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Political Parties in the United States

The American Constitution does not mention the establishment of political parties. Nevertheless, there have been political parties in the US since the presidency of George Washington.

Republican and Democrat campaigners carrying flags with donkey and elephant symbols

Political Parties in the United States


Political parties are an intrinsic part of any democracy, and they serve four main functions:

  • They nominate candidates for public office.

  • They work to educate and involve as many people as possible in the political process.

  • The party that wins the election runs the government.

  • The opposition monitors the work of the government.


Read through the list of words: do you know the meaning of all of them? Discuss with a partner and look up the words you are unsure of.

  • intrinsic

  • consensus

  • ratification

  • viable

  • deviate

  • ballot

  • procure

  • petition

  • spectrum

  • expenditure

  • faction

  • laissez-faire

The Founding Fathers

Painting: Section from a larger painting. Depiction of George Washington. We see a man in lavish clothes in black and gold. He has white hair.

George Washington was the first president of the United States of America.

of the United States were opposed to political parties. They believed that politics should be discussed rationally with the intention of finding solutions for the common good of the people. The competitive nature of political parties – or 'factions', as they were called – would get in the way of the best interest of the people. The founding father believed that the factions would be competing with each other and setting voters against each other.

However, it soon became clear that it was very difficult to arrive at a consensus regarding what the common good was. People simply had different ideas about what was best for the country, and in a democracy, everyone is entitled to give voice to their views. This is the essence of a true democracy. Thus, a mere decade after the ratification of the American Constitution, political parties had become a part of American political life.

The two-party system

In the US, there are a number of parties, and it is also possible to run for office as an independent candidate. However, there are two parties that dominate: the Democrats and the Republicans. This is mainly due to the fact that each congressional district elects only one single candidate to represent them in Congress. In other words, only parties that can win a majority of the votes in their district have a chance at winning a seat in Congress. And the candidate that wins the most votes will be his/her district’s only representative in Congress.

Another factor that works in favour of a two-party system is the fact that most Americans, and hence also the two major parties, agree on the fundamental principles for how their country should be run – for instance, that the US has, and should continue to have, a free-market economy based on capitalism, or that it is right to maintain a strong national defence. Parties that deviate from these principles do not stand much of a chance.

Although the Democrats and the Republicans are bitter competitors for power in the US, they both agree on one thing: it is best for them that the country retains the two-party system. The parties are happy to dominate the political process, they have even worked together to pass legislation that makes it difficult – sometimes impossible – for minor parties to even be included on the ballot. The governing parties at both state and federal levels are either Democratic or Republican – and they make the rules. One of these rules is that in order for a party to qualify for federal campaign funding, they must have received at least five percent of the votes in the previous election. It is also a rule that while the Democratic and Republican Parties, because of their sheer size, automatically go on the voting ballot, third parties are required to procure thousands of signatures on petitions in order to be included on the ballot. Rules like these mean that the Democrats and the Republicans remain in power.

So, who are these two parties that have dominated American politics throughout most of the country’s history?

The Democratic Party

Photo: We see Joe Biden smiling while clenching his right fist. He is standing in front of American flags. He is a grey-haired man in a dark suit.

Joe Biden is a Democrat. He was elected president in 2020.

The Democratic Party was founded in 1824, though it has roots back to the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1700s. It was named 'the Democratic Party' under President Andrew Jackson in 1828.

The Democratic Party is considered the more liberal of the two main parties, leaning to the left on the political spectrum. They believe in active government involvement in both the economy and in society in general. They believe that this will ensure the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens.

The Democrats champion equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of religion, gender, race, or sexuality. They want to ensure that abortion remains legal and accessible for those who need it. They also work to ensure LGBTQ rights, and during President Barack Obama's presidency, important legislation was passed to secure such rights. For example, a 2011 ruling made sure that openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women were permitted to serve in the military. Same-sex marriage became legal in the United States in 2015.

It is important to the Democratic Party today to secure a strong middle class and to combat poverty. One way of achieving this is by introducing progressive taxes – in other words, that people pay more taxes the more they earn. This money can then be used to create public programmes for the less fortunate, for instance with regard to health care, drug rehabilitation, or poverty. Another way to secure a better income for more people is to set a minimum wage that employers have to pay their employees.

By Europeans, the Democratic Party is often regarded as the more peaceful of the two parties. Even though they are in favour of securing a strong military defence, they want to keep the military budget as low as possible to free up funds to spend on, for example, welfare, affordable health services, or education. In the USA, the Democratic Party has the biggest faction of people who favour stricter gun control laws, there are also many members who are against the death penalty.

The Democratic Party has the most diverse party composition of the two main parties. Ideologically, most members are liberal or moderate, while only a few are conservative. While a majority in the party believe moderation is the path forward, there has, in recent years, been a marked shift towards the left. This has partly been a response to the Republican Party's move to the right, but it is also part of an attempt to find better and more radical solutions to the challenges America faces when it comes to unemployment, racism, increased poverty, and increased drug abuse.

The Republican Party

The Republican Party was founded in 1854. Their main focus at the time was to prevent the spread of slavery into the western territories. Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican president in 1860. The Republican Party is also called the GOP – the Grand Old Party.

Today, the Republican Party is considered the conservative, right-wing party. Most of the Republican voters claim to have a conservative ideology. Many Republican voters define themselves as deeply religious.

The Republicans want to keep the political power close to the people, with more power to state and local governments and less to the federal government. The Republican Party wants as little government intervention in the economy as possible, making room for a completely capitalistic economic system. They also want as little government spending as possible, which is one reason why they are against a government-run health-care system. The idea is that the less the government spends, the lower the taxes people have to pay – which is another Republican goal. Personal freedom is important to Republican voters.

Other policies where we see a clear distinction between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is when it comes to defence, gun control, and the death penalty: The Republican party is in favour of spending substantial amounts of government money on defence. The party opposes gun control. Most members of the Republican Party support the death penalty.

Republican conservatism is also apparent in the party's attitude to abortion. Most Republicans believe that abortion should either be illegal or heavily restricted. Republicans have also been reluctant to accept LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo: Portrait of President Donald Trump. He is wearing a blue suit, and a blue tie. He wears a flag pin. There is a flag behind him.

President Donald Trump represented the Republican Party.

Over the past twenty years, the Republican Party has moved further to the right. This has several causes, among them changes to voting districts, and media and social media influence on voters. The shift has resulted in a strong anti-immigration stance, an increased focus on limiting access to abortion, and a greater focus on nationalism and protectionism. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he made the popular promise to "make America great again". In a country that has seen traditional jobs being shipped overseas, where many work several jobs to keep a roof over their heads, and where the middle-class is in decline, this was rhetoric that offered many people hope for a better future.

How to recognise a Democrat:
  • The colour of the Democratic party is Blue.

  • The symbol of the Democratic Party is a donkey.

  • The abbreviation for the party is 'DNC' (the Democratic National Congress)

Why is the party symbol a donkey?

When Andrew Jackson ran for President his opponent called him a jackass, because of his stubbornness. Jackson put the jackass on his posters, and made it something to be proud of. Jackass is another word for donkey.

How to recognise a Republican
  • The colour of the republican party is red.

  • The symbol of the republican party is an elephant.

  • The abbreviation for the republican party is 'GOP' (the Grand Old Party).

Why is the party symbol an elephant?

A cartoonist named Nast made a cartoon where a Democratic donkey dressed as a lion was frightened off by a Republican elephant. After the cartoon was published in a magazine people began to associate Republicans with elephants.

Cartoon: We see various animals, among them an elephant which is scaring a donkey dressed in a lion costume. There are planks with words on them such as 'Reform', 'Inflation,' and 'Repudiation'.

Cartoon by Nast from 1874, which made an elephant the symbol of the Republican party.

Sist oppdatert 12.03.2018
Skrevet av Karin Dwyer Løken og Tone Hesjedal