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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Party Platforms: Size Matters, and Longer Doesn’t Mean Better

Shorter has historically meant better

How do you measure the growth of the federal government? The indices that come readily to mind are taxes and spending as a share of GDP, the volume of responsibilities it takes on that it didn’t have before, the pages of regulations that consume the Federal Register, the number of countries where it stations troops, etc. etc. The roster is huge and rarely takes a pause on its relentless upward march.

Cleveland himself once declared federal taxation to be “ruthless extortion.” Major political party platforms are yet another measure, one that’s often overlooked. As one would expect, the bigger the federal government gets, the more its acolytes pledge “change” because some previous expansion didn’t work. They require lots of paper as they promise to grow it further, tinker with their previous follies, and bribe constituencies with other people’s money. They love to talk about government as if it’s what life is all about, so party platforms these days have become almost encyclopedic.

The last Democratic president who actually meant it when he swore to uphold the Constitution was Grover Cleveland. In 1892, when he won the White House for a second time, the party’s entire platform numbered 2,500 words. The Republican Party platform that year was a mere 1,342 words, the equivalent of a couple newspaper op-eds.

Skip ahead to 1980, the year incumbent Jimmy Carter ran against challenger Ronald Reagan. The party of the jackass (referring here to the popular symbol, not any person in particular) offered a 38,179-word platform. The party of the elephant wasn’t far behind, running on promises that required 34,558 words.

By the time the two party conventions are history this year, the words in their two platforms combined are likely to be about 10 times the 1892 total.

Shorter and Vastly Better

Revealing too are the contrasting promises of 1892 and 2016. Take a look, for instance, at what the Cleveland Democrats promised 124 years ago.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how far the Clinton/Sanders Democrats will stray this week from their forebears:

The Democrats of 1892 decried “the tendency to centralize all power at the Federal capital” because, in their words, it “has become a menace to the reserved rights of the States that strikes at the very roots of our Government under the Constitution as framed by the fathers of the Republic.”

Trade protectionism is “a fraud, a robbery of the great majority of the American people for the benefit of the few.”They weren’t into massive spending back then, either. Cleveland himself once declared federal taxation to be “ruthless extortion” when it took more from the people than absolutely necessary to meet the minimal functions of government under the Constitution. His party’s 1892 platform committed itself “to relentless opposition to the Republican policy of profligate expenditure, which, in the short space of two years, has squandered an enormous surplus and emptied an overflowing Treasury, after piling new burdens of taxation upon the already overtaxed labor of the country.”

On trade, the Democrats of 1892 saw protectionism as an anti-competition racket. Their platform was unequivocal on free trade:

We denounce Republican protection as a fraud, a robbery of the great majority of the American people for the benefit of the few. We declare it to be a fundamental principle of the Democratic party that the Federal Government has no constitutional power to impose and collect tariff duties, except for the purpose of revenue only, and we demand that the collection of such taxes shall be limited to the necessities of the Government when honestly and economically administered.

The party of Cleveland (and Jefferson before him) viewed anti-trust with a skeptical eye, fearing it was nebulous law and would end up benefiting large, politically-connected firms at the expense of newer and smaller companies: “We denounce the Republican legislation known as the Sherman Act of 1890 as a cowardly makeshift, fraught with possibilities of danger in the future, which should make all of its supporters, as well as its author, anxious for its speedy repeal.”

The Dems of 1892 under Grover were the advocates of sound money. At a time when the other party (as well as a small but vocal and growing contingent of their own) supported monetary debasement through paper and depreciating silver, the Cleveland Democrats resisted all calls for inflation. On this issue, the platform read,

We hold to the use of both gold and silver as the standard money of the country, and to the coinage of both gold and silver without discriminating against either metal or charge for mintage, but the dollar unit of coinage of both metals must be of equal intrinsic and exchangeable value, or be adjusted through international agreement or by such safeguards of legislation as shall insure the maintenance of the parity of the two metals and the equal power of every dollar at all times in the markets and in the payment of debts; and we demand that all paper currency shall be kept at par with and redeemable in such coin. We insist upon this policy as especially necessary for the protection of the farmers and laboring classes, the first and most defenseless victims of unstable money and a fluctuating currency.

On immigration, the 1892 Democratic platform supported “all legitimate efforts to prevent the United States from being used as the dumping ground for the known criminals and professional paupers of Europe.” It approved enforcement of laws restricting Chinese immigration, but at the same time it declared, “we condemn and denounce any and all attempts to restrict the immigration of the industrious and worthy of foreign lands.”

Check this out: the Cleveland Democrats, while endorsing public schools, nonetheless had this to say about the larger issue of what we would today call “school choice”:

Freedom of education, being an essential of civil and religious liberty, as well as a necessity for the development of intelligence, must not be interfered with under any pretext whatever. We are opposed to State interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children as an infringement of the fundamental Democratic doctrine that the largest individual liberty consistent with the rights of others insures the highest type of American citizenship and the best government.

This year, the Table of Contents alone of the draft Democratic Party platform is 437 words, one-sixth of the party’s entire platform of 1892.

Proving that size matters, I’m betting that Democrats imparted more wisdom in their 1892 platform than the Democrats of 2016 will in theirs.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is