PLATFORM, PARTY. A party platform is a political party's statement of governmental principle and policy. Some historians consider the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798–1799 the first party platform; others point to the list of resolutions the "young men" of the National Republican Party adopted on 11 May 1832. No major party adopted a platform in 1836, but since 1840, party platforms have been a regular feature of national political campaigns. Platforms are not binding. Nevertheless, they have shaped many state and national elections. They also reflect the changing issues, controversies, and visions that have constituted American political discourse.
In the nineteenth century, when candidates were silent and parties reigned, campaigns more frequently stood by party platforms. The nominees' brief acceptance letters bound the nominee to the platform while accepting the party's nomination. As a result, the committee that drafted the platform and presented it to the convention was critical in setting the party agenda and determining national debate. Conventions took the platform seriously—as evidenced by the many clashes over principles and wording.
During the antebellum slavery debates—as during other national conflicts—platforms, like the major parties themselves, alternated between offering clear, potentially polarizing statements and flaccid compromises. The 1852 Whig platform, for example, avoided commenting on slavery directly. By contrast, the Republican platform of 1860 was blunt, branding "the recent reopening of the African slave trade … a crime against humanity." Similarly, in 1892, the Democratic platform endorsed the "use of both gold and silver as the standard money of the country" vaguely. Four years later, after the pro-silver forces over-ran the Democratic Convention, the platform demanded "the free and unlimited coinage of both silver and gold at the present legal ratio of 16 to 1."
By contrast, third parties' platforms have more consistently featured sharp rhetoric and clear positions, be it the antislavery Free Soil Party of 1848, the agrarian Populist Party of 1892, the reforming Progressive Party of 1912, or the segregationist Dixiecrat Party of 1948. Over the years, the major parties have adopted various third-party planks, once deemed radical.
After the Civil War (1861–1865), more active nominees deviated from the platforms more frequently. Remarkably, even in the modern age of weak parties and independent candidates, parties still struggle in drafting the platforms. In 1964, black Republican delegates, infuriated by the defeat of a civil rights amendment in the party's education plank, marched in protest. In the late twentieth century, women's rights, affirmative action, and abortion provoked bitter platform fights.
The media view a party's platform as an indicator of the party's tone—and as a potential source of conflict between the candidate and the party. Delegates and voters still recognize the platform as an essential first step in transforming ideas into laws, and in determining the party's trajectory. Scholars estimate that platform amendments of winning parties have been enacted into law at least 50 percent of the time. Furthermore, where competing platforms agree—and disagree—continues to reflect points of consensus and conflict in the American political system.
Troy, Gil. See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991, 1996.