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Political parties in the USA

Republicans, Democrats and the others

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A learner's guide to discovering the United States
There are two main political parties in the United States,  the Democrats and the Republicans.
    Until the end of the twentieth century, there was no massive ideological difference between them. According to the normal meanings of the words democratic and republican,  both of the parties are democratic parties, and both are republican.
    As in Europe and many other parts of the world, one party is distinguished by the color red, and the other by the color blue, though curiously blue and red in American politics mean the opposite of their meanings in European politics. In Europe, red designates the political left, such as Britain's Labour Party or French or Spanish Socialists; in the USA it is the color of the Republican party, which is on the right.  Blue is the color used in Europe by conservative parties, Britain's Conservatives, France's Republicans... but in the USA Blue is the color of the Democrats, who are more to the left than the US Republicans.

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Since the 19th century, the Democrats have been represented by a donkey, and the Republicans by an elephant.. though there is no clear explanation as to why.
    The classic left-right divide, that exists in most democratic nations, has not been a clear feature of American party politics over the last hundred years. The similarities be­tween the two parties are confusing, even to many Americans, and perhaps explain why only about 60% of Americans bother to vote. To make matters even more con­fusing, the Democrats, the older of the two parties, were originally known as the Re­publican Democrats; and while the Repub­licans are the more conservative of the two parties, both par­ties have traditionally attracted a mixture of conservatives and liberals. In American English, the term "liberal" means socially progressive, making it more or less an opposite of "libertarian" (see below).

    Nevertheless, the parties are different; and since the start of the twenty-first century they have moving further apart than ever before. The polarization of the parties has accelerated since 2015 when Donald Trump won the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Trump positioned himself firmly on the right – some say the far right - of the party, and since then, and even more so since Trump was defeated in the 2020 election, the differences between the two main parties in American politics have been highlighted and exacerbated.

The Democrats

    Since the 1930's, when Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal, the Democrats have been noted as the party with the more social policies — policies which were extended and developed under Kennedy's New Frontier and Johnson's Great Society programs. At no time, how­ever, have the Democrats ever tried to present themselves as a socialist party, a party of the left in the style of European Socialist or Labour parties. The word "socialist" is too often used as a term of abuse in American political vocabulary.
    Nonetheless, the popular but elderly Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, but failed, was a liberal northern Democrat advocating policies that would be considered normal by mainstream parties on the political left in Europe.
    Ever since the Civil War, Democratic policies have been de­termined by the balance of power between the two different groups within the party, the conservative southern Democrats and the liberal northern Democrats.
    Historically the clearest unify­ing factor in the Democratic Party was its role as the main party opposed to the Republicans. In the North, working class people, labor unions and minorities have traditionally supported the Democrats be­cause, for them, the Republicans represent the party of the Establishment. In the South on the other hand, it is traditionally the old conservative Establish­ment that supports the Democrats, as the Republicans were historically the anti-slavery party.
    It is only recently that things have slowly begun to change. With Southern conservatives turning more and more to the Republicans, the "social demo­cratic" tendency in the Democratic party is becoming more predominant, confirming the party's commitment to effective social policies and greater social justice.
    The Democrats are strongest in the old industrial heartland and the oldest established parts of the USA, notably New England and the North East. They are also strong in California and the West Coast.

The Republicans

    The Republican Party, the "G.O.P." (Grand Old Party), came into existence in the north in 1854 as the party of those who were fighting for the abolition of slavery.
    Initially, many Republicans pro­moted egalitarian views. In the famous Gettysburg Address of 1863, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president of the USA, proclaimed the abolition of slavery, and his aims of "preserving a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
    Though Lincoln did not mean, by these words, that freed slaves were to en­joy all the same rights as white Americans, the republicanism that he represented had strong roots in the American revolution and in the ideals of social justice that had in­spired the revolutionaries.
    In his inaugural speech, on being elected president for the first time, Lincoln even said:
    "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
    Few Americans today would recog­nize these as "Republican" words
    Editor's note: When I once questioned a Republican Party spokesman in Washington about who could have said these words; his answer was "maybe Karl Marx."
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    Since the end of the last century, the Republi­cans have moved firmly to the right, pro­moting themselves as the party of "law and order", tough policies, the family and "traditional" values. Ronald Reagan cut social pro­grams so that he could cut taxes, relaxed gun control in 1986, reversed environ­mental legislation and nominated very conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Yet in spite of his intention to reduce gov­ernment spending, he increased it through extra spending on defense. The two Bushes and later Donald Trump have helped push the Republican party further to the right, amplifying the differences between the two main parties.
    The Republican Party is strongly supported by business (more so than the Democrats, who of course also have support from the business world); however many businesses have expressed their reservations about the way the Republican party is moving since the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 elections.
    Finally, the Republican party is also strongly supported by the "Religious Right" and by the anti-tax, and anti-abortion lobbies.
Geographically, Republicanism is strongest in rural America.

Minor political  parties in the USA

In spite of the dominance of the two big parties, there are actually dozens of political parties in the USA, though few of them get much attention. Among the principal minor parties are:

    Apart from the Green Party of the United States, these parties play little part in American political life. The Greens on the other hand supposedly contributed to the election of George Bush in 2001, and the defeat of the Democratic candidate Al Gore (probably one of the "greenest" mainstream politicians in the USA in recent times), by refusing to withdraw their candidate, Ralph Nader, from the presidential election. Nader polled 2.5% of the vote – most of which would have gone to Gore had Nader not been running.

For a full list of minor US parties, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_the_United_States.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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