Staff Editorial

Give voters something more useful than party platforms

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to delegates at the Iowa State Republican Convention in Des Moines on Saturday, May 21, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to delegates at the Iowa State Republican Convention in Des Moines on Saturday, May 21, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Recent political state conventions revived a causality dilemma nearly as old as the chicken and the egg: Which came first, party platforms or party candidates?

Political parties in the U.S. are organized at multiple governance levels. In Iowa, this includes committees at the county, district and state levels that feed into national organizations. At each level, party loyalists meet to develop and approve a platform of issues and beliefs, and many of these documents are elevated to the next level as recommendations. Platforms are generally broken down by topic, with each topic divided into “planks,” which are specific principles, goals and strategies designed to address pressing issues.

While often lengthy, sometimes wonky and, in worst-case instances, wholly embarrassing, party platforms are said to represent the view from the grass roots.

What these documents do not necessarily represent are the values and beliefs of candidates who run under the political party’s label. Unlike in other countries, there is no mandate for U.S. politicians to adhere to party platforms, in whole or in part. Modern American electoral politics are candidate-centered, meaning candidates face few, if any, consequences for running afoul of platform positions, which shift alongside the power of special interests.

It’s become a situation confusing to voters who don’t actively participate in party organizing, and a disconnect too often exploited by those who understand the process.

In October 2010, for instance, Harper’s Magazine highlighted several planks from the Republican Party of Iowa platform under the headline “One hellish choice.”

Democratic candidates in 2016 faced criticism after news outlets noted five words within their 6,000-word platform: “We support … Legalizing all drugs.”

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Headlines this year focused on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ verbal acrobatics while responding to her party’s platform plank to repeal any law that allows marriages “other than those between one natural man and one natural woman.”

In each instance, candidates are forced onto a precarious tight rope where they must balance party values as dictated by a small sliver of often noisy political activists, broader public perception and their own beliefs. It’s a no-win situation for the candidate — and for voters who use party affiliation as a ballot shortcut when they aren’t familiar with a specific candidate.

No doubt platforms have internal value to the political parties as they organize coalitions of supporters. Platforms are good historical references for how political parties change over time. They allow frustrated loyalists to have their say, perhaps providing the illusion of inclusion.

But they contribute nothing to meaningful discourse. Worse yet, they provide ample opportunities for more robust political stereotyping and name-calling.

Pointing to an official party platform as evidence of a “big tent” philosophy is great marketing, but not reality. If all beliefs are welcome, there is no need for party affiliation.

The electorate needs clarity, which only the parties can provide. Keep the tradition of grass roots platforms, but also develop something more meaningful.

Don’t leave voters to wonder if the candidate or the platform comes first.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

Additional reading:

IDP 2016 Platform

IDP 2018 Proposed Platform (final version not yet available)

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LPI 2014-2018 Platform

RPI 2016 Platform

RPI 2018 Proposed Platform (final version not yet available)

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