Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Some Thoughts on Platform Prose

In my earlier, very brief, report on the 2018 Libertarian Party platform committee's meeting in Columbus on Sunday and Monday, I noted that "[a]mong other things, we were also able to pass (IIRC) two of Mike Seebecks's proposed style cleanups on material toward the top of the platform ..."

Mike is working toward three goals with his proposals:

  1. Proper spelling, grammar, and sentence construction;
  2. Uniform compliance with the Libertarian National Committee's style authority (The Chicago Manual of Style); and
  3. Format uniformity in which each plank in the platform incorporates policy proposals ("Libertarians support/oppose" in the first instance in a plank, "we support/oppose" in subsequent instances within a plank) and the underlying philosophical reasons ("Libertarians believe/we believe").
I wholeheartedly support all three goals and applaud Mike's hard work at going through the platform line by line and offering up the changes/corrections as proposals. He's been agitating for years for a style committee to take care of that stuff so that the platform committee can concentrate more on the substance than the writing. He hasn't gotten his way, so he's doing the hard part and asking the platform committee to incorporate that work in our proposals to the convention.

Those proposals ran into a couple of objections at the platform committee meeting:

Objection One: This stuff just isn't that important, let's get into substantive changes to the platform, i.e. adding planks on new issues, correcting material in planks that doesn't appropriately reflect the party's positions and accord with its Statement of Principles.

I consider that objection legitimate to a point. We have to set priorities, and it may be that the "substantive changes" are more important than the "style changes." Two ways of handling the importance issue are:

  1. Modifying our agenda to get to the "substantive stuff" first (which we did, after much argument both setting the agenda -- "style first" -- and modifying it -- "substance now").
  2. Putting the "style" changes toward the bottom of our rankings in the committee's report, so that the convention delegates get to them after handling the "substance" changes, which we will likely do.
Now, why do I say "to a point?"

Well, the committee was scheduled to meet for nine hours on Sunday and five hours on Monday. My recollection is that we spent a good three hours on Sunday and at least half an hour on Monday arguing about the agenda instead of debating the proposals. Whether we were working on the "style" or "substance" material, we could probably have finished up at least a couple more items if not for the agenda fighting.

Also, the "style proposals" were available for us to work on for weeks before the physical meeting. We could have handled them by email ballot and it wouldn't have been an issue. But several delegates made clear early on that they would only support proposals that they could vote on from a hotel meeting room hundreds or even thousands of miles from their homes. After which nobody really bothered pushing email ballots. And there was quite a bit of overlap between those who would only vote at a hotel and those who complained that once they got to the hotel, all that "unimportant" stuff they had refused to handle quickly and easily by email was there waiting for them to handle slowly and with great difficulty.

On the latter point, my sympathy is, shall we say, minimal.

Objection Two:  I'm going to name names here, because I don't believe there's any shame at all in the objection. Aaron Starr of California doesn't like the format uniformity part, where every plank has a "Libertarians/we believe" part and a "Libertarians/we support/oppose" part, because he thinks it makes for boring reading. Nobody, in his opinion, wants to sit there and read a gazillion paragraphs that all follow the same format.

From a certain standpoint, I agree. The platform, taken as a whole, might seem a bit dry if written that way.


I disagree.

Not very many people are going to sit down and read the platform from top to bottom.

Most people who aren't LP members/activists come to the platform wanting to know what "Libertarians believe" about, and what actions "Libertarians support/oppose" regarding, a particular issue. They're there to see what we think about abortion or gun rights or immigration or trade. Maybe two of those, but probably not three or four and almost never every issue the platform addresses. They aren't going to be bored by the uniformity because they're going to read the plank or three that they're interested in and then go back to swilling brandy and playing Bejeweled while, hopefully, thinking it over.

Party members/activists will also likely read a plank or three at a time but come back often, and they will benefit from having a format that makes it very easy to get directly to what the party supports/opposes and why on any given issue.

In my opinion, Aaron's objection to a uniform format only makes sense if we assume that people are going to read the platform from beginning to end and go away disappointed that it didn't rip along like a suspense novel with a cliffhanger at the end of each plank.

I don't want the platform to be boring, but I do want it to be accessible with minimal effort and to be written in a way that tends to spotlight the party's consistency of approach to the issues. That consistency is a feature, not a bug. It's a strength, not a weakness. We should show it off.

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