What is a Political Platform? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 The Platform for a…
  • 1:37 How Are Platforms Created?
  • 2:06 Valence and Position Issues
  • 4:41 What About Third Parties?
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Mark Pearcy
Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

How do you know what a political party really stands for? A quick look through a party's platform, its statement on specific policies and general beliefs, can give you an overview of the differences between political parties.

The Platform: A Road Map for a Political Party

One of the most common complaints about politics these days is that the two major parties seem almost indistinguishable. Of course, everyone knows this isn't really so - it's clear they're not 'exactly' the same, since they're fighting all the time - but the policy differences between the two parties can sometimes be hard to figure out.

But it's not actually that hard to understand what Republicans and Democrats believe about the nation and its future. There are easy-to-find documents that explain their views in great detail. Each party produces a platform. The platform is something like a roadmap; it's the path the parties would like to follow if they can find their way to a place where they can make those decisions. The platform usually contains a list of the party's beliefs, policy choices, and ambitions. These are often a lot more specific than candidates tend to be when they're running for office.

The term 'platform' started showing up several centuries ago, depending on which country you're looking at. In America, party politics didn't really get into full swing until the early 19th-century, when political parties became more organized and widespread, operating on a national scale. As they had to appeal to a nationalized audience, it became necessary to produce a formal document that laid out the party's principles in a series of statements. A platform is made up of planks, another rather appropriate nickname, since each plank is a statement on the party's belief on a given position issue.

How Are Platforms Created?

Platforms are written by each party's leadership. Each party has a set of directors, policy experts, and committee heads that form the working nucleus of the organization. When the party nominates a candidate to represent it, there's an expectation that the nominee will, for the most part, reflect the platform. The party's platforms are usually updated between national elections to get in line with contemporary issues, but there is rarely a great deal of significant difference.

Valence and Position Issues

We live in a nation that has a functional two-party system. Even though there are actually quite a few other parties in this country, in reality there are only two parties with a realistic chance of winning at either the state or national level. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, the U.S. is a very large nation, which means that the ability to organize on a large scale is very important. Also, we have a 'winner-take-all' electoral system, in which winning a state by even one vote gets a candidate all of that state's electoral votes, which effectively freezes out smaller parties.

Because there are only two competitive parties, the Republicans, and the Democrats, both parties have more or less the same mission when it comes to winning elections: appeal to as broad a part of the electorate as is possible. This means that you often hear political candidates talking about something called valence issues. These are issues on which there is a general agreement, or on which it's really hard to find anyone who disagrees to a great degree. Saying 'I'm in favor of education' is a good example, since most Americans are in favor of that, too. 'I support the environment,' or 'I want to lower taxes' are classic examples of valence issues. This is one way a party's candidate can appeal to a great number of people at once.

Problematically, though, you have to have some difference between you and the other guy if you're going to convince people that you're a better choice. This is where position issues come in, which are issues on which a candidate will take a position that generally is markedly different than his or her opponent. These tend to be more partisan issues, like abortion, for instance. They are often found in a party's platform.

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Additional Activities

Writing Activity for What is a Political Platform?:

You are becoming disillusioned with the two major political parties. You and your friends have decided to form a third party. You are in charge of developing the party's platform. After reviewing the respective platforms of the Republicans and Democrats (found on their national committee websites), write a platform that you think will serve your party well. It may be useful to pick three hot topics/issues and focus on them in your platform. For instance, you could choose topics such as student debt, healthcare, and gun rights.

Group Discussion for What is a Political Platform?:

Do you think that it is necessary for parties to have a platform? Why or why not? Do you see platforms as particularly useful, organizing, or restrictive? Take a look at the platforms from the last presidential election; were there any issues that were not addressed that you think should have been?

Additional Questions to Consider:

What changes in American politics during the early-19th century (the 1800s) led to the development of party platforms? Tip: consider American election campaigns in the 19th century in your answer.

Although there are other political parties besides the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, why is it so difficult for these parties to win at either the state or national level?

The lesson notes three types of valence issues. Can you think of any others that you often hear discussed by members of both political parties?

Why is it that third parties are usually more forthright and insistent on their positions in their platforms? Tip: consider the approaches of both the Democrats and the Republicans in your answer.

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