A party platform is no great matter in American politics

A party platform is no great matter in American politics
Wednesday's debate between US President Donald Trump, left and Democratic candidate Joe Biden is a must-watch. (Photos: Go Nakamura / Bloomberg via Getty Images | Ryan Collerd / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Unlike South Africa or Britain, more important than the specific promises of a political party, US parties often make more headway with voters through a kind of nearly subliminal whisper of the things that can happen if voters will just come along. There is history here.

For political observers and analysts familiar with South African or British-style politics, close textual analysis of party platforms becomes extremely important. The fights within a party over the specific contents of the party’s political platform become versions of the likely future of a nation’s politics, rendered in miniature.

Careful parsing of the provisions of the platform often becomes rather similar to the way Kremlinologists used to measure what was happening in the Soviet Union from the relative positions (or even absence) of Central Committee members relative to the country’s premier, as they were standing on the Kremlin’s reviewing stand at May Day parades. To be scrupulously fair, in the past, this author has also been guilty in trying to get an understanding – somehow – of the deeper dynamics of South African foreign policy by searching out the presumably secret symbols and meanings in the ANC’s foreign policy discussion papers, in comparison and contrast to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation’s own documents.

In the Republican Party’s nominating convention this year, unless there is the currently unimaginable development of the replacement of Donald Trump as that party’s nominee for re-election, the larger outlines of the party’s platform will almost certainly conform to whatever ideas and foibles tickle his fancy on any given day. (John Bolton’s new book has elaborated on just how chaotic the Trump administration’s policymaking has been in foreign affairs, for example.) These Trumpian policies will be served in a stew combining many of the old standards of the conservative right, but in tandem with some of the wilder ideas and nostrums of the new-style libertarian right.

We will see bits and pieces of this revealed during the presidential campaign, but at the whim of the president. And if the incumbent president actually wins re-election (something the polling now suggests is increasingly less likely to happen), many of the specifics of the GOP platform will largely be filed away in file #13, and the initiatives of the new administration will be whatever the president decides they are on any given day, and as they are announced via a flurry of intemperate, frequently-illiterate tweets.

Meanwhile, among Democrats, the now-defeated Sandernistas are gearing up to gain as much leverage as possible on their party’s eventual platform, with the inclusion of as many of the policy positions advocated by Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the early primaries and candidate debates as is possible. That will be consistent with the kind of consolation prize, historically, that has often been offered to the losing faction in one of those angry Democratic Party catfights. Sometimes even that much is not given. In 1948, the party had a withering convention floor fight over the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank in the platform, a proposal led by a group of liberal insurrectionists like Hubert Humphrey.

But, to keep still-Democratic, segregationist Southerners in line and supporting the national ticket, the controversial provision was largely pushed aside in the name of party unity, actually provoking two small revolts – one on the progressive left and the other among arch segregationists – and thus two minority party presidential candidates. A similar eruption of support for progress on civil rights issues was fought in 1964 as well. But almost regardless of the party platform, what did happen was that once Harry Truman was elected president in his own right in 1948, he desegregated the military and other elements in the federal government and expanded social and economic protections. Then when Lyndon Johnson became elected in his own right, he used his personal political clout to push forward on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even though he had already lost the support of most of the Deep South states to Barry Goldwater in what was otherwise a total rout of the GOP.

But once the Democratic Party’s candidate joins the contest formally and the campaign truly heats up, post-the Labour Day holiday at the beginning of September (assuming Covid-19 allows this), expect much more from Joe Biden on the shape of his vision. And this vision will focus on the issues he feels keenly about and they will be phrased in ways that are consistent with his already expressed intent to return US political life to some form of the presumed Obama consensus, albeit one with a more vigorously leftist tilt, to be sure.

Given the texture of US presidential campaign politics historically, what seems to matter much more than the specifics of a party platform are the details of the individual proposals that have been an easily stated vision for the future. Remember how poorly Elizabeth Warren’s near-constant mantra of “I have a plan for that” or even Bernie Sanders’ less-than-fully articulated in real, concrete budgetary terms “Medicare for all” idea actually played out for the two candidates in primary voting, even if polling data has put healthcare concerns more generally right at the top of the concerns of a majority of voters.

Instead of the pages of detail, would-be presidents (or their supporters and campaign chiefs) seek to find a phrase or image that constructs a way voters can imagine themselves as supporters of that candidate and so voters can project their hopes and aspirations onto the image and persona of the candidate. As far back as 1840, well-to-do gentleman farmer, politician, and long-retired general William Henry Harrison’s people forged a winning campaign for him from some fairly unpromising material. Running against Andrew Jackson’s political heir, Martin van Buren, Harrison was portrayed as the real son of the West instead of that demonic elite backroom conspirator who was his opponent. Harrison was described as favouring simple home-made hard cider (as opposed to imported wine) in front of a log cabin (which he didn’t drink in front of the simple cabin he did not live in). Moreover, he was pictured as the courageous Native American fighter, courtesy of his decidedly modest victory of Tippecanoe, years before.

Collectively, these imaginaries gave rise to two winning slogans, “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” and “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”

Ironically, Harrison served as president for only a month before he died, having caught pneumonia during his reading of his two-hour-long inaugural address, outdoors in a raging snow/rain/sleet storm, before he was replaced by a vice-president who did not even share Harrison’s political orientation. But his campaign set an early standard of just how persuasive the creation of an effective image could be.

Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign managers could portray him as a real son of the soil (which he had been), despite his more recent years of success as a lawyer for the rapidly expanding railroads. Honest Abe, “The Rail Splitter”, managed to best his long-time antagonist, Stephen Douglas, and two others in the election of 1860, although that victory confirmed the South’s rebellion and the ensuing Civil War that Lincoln’s fortitude guided the North to victory.

Over the generation that followed that war, Republicans largely had their own way, until the election of 1884. In that year, when James G Blaine ran against Grover Cleveland, Blaine’s people tried to paint the Democrats as a kind of demonic force with the slogan, “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”. It was a pitch that focused on the Democrats’ opposition to national alcoholic beverage prohibition, the supposed influence of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church (through all the new southern European and Irish immigrants now becoming voters), and the historical connection between Democratic politicians in the South as supporters for the failed rebellion. Democrats retorted with, “James G Blaine, James G Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine” for his reputed way with inside political dealings. But, not to be outdone, in response, Republican operatives hired small boys to impersonate Cleveland’s reported out-of-wedlock son at Cleveland’s rallies, with the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my paw; gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” Demonstrating some uncommon good sense, a majority of voters rejected Blaine in the general election.

In the 20th century, candidates and their people have increasingly tried to find a slogan, a meme, a short, punchy theme that could become an avatar for the candidate’s presumed values and character. In 1916, for example, Woodrow Wilson, running for re-election while Europe was convulsed by World War I, was touted via the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” mindful of still-strong feelings on the part of many against perfidious Albion (aka Britain), a strong hatred of czarist Russia’s despotic and anti-Semitic governance, and a deep respect for Germany’s business, scientific, and cultural prowess. Of course he did not do so, and as German submarine warfare continued, Wilson accepted the inevitable and asked Congress to declare war on Germany – as president in his second term of office.

In 1928, Republicans, in a wordy broadsheet advertisement, promised voters “a chicken for every pot”, with the full text promising a future of unbounded opportunity – if only voters would pick Herbert Hoover for president. He won, but probably wished he had not, given what took place by October 1929, what with the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange.

The Roosevelt years gave currency to the phrase, “The New Deal”, representing a wide array of anti-Depression and economic collapse financial supports and economic reforms. When Harry Truman ran for election to gain a full term on his own (as vice-president, he had succeeded Roosevelt when the latter died in early 1945), Truman’s campaign promised “A Fair Deal”, building on the earlier economic reforms that had been interrupted by World War II – and playing to the impatience of citizens for the benefits of real economic growth.

Succeeding Truman in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower had promised voters, “I will go to Korea”, to bring an end to what seemed to be that unending “police action” war on the peninsula. Eisenhower’s reputation as the commanding general in Europe for the Allies clearly contributed to his popularity and massive winning margin, even as his campaign promised little beyond the old bromides of a Republican love of business and resistance to deeper economic reforms.

By the time John Kennedy ran for office in 1960, the elegant, energetic campaigner caught popular attention. He promised “a new generation of Americans” would “get America moving again” for “the New Frontier” with a vigorous foreign and national security policy that would close “the [actually non-existent] missile gap” with the Soviet Union. His successor, running on his own stead in 1964, and echoing and reaching back to the rallying cries of Roosevelt and Truman, promised “A Great Society”, even if much of that burned out in the social and political tumult of the anti-Vietnam War protest and civil rights pushes of late 1960s.

In 1968, Richard Nixon, this time running successfully as the “New Nixon”, had promised he would be the “law and order” president, confronting the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s. In fact, this has substantially provided an impetus for the incumbent president’s sloganeering that he would “Make America Great Again” and similarly be a law and order president as well. For re-election, he would promise to “Keep America Great Again”, almost regardless of the current triple crises assailing America — Covid-19, the economic downturn, and the rising civil rights tumult.

Of course, the Clinton presidency built the accidental rallying cry, “It’s the economy, stupid”, and that he was “The Man From Hope”. Eight years later, Barack Obama drew upon the growing rejection of the country’s souring experience under George W Bush with his aspirational yet gauzy slogan, “Yes We Can.”

Looking at these examples, it also seems reasonable to assume campaign myth makers have, over time, found inspiration in the power of aspirational triplets — the kind of thing derived from the American and French Revolutions, with the former’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and the latter’s “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Or more recently, perhaps the subliminal tug of the knowledge of the rallying cry of the Bolsheviks in Russia: “Bread, Peace, Land”. Such triplets are simplicity in themselves and they fit with that ancient, deep near-religious feeling that comes from such an emotional hat-trick.

At this juncture, the likely outlines of the Trump campaign will try to reinflate its prior success with “MAGA” by restating it as “Keep America Great”. But, it remains a real question of whether voters will be mesmerised by this shell game quite as much as they were four years earlier. Polling, especially over the past month, is now showing a stunning collapse in popular support for the incumbent president – at least at this point, four months before the actual election. Going forward, it is going to be Joe Biden and his campaign managers and handlers’ central task to find a short, maybe three- or four-word catchphrase the effectively encapsulates his effort to be the anti-Trump: promising a return to civility and effective governance, but without all the chaos and sturm und drang the Trump administration has put the country through since 2016. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz