years, Democratic Platforms since 1960 evince a party whose identity changes, reflecting the zeitgeist of the times, radicalizing with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, and only recently recovering from that miscue. One could argue that these changes suggest a party with no real commitments, one willing to change its views just to grab a vote. I look at it differently: Parties are supposed to change with the times and offer different solutions to different problems in keeping with core beliefs. The Democratic Party didn't always make good decisions, but it did make decisions and, with fits and starts, moved this country forward.
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Avid Tweeter and Newark Mayor Cory Booker co-chaired the Democratic Party's platform writing process. He and his colleagues, including several openly gay Democrats, drafted a platform that calls for tax reduction for 98% of Americans with planned increases for the nation's top earners. It recognizes global climate change as a "crisis," promises to protect the Affordable Care Act, guarantees a woman's right to choose, and, notably, endorses marriage freedom for gay Americans.
A marriage equality plank in the Democratic Party's platform is revolutionary, but not unexpected given the evolutionary history of the party. The Democrats used to be dominated by Southern segregationists, but after the New Deal and Truman coalitions included millions of black Americans, the platforms of the 1950s and 1960s made increasingly direct references to racial equality. In 1960, the Party opposed racial quotas and affirmative action; by 1968, it favored both. In 1976, the Party supported a woman's right to choose, but gave room for people who disagreed. Later, caveats to choice came out, with Bill Clinton adding the famous formulation that abortion should "safe, legal, and rare." The Party has grown more comfortable with and vocal about racial equality, gender equality, and, naturally, sexual equality. On social issues, then, the Democratic Party has followed a natural progressive path toward greater acceptance and celebration of minority culture. When you compare the party's platform to the GOP's platform, it is clear that for those for whom their political identity is bound up with their personal, ethnic, gender, or racial identity, the Democratic Party is their home.
The Party has been more twisty-turny on economic issues.
When the economy fell apart in the late 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt came to power promising to lower taxes and end the disastrous tariff that was strangling American business. But, the Depression turned the Democratic Party, already an activist party from the Progressive Era, into the party of the welfare state. It continued to guarantee social welfare programs -- most notably, the Great Society -- through the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in a radical 1972 platform that called for no unemployment, saw the government as the employer of last resort, and proposed higher taxes on most Americans to pay for a large social programs.
The McGovern platform -- what one political historian called "the triumph of the far left of America's college campuses" -- damaged the party for years and created a sense of the party among the public that it was on the liberal fringe of society. The platform focused on poverty and big government. It promised to raise taxes. It very nearly proposed a large European-style social welfare state. To see the damage, just look at how presidential elections turned out for the next 20 years: except for Jimmy Carter's election, which he almost lost and had a lot to do with Watergate, Republicans won in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988.
In 1992, Bill Clinton helped turn the Democratic Party and its platform to the right. It talked about efficiency and lower taxes. It sought to protect "those who work hard and pay their share." It promised to lower taxes, not raise them. It promised a business-friendly environment, with "less red tape" and an "end to burdensome regulation." The Democrats campaigned on, of all things, welfare reform and the "end of big government." It was a dramatic change for the party platform, reflecting the times and making a sharp break from its statist past. A few years late, Tony Blair's New Labour Party in Britain did the same thing and ruled the United Kingdom for an unprecedented length of time for Labour.
The 2012 platform reflects a party that has gone through growing pains. It regrets its radical past, but stays true to a core belief in the power of government to right social and economic wrongs. President Obama is no statist, he is a progressive who believes in efficient regulation to protect those who are not insanely rich. The platform expresses this middle ground: It calls for tax cuts for most Americans, but demands that the wealthy pay their share. It believes Wall Street must be regulated, but not in a way that strangles financial innovation.
You may not agree with everything or anything in the Democratic Party's platform, but its changes over the years evidence a party learning and growing, changing with the times, and not always successfully. Its 2012 platform is, in stark contrast to its Republican counterpart, welcoming to gay Americans. But, that is not what's really striking. The Democrats were going to get there eventually. What's really important is the party's rationality: it is a broad-based coalition, imperfect and changing, but growing with America. That is more than we can say for the Republicans.
Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues.
Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.