“The time has come to assure equal access for all Americans to all areas of community life, including voting booths, schoolrooms, jobs, housing, and public facilities,” the 1960 platform says. But in 1964, the party adds a caution, opposing quotas “based on the same false distinctions we seek to erase,” and warning that prejudice cannot “be neutralized by the expedient of preferential practices” in hiring.
Eight years later, in 1972, Democrats endorse ratios and “proportional representation” to guarantee positions for women in federal jobs and for “poor people . . . at all levels of the Democratic Party.” That plank unreservedly embraces busing to accomplish school desegregation, an approach the next platform, in 1976, calls “a judicial tool of the last resort.”
On some issues, Democrats became markedly more liberal over time.
The party’s position on nuclear power, for example, moved in a straight line from strong support in the 1960s to queasy caution in 1976 (“Dependence on nuclear power should be kept to the minimum necessary”) to outright opposition through the 1980s. But this year’s platform endorses nuclear as part of an “all-of-the-above energy policy.”
Attitudes toward separation of church and state generally hardened over this period. In 1972, Democrats endorse federal aid to non-public schools, but in later years, the party’s definition of reform embraces public charter schools while rejecting vouchers for private and particularly parochial schools.
But on other issues, the party deliberately rejects its former identity as an overt advocate of liberal, activist government. In the two Clinton-era platforms especially, in 1992 and 1996, Democrats spurn the rhetoric of their recent past, adopting ideas and messages that had worked for the other party.
The 1992 platform announces a “Revolution of 1992 . . . a shift to a more efficient, flexible and results-oriented government that improves services, expands choices, and empowers citizens. . . . We believe in an activist government, but it must work in a different, more responsive way.”
These Democrats talk about “restoring the basic American values that built this country and will always make it great: personal responsibility, individual liberty, tolerance, faith, family and hard work.”
The second Clinton platform, in 1996, adopts language about fighting crime that earlier Democrats had rejected as nearly un-American. “Today’s Democratic Party believes the first responsibility of government is law and order,” the ’96 document says. In 1972, the party slammed the Nixon administration for using those same words, “ ‘law and order,’ as justification for repression and political persecution.”
The ’96 platform also boasts of establishing “the death penalty for nearly 60 violent crimes,” a sharp reversal from a promise in 1972 to “abolish capital punishment, recognized as an ineffective deterrent to crime, unequally applied and cruel and excessive.”
The Democratic evolution on capital punishment tracks with a shift on pro-gun-control rhetoric, from the 1968 platform’s promise to pass and enforce “effective . . . gun control legislation” and 1996’s praise of “courageous Democrats who defied the gun lobby” by banning assault weapons, to ever-stronger statements in 2004 and 2008 that vow to “protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to own firearms.”
The 2012 document proposes to “focus on effective enforcement of existing laws,” as well as seek to reinstate the ban on assault weapons.
The most radical statement of the party’s liberal vision appears in 1972, when the platform proposes to “guarantee a job for all,” greatly expand public employment, immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam, abolish the Electoral College, break up corporate monopolies and “establish a system of universal National Health Insurance which covers all Americans . . . federally-financed and federally-administered.”
Democrats soon back off that concept, vaguely suggesting in 1992 “a uniquely American reform of the health-care system” and then settling in later years for just making care more affordable.
But in 2008, harking back to the party’s earlier, broader sense of government’s role, the idea of “guaranteed affordable, comprehensive health care” returns.
The first platform of the Barack Obama years proposes to cut poverty in half within a decade, using union organizing and transitional job programs. It declares climate change “a national security crisis” and includes the strongest statement on civil liberties since the ’70s.
“We reject illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” the platform says. “We reject the tracking of citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. We reject torture. We reject sweeping claims of ‘inherent’ presidential power.”