A century ago in the United States, Democratic Party leaders crafted an airtight platform that was unveiled at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The platform — largely the brainchild of failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan — was a mass of platitudes, bold enough to paint the Democrats as heroes who would take over the Republican White House and yet vague enough to ensure that the party wouldn’t be held to unrealistic or unsavory promises if it did indeed wrest control. And today? Things are not much different. But in spite of their hazy approaches to policy, both today’s Democratic platform and that of 1908 are useful in that they indicate the values and attitudes of their respective eras. They also show us how much the United States has changed in a century. Or how little.
"Platforms then and now are designed to appeal to specific constituencies," says Bill Convery, state historian from the Colorado Historical Society. "They are focused on building support within pockets of the party’s base. No one reads too much into them as packages of political action. The positions and personalities of the candidates mean much more."
Since the 2008 Democratic platform will not be released until after the August DNC, the 2004 platform — available here in pdf and unlikely to change dramatically this year — was used to form a comparison with the 1908 Democratic platform. What exists is a startling similarity in the topics broached but stark differences in the details. Perhaps the largest difference is in the sheer size of the two platforms: at 43 pages long, today’s is four times as long as the one drafted in 1908.
"There are weird echoes between now and then," says Converly. "The package is used to sell the candidate. All bets are off after the election."
One major plank within the 1908 platform addressed voting rights. At that time, U.S. senators were elected by the state legislatures. The 1908 platform called for direct election of senators by a vote of the people and called this reform the "gateway to other national reforms." This revision didn’t happen until 1913. Voting rights also played a major role in the 2004 platform, but in a much different context. The Florida recount of four years earlier had painted a grim picture of voting efficacy in America, and so the Democrats called for "legislative action that will fully protect and enforce the fundamental Constitutional right of every American to vote — to ensure that the Constitution’s promise is fully realized and that, in disputed elections, every vote is counted fully and fairly."
Another important issue a century ago was the environment, or "natural resources," as it was referred to in the party platform. The Democrats of the day were very concerned with the monopolization of industry by American companies, and the pollution and exploitation of natural resources was seen as an extension of this problem. "We repeat the demand for internal development and for the conservation of our natural resources contained in previous platforms, the enforcement of which Mr. Roosevelt has vainly sought from a reluctant party," reads the platform. In 2004 Democrats called for cleaner air and water and held out a similar criticism of the Republicans, blaming George W. Bush for environmental degradation. "In President George Bush’s government, where polluters actually write environmental laws and oil company profits matter more than hard science and cold facts, protecting the environment doesn’t matter at all," the platform says.
The 1908 platform also addressed immigration. At the turn of the last century, Japanese were immigrating in great numbers to the West coast, and some of them had come to Colorado to work on sugar beet farms. The Japanese were seen as unable to assimilate, and the Democrats called for a moratorium on their entrance into the country. "We are opposed to the admission of Asiatic immigrants who can not be amalgamated with our population, or whose presence among us would raise a race issue and involve us in diplomatic controversies with Oriental powers," reads the platform. Though Mexican immigrants today face a similar criticism of being unable to assimilate, the Democratic party in 2004 was more open in its approach to the issue. The party promised to work for immigration reform, saying, "Undocumented immigrants within our borders who clear a background check, work hard and pay taxes should have a path to earn full participation in America." Of course federal immigration reform has yet to occur.
Despite similarities, there are also numerous differences between the two platforms. In 1908 Democrats condemned military intervention in the Philippines; in 2004 Democrats condemned the Iraq War. In 1908 Democrats called for an eight-hour work day; in 2004 Democrats called for job creation.
Perhaps the most significant difference comes in what went unmentioned in the 1908 platform: civil rights for blacks and women. The Democratic Party of 1908 refused to include planks on these issues because they were seen as very politically risky. A few of William Jennings Bryan’s close political allies in Congress were also Ku Klux Klan members, and so he and his party chose to remain silent on race. In England, female suffragettes had stormed parliament demanding rights; to back their counterparts in America seemed dangerous to U.S. lawmakers. In the 2004 platform, on the other hand, Democrats paid lip service to both of these groups, calling for an end to hate crimes and better equal pay laws.
"One hundred years have lapsed," says Converly. "We had a civil rights movement and a women’s rights movement. Yet we are still talking about the democratic process, even if our sensibilities have changed."