There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged.
– From George Washington's Farewell Address1
Partisan politics in the US can be extremely divisive: the inspiration behind numerous effigies, dinner-table fights and fundraisers, each as unpleasant as the last. Moreover, it's simply a fact of life of being a citizen of the United States. As a citizen, almost everyone who is a sincerely political person can identify him or herself as being either a Democrat or a Republican.
Naturally, there are quite a few exceptions to the rule. These people can take many forms, such as infants, spoilers, Libertarians, Greens or Independents. However, for the sake of comparison between the two major parties, we shall largely exclude these people from this Entry just as they are excluded from the political process.
This Entry does not aim to serve as a guide to whom you should vote for in an upcoming election. Its purpose is to detect overlying patterns in party policies historically. Many specific issues that will be important in elections will not be mentioned in this entry2. If you are in the US, please pick up a newspaper and you can learn about the specific issues that this Entry will exclude.
What are the Fundamental Differences?
Something that anyone interested in US political history will quickly realise is that the parties have switched sides on issues a few times. The minor issues have come and gone, but each party has occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum in their time.
The Democrats can trace their origins to Thomas Jefferson, who was a proponent of states' rights, something the Democrats are fundamentally against today. Democrats are often painted as government-expanders and lovers of bureaucracy. They are considered more inclined to expand the federal government, which is something Jefferson and his allies fought passionately against.
The Republicans were formed just before the American Civil War, at a time when they were the liberals and the Democrats were the conservatives. They fought against the spread of slavery, and, after the war, for civil rights. Within a century, they found themselves fighting against civil rights when the Democrats adopted a new platform.
Federalist or Anti-Federalist?
A fundamental difference between political parties in the US concerns the issue of federalism, and this has been the case for over 200 years. The dispute over whether the federal government or the states should be more powerful is older than the US Constitution.
As mentioned earlier, the Jeffersonian Democrats were the early proponents of states' rights, or Anti-Federalism, and held that platform for a long time. When Thomas Jefferson was President3, he resisted federal power to the point that he considered not purchasing the Louisiana Territory from the French because the constitution didn't say he could.
The Democrats fell out of power after the Civil War, and the Republicans Lincoln and Grant began to strengthen the federal government. These people subscribed to a federalist ideology. It was around this time that the federal income tax was first imposed upon Americans.
The next major shift in federalism came following the stock market crash in 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. Republican President Herbert Hoover believed that the government should never interfere with the economy of the country. He simply watched the economy collapse and saw America suffer. Hoover represented a number of Republican politicians who valued principles over the common good.
Enter 'New' Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. He was elected in a landslide, and his administration used its power to broaden the scope of the Federal government with new programmes and many, many more jobs. He took Federalism to a new height, with New Deal legislation and the institution of Social Security. He also believed that a bit of realpolitik was necessary, even if it meant bending the principles of the government and constitution.
The New Deal Democrats took control of their party, and the Democrats became the Big Government party through to the present day. The Republicans, who resisted Roosevelt, were moulded into the anti-governmental, anti-tax party. Ronald Reagan said government was the problem, not the solution, and George HW Bush asked voters to read his lips: 'no new taxes'. On the other hand, Democrat Walter Mondale, in running for President, promised to raise taxes. Bush didn't end up keeping his pledge, and signed a new gas tax. Mondale didn't get a chance to show whether he would keep his pledge because he lost in a landslide.
One of the major differences between Republicans and Democrats is that (at least in theory4) Democrats are more keen to raise taxes to deal with any problems that may crop up, but Republicans think that if there isn't much government, society left alone can work out its own problems.
For instance, a Republican believes that his government shouldn't spend exorbitant amounts of taxpayer's money to help fight homelessness, because if people wanted their money to go there, they can write a cheque to a charity benefiting the homeless. They will be better able to do this if they don't have so many taxes. A Democrat would tend to spend government money on such programmes, not only to help the people, but in the hopes that the problem would go away and would be less of a burden on the nation's economy.
Democrats believe in wealth redistribution (though they don't call it that out loud) in order to stimulate the economy and help build a strong middle class (this is known as flow-up economics). The Republicans of today generally oppose this. They think this hurts the economy, and believe that investors drive the economy (trickle-down economics). Both are discussed in the next section.
Flow Up or Trickle Down?
The Republican and Democratic economic systems came about around the same time as the Federalist partisan philosophies emerged. The economic and governmental beliefs of the parties are interrelated.
Republicans, since they are in favour of more limited government powers, do not believe in interference in the economy, which means that they believe in minimal taxation. According to the modern Republicans5, if you leave the economy with low taxes, it will grow much faster. There is, of course, something to this. But low taxes mean that the government must run deficits, unless quite a lot of government spending is cut. Even when quite a lot is cut, there's still usually a deficit. Now, this works in with their anti-government position well too, because if they don't believe that a government program needs to be around, they don't need to fund it.
Flow-up economics stimulate the economy by helping the lower classes. The theory is that the less wealthy will spend the money you help them come by (they cannot afford to hang onto it, they're poor), raising demand; which all goes back to businesses in the form of revenue, paying salaries to more employees (and flowing back to the investors from the increased profits) and generally stimulating the economy. Trickle-down economics focuses on giving tax breaks to the rich in hopes that they'll invest in industries and salaries on the chance that demand will increase as a result of the investments. The major difference is that in flow-up economics, you're stimulating the economy by helping poor people, and in trickle-down economics, you're stimulating the economy by helping rich people and ultimately causing a greater disparity between rich and poor. Though helping the rich versus helping the poor sounds fairly obvious, the other factor here is how much each plan will stimulate the economy. That's tough to predict.
President Bill Clinton claimed that the key to his economic plan's success was one word: arithmetic. Democrats tend to use programmes, incentives and highly complicated plans to help their economy and keep their budget straight. They often keep taxes higher than Republicans, and generally tax wealthy individuals and corporations higher. The downside for Democrats is that they can't sell their plan easily. Since it's so complicated and inaccessible, and the Republican model so simple, fewer ordinary people can really sink their teeth into the Democratic plan.
Pro-Business or Pro-Worker?
In the same way that Republicans believe the government should interfere with the economy minimally, they believe that they should let business do its thing. They buy into the laissez-faire philosophy and think that business will sort itself out without the government. They trust business, and want to reduce laws and regulations. The Democrats are more keen to influence how business develops, especially with things like pollution standards, high-tech incentives and keeping a high minimum wage.
Unions are a classic example of Republican and Democratic attitudes towards business. During a strike, Democrats tend to fall into the 'pro-union' fold, and the Republicans are more likely to be 'pro-business'.
Liberal or Conservative?
Social issues are some of the most divisive issues in a campaign, because on any one issue a person tends to fall into one of two camps, liberal or conservative.
One pattern in American politics is that those who are in favour of granting rights are deemed liberal. Throughout the years, there have been many such cases: the first liberals in America were in favour of granting independence to the country, and then there were liberals and conservatives in the issues of slavery, civil rights, women's suffrage, civil rights again, gay rights, abortion rights and others. The biggest exception to this is gun rights, which liberals try to limit and conservatives are in favour of.
The conservative end of the spectrum generally wants to maintain the status quo. At some points in history, both parties were fairly socially conservative. There has always been a conservative influence in American politics. In the 1800s, it was the Democrats, and in the 1900s, once being the anti-slavery party stopped getting them votes, the Republicans were the conservatives. This constant conservative influence has kept the ship of state moving gradually, so America has never experienced a truly radical liberal government, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt's administration.
The issue of life is an incredibly difficult one. It has so many exceptions and complications that this Researcher is wary to even mention it here. However, there are partisan patterns on the issue of life and it has been a dominating issue in politics for years. Republicans are more likely to try to limit or ban the abortion of a pregnancy – this position has been known as 'pro-life'. Democrats are more inclined to leave that decision in the hands of each individual woman – this position is known as 'pro-choice'. On the issue of the death penalty, Republicans are somewhat more likely to push for increased usage of it, while the Democrats don't like it so much. As was mentioned, these are very sensitive and complex issues, and it is in fact entirely possible to be a pro-life Democrat or an anti-death penalty Republican. Once you have decided your political party, do not allow their platform to decide yours on incredibly individualistic issues like this.
Deciding if you're a liberal or a conservative depends on the issues of the time, of course. You can find liberals or conservatives on any issue in any party. As a rule, though, today, the Republicans are the conservatives, and the Democrats are more liberal.
What Are the Stupidest Reasons you can Think Of?
If you don't care much either way, you can decide if you're a Democrat or a Republican by looking at these stupid reasons for choosing a political affiliation:
- Do you generally prefer things to change or for things to stay the same? 'Changers' tend to be Democrats.
- Do you like the donkey or the elephant more? If you're an elephant sort of person, you might just be a Republican.
- Do prefer blue or red? Red represents Republican. Blue means Democrat.
- What is your favorite hand? If it's the right hand, you could be a Republican!
- Because Daddy was.
The north-eastern states have always been fairly liberal, the south-east rather conservative. In the west you'll find a lot of conservatives, and some liberalism in the upper midwest region. The Pacific states are more liberal than the rest. Hawaii is liberal, Alaska is conservative.
This really hasn't ever changed. What have changed are the areas controlled by the parties. Early on, the Federalists held on to only New England and had some control of the Middle States. The Democrats held onto the south, and didn't let go of it for 100 years.
The Republicans won the north solidly from 1860 until the election of 19606, in which John F Kennedy, a Northern Liberal Democrat, won much of the north and a good part of the south. In this election, and for a short time afterwards, regional conventional wisdom didn't apply. Kennedy won most of the south and much of the north. In fact, at this time, the south didn't have a party it could solidly back, so Senator Strom Thurman and others created the ill-fated Dixiecrat Party soon afterwards.
Lyndon Johnson became President after John F Kennedy's assassination, and within a year before his reëlection, he pushed through the most ambitious domestic agenda in decades. However, this included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which angered the south. In fact, after the official signing of the bill, Johnson told an aide that he thought he had just signed the south over to the Republicans for years to come. When he ran for re-election in 1964, he lost only six states – all in the south.
Johnson was right. The Democrats had given a huge chunk of the country to their rivals. This left the major regional control patterns with the Republicans holding the south and the west and the Democrats holding the west coast, the north-east coast and some of the midwest. It has held similarly to the time of this writing.
Urban or Rural?
Urban areas – big cities like New York and Chicago – tend to have large social problems in welfare, education and crime. Democrats generally promise to use government to help solve these problems, which appeals to urbanites. Urban people are generally liberal-leaning, as they experience a diverse city and see everyone's opinion on the issues. Urban areas tend to swing towards Democrats.
In rural areas, the people are socially conservative and tend to be very religious. The Republicans identify themselves with the beliefs of suburban and rural America. Much of their constituency is based on small-town people and farmers. Rural areas and largely unurbanised states tend to vote Republican.
It's fairly simple. If you live in the more liberal regions, you might be more inclined to be a Democrat. If you live in Republican country, you're more likely to see yourself as a Republican.
But far be it from this entry to tell you how to think. You should never let the beliefs of your neighbours influence how you vote. Decide your vote on who you believe in more, not who the bandwagon backs.
Is All Politics Local?
The former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil used to say that 'All politics is local.' In the United States, an enormous amount of politics is indeed local. Usually, a candidate for political office, no matter how small the position, is identified as a Democrat or a Republican. Sometimes, seemingly nonpartisan positions such as coroner and District Attorney are elected based on political affiliation.
However, the Democratic and Republican platforms are largely shaped by those focusing on national issues, which are often both irrelevant and unimportant to local politicians. The mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio will not be elected based on a Chinese arms embargo, just as the President will not be elected based on his stance on a pothole on Sycamore Street.
Local party politics is much less divisive and defined than national politics. You need not choose a candidate because of his party. The important things tend to be the issues, especially education, the state and city economies, and crime.
Local politicians will probably be fairly closely associated with a party, but successful ones are more likely to have the beliefs of their fellow residents than of their fellow party members. That is to say, Republican mayoral candidates should do better in a seriously Democratic state than a Republican Presidential candidate, because the party is more likely to nominate someone who will meet the demands of the electorate. For instance, New York City, which is a profoundly Democratic and liberal area, often elects Republican mayors and has one at the time of writing. Texas, among the most Republican of states, has a strong Democratic party, which is more conservative than their national namesakes.
So, when voting for a local candidate or running for local office, remember that party politics are not quite as important. If you're running, you could be a Republican or a Democrat, and it often will not make a wink of a difference. At a local level, people want to know what you can do for their quality of life. Don't decide against a local candidate because their party has bad foreign policy. Let the issues at hand be your guide.
'I am not part of the problem. I am a Republican.'
– Dan Quayle (Vice President under George HW Bush who couldn't spell potato)
'I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends... that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.'
– Adlai Stevenson – Ran for the White House twice. Lost it to a Republican twice
'The difference between Republicans and Democrats is this: Republicans suck and Democrats blow.'
– Lewis Black, comedian
'I belong to no organised party. I am a Democrat.'
– Will Rogers, political humorist
'As people do better, they start voting like Republicans – unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.'
– Karl Rove, political strategist
'I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers. What I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.'
– Ambrose Bierce
'The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door. That's the only difference.'
–Ralph Nader – ran for the White House twice; came in third to a Democrat and a Republican.
Okay, so you've read through this entry and you don't like the look of either. If you want to learn more about third parties, check out some of the following links:
- A general guide to all political parties in the United States
- The Libertarian Party
- The Reform Party
- The Green Party
- The Socialist Party