Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Rating Party Platforms on Things Other than Politics

It's a Presidential election year, so it's about time for a tradition that goes back almost to the beginning of this weblog: Welcome to the fifth quadrennial rating of party platforms on grounds other than those of partisan politics! In the first year of competition, the Libertarians won handily for spartan and spare; in the second competition, the Republicans seized the prize for flashy and glossy; in the third competition, the Democrats won partly out of pity and partly out of recognition of their improvements; in the fourth competition, the Greens won on informativeness and accessibility. Who will win this time? Will the GOP give us a Grand Old Platform? Will the Greens continue to show that they don't know what a preamble is? Will the Libertarians finally add a little spice? Will the Democrats figure out how a cover sheet works? Who makes it easy to figure out what their party stands for? Will the Democrats and Republicans finally manage to shake off Major Party Disease? Let's dive in and see.

Democratic Party Platform

Republican Party Platform (PDF)

Libertarian Party Platform

Green Party Platform

Cover Sheet

The Greens are disqualified from the cover sheet competition because they don't provide an easily accessible PDF with a cover sheet. No play, no win. The other three parties do, but since the Republicans voted to keep their Party Platform the same, and did nothing to make it more presentable, it's just the same one they had last time. Disqualified, Lazy Elephants! So the real competition is between the Democrats and the Libertarians, and I have to say that it's a pleasure to judge this category this year, because both put in a decent attempt. The cover sheet for the PDF version of the Libertarian platform has a sweeping yellow eagle on it. The PDF of the Democratic platform has a visually interesting logo in blues, with a star in a D and a forward arrow. The Libertarians have marginally more interesting typography, but the Democratic logo is interesting, distinctive, and draws the eye. In addition, this is a huge improvement for the Donkeys; I used to mock them mercilessly for their incompetence in cover sheets. So congratulations, Democrats; you finally won this category, and in a year in which the Libertarians were putting up a good fight.


Organization is usually the Libertarians' power category, and they continue to shine. Their platform begins with a Preamble and Statement of Principles, then gives a numbered outline of essential points. As always, they get points for the numbered outline and clearly highlighted main headings. They have no table of contents, Libertarian concision eliminates the need for one. Lovely as always.

The Greens have been highly competitive in this category recently, and this year they continue that. Nicely organized table of contents, and beautiful outline. Whereas the Libertarians use decimal outlining, the Greens use alphanumeric, probably a good approach for their much less concise platform. Alphanumeric is a bit messier, but it allows for a nice consistency -- parts of their platform marked by small letters all give practical proposals, for instance.

The Republicans do badly with table of contents this year, because it's the same bad one as last time. The Democrats managed to do OK, but only in PDF. The HTML TOC is quite bad. You should be able to understand something of what the party is about by looking at the table of contents for its platform; both Major Parties tend to fail by providing TOC listings that are vague and uninformative. Save your vague and useless titles for bumper stickers. Nonetheless, the Democrats massively outperform the Republicans in that their vague titles at least identify vaguely practical things to do, and, again, the PDF gives us something much more like what we should be getting. So the Democratic entry is mixed. More people are going to access the HTML version than the PDF version, though, so the Democrats get dinged for only having a good table of contents in the PDF version.

So it's between the Libertarians and the Greens, and I think I hand this category to the Greens by a hair.

General Informativeness

General informativeness is the workhouse category of the competition and is, with accessibility, the one of the most practical importance. So who does best on informativeness?

As usual, the clean Libertarian structure and organization works for them, but their conciseness works against them. The Greens, I think, manage a much better balance on this point, and you can larn a lot about Green Party politics from their platform; it covers general values and principles, explanations, and particular practical proposals.

The Republicans have the same problems they had last Presidential election, because it's the same platform. Absolutely nothing has happened in the past four years, it seems, that would require the party to add or change anything. I don't know if it's the Grand Old Party; it's certainly Got Old Platform. Maybe that's the point, but even the Libertarians, whose platform is mostly the same from election to election, redo their party platform each Presidential election just in case. And the 2016 platform was not a shining example of informativeness to begin with; it was an egregious example of Major Party Disease, blah-blah-blah-keyphrase-blah-blah-blah-proposal-blah-blah-blah. It also had some seriously problematic examples of the Solution Problem, i.e., proposing to solve things by solving them, like their tax plan, which was not to penalize thrift or discourage investment. The Democratic platform would have to be next door to gibberish before it could fail to beat the Republicans this year. I will, however, give the Republicans credit for at least explaining their decision.

The Democratic platform seriously suffers from Major Party Disease -- the PDF version is over 90 pages. They are not just verbose, they are often also vague. But all things considered, I've seen worse. Even when they are being vague, they often tie their statements to specific events. As usual, their worst section on informativeness is their foreign policy section ("Renewing American Leadership"), in which they continue to put forward no clear policy of their own, beyond the repeated insistence that Trump's policy is bad. And we get plenty of examples of Solution Problem -- apparently, the Democrats will multiply the impact of foreign assistance by devoting the resources and implementing the reforms necessary to do so, which I suppose is a more practical plan than trying to multiply something by not devoting what is necessary to multiply it. But the most striking thing about it -- it is worst in the foreign policy section but found throughout the platform -- is the grandiloquence of it. I think they accidentally put a bad poet on the drafting committee. Here, for instance, is how they talk about diplomacy:

The United States should be at the head of the table whenever the safety and well-being of Americans is at stake, working in common cause with our allies and partners. Time and again, the Trump Administration has stormed out, leaving America’s seat at the table vacant and American interests on the menu. Americans deserve better.

The thing that really makes that passage is the menu. Apparently America is a customer in the World Restaurant, and we've stormed out, leaving our seat at the head of the table empty and ... somehow we've left our interests on the menu, like splashes of spaghetti sauce, maybe. Or maybe the idea is that we've left and are still hungry, because we didn't order anything. Or are we the cooks putting items on the menu, but we were sitting at the table and we've stormed out so other people somehow can't order for themselves? And it's not just that we've stormed out, we've stormed out of the restaurant time and again. Apparently we keep coming back to this same restaurant, despite the fact that we keep storming out, leaving our friends at the table, patiently waiting for us to come back in again. I don't know. I'm on record as a vehement defender of the value of figurative speech; I am on record defending the merits of purple prose; I just don't know if this use of figures of speech is in any way informative about anything. The whole platform is filled with this loose use of mixed and sometimes inexplicable metaphors.

So the general informativeness category goes to the Greens, followed by the Libertarians; the Donkeys limp far behind, and the Elephants are dead last.


So now we come to the glamor category of our non-political contest among party platforms, the Preamble. Nothing adds adornment to a party platform like a good preamble. Who comes out ahead?

The Greens, as usual, show that they don't quite grasp the concept of a 'preamble' by giving us four different kinds of introductory material, not including the introductory material under the section headings. You need to get through a lot of introductory material to be a Green. Stop putting non-preambular preamble material in your party platforms! Maybe you can make a case for splitting new preambular material from a stable statement of principles or values, but there's no other reason why your preambular material should be hanging out of your preamble. The Preamble opens with, "Never has our country faced as many challenges and crises as we do now." This is the same boilerplate they put in every preamble. Every single election the country is apparently facing more challenges and crises than ever before. Admittedly, it's more plausible this year than the last several elections, but I think we can still make a good case that the country was facing more challenges and crises during the Civil War. When you are saying that our current problems are worse than slavery and hundreds of thousands of people dead in a bloody and violent war that is tearing the nation in two, it becomes a little hard to take you seriously, especially when you go on to explain that the problem is that revenue is down and budgets are being cut. The preamble is the part of the party platform where you have most room to play the poet, but this is just bad melodrama.

The Libertarian preamble as usual takes the trouble to assure us that they understand what a party platform is: "In the following pages we set forth our basic principles and enumerate various policy stands derived from those principles." But while they say this every year, I will give them some credit because this is in fact how their platform is organized -- they aren't just describing what a platform does, they've deliberately structured their platform to do it in an obvious way, which is always one of their strengths. And their preamble is nice, concise, appropriate to the rest of their platform, and avoids melodrama: "As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty: a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and are not forced to sacrifice their values for the benefit of others."

The Republicans, who didn't even give us a new preamble (a problem, because the preamble is partly about the Obama Administration), are all about beliefs -- We believe, We believe, We believe. And of course, some of these beliefs while nice, are not particularly useful to know -- apparently Republicans agree with the Declaration of Independence and trust the Constitution, like you would expect them to say that they do.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are about "We must" -- and frankly, they make "We musts" sound more interesting than the "We believes" that littered their last platform's preamble. They are even more melodramatic than the Greens, although they do manage to stop short of saying that things are worse now than ever. They are really enthusiastic about sentence fragments this time. I always look out for quotations in preambles, because they show an attempt to tap into already existent political traditions, and this time the Democrats give us a very nice quote from Frederick Douglass, who was a Republican. It's very nice in this time of division to find the Democrats firmly committing themselves to Republican values. They also have another quote from Langston Hughes, nicely used. So they get a considerable amount of credit for good use of quotations. And while the preamble is very flowery, flowers are much more valuable in the preamble than in the rest of the platform, so it works very well here.

A tough year for judging the preamble category. Republicans are last, of course, because nobody is going to be interested by a preamble about how we need to fix the problems of the Obama Administration. Greens are next for an all-around lack of imagination. Both the Party of Principle and the Donkeys make a decent, if not stellar, showing this year; the Libertarian preamble works better as a preamble, but the Democrats are definitely more adventuresome. I think I award the category to the Democrats.

Page Formatting

The Greens have no easily accessible PDF on their website this year, so they are not eligible. The Republicans are always good with page formatting, although, of course, their pages are formatted exactly the same as they were last election because the Lazy Elephants didn't change anything. So the real contest is again between the Libertarians and the Democrats, and, as usual, the Donkeys are stupid when it comes to page formatting; I could literally come up with better formatting in an hour on Microsoft Word. The Libertarians, however, give us excellent page formatting, so they come in for an easy win.

Principles and Values

As usual, the Party of Principle has their Statement of Principles and the Greens have their Ten Key Values. Democrats and Republicans have no section in their platform on either principles or values, so I suppose we have to assume that they have neither.

Internet Accessibility

The Green Platform has a link right at the top of the Green Party website. They have no PDF version, but the HTML version is nice and has a search function. They also have clear and easily visible social media buttons. Social media integration has always been a strength of the Green presentation of its platform; this year they don't do anything adventurous or exciting, but they continue to do well on the point.

The Libertarian Party hides its link to its platform down at the bottom of the party's website, but they provide both an HTML and a PDF version. They don't have any social media connection.

The Democrats have a platform link at the bottom of their website, but they have a Where We Stand link that takes you to a page in which a link to the party platform is prominent and highlighted. I usually would take off imaginary points for requiring an additional click, but I think I can accept this -- they have a direct link (at the bottom of the page), but the Where We Stand link is easy to see, and a natural place to go to learn about the party, and there's no possible way to miss the platform link on the Where We Stand page. It works. They provide both HTML and PDF. The HTML version is decent to navigate. They have social media buttons, and they are better located than those of the Greens, but they aren't very visible.

The Republicans give us a link hidden at the bottom of the page to a PDF version of their platform, which, if I haven't mentioned this before, is from 2016. This is the bare minimum of accessibility, and not impressive.

I give this category to the Democrats.


* The Democrats have a Land Acknowledgment this year. Whatever you think of the practice itself, it makes the party platform more interesting and ties it to particular features of American life, so I'm giving them points for it. It isn't a year for dedications (the Republicans have one, of course, because they had one in 2016), but they are a nice feature connecting your party concerns to broader social issues, and a Land Acknowledgement at least does something broadly similar.
* I never, ever fail to crack up at the Green Call to Action. "If not us, who? If not now, when? We are the ones we have been waiting for. Join us!" Everybody would obviously answer those questions with "Either the Republicans or the Democrats" and "Whenever the Greens stop being a Third Party, if ever." And while the Greens may have been waiting for the Greens, I'm not sure anybody else has. But you have to credit their enthusiasm.
* It never fails to amaze me that the Libertarians are the only party who know how to make their platform typographically interesting, and they definitely blow everyone else away this year.
* Did I mention that the Republicans not only didn't change their platform this year, they didn't change its presentation or anything, beyond adding the resolution not to change it to the front?

This was not a great year for party platform presentation, but it's always nice when parties at least provide a link to their platform on their website, and organization is mostly good. It's great that we had a real contest over cover sheets this year, since a cover sheet is where you first begin to show that you care about what you are presenting, and I kept cracking up over the half-slangy, half-flowery prose of the Democratic platform. Republicans, of course, are last this year, because Elephants should never be lazy. But all other parties made at least a decent showing. The most intense competition was between the Libertarians and the Democrats. I think I give the laurels to the Democrats this year; it's their first year without any complete disasters in any major category, although they would still do well to learn how to format pages in a way that doesn't look like a blog post, and to remember that HTML needs even better table of contents than PDF. So the Donkeys win. I will therefore reward them by creating policies to reward them, as soon as Gordon Ramsay comes by and fixes this badly run restaurant with the customers who keep storming out.