Life of the Party

Party platforms don’t matter, but they can, and they should. A platform-writing process that included party faithful could energize our politics.

By Ethan Porter

Here’s a short quiz. Name an item from either party’s most recent platform. Can’t think of anything? Go back further—say, the last four or five election cycles. Anything from those platforms come to mind? You might know something about the parties’ planks on abortion, which always generate some media attention. But beyond that, you’re probably still stumped. And you are not an average voter. You’re likely more politically active and better informed than most Americans (not least because you’re reading Democracy).

The not-so-secret fact about the two parties’ platforms is that nobody bothers to read them. In the middle of the last century, this wouldn’t have been that surprising. The parties were closed, insular institutions. When they were not suffocating from cigar smoke, powerful men in distant back rooms made the decisions. That’s all gone now. Thanks to the McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms that followed the 1968 Democratic National Convention debacle, rank-and-file members of both parties have a far larger say than before. The existing primary system isn’t perfect, but on democratic grounds it’s clearly preferable to what preceded it. Letting a group of unelected men decide a party’s nominee is all but unimaginable today. But for no defensible reason, letting unelected men and women define a party’s platform is considered tolerable.

If ordinary voters have such a large say in deciding who their party’s nominee is, should they not also have a comparably large say in deciding what the nominee stands for? We don’t have to be techno-utopians to think that Internet technology can make mass democracy more possible. The White House already uses a simple web platform for its “We the People” initiative, which invites citizens to author and sign on to petitions about issues they care about. The world’s largest corporations routinely canvass the opinions of their shareholders. About 100 million votes were cast in the first season of American Idol; the President’s policy agenda is only a somewhat higher-stakes affair. A similar effort could and should be undertaken to open up the platform process and subject it to popular opinion.

As it stands, when it comes time to write the platforms, the tens of millions who turn out to vote during competitive presidential primaries, or even the six million Democrats who turned out in the non-competitive 2012 season, are left out in the cold. There is no reason for them to be. Their preferences on policy matters could be queried, and the results could be binding. It’s past time for both parties to continue the march toward democratization that McGovern-Fraser began, and grant an institutionalized role to the people in the platform-writing process. Doing so could increase levels of democratic participation, make the parties more accountable to their members, and reshape their policy agendas in surprising and—from a democratic perspective—salutary ways.

The mere act of opening up the party platform process would probably spur additional public interest in the finished document. There’s much pent up demand for this kind of thing, as evidenced by the response to the Obama White House’s “We the People” effort. Initially, the Administration declared it would formally respond to any petition that garnered more than 5,000 signatures. Soon, the threshold had to be raised to 25,000; now, the magic number is 100,000. People want the opportunity to tell their representatives, directly, without filter and distortion, what it is they want them to do.

If all it did were to provoke more citizens to take part in the creation of and be aware of the party platforms, opening them up would be a laudable goal. Yet there’s reason to believe it could do more. Directly incorporating the mass public’s views into formal policy pronouncements could shift the landscape of items on the policy agenda to better reflect the sentiments of everyday Americans. And by explicitly confirming the expectations that supporters have for a nominee, it could go a long way to enhancing accountability at the presidential level.

Its effects on the substance of policy would probably be felt in two opposing ways. On the one hand, if given the chance, of course members of both parties would take the opportunity to underline their most familiar commitments. Democrats would probably highlight raises to the minimum wage and more spending for the poor. Republicans would do the opposite. In this way, the polarization of the parties would be further exacerbated on issues that meaningfully separate the members of both parties and their elected officials.

At the same time, issues of consensus that have long been left off the parties’ agendas would likely come to the fore. The results of the “We the People” petitions offer a case in point. Thus far, many of the most popular petitions have evinced a nationwide soft-libertarianism, which is palatable to neither party but seems to be common sense to many citizens. Early on, a petition to decriminalize marijuana proved extremely popular; unsurprisingly, the Administration summarily dismissed it. Among the most popular now is a petition to pardon Edward Snowden. Indeed, at the moment this article is being written, public opinion polls reveal that opposition to the “surveillance state” crosses party lines. Yet few national politicians have tried to translate this bipartisan consensus into action.

A well-designed democratic platform process would advance such causes—those that enjoy bipartisan public support at the mass level, yet for various reasons enjoy few champions at the elite level (including among delegates in the convention hall). Marijuana decriminalization and reducing the scope of the surveillance state are two such items. (For evidence of the former, see John Di Iulio Jr.’s “Rethinking Crime—Again,” Issue #16.) Prison reform, which has recently been gaining support among conservatives, may be another.

Finally, perhaps no item speaks to the unrealized bipartisan consensus more than gun control. During the post-Newtown debate, the fact that around 90 percent of Americans supported background checks, but reform still lost, was taken as evidence of the National Rifle Association’s overwhelming power. And indeed, the NRA is a supremely powerful organization. But wallowing in despair is no solution. A democratic platform process would give concerned citizens an opportunity to stymie the NRA by endorsing reasonable positions that enjoy little elite support but widespread public backing. (See “Pistol-Whipped” in the current issue.) Optimally, democratic platforms would give citizens a tool to counter the enormous and ever-growing influence of entrenched elites that stand in the way of common sense. In a political universe subject to democratic platform writing, the parties would become more polarized on the issues that are near and dear to their respective hearts, while simultaneously better reflecting the common-sense consensus that quietly exists on many issues.

What about accountability? Long a buzzword of the well intentioned, the current platform-writing arrangement impedes it at the presidential level. If a voter thinks that a nominee has pledged to do some task, but in fact the nominee has pledged no such thing or only some variation of it, the voter cannot reasonably claim to have been misled. Yet the concerns of voters who feel misled, even if they have not been, should be taken seriously. The number of Democrats currently disappointed in President Obama may feel excessively large now, but is sure to be matched by the number of Republicans crestfallen the next time one of their leaders is in the White House.

Given the tremendous incentives nominees have to obfuscate their positions, and the lack of a clear paper trail, it’s no wonder that members of both parties often feel misled by their nominees and presidents. This is likely only to become a larger problem with time. At increasing rates—and at rates unimaginable to the reformers of the 1970s—voters associate the two parties with clearly divergent policy agendas. They have different expectations for the different parties, and they expect the parties to try and meet those expectations. Granted, primary campaigns leave a stream of white papers in their wake. When pivoting to the general election, however, nominees are prone to resetting the policies that helped get them the nomination in the first place. Thus one potential objection to democratizing the platforms—that primary voters already have a decisive say on the nominee’s policies—has little merit. Once nominated, candidates from both parties systematically drift away from the positions they took during the primaries. Despite all the guffaws it generated, Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom’s observation that Romney could simply shake away his primary positions, as if he were using an Etch A Sketch, was basically true.

The point wouldn’t be to bind a President to every single item on a popularly authored platform. Rather, the idea would be to create a clear public record of his fellow partisans’ expectations of what, specifically, a nominee would do were he (or, soon enough, she) to win the election. A well-designed democratic platform would say: This is what we, the voters in this party, believe you will try to do. Think of it as a promissory note about future efforts, agreed upon by the members of a party and their nominee.

Designing a democratic platform process would be difficult but far from impossible. In order to prevent ballot-box stuffing from outside groups, participation would be limited to voters in the primary process. And the citizens’ role should be organized and meaningful; they shouldn’t be reduced to a rubber stamp for focus-grouped pabulum. Nor should the process circumvent the will of the primary voters.

Here’s one way it could work. Upon participating in a party primary, a voter would receive a unique access key to a platform-writing website. The website would go live after a nominee had been decided upon. (The delay would prevent those who voted in early primaries from dominating the process.) Such a website would allow its users, all of whom had voted in the primary, to write policy positions and sign onto others. The software required is already available and used by the White House’s petition site. At the end of a limited time period, a number of the most popular positions would be inserted into the official party platform. Fraud would be a concern, but could be limited; the Academy Awards moved to online voting after spending years assuaging their members about security concerns.

Because each primary voter would be given one vote—and because there is usually a direct correlation between the nominee and his or her popular support in the party—the results would be democratically legitimate. While supporters of long-shot candidates would have their say, the most influential policy positions would be those held by voters who had supported the eventual nominee. The responsibility for drafting platform proposals would be open to all those who had voted in the party primary. Ultimately, the entirety of the platform would not have to be subjected to democratic participation. Just turning over one blank section for the public to author would go a long way. Naturally, complications would ensue, most of which could be surmounted with experience and common sense. Incumbent Presidents would probably need more leeway to reject certain positions; some foreign policy issues would likely be considered too delicate for this procedure.

“If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me,” the late Ed Koch once said. “If you agree with me on 12 of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.” The problem today is that, at the national level, just figuring out what those 12 issues are can be immeasurably difficult. A democratic platform process would help clarify what nominees and their parties believe—and assist individuals in deciding whom to support.

Ethan Porter Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He is the author of The Consumer Citizen (Oxford), from which this essay is adapted.

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