If Republicans from 1960 to today moved in fairly linear fashion to ever-more conservative stances on the economy, taxes and a slew of social issues, the Democratic evolution over the same period was a more jagged series of experiments with activist and statist approaches, interspersed with more traditional paeans to family, faith and individual initiative.
The Democrats’ 2012 platform, released this week at their convention in Charlotte, presents voters with a laundry list of positions designed to portray the governing party as the one committed to the middle class. The overarching idea is that “we’re all in it together,” and the document repeatedly says the party’s opponents are devoted to solving problems “from the top down,” focusing on the wealthy.
This year’s plank breaks little new ground, although for the first time, its support for legalizing same-sex marriage is definitive and clear, and it commits to combating anti-gay activity around the world.
But just as the GOP avoids the word “conservative” in its platforms, the Democrats never go near “liberal” or even “progressive.”
Since 1992, when the first Bill Clinton-era platform broke sharply with two decades of Democratic promises to use government to redistribute wealth, direct social change, and empower minorities and women, the party has sharply altered its rhetoric. Democrats have adopted words and phrases such as “opportunity,” “choice” and “smaller government” that their opponents began using during the Ronald Reagan years to win support from middle-class voters. The words “faith” and “God,” which appear only in passing or not at all in platforms from the 1960s through the ’80s, can be found 18 times in the 2004 document, as in “We honor the central place of faith in the lives of our people.”
Democratic platforms still spell out positions distinctly different from Republican stances on social and environmental issues, supporting abortion rights, affirmative action, and tighter regulations on polluters and financial institutions. Democrats consistently back a more expansive view of government’s role in science, the arts, and aid to the poor and the elderly.
But the party has struggled in recent decades to find the sweet spot between principle and political reality on issues such as guns, health care, the death penalty, school choice, nuclear power, relations with Cuba, and taxes.