The Oracle and the Sausage Factory

It’s said that people who like sausage should avoid seeing how sausage is made. This is sort of a story about the making of sausage, except, instead of talking about a tasty food item, we’re going to talk about a staple of American party politics: the platform.

Have you ever read a party platform? I’m guessing that most people haven’t. I’ve been interested in politics for a very long time and actively engaged for over a decade, but I’ve read very few of them all the way through. Yesterday I attended my party’s congressional district convention as a delegate. In a community college auditorium in a small Midwestern town, a couple hundred delegates convened to listen to countless speeches, elect members of the party’s state central committee, and fight about rules and the party platform.

As so often happens, those fights about rules and platform language consumed much of the day and most of the oxygen in the room.

Why do we punish ourselves and our fellow party activists — almost all of whom are unpaid volunteers — so relentlessly? Why would two hundred adults give up a perfectly delightful Saturday in late April to engage in intramural spitball fights?

I wish I knew, because I’m usually knee deep in the hoopla. I think this is what happens when you get a bunch of true believers together and make them tell you what they believe in. A platform, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster is “a declaration of the principles on which a group of persons stands; especially: a declaration of principles and policies adopted by a political party or a candidate.” Simple, right?

One might think that a party platform would be a relatively easy thing to craft. We all know, more or less, what the major political parties stand for, don’t we? And when was the last time you remember a candidate declaring to run on his/her party’s platform? During presidential years the campaigns get involved in trying to craft or guide the national party platforms, but even then, one is more likely to hear attacks on the other party’s platform than anything about standing on one’s own. Who, if anybody, reads these things?

What we usually read or hear about party platforms, if anything at all, is how obviously, overwhelmingly wrong the other party is about fill-in-the-blank. We scarcely hear a peep about what’s in our own declaration of principles. And there is no mechanism to hold candidates to documents built by committees of volunteers and influenced by (here it comes) fanatics.

There are flashes of inspiration and sanity in this process. At my county convention in March, it became obvious that an outspoken member of our platform committee was both inspired and sane. He had noted that a fairly outrageous “plank” in the platform from a prior election cycle had been used by the opposition to discredit our candidates. It seems that late in the platform creation process a couple years ago, some true believers had managed to insert a plank calling for the legalization of all drugs. Republicans clobbered Democrats with that one.

As a result of that experience, our friend undertook a mission to avoid a similar debacle this time. He endeavored to shorten and simplify the county party platform, making it a statement of general principles and areas of concern rather than a laundry list of policy prescriptions. The platform discussion at the county convention was short and mostly civil. My contribution to the process was serving on the rules committee, asking lots of questions in an effort to clear up confusion in the rules before unleashing them on the unsuspecting larger body. It all worked pretty well. There was reason for hope.

Unfortunately, the district convention was a very different matter. I avoided volunteering for any committees at the district level. Having already annoyed some of my fellow Democrats, I chose to attend the district convention merely as a delegate. Let other people slug out the rules and the platform report.

The results weren’t great. The rules for electing central committee members were at once oddly restrictive and ambiguous, causing a great deal of wasted time and effort  — and multiple ballots and arguments — to elect eight people.

And then there was the platform. Rather than a short, simple document, the convention was given a long, detailed one. The document was over twenty pages of high-minded talk, typos, errors in capitalization and punctuation, acronyms, abbreviations, arcane legislative references, and vague, liberal talking points. Allegedly the platform committee had attempted to remove contentious planks so that no minority report would be needed. Our rules, as misrepresented by the presiding officer, allowed for no amendments, only debate on individual planks, and then only after a motion to strike the plank, seconded by 10% of the delegates. What would happen if the entire platform were voted down? No one knew.

Consideration of the platform degenerated into the all-too-familiar death march of arguing about everything. Think of the US Congress debating, say, the federal budget, with all the ego but lacking most of the expertise and lacking anything in the way of real power.

I hesitate to confess that I got sucked into the discussions more than once. Trying to get a disgruntled group to follow its own mystifying rules was clearly one lost cause. Trying to get the group to reconsider some of the most ill-considered platform planks was another.

At one point, two men were standing in the aisle mere inches apart, red faced, yelling about what ought to be done about a dead microphone. This is where the average person starts to consider how ridiculous it all is, even if they were previously inclined to engage.

Little did I know that the platform we pointlessly debated was derived from the even longer and more detailed 2016 state platform. Gone is the hope that the state convention will produce a better platform than the sausage we manufactured Saturday; our sausage was based on the same general recipe that the state party had followed two years ago. The fact that 2016 was such a disaster for Democrats should give everyone pause. Many people talked about a “blue wave” in November as if it were some kind of mantra. Color me skeptical.

Don’t ask me how the good Democrats of this district have any hope of unseating a pandering wingnut incumbent in a place that has sent him to Congress repeatedly, in spite of being a national embarrassment and having no legislative accomplishments. We embraced every liberal impulse and cliche’ we could think of and tossed them into our platform. This is the sort of thing that might work in a safely Democratic and very liberal district. It won’t work here.

Hoping that no one will read the damn thing won’t work, either, because as painful as that experience may be, we know that the opposition will read it. And we’ve given them a lot of “planks” to swing at our candidates.

We miraculously elected some very good volunteers to the state central committee and we have some truly excellent candidates for office. If the committee people are are half as smart as I think they are, they’ll use their experience yesterday to take a different approach in the future. My guess is that the candidates will be running from any mention of the platform, rather than running on it.

In this story, the problem isn’t just with the making of the sausage. True, seeing what went into the sausage and how it was put together was bad enough, but this sausage would have a “best by” date of never.

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