Tracing the Evolution of our Partisan Politics through Past Party Platforms
The term RINO has become derogative term used to describe someone who is supposedly a Republican in name only. Functionally, a RINO is now any Republican who fails to strictly adhere to the dictates of Donald Trump. But who are the real RINOs and what does it mean to a “true” Republican? The same question can also be asked of Democrats.
Being a Democratic or Republican has meant different things at different times over the decades. A Republican now may have been a Democrat in the past and a Republican, a Democrat. When did the parties evolve into their present manifestations, and what prompted their political evolutions? Answers to these questions can be found in the party platforms.
Every four years, the parties release a party platform. Somewhat akin to a written State of the Union Address, the platforms generally follow a similar pattern. If a party holds the White House, the party boasts of its accomplishments and outlines its lofty (largely unrealistic) goals for the next four years. For the party seeking the White House, the platform blames the President and their party for all the country’s problems and claims to be the only party able to solve them.
While history books are written about the past with the benefit of hindsight, the party platforms are historical time capsules, capturing events as witnessed. Sometimes the parties got it right, and sometimes they got it very wrong. Case in point, the 1928 Republican Party Platform. On the precipice of the Great Depression, the Republican platform declared that the “finances of the nation have been managed with sound judgment,” and that all “major financial problems have been solved.” Similarly, in 1956, the Republicans proclaimed that, “[i]n Indochina, the Republics of Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos are now free and independent nations. The Republic of Vietnam, with the United States assistance, has denied the Communists the gains which they expected from the withdrawal of French forces.” There are numerous other examples littering both party platforms that retrospectively look like comically bad predictions.
In analyzing the Democratic and Republican platforms from 1900 through 2020, several patterns emerge. First among them, history repeats itself often. Many of the issues and policy debates we encounter today were the same faced generations ago. Consider the following passage from a past Democratic Platform. “Recognizing in narcotic addiction, especially the spreading of heroin addiction among the youth, a grave peril to America and to the human race, we pledge ourselves vigorously to take against it all legitimate and proper measures for education, for control and for suppression at home and abroad.” It would be easy to assume that this quote was from 2020, not the Democratic Platform of 1924. Present debates over immigration, health care, arms control, and budgetary spending, among other issues, can be informed through the historical context provided by the platforms.
In 2017, Kellyanne Conway famously and, maybe unwittingly, coined the term, “alternative facts.” In many ways, the phrase was emblematic of modern politics, exemplifying how years of increasing polarization has led to the breakdown of objective truth. While alternative facts may be a recent phenomenon, the parties have longed lived in alternative realties, which has been evident in the party platforms throughout the years. In 1920, for example, in the wake of the World War I, the Democrats were triumphant, declaring that the “Democratic Party, in its National Convention now assembled, sends greetings to the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, and hails with patriotic pride the great achievements for country and the world wrought by a Democratic administration under his leadership.” Not surprisingly, the Republicans shared a different perspective. According to their 1920 Platform, “[f]or seven years the national government has been controlled by the Democratic party. During that period of war of unparalleled magnitude has shaken the foundations of civilization, decimated the population of Europe, and left in its train economic misery and suffering second only to the war itself.” Both parties have always seen reality within the prism of politics, a theme that permeates the platforms.
The party platforms also provide a real time, unvarnished account of American history. While the Statue of Liberty may have welcomed immigrants to Ellis Island in the early twentieth century, the political parties themselves were not so welcoming. In 1908, the Democratic Platform made clear that Democrats were “opposed to the admission of Asiatic immigrants who cannot be amalgamated with our population, or whose presence among us would raise a race issue and involve us in diplomatic controversies with Oriental powers.” Similarly, Republicans in 1912 pledged “to the enactment of appropriate laws to give relief from the constantly growing evil of induced or undesirable immigration, which is inimical to the progress and welfare of the people of the United States.” The platforms expose historical myths and are a reminder that xenophobia and race baiting are not modern creations but have long been an unfortunate part of the American experience.
The emergence of technologies, the development of social movements, and the rise of social and racial tensions can be tracked by analyzing the platforms. Climate change serves a great example for how the platforms can be used to understand party positions over an extended period. The first mention of climate change in any party platform was by the Democrats in 1976. In that platform, climate change was mentioned in passing, as Democrats sought to join other nations “to control alterations of the global climate.” By 1992, both parties were warning of the imminent danger posed by global warming. That year, the Republican platform declared that “[a]dverse changes in climate must be the common concern of mankind.” For their part, the Democrats would commit the United States to, “becom[ing] a leader, not an impediment, in the fight against global warming.” By 2016, however, the party positions had diverged, with Democrats stating that “[c]limate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” and Republicans “reject[ing] the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.”
Until the late 1960s, the party platforms were principally focused on economics, emphasizing a handful of issues, including organized labor, trade policy, health care, and antitrust matters. The parties approached these issues distinctively, with Democrats favoring a larger role for governmental intervention, and with the Republicans taking the opposite position.
Despite philosophical differences, there were still numerous areas where the parties largely agreed. On support for defense spending, campaign finance reform, and the need for a balanced budget, the parties were barely distinguishable. In their 1968 platform, for example, the Democrats made clear they were “alarmed at the growing costs of political participating in our country and the consequent reliance of political parties and candidates on large contributors, and [they] want[ed] to assure full public information on campaign expenditures.” The 1968 Republican Platform also “favor[ed] a new Election Reform Act that will apply clear, reasonable restrains to political spending and fund-raising, whether by business, labor or individuals, ensure timely publication of the financial facts in campaigns, and provide a tax deduction for small contributions.” When the differences between the parties was less extreme, bipartisanship was possible.
It might be fair to say that the present polarization began after the 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Interestingly, in 1976, the election cycle after Roe, the Republican position on abortion had not yet been firmly determined. That year, Republicans recognized that “[t]here are those in our Party who favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand. There are others who share sincere convictions that the Supreme Court’s decision must be changed by a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions. Others have yet to take a position, or they have assumed a stance somewhere in between polar positions.” Four years later, in 1980, the Republican position had become crystalized, with its platform supporting “a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”
Until Roe, issues like prayer in public schools, family values, pornography, desecration of the flag, and gay and lesbian rights, were hardly referenced in the platforms. However, after the decision, such issues increasingly became a focal point, especially for the Republicans. Post Roe, Republican platforms started supporting traditional family values (1976), opposing flag burning (1984), fighting pornography (1984), and asserting a commitment to appointing conservative judges (1980). In twelve years, the Republican Platform went from “advocat[ing] application of the highest standards in making appointments to the courts,” to “work[ing] for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.”
The divergence between the parties that emerged after Roe has compounded election cycle after election cycle. The supercharging of partisanship has seemingly politicalized every issue, even on the issues where the parties once agreed. Topics such as gun control, environmental policy, and the minimum wage, where agreement was once possible, now seems hopeless. The evolution of partisanship since 1973 is exemplified by the parties’ position over representation for the District of Columbia. Between 1948 and 1976, Republicans consistently “support[ed] giving the District of Columbia voting representation in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.” As politics became more polarized and the likelihood that any DC representation would benefit the Democrats, the Republican platform changed. Since 1992, the Republican platform has “oppose[d] [DC] statehood as inconsistent with the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution and with the need for a federal city belonging to all the people as our Nation’s Capital.” The reasons that Republicans supported DC representation in 1976 have not changed, just the politics have.
But for a small number of wedge issues, it is not a far leap to assume many Republicans today would be Democrats, and many Democrats, Republicans. Feeding the appetite of hungry base voters, wedge issues increasingly control the political narrative and fuel the flame of partisan discord. As the parties seek to engage voters and keep them voting and donating, every election cycle, the partisan divide has grown ever larger.
Much can be learned from reexamining the past party platforms. The platforms contextualize American history, expose political myths, and reveal the path that led the parties to the present. Through a deep dive into the party platforms, it is evident that true Republicans and Democrats do not exist. Instead, party allegiance is a matter of time, place, and circumstance. Understanding the evolution of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the past similarities and differences between them, helps to chip away at the artificial walls that divide us.
*For more information on the Party Platforms, check out www.thepartyplatforms.com. I created the website as a tool to analyze trends, expose political myths, and close our partisan divide.