Party platforms reflect ideological battles, says political scientist EngelAn oft-asked question during convention season — does a party’s official platform still matter? — was recently tackled by The Washington Post with help from Assistant Professor of Politics Stephen Engel.
Engel is a widely published expert on American party politics who coauthored the 2007 paper “Do Words Matter? Party Platforms and Ideological Change in Republican Politics.”
Conventional wisdom says that today’s candidate-driven campaigns make party platforms slightly more relevant than last week’s grocery store circular. In 1996, for example, then-presidential candidate Bob Dole famously admitted to not reading the Republican platform.
But as Engel tells Suzy Khimm, a contributor to the Wonkblog at The Washington Post, a platform is an opportunity for “the party base to assert its principles, figure out what its principles are, to show its own strength in the party.”
In their paper, Engel and coauthor Julia Azari further argue that tracking changes in a party’s platform over time can explain a woefully under-studied aspect of party politics: how factional battles affect party ideology.
The paper notes that between 1976 and 1980, the Republican Party platform became more conservative. Support for the Equal Rights Amendment ended, and the platform moved to the right on abortion, among other changes.
That shift, Engel and Azari conclude, meant that “that certain ideological groups…prevailed over others within the party.”
In addition, the new platform sent a signal to certain interest groups that they could expect policy commitments from the party, say Engel and Azari. The two scholars also found that platform language and ideology were later used to “fuse the socially conservative agenda with other aspects of the conservative Republican agenda.”
In retrospect, Engel tells The Washington Post, the 1980 Republican platform was a key “document of the ideological change of the party.”