Platforms declare a party’s values and commitments. While the substance of the Democratic and Republican platforms often differs sharply, both have historically used certain key words, like the American Dream, economic opportunity and freedom from discrimination. Examining Republican platforms over time shows that what once had been a big-tent strategy of carefully managing intraparty differences over equality has been replaced by a hierarchical model of leadership where the party faithful should acquiesce to one individual’s vision of political community. Indeed, the 2020 resolution “ruled out of order” any effort to adopt a platform.
Platforms have long played a key role in Americans’ struggles over equality. The earliest party platforms date to the 1840s, when the two major parties were Democratic and Whig. Founded in 1854 by Whigs who opposed slavery and the “Missouri compromise,” the Republican Party issued its first platform in 1856. In 1860, with Abraham Lincoln as the standard-bearer, the platform condemned the slave trade as “a crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age” and called for its “total and final suppression.”
After the Civil War, the Republican Party’s 1868 platform supported Congress’s Reconstruction policy. Notably, it denounced Andrew Johnson, who had become president upon Lincoln’s assassination, for corruptly using his power to resist “every proper attempt at reconstruction.”
In the 20th century, the GOP has openly supported racial equality at other key moments while marking areas of concern about that principle’s scope. Even in 1964, in which the fringe captured the party with the nomination of arch-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater, Republicans promised “full implementation and faithful execution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all other civil rights statutes, to assure equal rights and opportunities.” Emphasizing equality was especially important because Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act and doubted its constitutionality. Americans deserved assurances the law would be enforced. The platform told voters: The party was not the nominee; the nominee’s personal belief was not the law.
In 1968, the Republican platform recognized that “minorities among us — particularly the black community, the Mexican-American, the American Indian — suffer disproportionately.” In other ways, the GOP pushed for equality in new directions, by championing the rights of the disabled and highlighting discrimination against the elderly. While the party acknowledged the civil rights revolution by denouncing “bigotry” and “discrimination,” it also objected to “busing for racial balance” and expressed support for “diversity” without “quotas” — signaling that the party would adapt as the country’s values changed, and that philosophical disagreements over equality would continue to be mediated.
Another historical legacy is the Republican Party’s support for women’s equal rights, including the Equal Rights Amendment, which it first endorsed in 1940 (before the Democrats). The 1972 platform, on which Richard Nixon successfully ran for reelection, proclaimed: “This Administration has done more than any before it to help women of America achieve equal opportunity.” The platform proposed new programs, such as federally funded day care.
However, by 1980, the platform on which Ronald Reagan ran and won had shifted from unqualified support to watered-down ambivalence. Leading a march to protest this retreat after 40 years of support, leading Republican feminist Jill Ruckleshaus — who successfully fought for the inclusion of the earlier plank on women’s rights — demanded: “Give me back my party.”
We can also trace the party’s shifting view of whether women’s equality encompassed abortion rights through platform language. In 1976, the first presidential election after Roe v. Wade, the Republican platform described “the question of abortion” as “one of the most difficult and controversial of our time.” It recognized intraparty differences between those “who favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand” and “others who share sincere convictions” that Roe “must be changed by a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions.”
By 1980, however, this nuance was gone. The platform declared that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed” and opposed federal funds for abortion or organizations that supported abortion.
Yet even that platform, while shifting to the right, observed that “this nation had not yet eliminated all vestiges of racism” and promised the party would stand “shoulder to shoulder with black Americans in that cause.” It noted that Hispanics “are greatly enriching the American melting pot” and should not be barred from education or employment “because English is not their first language.”
This commitment to diversity and rights in its platforms continued even as the Republican Party moved toward more exclusionary rhetoric and policies. The 1984 platform proclaimed a “historic commitment to equal rights for women,” including “pioneer[ing] the right of women to vote.” It also asserted: “From its founding in 1854, we have promoted equality of opportunity. The party of Lincoln will remain the party of equal rights for all.”
Though actual policy and litigation priorities focused on limiting the reach of equality when Republicans were in power, the broad idea of equality remained important to party identity and outreach to women, minorities and suburban voters. It also helped portray the party as forward-looking rather than embracing a regressive vision of America.
And while these words seemed increasingly hollow in recent decades as Republican politicians returned to a more traditionalist notion of sex equality and increased appeals to White supremacy, they remained important because platforms allow us to judge the gap between a party’s promises and its policies. Making pre-commitments also seems to influence politicians’ behavior. Political scientist Lee Payne has found that since 1980, lawmakers of both parties voted in accordance with their party’s platform 82 percent of the time. The mechanism for holding an administration to its promises may be complicated, but it starts with making clear what those commitments are.
Even in 2016, the Republican platform denounced “bigotry,” in a climate of rising xenophobia and in which Republican nominee Donald Trump’s words often reflected hostility toward Muslims and Latino people. Maintaining that explicit commitment gave the impression that the Republican Party recognized a difference between its current presidential candidate and the party and gave voters who pulled the lever for Trump reason to believe that the party’s positions might continue to be honored. Since then, though, those distinctions have collapsed in troubling fashion; dispensing with a platform makes this transformation visible.
One party’s refusal to have a platform is an ominous sign for our democracy: It reflects a deep imbalance between the parties’ respective commitments to democracy and the Republican Party’s decision to double down on strategies of racial and ethnic grievance.
The sum total of the public statements emerging from the 2020 Republican Convention were declarations of “enthusiastic” support for Trump’s “America First agenda” and testimonials to his personal greatness and toughness.
The party’s decision to short-circuit the platform-writing process robbed its own voters of a meaningful opportunity to chart the direction of the party and re-tether a rudderless president to principles.
Alarmed, some undertook this work independently. Recognizing this abnormal process as dangerous, over 12,000 disaffected Republicans held their own virtual “Convention on Founding Principles” during the Republican National Convention and issued a platform-like “Declaration of Principles.” That offers a glimmer of hope, though Republicans will have to find a way to reintegrate the vision with the existing party apparatus.
The Declaration of Principles “explicitly condemn[s] racism, including white supremacy,” and rejects “all forms of authoritarianism and fascism here and abroad.” It strongly affirms voting rights. It offers the vision of an “inclusive United States defined by its ideals” and welcomes “all members of the human family regardless of differences.”
Without a platform, a party signals that it values personal obedience to its current leader more than adherence to more lasting principles or institutions. Perhaps this declaration could serve as the foundation for a reinvigorated Republican Party and the beginning of a return to democracy on the basis of respect and dignity for all.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece mixed language from the 1964 Republican platform and the 1968 platform and described it all as coming from the 1964 platform. The text has been updated to separate the two and accurately reflect which language came from which year.