Political Parties, Platforms, and Planks
Political parties are key players in American politics. But the Constitution does not mention political parties. In fact, many of the founders, including George Washington, distrusted permanent political parties, fearing that they would become too powerful. The first two political factions to appear were the Federalists, who supported ratification of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification. These factions disappeared once the Constitution was ratified. Yet, early in Washington's first administration as president, two new factions formed: the Federalists, who supported Alexander Hamilton and a group that gathered around Thomas Jefferson, called the Democratic Republicans. They were the first real parties.Throughout most of American history, the United States has had two major parties. Today's Democratic Party can trace its origins to Jefferson's old party. Today's Republican Party can trace its origins to the election of 1854. Along the way, dozens of third parties have come and gone. Some of these parties were formed to promote a particular cause, such as the Prohibition Party or the Equal Rights party, which demanded the vote for women. Other third parties, such as the Populists and the Greenbackers, arose for a short period around economic issues. Some third parties, such as the Progressives and the Dixiecrats, splintered off from the Republican and Democratic parties. Some parties have developed around a certain leader, such as George Wallace's American Independent Party or Ross Perot's Reform Party.
Third parties have never received high percentages of votes at election time, but they still serve important functions in the American political system. They give citizens who vote for them a forum for dissent. They also give those promoting reform a chance to air their ideas. For example, many of the ideas of the Progressives eventually were adopted by the major parties.
American political parties differ from those in many countries, where parties are often organized to promote a particular political or economic ideology such as socialism, communism, fascism, or capitalism. Others may represent a given economic interest such as labor or farmers. Some have been organized to promote a religious group or interest.
In contrast, American political parties are generally not ideological. Instead, they are made up of a loose collaboration of interests that want to win the next election. While the parties might differ on the issues, they seek to appeal to the widest possible spectrum of the electorate.
Platforms and Planks
American political parties are organized on a national, state, and local basis. Every four years, the parties hold a national convention to nominate a presidential and vice presidential candidate. They also meet to approve a party platform of issues and positions upon which the candidates will run. A party platform is a set of principles, goals, and strategies designed to address pressing political issues. Each party's platform is broken down into "planks," or declarations that speak to each specific issue.
Party platforms and their planks are very important to the electoral process: They give the candidates a clear political position with which they can campaign. They give voters a sense of what the candidates believe in, the issues they think are important, and how—if elected—they will address them.
1. Why did George Washington fear political parties?
2. What role do third parties play in the American political system?
3. What is a party platform?
4. What is a platform plank?
5. Why are party platforms important?
("Parties, Platforms, and Planks" was adapted from The Challenge of Governance © Constitutional Rights Foundation)
A C T I V I T Y
Building a Party Platform
After reading about the origins and functions of political parties, students create a party platform to address political issues that are likely to arise during a national election.
1. Divide the class into 10 small groups. Assign each group one issue from the list below.
Foreign Policy Issues
- diplomacy and military force
- promoting democracy abroad (nation building)
Domestic Policy Issues
- jobs and the economy
- diversity and equality
- civil liberties & national security
- health care
2. Tell students to:
- Define the issue they have been assigned.
- Explain why it is an important campaign issue.
- Develop a position, or "plank," on how the issue should be addressed..
Optional: If time permits, have each group research its issue before proceeding to step 2.
3. Have each group present their findings to the whole class. After each presentation, vote as a class whether to (1) adopt, (2) modify, or (3) reject each position or "plank." Record the results of the vote.
4. Re-divide the class into small groups, and using the "planks" they have adopted, have each group create a presentation (a poster, display, speech, or campaign ad) that represents their position. Assemble all the groups' posters, displays, etc. to create a complete party platform.
5. Debrief the activity by having students compare their party platform to existing party platforms (Research the candidates").
- How is your platform similar to existing platforms? How is it different?
- Do candidates plan to address the issues you have chosen? How?
- In your opinion, which platform[s] are better? Which is the best? Why?