Which side are you on?
Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. But the Founding Fathers, experienced in over a century of colonial government during British rule, fully expected parties to develop -- while at the same time not seeking it. Foreshadowed in the "factions" (like-minded groups) common to eighteenth-century government, the Federalist and Democratic Republican parties emerged by 1800. Partisanship toward a cause or candidate, is what citizens are expected to display in a democratic republic like the United States. So is arguing and legal lobbying on behalf of teachers, farmers, unions, small businesses, and corporations. Lobbyists educate representatives; they help finance them; they must not, of course, control (much less bribe) them.
The Democratic Party traces its origins back to Thomas Jefferson. He tended to couple "Democratic" with "Republican," a combination that lasted into the 1820s. President Andrew Jackson relied on the first word only. The Democrats became a minority party after the Civil War, finally capturing the presidency with Grover Cleveland and in the twentieth century with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. (And in 2000 with Al Gore it did win the national popular vote, but not enough electoral votes. That dramatic election was eventually brought to a close by the Supreme Court -- although it is still unsettled in the minds of disappointed and angry Democrats.)
The nineteenth century was a time of initial party development. The Republican Party emerged in mid-century from the Whigs -- the opponents of the Democrats -- as the foe of the expansion of slavery into the territories. It won the presidency in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln, who served as president and commander-in-chief during four years of Civil War. After final victory over the Confederacy -- thus saving the Union and emancipating the slaves -- the "Grand Old Party" had success in presidential elections for several decades. When many white leaders in the South determined after the war to keep the former slaves from enjoying the full fruits of emancipation, it was the Radical Republicans who during Reconstruction pushed adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, hoping to win the peace as well as the war. Not until the New Deal did black voters forego allegiance with the party of Lincoln.
Republicans flirted with Progressivism -- trust busting, some government regulation of big business, and conservation -- for a time at the beginning of the twentieth century. With Theodore Roosevelt’s energetic presidency after the assassination of William McKinley, the party seemed to modify its conservative philosophy for a time, although William Howard Taft brought some return to roots. After Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover (who had hoped to bring a "New Day") the party did not produce a winning candidate until it nominated Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious World War II general, in 1952. The much too solidly conservative candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 proved a disaster, giving Democrat Lyndon Johnson the overwhelming congressional majorities he needed to pass innumerable new laws. Richard Nixon, who won in 1968 and 1972, resigned in disgrace, but was followed -- after an interregnum by Jimmy Carter -- by Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, showing that parties and the general public cannot afford to harbor long grudges.
Democrats like to recall the leveling ideas and the democratic roots the party displayed from Jefferson to Jackson, the courage of Grover Cleveland, Wilson’s liberalism, and FDR’s New Deal. The Republicans naturally exalt their record as saviors of the Union and as the party of emancipation. Democrats like to point to Wilson’s crusade for global democracy begun in 1917 and victory under FDR and Truman in WWII. They are less likely to encourage any party identification with Korea (which began under Truman but ended under Eisenhower), and much less the bitter conflict in Vietnam (which, again, started during Democratic administrations and ended under Republican ones).
The party of FDR identifies with the New Deal’s public works programs and federal help for the unemployed of the 1930s (the Depression years), and with the Social Security Act of 1935, civil rights and trade union legislation, and Medicare. The Democrats are at home with use of the national government to regulate the private sector of the economy and increasing the power of Washington, D.C. as compared with the 50 states.
Republicans are at home when espousing the well-being of business and entrepreneurship, and they stand for minimum taxes and governmental regulation. They prefer to be silent on the scandals of the second Nixon term that led to impeachment and resignation. They prefer talking about Ronald Reagan’s Cold War preparedness that helped cripple the Soviet "evil empire." Republican moderates (the few who are left) speak well of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation and trust busting, and identify with Progressives who were once prominent in their party.
Still, in basic political matters we are more alike than we may think. Fundamentally -- paraphrasing Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address -- we are all Republicans; we are all Democrats. We are what is called "small 'd' democrats" in our insistence on one person, one vote, and insisting on majority decision-making. We are all "small 'r' republican" in relying on representative government (a necessity where large populations, widely scattered, are involved). We are Democratic Republicans in belief in our system, which is solidly federalist yet also nationalist; solidly rooted in democratic principles yet clearly republican in electoral activities. Federalist: national, state, and local governments with powers spelled out in a constitution, laws, and judicial decisions. Nationalist: "one nation" as in the Pledge of Allegiance, with secession of any part long settled by "a great Civil War" -- as Lincoln put it.
We are said, in a Pew poll of June 4, to be more "polarized" and "partisan" than at any time in the past quarter century. Republicans and Democrats have come to differ substantially on "values." In such matters it has become hard to think dispassionately as the courts have come to permit flooding the airwaves with millions of dollars worth of propaganda, some just plain crude, financed blatantly by corporations and fabulously rich individuals pursuing an invasive hobby.
Yet some generalizations do actually seem warranted. Scratch an orthodox Republican, and you will quickly find someone who professes distrust of government. Yet at the same time that individual will happily use government to create and operate the nation’s military establishment, the Department of Agriculture, and the FBI. Scratch an orthodox Democrat, and you will uncover an expressed belief in a form of government that uses its power to regulate and to collect income taxes from the affluent, with the money supposed to be spent on improving the circumstances of mankind at home and abroad -- and of course to regulate, manage, and control various forms of business.
But not so fast. Liberals and Democrats seem sometimes to desire using taxes not just to balance the budget or pay for programs, but to level the playing field of income distribution and property ownership. Democrats eventually came to support basic welfare reform in the Clinton years -- after eagerly creating the modern welfare state in the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations. Ardent Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan never really shrank the federal establishment the way they promised. Tax policies commonly divide us, with some Republican conservatives eager to cut taxes in upper brackets "to help the economy" (not, of course, themselves!).
If asked, Democrats will probably assert that they are more humanitarian than their Republican opponents. They like to consider themselves more tolerant, less self-centered and money-oriented, less nationalist, and so on. Though decrying militarism, they naturally take great pride in the victories of the world wars under their presidents. Democrats say they are champions of individual security and of protection for free speech. Republicans, meanwhile, assert that they try to keep the good of the whole nation in the forefront of their thinking. They assert that they believe fervently in the right to earn a living free of government inteference, and that the right to own property certainly ought to include most aspects of the right to its use as the owner sees fit.
What, then, are the simplest differences and the really vital similarities between our two major parties? The Democratic Party remains the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In contrast, the Republican Party has now become the party of Ronald Reagan. The impetus toward party moderation cultivated by Eisenhower, Nixon, and Rockefeller has pretty much faded, for now.
But remember: Elections are not wars. They are electoral contests. The war vocabulary used in connection with "battles" is not at all appropriate when discussing parties, candidates and issues. Old-fashioned political partisanship is the American way, but linguistic excesses today make it a strain to govern tomorrow.
The late comedian Milton Berle wisecracked, "Politics is like sex. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it." Those who become party activists are the ones most likely to declare, "this is my country!" But self-government needs everybody.