What we can learn about American parties through their manifestos

Through conducting a content analysis of the electoral manifestos of the two major American parties — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, I set out to investigate and compare their political positions and how it has changed over time. The data used for analysis is the manifestos released by the Republican Party and the Democratic Party from 1920 to 2016, published by the Manifesto Project.

Most common words for all manifestos ___Manifestos by the Democratic Party___Manifestos by the Republican Party

The graphics above are the word cloud of the most common words in all manifestos, in manifestos of the Democratic Party only, and of the Republican Party only (from left to right). The words are as expected for electoral manifestos, no matter which party. The two major key words — “work”, “job”, and “economy” — are core to both parties’ commitment. The top 10 most common words for the two parties’ manifestos are similar, as shown below. The differences reside in the Democratic Party’s emphasis on healthcare and education, and the Republican Party’s stress on taxations and the family.

Top ten words by the Democratic Party (left) and the Republican Party (right)

Sentiment analysis of the manifestos

The general sentiments have a lot of variability, internally and externally to parties, and seem to grow into the more positive direction as time passes. More interestingly is the change in sentiments by parties. The sentiments by the Democratic Party was rising steadily until it dropped in the Reagan years (80s), and then rose again. The change in positive sentiments are mainly driven by the Democrats and not the Republicans.

The increased polarization and the slide to the right

The increasing polarization in American politics is a well-discussed and well-documented trend. The polarization is reflected in the textual analysis visualization of the manifestos, as the left-right positioning of the two parties was close together pre-1940, and the gap between their platform grew wider as years went by.

Not only so, there is a noticeable sliding to the right in both parties. Noted that this increasingly right-leaning positioning was likely to be driven by the Republican Party, as the right-sliding of the Democratic parties always lagged behind by a term. As the Republican Party grew increasingly right-leaning, so followed the Democratic Party. The jump in right-leaning positioning of both parties was most pronounced in the 80s with the advent of neoliberalism as the contemporary Western zeitgeist and its subsequent development into Reaganism — the American home-grown neoliberalism with its bundle of policies such as laissez-faire economy, deregulation, and destruction of the welfare state.

As for the 2016 manifesto, it seems like the Democratic Party suddenly took a sharp turn to the left. This is somewhat unsurprising, as this change was put into motion as a response to the 2008 financial crisis that left many American in need of a robust social welfare state, which also led to the growing public support for socialism especially among the younger generation, exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and finally, the rising influence of the social democrat wing in the Democratic party.

Planned Economy versus Market Economy

Regarding their economic policy stance, the two parties’ positioning was less defined in before the 1930s and 1940s, but after that, their respective economic policies became more and more distinct, with the Democrats favoring planned economy and the Republican favoring Market Economy. Their differences in economic policies are one of the biggest driver of the increasing political polarization in the U.S., as previously noted.

Their stances on the market economy solidified and polarized starting from 1930s, which was the era of the Great Depression and its subsequence response of the New Deal that advocated for regulations, financial reforms, and social welfare. All that changed in the 80s — the Reagan era — during which the Democrat backtracked on its pro-planning stance and increasingly favored Free Market. However, the Democratic Party got back on track regarding their pro-planning position and sharply increasingly so ever since 2000, and with another steep jump in 2008. These are responses to the Dot-com crisis and the Housing Bubble financial crisis — the two major financial crises of the 21st century.

The Republican Party seemed more consistent throughout decades regarding their laissez-faire stance, always more pronounced than the Democratic Party, yet they exhibited acutely high variability in their positioning. One hypothesis for the extreme variability is that the dips in their pro-free-market stance correspond to the financial crises and recessions throughout history, during which there is little incentive to put Free Market in the front of their agenda, but then the Republicans double-downed on the strong Free Market stance after that period, when the Party assumed that the crisis had been averted.

Welfare

Unsurprisingly, he Democratic Party has always consistently support welfare expansionism. Most of the spikes in their pro-welfare stance correspond to a financial crisis that left many in financial troubles and in need of support from the state. The rise in pro-welfare stance of the Democrats in 2016 seem particularly extreme, but it could as well be explained by the 2008 financial crisis, which spurred the Democratic Party’s shift in its welfare positioning, the growing socialist and pro-welfare stance within the public and especially the Democratic voter base, and the influence of the increasingly influential socialist wing within the Democratic Party itself.

Compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party had always been consistent in their anti-welfare, pro-austerity, and minimal-state positioning. There were some slight dips in the 60s and 80s with the advance of neoliberalism, but the Republican Party seems to express more friendly sentiments, especially as responses to the financial crises, to appease the unemployed, financially struggling Americans.

Pro-Military

Regarding militarism, the two parties appeared to be equally militant, with the Republican Party more aggressively so, especially from the 1950s to 2000s. The spikes in Republican militarism correspond to the Korean War (1950–1953), the Vietnam War (1955–1975), and the 1980s intervention in the Iran-Iraq war.

That is not to say the Democratic Party is more peaceful — after all, the Democratic administration was just as committed to the maintenance of American global hegemony as the Republicans. No matter which parties were in power, the U.S. government rarely hesitated to flex its military might. The differences between the parties might only on paper, in rhetorics, and not in reality. As a matter of fact, the annual U.S. military budget increased regardless of who was in power. The parties manifestos reflect parties’ projected platform and whether the public unanimously supported the war effort the time more than actual commitment to demilitarization or international peace, evidently by the similar pro-military stance of both parties during WWII and the War on Terror in the 2000s during which the wars had full public support.

Education

The Democratic Party tends to favor education funding more than the Republican. The trend in general is the increasing investment education from both parties, but in a highly inconsistent manner with high variabilities. It seems like neither party had fully commit to their stance on education.

Environmentalism

Environmentalism was not a wedge issue until the 80s, and only grew wider ever since. Before that, environmentalism was supported by both parties and not positioned as a partisan platform. Then, everything changed when Reagan came into power.

While the Democratic Party tried to legally respond to the environmental movement from the 60s and 70s with laws and regulations in the 80s, the Reagan administration set out to demolish these efforts, as environmental regulations are good for humanity in the long term, but bad for businesses in the short term. This trend is not surprising, fitting perfectly in the Republicans’ neoliberal tendency, as well as the growing polarization in the American political landscape.

Conclusion

Through conducting a text analysis of the electoral manifestos of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party using R and the Manifesto Project database, I aimed to comparatively investigate their policy stances and their developments, particularly in terms of left-right tendencies, polarization, and specific policy platform such as economic system, militarism, welfare, education, and environmentalism.

The visualization above and the subsequent analysis echoed the well-documented rise in polarization in U.S. politics, which was mainly driven by the Republican Party, and the general shift of the landscape to the right, albeit more pronounced in the Republican Party. The growth in polarization was driven more by the policy positions in economic, welfare, and environmentalism, and less so in militarism and education.

As to future research questions, it might be productive to look into other drivers of polarization and changes in political positions, such as protectionism, internationalism, morality, religion, and nationalism. Another potential pathway to pursue is the relationship and correspondence between parties’ policy positionings and the views of the American public, particularly of the median voter, the average Democratic voter and the average Republican voter.

The Manifesto Project, Versions 2020–1 until most recent version: Burst, Tobias / Krause, Werner / Lehmann, Pola / Lewandowski, Jirka / Matthieß, Theres / Merz, Nicolas / Regel, Sven / Zehnter, Lisa (202X): Manifesto Corpus. Version: XXXX-X. Berlin: WZB Berlin Social Science Center.