The Zigs and Zags of the Democratic Party Platform

BookerAvid 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.

RooseveltWhen 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.

ClintonIn 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.


  1. Blaine says

    Agreed. The platform is definitely a shift in the right direction. Although, I’m completely unconvinced that platforms have near as much an effect as you seem to imply in this post. Any PoliSci research back this assumption up? Because I sure haven’t seen any. You mention the McGovern platform and the “harm” it did in later years, but A) You’re not even thinking about other variables and B) Presidential elections aren’t the only important elections in this country. Which party has control of the House or Senate is just as important and Democrats retained a pretty solid control of those Institutions through the 80’s. So while I agree it’s nice to see a platform become as broad and inclusive as theirs is becoming, I don’t think it will much of an effect for either party in the short or long term (that hasn’t already been happening already).

  2. TampaZeke says

    More demonizing of the scary “European social state”. This is usually done by people who have never set foot out of the country. I don’t know of a single European who would trade their high taxes and socialism for an American, survival of the fittest, system.

  3. mynci_bone says

    Contrary to popular belief in the US, European countries are not a heady mix of socialists and aristocrats. You should try stepping outside our borders like I have and wiping the American Exceptionalism myths from your eyes… Self-respect is great but blind self-regard helps none of us. If we constantly parrot the mantra that we’re already the best how can we ever hope to improve?

  4. anon says

    There is no one European model, as each country is unique. The problem for Europhiles is that no one country satisfies all their fantasies about the continent. Italy and Spain have major structural problems, Greece is corrupt, France is over-regulated and Germany is quite severe. In the US you can freely move to a state of your liking, including very liberal states like VT and MA. Europe pulls ahead because of a better education system leads to higher worker productivity in general, but they work fewer hours, and so the middle class in Europe has never caught up with US standard of living, unless you include things like vacation time and maternity leave, which is hard to compare to the higher salaries here in the US.

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