There's a saying about the battles academics wage with each other: The fights are so intense because the stakes are so small.
It's hard not to think of that when you read news about the impending conflicts Democrats, and to a lesser extent Republicans, will have over their party platforms. Every four years, the two parties appoint a committee of people who jockey, posture, argue, and negotiate over what these documents will say. And then almost no one ends up reading them.
If you're reading this article, you're almost certainly an informed citizen who's interested in politics. Have you ever read a party platform?
The Democrats' 2012 platform is more than 26,000 words long (you can read it here, if you dare), and the Republicans' over 32,000 (here it is). They tell you pretty much what you already know about the parties, their priorities, and their proclivities (for instance, the word "constitution" appears no fewer than 52 times in the Republican platform, a reflection of what I call the Founding Father fetishism that took over their party when Obama was elected).
The campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton engaged in some real maneuvering over how many members of the platform committee each would be granted; in the end, Clinton got six, Sanders got five, and the DNC appointed the other four. Sanders used the opportunity to name his supporter Cornel West, who has an almost venomous dislike for Barack Obama — that's the person who, you may remember, is the party's leader and easily its most popular figure. And now reporters are predicting fireworks in the platform committee, because both West and another of Sanders' picks, James Zogby, are strong advocates for the rights of Palestinians. "A bitter divide over the Middle East could threaten Democratic Party unity," declared The New York Times.
Actually, no. Party unity will not be determined by what happens in the meetings of the platform committee. In fact, amid all the theatrics and (possibly) drama of the convention, almost no one will know what's in the platform, let alone what kind of arguments it took to finalize the document.
But party platforms still really matter.
It's a healthy exercise for important people within the party to sit down every four years and lay out exactly what they're for, even if few people actually pore through the ultimate result. Even in our personality-driven age, parties still play a vital role in organizing political life and enabling people to understand the choices they have in a representative democracy.
When you go to vote, how much do you know about the candidates for state representative? Probably next to nothing. But you can guess that if you vote for the Republican you'll get someone who wants to cut taxes, make government smaller, make abortions harder to get, and loosen regulations on business, among other things. Likewise, you can guess that the Democratic candidate will want exactly the opposite. And it's more than a guess, because 99 percent of the time, you'll be right. So the set of consensus beliefs each party holds provides an absolutely essential guide for your democratic participation.
We're a polarized country these days in part because the two parties have achieved so much consensus. Fifty years ago, there were conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans. There was more variation in what you might get from particular politicians within each party. That often made it easier to pass legislation in Congress, but it could also make things more complicated for voters.
Today, the differences within each party are much smaller. Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which supposedly will tear Democrats apart. The truth is that Sanders and Clinton believe basically the same thing on the subject: that Israel is an important friend and ally, but also that the Palestinians deserve their own state. While it's possible that the 2016 version of the Democratic platform might make a more emphatic statement on Palestinian rights than previous versions have, no one really thinks President Hillary Clinton's actions on this question are going to be influenced by what's in her party's platform.
On the other side, the GOP platform may be more important to party activists than ever. They can't write a document that reflects their nominee's beliefs about policy, since he doesn't appear to have any. Today he might think that we should increase the minimum wage, yesterday he said we should keep it where it is, and tomorrow he might want to get rid of it altogether. Who knows? But with that kind of nominee — and one whom many in the party are loath to support because of his lack of commitment to conservatism — it may feel more important than ever that they provide a clear and unambiguous statement of ideology, so the public knows that while they may have nominated Donald Trump, they haven't given up their beliefs.
And the GOP, so riven by internal disagreements for the last few years, should have little trouble coming to agreement on its statement of beliefs. Their greatest fights have been not over substance but over tactics — not, for example, whether the Affordable Care Act is among the greatest abominations in human history, which the angriest tea partier and the most complacent white-shoe Republican lobbyist agree on, but whether shutting down the government was the best way to strike a blow at its pulsing heart of evil.
On the Democratic side, there may actually be some matters of substance to argue about, even if the differences between the factions aren't that large (if you're interested, Jason Linkins explains five of them). But they involve just how far to go in achieving a shared goal; the Sanders supporters will be advocating more aggressive action on things like climate change and going after Wall Street, while the Clinton forces will want milder language.
In the end, Sanders could win all those arguments and help produce a platform substantially farther to the left than Clinton might like. But she's probably smart enough to realize that if that helps secure his cooperation in the general election, it's a small price to pay — he can feel like he's had an influence on the party, but she won't actually be required to do anything in response. Seems like a pretty good deal.