Loose Planks in Party Platforms: History Casts Some Light

By Law, Ishmael | Commonweal, October 23, 1992 | Go to article overview

Loose Planks in Party Platforms: History Casts Some Light


Law, Ishmael, Commonweal


Rare as it is that a political platform sparks any news, this summer both major parties had to stifle challenges to the abortion-related planks in their platforms. Yet why should anybody but an ideologue be disturbed by a platform? Once upon a time the party platforms said it all. General Zachary Taylor was held to silence as a presidential candidate in 1848, and Abraham Lincoln never gave a campaign speech in 1860: Lincoln, because he might have had more to say, and Taylor because he had nothing at all to say. In those days a party spoke with the single voice Of its convention platform, but today no candidate is bound to vote or govern by a party's official; policy.

In any case, for a platform with real bite to it, one has always had to go to the minor parties. Consider the 1912 platform of one such minor party. It called not only for women's suffrage but for abolition of child labor in mines and factories, for direct election of U.S. senators, for a single presidential term of six years, for the initiative, referendum, and recall, for graduated income and inheritance taxes, for public ownership and conservation of natural resources, for reclamation of wastelands, for public regulation of interstate corporations, and for a sixday workweek. This was the platform of the Prohibition party, which had been calling for these sorts of things since 1872.

The major parties, by contrast, are broad coalitions, not natural clans or movements, and the terms of their negotiated accords may shift from election to election. To look into the eyes of the Democrats or the Republicans and find their enduring character, one must look down the years.

The Democrats, the nation's eldest party, may be known best by two contentious and persistent stands taken over the years, each one in direct conflict with its rival party. One was a long and valiant advocacy of the exploited workers; the other was an acquiescence in the massive abuse of slavery. Today there is a third Great Matter upon which the character--possibly even the survival--of the party may well be invested: the abortion plank in the Democratic platform. Is this the party at its best: stubborn and gutsy in its determination that women shall be radically emancipated? Or is this the party at its worst: subjecting the most helpless to the ultimate abuse? Few Democrats know their political history well enough to put this question in context. To grasp the significance of the party' s prochoice policy, one has to look back at the two other Great Matters on which their party has taken such determined stands.

In 1848 the Democrats repudiated legislation "for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many." That became a signature phrase the party would use year after year. The "few" were invariably the affluent, and the "many" were those who depended on them for employment. The Democrats became the consistent backers of those many who were at the mercy of those few.

In 1868, the Democrats' platform resolved that "this convention sympathize cordially with the workingmen of the United States in their efforts to protect the fights and interests of the laboring classes of the country." While the Democrats were expressing their sympathy for the "laboring classes," the Republican platform was soberly recording its concern about how to pay off the war debt, reduce taxation, and restore the nation's credit. These two partisan priorities were not ultimately hostile to one another, but they were part of what it meant at the time to be a Democrat or a Republican.

By 1880 the Democrats took sides more openly: "The Democratic party is the friend of labor and the laboring man, and pledges itself to protect him." In 1884: "We favor the repeal of all laws restricting the free action of labor, and the enactment of laws by which labor organizations may be incorporated." In 1888, when rich and poor were being taxed at the same rate, they denounced taxation at a single rate as unfair to the workers. …

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