Writing in 1993, Colby College political science professor L. Sandy Maisel called political party platforms "the most important document(s) that a political party produces" but also "worthless pieces of paper," because so few voters know what they contain.
That's unfortunate, because they are the product of much deliberative thinking, and do in fact shape how politicians behave.
Take the platforms adopted by the state's Republican and Democratic parties. At first glance and even after close review, they appear to not just reflect different worldviews but to come from different worlds.
The 2012 platform approved by the Republican Party of Wisconsin at its convention in Green Bay in May radiates negative energy. Despite having gained control of the governor's office and both houses of the legislature in 2010, the party recycles the dour language from its 2010 platform to portray Wisconsin as still reeling from eight long years under a Democratic governor:
"Sadly, our state motto, 'Forward,' has become a symbol of the past instead of the beacon that reflected our people's traditional passion and potential for the future," both platforms say.
Other planks resurrected from prior platforms rip the national debt and federal spending, peg the federal income tax system as "unfair and cumbersome," and warn of "the eminent danger of a collapse in the value of the dollar." There is a new plank opposing United Nations Agenda 21, which, as a recent Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report noted, is a 20-year-old non-binding pact encouraging sustainable development; the party calls this agreement "destructive and insidious."
The 2012 platform approved by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin at its convention in Appleton in June is just as urgent but much less dire. One section is labeled "Justice, Human Concerns, and Democracy."
Here's a taste, which can be read aloud to swelling patriotic music: "We will work to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, an equal voice in government, and fair and equal treatment under the law. We recognize that minorities, senior citizens, and the poor often face formidable challenges, including obstacles to voting. Many citizens also suffer inadequate access to nutritious food, healthcare, education, and housing. We shall work to eliminate those obstacles."
At the intersection of money and politics, the worlds embraced by the two parties collide.
The GOP platform has a resolution on "Election Reform." It calls for the elimination of same day registration, which "contributes to errors and fraud." And it lambasts the "judicial activism" that has blocked enforcement of the state's new law requiring voters to present a photo ID. Two Dane County judges have deemed this law unconstitutional.
In its sole mention of campaign financing, the state GOP urges "the repeal of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act of 2002," much of which has already been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the Democrats' platform rails against the main blow to McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns.
"Our goal is a government and an electoral process free of the corrupting influences of money and power," the party asserts. "A new amendment to the Constitution must be adopted to make clear that corporations are not people and that money is not speech."
The Democrats' platform also calls for "transparent, publicly funded state and national elections." Last year in Wisconsin, Republicans obliterated the state's mechanism for public financing of elections -- including funding for state Supreme Court races, in place for just one election.
In the different worlds they inhabit, both Democrats and Republicans are deeply discontented, but for strikingly different reasons, as the campaign finance issue illustrates. The Dems feel that money is corrupting the process, even as they raise and spend oodles of it. The GOP feels there are still too many restrictions on spending, and not enough on voting.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
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