In late August, one day after the Republican National Convention had officially begun, David Frum penned an essay in The Atlantic that purported to outline “[w]hat the Republican Party actually stands for, in 13 points.” Frum was responding to the GOP’s decision not to publish an official 2020 platform, which had “led some to conclude that … it stands for nothing” beyond the President’s whims. This was wrong, Frum insisted: “The Republican Party of 2020 has lots of ideas … that command almost universal assent within the Trump administration, within the Republican caucuses of the U.S. House and Senate, among governors and state legislators, on Fox News, and among rank-and-file Republicans.”
But because so many of those ideas are unpopular—tax cuts for the wealthy, aggressive voter ID regulations, a rollback of Obamacare, a “learn to live with it” approach to coronavirus—the GOP rarely states them outright, mindful of the backlash such candor could engender. Instead, it communicates them “implicitly, to those receptive to its message,” reassuring the base through intimation and innuendo. It’s when the implicit becomes explicit, transmuted by some Trumpian blunder, that the platform becomes a problem—and since Trump has trouble keeping his mouth shut, Frum reasoned, the GOP might have trouble winning the election.
The next two months seemed to provisionally vindicate that analysis. Biden widened his lead over Trump, largely due to the latter’s gaffes and ghoulishness, and has several plausible paths to victory as of this writing. There’s also a chance Democrats retake the Senate by a wide margin, in which case the GOP will appear even more minoritarian in retrospect, and its challengers even more democratic.
But appearances can be deceiving—and though the Democrats did publish an official platform ahead of their convention, they too have an unofficial, unspoken one: a platform that, like Frum’s stylized description of the GOP’s, provokes “backlash among the American majority.” Let me list 13 planks of it, each commanding significant support within the Party’s base, and quite possibly within a future Biden administration as well. These ideas do not mean Trump is going to win, or that he deserves to; just that, if he does win, there will be a fairly obvious explanation as to why.
- The First Amendment, which allows for hate speech and fake news, may be doing more harm than good. Many liberal democracies ban what is constitutionally protected speech in the U.S.; with the rise of online disinformation, perhaps it’s time we consider their example.
- Lockdowns, such as the one imposed by Andrew Cuomo, are a proven, prudent means of epidemic control, opposition to which is anti-scientific. Unsurprisingly, conservative Christians and Haredi Jews have been the most brazen violators of these rules, which is why secular countries, like France, have much lower caseloads than America.
- Religious worship obviously does not trump public health. But since racism is a public health issue, stay-at-home orders should include an exemption for racial protests. Furthermore, protest is one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment; coronavirus hasn’t suspended the constitution.
- Climate change is an existential threat. To address it, we’ll need to transform our entire economic order within a generation. If Congress can’t ban fracking, oil-drilling, and other emission-heavy industries, the EPA should regulate them out of business as soon as possible. Market-based solutions are woefully insufficient.
- Mass incarceration is mostly due to systemic racism, not violent crime. And violent crime is itself due to systemic racism. Plus, systemic racism causes people to exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime, which in turn reinforces racist attitudes.
- Unconscious bias permeates American life. White people need lifelong education—from school to the workforce—to perceive their own privilege. Diversity trainings, such as the ones Donald Trump recently banned, serve that end, and should be mandatory for all government employees.
- Every federal agency should make eliminating racial disparities a top priority, regardless of how those disparities came about. Disparate impact is not just evidence of racism but arguably constitutive of it. Any policy that permits racial disparities is presumptively unjust.
- Separation of Church and State is not enough. People should be free to worship in private, but not to impose their views on others through educational policies, business practices, or family structures.
- Unlike religion, abortion is a public good. It should be subsidized and celebrated as an assertion of women’s autonomy. “Safe, legal, and rare” implies unacceptable stigma, and those who think otherwise do not belong in the Democratic Party.
- Gender is socially constructed, but gender identity is innate and knowable at a young age, perhaps even five. These premises, which in no way conflict with each other, should both be incorporated into civil rights law.
- China and Russia pose roughly equal threats to the United States. Both engage in election interference, both oppose our values, and both are run by self-interested strongmen. Countering Beijing should not come at the cost of courting Moscow, whose interference in our elections likely cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.
- Our election infrastructure is efficient and secure enough to process an unprecedented influx of mail-in ballots without any risk of malfeasance. Concerns about voter fraud are overblown, irrational, and—when voiced by Republicans—typically racist as well.
- Illegal immigration does not happen very often. And even if it did, it would not depress native wages. And even if it depressed native wages, it would help the broader economy. And even if it did not help the economy, it would make America a better place. Legal immigration, of course, is an unalloyed good, the cap on which should be greatly increased.
The Democrats’ unspoken platform, like the GOP’s, contains kernels of truth: disinformation is a problem, lockdowns can be prudent, and Russia remains a strategic (albeit not terribly serious) threat. But it also stretches those kernels into radical, unpopular territory, toward positions that few moderates or independents share.
At the same time, neither platform is particularly coherent: The GOP is running a restrictionist campaign while touting tax breaks for businesses that employ migrant labor, and the Democrats are downplaying the risk of voter fraud while alleging that Russia rigged the 2016 election. Even the individual planks are contradictory—it’s not clear, for instance, how gender can be both socially constructed and innate, much less how both understandings can be simultaneously enshrined in law. (That has not stopped the authors of the Equality Act, which Biden promises to enact within his first 100 days, from trying.)
Because this platform does not command majority support, Democrats rarely state it explicitly. Like their Republican counterparts, they use implication and omission to avoid alienating voters, even though their rhetoric—”root out” systemic racism, “go to war” with fossil fuels—belies the moderate image the party has cultivated. The main difference is that while Biden sometimes sticks his foot in his mouth, Trump constantly kicks himself in the face, which means the bait-and-switch strategy has been much easier for Democrats to execute.
On Nov. 3, or god willing by Nov. 30, we’ll find out if the strategy worked.