Why Do State Parties Have Platform Planks on Foreign Policy?

State party platforms are great for learning about often obscure issues. It probably comes as no surprise that ethanol is a frequent topic for the Iowa state parties, planks on irrigation from the Colorado river show up in the New Mexico platforms and cattle in the Texas platforms.

These hyper-local issues make sense for state parties. Citizens care about these issues and parties have to take positions on these issues in campaigns. Indeed, it wouldn’t make much sense to issue a platform if it was just a carbon-copy of the national platform (although this may be changing).

So, it may come as a surprise that state parties tend to spend a lot of time (or space, which  I guess is a better noun) on foreign policy. This attention to an issue that constitutionally is outside the scope of state responsibility says a lot about the nature of state parties and polarization. This is an example, I think, of “signaling behavior“, in which the state parties are identifying themselves as faithful representatives of the party orthodoxy.

To measure foreign policy attention, I coded all sentences dealing with foreign policy and terrorism for platforms written between 2000 and 2012, but I excluded statements on veterans,   immigration and trade and economic development. These are issues tend to address issues that state policy-makers have more control over.

It turns out that foreign policy makes up a small, but significant part of state party platforms. State parties devote approximately four to six sentences out of every 100 to foreign policy. This may not seem like a lot, but among the other 24 issues I have coded for, this is about the middle in terms of attention. In 2004 and 2008, the relative attention to these issue was higher (slightly less than 10 percent). As seen in the density plot below, in some cases, the percentage of sentences devoted to foreign policy is much greater.

FP Density Coffey

The discussion is not cursory or filled with bland patriotic sentiments. Instead, parties often issue planks with highly detailed policy positions. Republican platforms, for example, often rail against “Agenda 21” or the “Law of the Sea”. The 2012 Texas Republican platform, for example, has an entire plank devoted to Agenda 21:

The Republican Party of Texas should expose all United Nations Agenda 21 treaty policies and its supporting organizations, agreements and contracts. We oppose implementation of the UN Agenda 21 Program which was adopted at the Earth Summit Conference in 1992 purporting to promote a comprehensive program of sustainable development projects, nationally, regionally and locally. We oppose the influence, promotion and implementation of nongovernmental organizations, metropolitan and/or regional planning organizations, Councils of Government, and International Council for Local Environmental initiatives and the use of American (Texas) citizen’s taxes to promote these programs.

The plank is more detailed than many state Republican platforms, but the tone and the detail of the position is not unusual. Similarly, many Democratic platforms are highly specific about what policies should guide the U.S. abroad. The 2012 Iowa Democratic platform endorses the “ratification or full participation” in 16 separate treaties and conventions , including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC).

The word clouds below capture some of the content differences in the agendas of state parties. The clouds are all state party platforms issued between 2010 and 2012; the blue cloud represents the most common words in Democratic platforms and the red cloud is the most common word used in Republican platforms.

Dem Word Cloud Republican Word Cloud

In fact, the parties are also quite polarized on foreign policy issues, but unlike gun control, neither party really “owns” this issue. Instead, across states, there is a fairly even distribution of ideological positioning.

Ideological Positioning

I am often asked why state parties care about these issues. To be honest, I don’t have a definitive answer. I suspect it has something to do with how the platforms are written. As social scientists, we often focus on the “data generating process” to understand social and political phenomena. In this case, the “bag of words” approach to textual analysis might miss the specificity of a narrow set of planks, yet I think these planks can tell us a lot about the structure of state party organizations. That means understanding how platforms are written, seeing the planks as the end product of a process that generated them.

Here is my theory: when activists have a large role to play in state party organizations, the parties will be more ideological than parties that are more professional operations serving elected officials. The “amateur democrats” which James Q. Wilson recognized were becoming a major part of the political process in the 1960s, are engaged in politics precisely for ideological reasons. They genuinely care about issues in which they have no personal stake.

I haven’t really come up with a great way to test this theory, but one (admittedly crude) measure of the influence of activists vs. party professionals is to see if there is a difference between the foreign policy content of states that have caucuses and those with primaries. Caucus states often have a platform process that begins at the precinct level (Minnesota is a good example). There, virtually any attendee can submit a plank for inclusion on the state party platform. The state platform committees work hard to make sure the platform starts at this hyper-local level. In other states, the platform is written by a central committee, often chaired by an elected official.

I am currently looking at state party bylaws and contacting state parties to collect information about how their platforms are written. While political scientists have studied state party platforms, there has not been a lot of systematic data gathering on how platforms are written.

Caucus Primary

Anyway, some evidence can be seen in whether states held a caucus or a primary in the 2012 presidential election.  The evidence is not overwhelming, but there is more content devoted to foreign policy in caucus as opposed to primary states. This may also underestimate the difference; many primary states such as New York and New Jersey do not issue platforms at all, while almost all states that use a caucus have platforms.

In short, party platforms are not always meant as literal statements of the party legislative agenda. They are, in part, team-building exercises. Taking stands on issues on a range of issues communicates to activists that they party is united on core principles. Foreign policy planks, then, seem to be clear examples of signaling behavior to activists.

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