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Stand and Deliver Promises

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

Why do political parties have "platforms"? It would make sense to have something more solid, less liable to collapse, and not associated with shoes — maybe a "foundation." Or a legally enforceable term that doesn't require zoning permits, like "contracts." (OK, that comes with baggage.) How about a word implying divine enforcement, like "commandments"? Now that's ultimate accountability.

Platform-huggers quickly point out useful analogies. Like real ones, political platforms have "planks" and people can "stand" on them. Even these analogies are problematic for those of us who find insights into the political process in pirate movies. We know that in olden times walking planks was a bad career move and people stood on platforms to be hanged.

To understand the appeal of political platforms, I read some. It helped explain why an odd word for political promises makes sense.

Many platforms were impressively long and specific, including the 1972 Republican one, whose detailed pronouncements on the dangers of unilateral foreign policy and unbalanced budgets, or the need for affordable health care and prompt responses to natural disasters, would today damn it as "liberal" and consign it to the 10th circle of talk radio hell. (It's another matter whether or not a victorious party achieved its goals, or deserved the praise it heaped upon itself.) Among such platforms, there were happy surprises. The 1896 Republican one condemned lynching and declared that women "should be accorded equal opportunities" and "equal pay for equal work." It also attacked "intemperance" and supported Cuban independence from Spain. Once in power, the party didn't do much about the first three items, but waged war for the fourth.

The lamest platform was the 1848 Whig Party's. Dodging pesky issues like slavery, it extolled the virtues of its military-hero presidential candidate, General Zachary Taylor (who was, incidentally, a slaveholder). Although it wasn't entirely clear that Taylor was a Whig, the platform cited his assurance that "had he voted in 1844, he would have voted the Whig ticket." Its authors also located the party (and presumably Taylor) as standing forthrightly "on the broad and firm platform of the Constitution." He won and, as Whig military-hero presidents were wont to do, died in office.

Platforms were not good at prophecy. The 1916 Democratic one endorsed the party's incumbent, Johns Hopkins' own Woodrow Wilson, A&S 1886 (PhD), and referred to the conflict raging in Europe for two years, noting that his administration "has throughout the present war scrupulously and successfully held to the old paths of neutrality and to the peaceful pursuit of the legitimate objects of our National life." Victorious as a peace candidate, Wilson began his second term on March 4, 1917, a month and two days before leading us into World War I. Similarly, the Republican Party in 1928, in power since 1921, congratulated itself for lifting "the country . . . from the depths of a great depression to a level of prosperity." That helped Herbert Hoover win the presidency in 1928 and lose it in 1932, with the country in an even greater depression that began in 1929.

In general, third party platforms were more fun, probably because they had nothing to win. The anti-immigrant American Party ran in 1856 on the proposition that "Americans must rule America; and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices." That was enough to get Maryland's electoral votes.

For hell-fire rhetoric, however, check out this platform: It declared, "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench." It went on: "The people are demoralized. . . .The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages. . . . Imported pauperized labor beats down [workers'] wages" and the "fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind." It concluded, "From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes — tramps and millionaires." That was the People's Party's platform from 1892. Some things never change.

The virtue of having a platform, it seems, is that you can pile pretty much anything on it.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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