Key ideas and principles of the Democratic and Republican parties.

 Party  Policies Follow this link to examine the key political issues which divide the parties.

Control of Congress is up for grabs and candidates are eager to sway voters heading into November. Republicans and Democrats are framing the debate around key issues like the economy, abortion, gun violence, immigration and student loan forgiveness. 

Party realignment and dealignment

United States politics is dominated by two political parties: the Democrats, representing more liberal, left-wing policies and the Republicans, representing the right.

Two conservative parties??

While the Democrats are on the left of the political spectrum in the United States, they might not be on the left in other countries, such as in Western Europe. There are many Democrat policies that the modern UK Conservative Party would embrace, and many Republican policies that Conservatives might reject. The Affordable Care Act, a move to ensure that all Americans have health insurance, has been attacked as a socialist or even communist policy in the United States, but is something most Conservative MPs would easily support.

An overview of developments in the two main parties

For much of America's history the main parties were little more than loose coalitions of individuals serving the interests of a range of groups in society. Although traditionally seen as 'umbrella' parties a number of key events have helped shape the current positions of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Since the 1970s, the base of the Democratic Party has identified with ‘big government’ which has its origins in the New Deal and as the 20th Century developed- liberal social causes, such as affirmative action, gay rights, abortion rights and gun control; since 2008 President Obama and Democrats in Congress have advanced (or attempted to advance) a number of liberal causes including health care reform, (Affordable Health Care) gender equality of pay, (Lilly Leadbetter Act) immigration reform (Dream Act), gun control Machin Toomey Bill

The Reagan presidency established the core values of the Republican Party as social and fiscal conservatism; these were reinforced subsequently by The Contract with America. The dominance of the Christian Right and more recently by the rise of the Tea Party movement now called the Freedom Caucus); the House Republican leadership has supported a series of ‘Ryan budgets’ which aim to cut taxes and drastically reduce government spending, and state Republican governments have actively sought to reduce the availability of abortion; they have been almost unanimously hostile to the agenda of President Obama. Since 2016 they have pursued a policy of reversing the achievements of the Obama presidency.

Despite ideological polarisation, the parties remain broad coalitions and at least some of the differences between them are more rhetorical than substantive; both parties still subscribe to the ‘American creed’ and in particular support the role of religion in public life; it is still almost impossible to be a self-confessed atheist and run for public office (there is only one in Congress currently) 

Under President Clinton, the Democrats moved back towards the centre; he campaigned for and achieved a balanced budget, campaigned on ‘welfare, a second chance not a way of life’ and signed the Republican Congress’s welfare reform bill in 1995, and extended the federal death penalty. All these policies were acceptable to Republicans.

President Bush campaigned as a ‘compassionate conservative’: the major domestic policy initiative of his presidency was the No Child Left Behind education bill, co-sponsored in the Senate by Ted Kennedy; he signed a $534BN prescription drug benefit addition to Medicare in 2003 and the TARP program in 2008 . Like Clinton these polies were supported by many Democrats. However, Bush was also a social conservative with opposition to abortion and stem cell research as well a tax cuts for the rich.

President Obama has adopted a more conciliatory persona abroad than President Bush, but in substance, American foreign policy is arguably unchanged; he doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan in the 'Surge', and Guantanamo Bay remained open. Obama supported globalisation and free trade - maintaining Nafta and proposing TTIP and TPP- these were supported by mainstream Republicans and business groups. Domestically, he re-affirmed the Hyde Amendment's prohibition of federal funding on abortion through executive order and, allowed the Stupak Pitts Amendment in Obamacare. In attempting to revive the economy and in ‘bailing out’ the banks (TARP) and auto-makers GM and Ford, he followed the policies of his predecessor. 

However, Obama supported environmental protection, action on climate change, Keynesian stimulus for the economy, women's rights and health care reform- all of these policies are liberal.

Trump adopted tradition fiscal conservatism in tax cuts and deregulation. Trump also adopted a 'tough on crime and support for gun rights. However, he adopted protectionist policies against China and his America first policies suggested a form of isolationism. 

Traditional Features of American Parties

Unlike their British counterparts, American parties have traditionally been seen as broad, umbrella parties consisting of  non-ideological coalitions representing a number of regional and sectional interests. The names of the two major parties show that they are not ideologically exclusive parties. The ideals ‘democracy’ and ‘republicanism’  are shared by most Americans of either party.

localism and regionalism runs through the US political system, due to the decentralised nature of the federalist system and the relative independence of state-based party structures, region divide parties as much as ideology.

To what extent  have US political parties become more ideologically cohesive in their values and policies. While is is common to argue that there is a trend towards a much greater ideological polarisation of the two main parties, in recent years the broad nature of parties and their fluidity leaves much to debate. 

This debate has also considered the question of the weakness or strength of political parties. There is some evidence of a resurgence in the importance, and power, of political parties within the US political system. The growing centralisation of US parties, as a result of the use of soft money financing and the increasing powers of party leaders to effectively choose congressional committee chairs, as evidence of this rising party power.

Pew Research Polarisation

Party significance The Party Decline Debate

In contrast, others have argued that the role and functions of political parties have been undermined by other bodies, such as pressure groups, meaning they are in serious long-term decline. They suggest that the powers of US party leaders are constrained by both the candidate-centred, regional nature of the US political system and by their relative inability to influence candidate selection due to the proliferation of party primaries since the 1970s.

Party identification

A third area to consider is the impact of these shifts on the traditional support base of each party. Although it is hard to pinpoint a 'typical' Republican or Democrat voter, there are certain historical and contemporary factors which shape the voting patterns of particular groups. Thus students will be expected to understand which groups tend to vote for each party and the reasons for this support.


And now a new debate- What impact has Trump had on the Republican Party?

In 2016 Donald J Trump became the Republican candidate for the presidency Was Trump leading an ideological battle within the Republican Party? Trump had been a supporter of the Clintons and a New York Democrat and in the campaign, Trump seemed an almost post-ideological candidate in many ways. He was not a conservative in the mould of Senator Ted Cruz or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He did not call for  limited, instead he promised investment in infrastructure- such as a wall between the |USA and Mexico. He actually opposed key Republican ideals such as  free trade, Wall Street financiers and corporate executives who moved jobs abroad. He even wanted to protect entitlement programmes from budget cuts. In his last days in office he vetoed defence spending - which was overridden with Republican votes and called for $2000 handouts in the Covid relief bill- supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.  

But then neither was Trump a moderate or liberal Republican in the mould of Mitt Romney or John McCain, the party’s two previous presidential nominees. He promised to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court and did so-he courted leading evangelical leaders and constantly extolled his admiration for President Ronald Reagan.  In the 2020 campaign he promised to oppose socialism, and defend America form crime and anarchy. Trump’s attraction to those who supported him had more to do with what he was not — a politician — f Trump’s brand of ‘America First’ economic nationalism came to dominate the agenda and take over the republican party, so much so that leading Republican feared to tell him he had lost the election. Trump is the first post modern president.

 There is much more to be said about Trump's impact on US politics-follow this link for an examination of the presidency.

 Party  Policies Follow this link to examine the key political issues which divide the parties.