From party platforms to a flag at half-staff, do symbols mean anything?

How much meaning do you give symbols?

Political conventions are full of them, rituals in their own right. In Cleveland this week, we saw elephants, pictures of Reagan and Lincoln, and heard addresses from members of the Grand Old Party. The balloons, streamers, and speeches worked to bring the party faithful together in celebration of the ideas that make up Republicanism. And, next week, we will see the same thing occur with the Democrats.

As part of the process, a party platform is drafted. It is a symbolic document meant either to serve as an “elevator pitch” about the party’s principles or as a detailed statement of its governing priorities. But you can’t directly force elected officials to follow it. In Maine, there are Republican officials who support taxpayer-subsidized political campaigns despite it being opposed in the GOP platform. And there are pro-life Democrats despite their party’s platform supporting abortion rights.

A delegate studies a copy of the Republican platform document at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

A delegate studies a copy of the Republican platform document at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Nevertheless, we develop symbols because they convey meaning. There are no laws binding a politician to the tenets of his party platform, but it is difficult for an official to venture too far afield and still find support from his party. Whether you love the party system or hate it, the fact remains you need a majority of votes to pass legislation; parties are a way to get the needed votes, and platforms help build the party.

That is why the efforts of Rep. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn, a small businesswoman and Republican delegate, as a member of the GOP platform committee are so interesting. She successfully passed an amendment to the platform adding language stating Republicans believe states should consent to national monuments. You can see the application in Maine.

Speaking with opponents of Roxanne Quimby’s national monument, they believe it is a fait accompli — that at some point in the final days of the Obama administration, the president will, without Congress, declare a Maine Woods monument. Should Donald Trump be elected, we will then see how much he believes in the GOP platform. After all, whether the advocates’ polls showing support for a national monument are correct or not, the law in Maine now clearly says the state does not consent to the action. Will Trump undo Obama’s decision, either unilaterally or through Congress? Or will Guerin’s contribution to the Republican platform remain merely a symbol?

An employee leaves after lowering the U.S. flag to half-staff to honor the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, at the White House. Yuri Gripas | Reuters

An employee leaves after lowering the U.S. flag to half-staff to honor the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, at the White House. Yuri Gripas | Reuters

Meanwhile, we again spent a week with the American flag at half-staff for the Baton Rouge police officers lost. A symbol of honor and mourning. Their loss — coupled with the Dallas shootings and countless other cowardly attacks against police — led President Obama to pen an “open letter” to law enforcement nationwide, concluding with “we have your backs.” He’s come a long way from talking about how “stupidly” police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, acted in 2009 in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Yet we have spent more than half of the month to date with the American flag at half-staff. It was first lowered for the victims of the Dallas attacks. Then, three days after returning the national ensign to full-hoist, it was lowered for the attack in Nice, France. The half-staff status was extended with the Baton Rouge shootings. This is in addition to the days it was already flying at half-staff this year in honor of the victims of the Orlando shooting in June, the Brussels terror attack victims in April, Nancy Reagan in March, and Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

It seems lowering the flag has become a reflex whenever something bad happens to in-favor people. It was once a poignant mark of national mourning for departed leaders — presidents, justices, speakers of the house — with firmly prescribed periods depending on the office held. In extraordinary occasions the honor was extended for other mournful events, such as the peacetime loss of servicemembers. For example, the flag was flown at half-staff in 1963 following the USS Thresher sinking during the Kennedy administration and the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

Today, the stars and stripes fly at half-staff when NATO allies such as France and Belgium are attacked by ISIS terrorists. But when other NATO allies like Turkey are attacked by the same group? Nothing. With the killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, flags are lowered. But in 2014, when two minority NYPD officers were murdered as retribution for Michael Brown’s death? Nothing. Does anyone else think the honor of the symbol may be losing its meaning, both from overuse and inconsistency?

Symbols only have meaning to the extent they are honored. When it comes to lowering the flag, that means ensuring it is lowered only for extraordinary occasions of national mourning. When it comes to party platforms, it means respecting the concerns expressed by those who share your ideals. But in both cases, as with most everything in life, it comes down to actions.

Those always speak more clearly than symbols and more loudly than words.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.