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Differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties

From the days of the “First Party System” (roughly, 1792-1824) to the politics of the present era, the American two-party system has provided a ripe and unique political context within which the functions of the dominant parties have operationalized. Though more than two parties exist, and have always existed, the government comes to be dominated by one of the USA’s two major parties: the Democrats or the Republicans (Palmer, 1997: 41).

Different methodologies, however, try to incorporate these third parties into their analysis (see especially Lijphart 1999: 77); in fact, one scholar goes so far as to say that the United States “has never had a two-party system and [that] all existing studies assume a four-party or at least a three-party system. The Democrats especially generally act as two parties in Congress, the Southern Conservatives and the Northern Liberals” (von Beyme 1985: 229).

Still, it cannot be denied that the Democrats and Republicans remain the two most dominant political parties in the United States, and domestic politics is shaped and serviced by these parties. The Democratic Party was founded in 1792 by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others, as the Democratic-Republican Party, and is the oldest political party in the United States. It has a support base of close to 75 million registered voters, and is also USA’s largest party (Neuharth 2004). The Republican Party was formed in 1854 through an anti-slavery and modernization platform, and is sometimes referred to as the Grand Old Party.

It carries a support base of more than 55 million registered voters (Neuharth 2004) and remains USA’s second-largest political party. On the face of it, these two parties must have displayed vital differences in their programs to have been able to polarize the voting population across a single divide. However, closer inspection reveals that that is not the case. The particular nature of the American party system – lacking centralized hierarchical structures and mass membership – means that the ideological differences between the two parties is not always clear cut.

The Democratic and Republican parties often experience more internal differences than inter-party ones (Ball 1993), as evidenced by the Democratic primaries. It is also difficult to place the two parties along a clear left-right spectrum (Dalton and Wattenberg 2001). The Democratic Party has traditionally been left-leaning (or more appropriately, towards the left of the Republican Party), and the economic policies of the President Roosevelt’s New Deal were the platform for the American welfare state.

The Republican Party supports a more conservative framework, grounded in economic liberalism, and social and fiscal conservatism. However, many of these differences are like treading fine lines or splitting hair. Neither party wants to take a radical approach to any important policy debate, lest there be a swing of voters to the other side. The elections in America remain bitterly contested, and we can summarily discuss the ideological differences between the Democratic and Republican positions in view of the national elections to be held in 2008.

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention between the two parties has been the issue of the war in Iraq. While the Democrats support a rapid US troops withdrawal (here, Barack Obama backs a withdrawal of one to two brigades per month, while Hillary Clinton has proposed three-step plan, including a “New Diplomatic Initiative” for Iraq), the Republicans maintain that unless existing Iraqi forces are trained to effectively guarantee the country’s security, it makes little sense for the US to pull out.

In fact, the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain insists that a rapid withdrawal from Iraq would serve to energize al-Qaeda and the US should instead focus on pressurizing Iran and Syria to refrain from supporting terrorists and their activities (America. gov). Another important external policy consideration is international security; here, the Democrats posit a nuanced defensive realist position, while the Republicans evince a decidedly offensive realist position.

Interestingly, Clinton and Obama have somewhat differing stands on the matter (reaffirming the intra-party differences): Clinton maintains that for the US to retain its position in the international system, the country must engage directly with its competitors, taking the example of US engagement with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; Obama, on the other hand, identifies catastrophic terrorism as the primary threat to US primacy in global affairs, and promises to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years.

And, while Clinton is determined to removing highly enriched uranium from nuclear facilities, Obama is convinced that the US military (and Marine Corps) need to be modernized and expanded in number to meet the needs of increasing US involvement in world politics. This last point serves as the point of intersection with the Republicans who, through McCain, claim that the US Army should be enlarged and equipped with advanced weapons and weapons systems.

They also support the development and deployment of national missile defense systems (which shall largely be in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972) as protection against rogue states. Immigration is another keenly contested issue in American politics, though there is more convergence between the Democrats and Republicans on this matter than on others. While both Clinton and McCain are concerned about the US-Mexico border, both McCain and Obama stress the importance of learning English for illegal immigrants.

Obama has proposed a brand new employment-eligibility system to help employers determine the residency status of prospective employees, and McCain goes a step further by advocating an electronic employment verification system. Although Democrats view climate change to be a great challenge, the Republicans view it as a national security challenge for the USA. In keeping with this reading of a growing problem, Republicans propose to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 65% by 2050, by using nuclear energy and reducing dependence of foreign oil.

In response, Democrats propose investments in renewable sources of energy, cutting electricity consumption and increasing fuel-efficiency for vehicles (Clinton) on one hand, and advancing bio-fuels and instituting a Global Energy Forum (Obama) on the other. On the issue of international relations, Democrats favor a greater involvement for the US in multilateral arrangements and institutions. Clinton advocates alliance formation and, as mentioned above, active engagement with the USA’s closest competitors, while also arguing for global coalitions to address issues such as climate change, poverty and AIDS.

Obama’s rhetoric follows in the same vein, urging the US to accept a greater role in Asia (especially northeast Asia) to check the rise of China, alongside fighting poverty and expanding the NATO. The Republicans argue that it is prudent to maintain links with all states that further the “War on Terror,” while promoting democracy in Africa and Asia. Though these ends might seem contradictory, Republicans argue that they make sound political sense to safeguard America’s national interests.

With regard to the economy, both Democrats and Republicans favor tax cuts, with a pledge to ease taxation on America’s middle- and lower-income families. Clinton has proposed a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures along with a freeze on sub-prime loan rates for the next five years. Obama has, instead, proposed a refinancing scheme to service mortgages and foreclosures, and has sought to use tax credits to help pay for the latter.

McCain has promised large tax cuts for the working-class, and end all wasteful government spending by closing down ineffective federal programs. He has also provided the idea of tax credits for research and development, thus incentivizing innovation. Evidently, there are few differences between the Democrats and the Republicans in this regard, showing that both sides are willing to play safe by advocating largely similar policies.

In the economic sphere, the key difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party emerges in the arena of trade; interestingly, the debate displays both intra- and inter-party differences. On the Democratic side, Clinton has called for a review of all trade agreements every five years to assess their suitability to American needs; she is opposed to the DR-CAFTA, free trade with the Andean nations, and advocates a review of the NAFTA to ensure that it protects American labor; she also plans to expand the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

Obama also opposes the DR-CAFTA and has been a long-term challenger of the NAFTA, and even threatens to withdraw from the latter if labor and environmental concerns are not effectively addressed; Obama also maintains that every treaty signed in future must contain standards of protection for labor and the environment, as well as consumers; on trade with China, Obama supports the introduction of labor and human rights standards.

The Republicans remain strong supporters of the NAFTA, the DR-CAFTA, free trade with the Andean countries and authoritarian capitalist nations like China, Singapore and Russia. McCain believes that improvements in educational and vocational training should help Americans who lose their jobs when their companies move abroad (America. gov). On the domestic front, the issue of education assumes great importance. The Democrats remain unsatisfied with the existing “No Child Left Behind” program’s paucity of funding.

Clinton has promised to increase teacher recruitment, decrease rates of high-school dropout amongst minorities, $3,500 tax credits for those attending college, and greater numbers of scholarships for those volunteering for the AmeriCorps for a year after graduation. Obama, for whom math and science programs are a “national priority,” promises the increase of teacher recruitment, four years of college funding for those who pledge to teach for four years after graduation, and $4,000 tax credits for persons attending college.

The Republicans posit a somewhat libertarian argument by saying that schools should be able to compete for the best teachers and reward those whose students perform well. For McCain, students reserve the right to switch public schools according to their needs, and federal funding should be directed towards such mobility. Healthcare is another keenly contested issue between the Democrats and the Republicans. Again, there remain key intra-party differences along with inter-party ones.

For the Democrats, Clinton advocates universal health insurance for Americans; her plan is to allow citizens to keep their existing insurance or choose from government and private alternatives; preventing chronic diseases and improving health information technology, she argues, should lower the costs of healthcare. Obama is in favor of health insurance for all children, employers’ contributions towards employees’ healthcare, governmental or private options for those not covered by their employers, and lowering costs by requiring healthcare providers to report on expenses.

Republicans argue for a more market-based solution, where the strategy for lowering health insurance costs would be achieved through greater competition among providers. McCain’s other sops would include $2,500 tax credits to individuals and $5,000 tax credits to families; he also advocates allowing Americans to keep their health insurance when switching jobs or states. From Regionalism to a Greater National Coherence? Throughout their histories, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have had particular bases of popular support.

However, one should be mindful of the fact that party enrollment is not a sound analytical tool, because of state-to-state variations in election law: some states may enroll voters to a particular party, while in others, an individual may be free to vote in either party’s primary. This accounts for many cross-cutting cleavages which make it difficult to study the national character of each party (Aldrich, 1995). That said, a rough ‘electoral’ map suggests that most of the eastern and western states vote Democratic, and the others Republican, while there remain a fair share of states that could swing either way (BBC News).

This division suggests that there are some clearly identifiable regional bases for either party, and it is in their interests to concentrate on the same, to ensure massive support in election years. However, each party is required to perform several functions, including creating linkages between the ruling elites and the masses (Zeigler 1993), interest articulation of various groups (Gross and Sigelman 1984: 463-479) and interest aggregation (Palmer 1997: 43). In performing these functions, the parties increasingly assume a more national dimension, even if they may retain regional concentrations.

Over the years, Republicans have closed the advantage enjoyed by the Democrats in the number of registered voters, indicating a greater national role for the former (in absolute terms); but, the number of declared independent voters has also swelled, indicating the failure of either party to address a large number of concerns outside their own programs (Maisel 2007: 96). A recent study suggests that the overall political environment in the US right now favors the Democrats more than earlier years (Pew Research Center, 2007).

The study shows a downward trend in social conservatism and religious intensity, greater support for government programs and an increasing opposition to military primacy and engagement. This indicates a growing national role for the Democratic Party. Thus, taking all the above evidence into view, it can be argued that both the Democratic and Republican parties have assumed greater national dimensions, though they still may rely on regional vote banks for electoral support.

List of References

Aldrich, J. H. (1995) The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. America. gov (2008) U.S. Politics – Guide to the 2008 Elections [online] available from <http://uspolitics. america. gov/uspolitics/elections/issues. html> [14 May, 2008]. Ball, A. R. (1993) Modern Politics and Government. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishers. BBC News (2008) Q&A: US Presidential Election [online] available from <http://news. bbc. co. uk/2/hi/americas/7118194. stm> [14 May, 2008]. Dalton, R. J. and Wattenberg, M. P. (2001) Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gross, D. A. and Sigelman, L. (1984) ‘Comparing Party Systems: A Multi-Dimensional Approach. ’ Comparative Politics 2, 463-479.

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