The American Constitution does not mention the establishment of political parties. Nevertheless, the first political parties came into being as early as the presidency of George Washington.
Political parties are considered an intrinsic part of any democracy, serving 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 as long as they are in office and the opposition monitors the party in power.
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The Founding Fathers
The Founding Fathers of the United States were opposed to political parties. They believed that politics should be discussed rationally with the intention of finding a solution that is 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 common good by competing with each other and setting voters up 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
A great number of third parties and independent candidates ran for the presidency in the 2012 election. However, the US has, in effect, a two-party system with only two viable competing parties: 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 more than 50% 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 for the two-party system is the fact that most Americans, and thereby also the two major parties, agree on the fundamental principles of running their country; for instance, that the US has, and should continue to have, a free-market economy based on capitalism, or that it is right to spend money on maintaining a strong national defense. Parties that deviate from these principles do not stand much of a chance.
Although the Democrats and the Republicans are bitter competitors for the power in the US, they both agree on one thing: it is best for them that the country retains the two-party system. 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 funding of a campaign, 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 do not encourage a change in the two-party system.
So who are these two parties that have dominated American politics throughout most of the country’s history?
The Democratic Party
The Democratic Party was founded in 1824, though it has roots back to the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1700s. It was not called the Democratic Party until under President Andrew Jackson in 1928.
The Democratic Party is considered the more liberal of the two main parties, leaning to the left of the political spectrum. They believe in active government involvement in both the economy and in society in general. This will ensure the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens.
One of the main focuses of the Democrats is equal rights and opportunities for all citizens – men and women, regardless of religion, race or sexuality. They claim that abortion is legal and should continue to be so. They are also for gay rights, and are working towards allowing same-sex marriages.
It is important to the Democratic Party today to secure a strong middle class and decrease poverty. One way of achieving this is by introducing progressive taxes; in other words, taking more taxes from the wealthy to create public programs for the less fortunate, for instance, in health care, drug rehabilitation or poverty. Another way to secure a better income for more people is by setting a minimum wage that employers have to pay their employees.
To Europeans, the Democratic Party seems like the more peaceful of the two parties. Although they are for securing a strong military defense, they want to keep expenditure as low as possible. They are also the more reluctant of the two parties to use military force against other nations. At home, the Democratic Party has the biggest faction of people who favor stricter gun control laws as well as a great number of members who are against the death penalty.
The Democratic Party has the most diverse party composition of the two main parties. More than a third of the members are non-white. Ideologically, most members are liberal or moderate, while only a few are conservative. In the 2012 election, President Obama also received a great number of votes from women and young people.
The Republican Party
The Republican Party was founded in 1854. Their main focus at this 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, this is considered the conservative, “right-wing” party, attracting mostly non-Hispanic, white Americans. By far most of the Republican voters claim to have a conservative ideology. A great many Republican voters define themselves as deeply religious. In the 2008 election, about half of the Republicans were non-Hispanic whites who attended church at least once a week. And while the Democrats received many votes from women and young people in the last election, the Republicans attracted most of their votes from middle-aged and older men.
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. In fact, they are for as little government intervention in the economy as possible, making room for a completely capitalistic economic system, often called a “laissez-faire” system. They 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 taxes people have to pay – which is another Republican goal .
One of the things the Republican Party believes the government should spend money on – if necessary, a lot of money – is the maintenance of a strong military. Domestically, they are against any form of gun control. They also support the death penalty, making the US one of the few western countries where it is practiced.
Republican conservatism is also apparent in their attitude to abortion, which most of them believe should be either illegal or, at least, very restricted. Neither do they support gay rights, being in strong opposition to same-sex marriages.
After having lost two consecutive presidential elections, many political analysts are predicting that the Republican Party will be gathering their think tank in order to plan a strategy to attract new groups of voters before the next presidential election.
Tasks and Activities
- Look up John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham and explain what is meant by “the common good”.
- Look up some of the third parties and independents who ran for the presidency in the 2012 elections. Who were they, and what did they stand for? Pick out one of them and present it to the class. Useful websites: US Political Parties 2012 and 15 Third-Party Presidential Candidates
- Look up history of the Democrats and the Republicans and explain how and why they were founded. Useful websites: Two Parties Emerge (US History), The Origins of the Republican Party (US History), The Republican Party (Britannica), The Democratic Party(Britannica)
- Explain the symbols, the donkey and the elephant, of the two parties.
- Compare the American two-party system with Norway’s system of proportional representation. Which do you think is the fairer system? Why? Which do you think is the more efficient? Why?
- Arrange a class debate where you divide the class into two groups. One group will represent the Democratic Party while the other group will belong to the Republican Party. Decide on some issues that you will discuss, e.g. Health, Economy, Immigration, Gun Control, Gay Marriage, Abortion. See Democrat vs Republican for suggestions.