There is less difference between the two main US parties than there is between parties in some other countries. Both parties are moderate and close to the political centre, but the Republicans are to the right and Democrats are to the leftof centre.
Typically, the Democrats support government spending on social welfare programmes, while the Republicans are against this. The Republicans are usually in favour of spending money on the armed forces and believe there should be few laws restricting business and trade. Republicans are sometimes called the GOP, or Grand Old Party, and have an elephant as their symbol. The Democrats’ symbol is a donkey.
Traditionally, the Democratic Party has drawn its support from poor people, workers with low-paid jobs, African Americans, and many people in the southern states. People with more money and jobs in the professions, and those who live in the central parts of the US, have tended to vote for the Republicans. Many white southerners are closer in their political beliefs to the Republicans but do not want to vote for them because it was a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who fought the Civil War against the South. As a compromise, they elect politicians who are on the right of the Democratic party, sometimes called ‘Dixiecrats’.
In the 20th century the Republicans have elected presidents such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Democratic presidents have included Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
If somebody becomes a member of a social party it does not mean that they remain committed to it. Americans believe that the personal qualities of a candidate for office are more important than the party he or she belongs to, and they do not stay loyal to one party. Every four years each party holds primary elections to decide who will be the party’s candidate for President. People who vote in a party’s primary must be members of that party.
Many people change their party membership often, in some cases every four or eight years. Some people even vote in one party’s primary, and then vote for the candidates from the other party in the general election.
Very few party members take part in party political activities. Local branches of the parties support candidates running for local offices and people who are active in a party are involved at this level. The branches use members to distribute information before an election or to telephone people to remind them to vote.
Political parties are organized groups of peoplewho share a set of ideas about how the country should be governed. They work together to have members of their group elected in order to influence the governing of the country. When members of a political party form a majority in Congress, they have great power to decide what kinds of laws will be passed. With few exñeptions, presidents tend to appoint members of their party to governmental positions, including those of secretaries (ministers, heads of federal executive departments) within the presidential cabinet.
Political parties are the basis of the American political system. They are in fact important institutions in American democratic life. The Constitution does not mention parties or make any provision for them. The authors of the Constitution feared that parties representing narrow interests rather than the general interests of all the people could take over the government. They hoped the government would be run by qualified people who did not have a second loyalty - a loyalty to a party. They believed their government would work well without parties. Despite this, parties began to form shortly after the Constitution was ratified (1789) and they proved to be effective in the American political system.
At the national level, the United States makes use of a two-party system that has remained practically unchanged throughout the nation’s history, even though rival national parties have appeared and disappeared from the political scene. The Federalists, for example, who rallied around President George Washington, disappeared slowly after 1800. And the Whig Party, which arose in the 1830s in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, collapsed two decades later.
Today the United States has two major political parties. One is the Dernocratic Party, whose origins go back to the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson and which formed before 1800. The other is the Republican Party, which was formed in the 1850s, by people in the states of the North and West, such as Abraham Lincoln, who wanted the government to prevent the expansion of slavery into new states then being admitted to the union.
Party membership in any American party is rarely formal. Members of the Democratic and Republican parties are not registered, they do not have cards and do not pay membership dues. There are no official formalities for admission. Any voter during elections may become a Republican or a Democrat by a simple declaration, that he is a member of this or that party. He takes no responsibilities when he makes that declaration. Associating with a party is strictly and exclusively a matter of individual self-expression.
Americans do not have to join a political party in order to vote or to be a candidate for a public office. However, running for office without the money, which can he provided by a party, is difficult. Many voters become members of a party because they feel strongly about the party aims or want a voice in selecting its candidates. Everyone votes in secret, and no one can know how another votes or force another person to vote for any particular programme or candidates.
One explanation for the long life of the Republican and Democratic parties is that they are not strong ideological organizations, but loose alliances of state and local parties that unite every four years for the presidential election. Both parties compete for the majority of the American voters. These parties have supporters among a wide variety of Americans and embrace a wide range of political viewpoints.
Most Americans today consider the Democratic Party the more liberal party. As they understand it the Democrats believe that the federal government and the state governments should be active in providing social and economic programmes for those who need them, such as the poor, the unemployed or students who need money to go to college. The Democrats earned that reputation in the 1930s when there was a worldwide economic depression. During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt the government under the Democratic Party established the Social Security programme, which ensures that those who are retired or disabled receive monthly payments from the government. Labour unions also received government support.
Republicans are not vividly opposed to such programmes. However, they believe that many social programmes are too costly to the taxpayers and that when taxes are raised to pay for such programmes, everyone is hurt. They place more emphasis on private enterprise and often accuse the Democrats of making the government too expensive. For that reason, Americans tend to think of the Republican Party as more conservative.
There are so many differences in both major parties that not all members of Congress or other elected officials who belong to the same party agree with each other on everything. There are conservative Democrats who tend to agree with many Republican ideas. There are liberal Republicans who often agree with Democratic ideas. Very frequently in Congress, there are both Democrats and Republicans who do not vote the way their party leaders suggest. Sometimes members of Congress cast votes which the people they represent do not favour. They do this as a matter of conscience or because they believe they are acting in the best interests of the nation.
There are other, smaller parties in the United States besides the two major parties. None of these smaller parties has enough popular support to win a presidential election. But some of them are very strong in certain cities and states. They can have their own state or city candidates elected, or can determine which major party wins by supporting one or the other.
At every level of political life including town councils, state governorships, Congress and the presidency, the Republican and Democratic parties struggle for public office. The selection of these officials is a two-stage process, first, to win the party nomination, and second, to defeat the opposing party’s candidate in the general election. Persons elected to office exercise the power to make and execute laws as representatives of the people.