Democrats vs. Republicans: What DO they believe?

Click here for a 2004 update

A viewer asked this question on 8/23/2000:

what do the democratic and republican parties stand for? what are the differences between the two?

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/23/2000:

The basic difference is that Republicans follow a conservative philosophy and Democrats follow a liberal philosophy.

A liberal would say that a proper role for government is to regulate and oversee the economy. Liberals say it's proper for government to ensure that companies do the right thing (such as pay minimum wages), and to ensure that people act responsibly in their finances (such as requiring contributions to retirement savings).

A conservative would say that a proper role for government is to regulate and oversee morality. Conservatives say it's proper for government to ensure that people are punished for immoral acts (such as taking drugs), and that people act appropriately in their marriages (such as banning homosexual marriage).

A libertarian would say that neither of those is a proper role for government. Libertarians say that the only proper role is to maintain an army for defense against invasion, to maintain a court system for ensuring justice, and other constitutionally defined roles.

A populist would say that both economic and moral intervention are proper roles for government.

Some people classify libertarians as conservatives and some classify populists as liberals. Those definitions fall apart when libertarians talk about moral issues like abortion (pro-choice) or drugs (pro-legalization).

Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan both consider themselves "populists," but the press usually classifies Nader as liberal and Buchanan as conservative. Yet they agree entirely on their most important issue, opposing free trade and globalization.

The problem with a one-dimensional definition like liberal and conservative is that it doesn't define well political reality. The two-dimensional definition is better.

There's a political quiz based on this way of looking at politics -- see
It explains the same as above and selects which presidential candidate matches your views on the issues based on that scheme.

A viewer asked this question on 7/13/2000:

What does it mean to be politically on the left or right? Which is conservative and which is liberal? Generally, are Democrats or Republicans liberal or conservative?

madpol gave this response on 7/13/2000:

The terms "Left and Right," come from the British House of Commons, where the Popular(Liberal) parties have traditionally sat to the left of the speaker and the Royalist\Aristocratic Parties(Conservative) to the Right.

In the 20th century US, Democrats were considered the Liberal party, with an agenda of individual liberty, Civil Rights and economic policies based on promoting general prosperity.

Republicans favored an authoritarian social agenda, and based their economic strategies on the promotion of Big Business interests.

In the 1960's, those labels started breaking down, with socially and economically Liberal Lyndon Johnson committing the US to the Vietnam War. By the end of the Reagan-Bush Era those distinctions were pretty much gone.

Racial and class politics have become more of a factor and "pure" Liberals or Conservatives are difficult to find. Blacks and Hispanics can often be found in the ranks of social conservatives when their own groups are not involved. Many economic Conservatives are socially Liberal these days, and recently Arch social Conservatives are pushing some very Liberal Economic policies.

The days of easy labeling are gone. You have to look at each representative individually, and then on an issue by issue basis. The old adage of, "Never write anyone off," is more true than ever. Single issue coalitions have formed around leaders who would never have been seen sharing the same platform 20 years ago--and it's going to get more confusing, not less.

aliwhite_2000 asked this question on 7/10/2000:

Please explain the primary differences between conservative and liberal approaches to public policy. Also, please explain why classical liberals would be considered to be conservatives today. thank you

madpol gave this response on 7/10/2000:

Classical Liberalism and Conservatism are pretty much dead today. In the past, Liberals worked for personal liberty and the protection of civil rights while promoting economic growth through government spending and incentives and public safety through regulation.

Conservatives favored law and order, a laissez faire approach to commerce and a strong military to protect both trade routes and American business interests overseas.

In today's increasingly authoritarian atmosphere, classic liberals like Theodore Roosevelt, his kinsman FDR, and Lyndon Johnson would be considered Libertarian, or even Radical. Especially by modern liberals whose philosophy centers around redistribution of wealth without regard to need or Justice and political conformity.

While classic conservatives like Calvin Coolidge, Barry Goldwater and even Richard Nixon would be considered Liberal sellouts by today's conservatives who favor corporate welfare, law at the expense of Justice and "Moral" conformity.

Eisenhower's famous comment notwithstanding, things are not, "more like they are today than they have ever been."

morrisonhimself gave this response on 7/29/2000:

Back in, I think, the 1930s, a United States Trotskyite group denounced Leon Trotsky as being a not very good Trotskyite.
Well, Communists and Baptists have, I guess, always found very fine points to ex-communicate one another about, but outsiders can't see any differences among them.
To people who are concerned about philosophy, especially political philosophy, and especially about the sub-classifications of ethics and morals and economics, there really is no, or almost no, difference between the Republican Party and the Democrat Party.
Author P.J. O'Rourke might give me an argument, but even he, in the final analysis, will tell you what I've just told you: There really is no major difference.
With Democrats, you get expensive, fumbling, deadly big government.
With Republicans, it might be more efficient.
Really, what it boils down to is illustrated by a story from small town politics of a bygone era: A candidate for some local office was asked "What are the issues?" He replied, "There is only one issue. Sam's got the job and I want it."
Well, right now the Democrats have the White House and the Republicans want it.
The Republicans have a majority of the House and the Senate, and the Democrats want as many seats as they can get.
Alas for the working people, the taxpaying people, the productive and creative people, there is no real difference except perhaps in the amount of demagoguery.
Both parties seek the voter who supposedly lives in that amorphous "middle." That is, neither of the two old parties is at all philosophically oriented or concerned.
They go after the same constituency, leaving out the vast majority of people -- and notice most people do
* not* vote, probably for that very reason.
The parties that care about issues and ideas are the Libertarian, Green, Constitution parties; the Reform Party is much like the two old parties; the Natural Law Party wants to make Transcendental Meditation the law (seeming somewhat like the Religious Right that wants to mandate the Bible).
My advice is forget the two old parties and think about voting for one of the alternative parties.
Michael Morrison

Anonymous asked this question on 7/18/2000:

My Question to you is; what is the difference between the democratic party and the republican parties? What are their individual beliefs? What do each one stand for? What does favor a republic as the best form of government mean? What is a republic government? What are their characteristics? What is an advocate of democracy? What are the democratic party principles?

I am so confused about all of this, could you please answer this question in simplest form of plain English as possible.

budgetanalyst gave this response on 7/18/2000:

I assume that your question is related to the largest two parties in the United States of America.

The American political system does not thrive on differences, so the Republican and Democratic parties are very similar. The reason for this is that both parties want their candidates to be elected, and extreme positions on any issue will turn voters away from the party or candidate with the extreme position on any issue. By and large, both parties are large agglomerations of various groups with somewhat compatible beliefs whose main objective is to elect candidates to office, not to prevail on any philosophical grounds or beliefs.

The names of the parties have little to do with the form of government they favor - both are for the American system, which is a democracy with a republican form of government, i.e., an elected head of state. There is not disagreement on this between the parties. There is no constitutional issue between them.

The most significant difference between the two is that the Democratic Party favors a greater role in society for government than does the Republican Party, and the Republican Party is more given to authoritarian governmental measures than is the Democratic Party. But this is not a hard and fast rule, and both parties have members who support some of the positions of the other party.

Anonymous asked this question on 7/18/2000:


my husband and I are looking for some answers maybe you can help;

What is the difference between being a republican and a democrat?

what is the difference between the republican party and the democratic party?

What do they stand for ?
What do they stand for?
How do they want to run the government?

npscott gave this response on 7/18/2000:

When I was about 16, I mowed the lawn for an elderly lady in our church and her husband.

When I was finished, she would offer me a cold glass of iced tea, invite me to sit on her steps, and we would talk.

She asked me one day what party I was going to choose when I was old enough to vote.

I said I was considering being a Republican.

She said, "Think about being a Democrat. The Democrats are for the working man. The Republicans are for the Businessman."

I've never heard a better summary before or since. I chose to be a Democrat, and never looked back.

Both parties love this country deeply, and while their approaches differ, the parties are in basic agreement on most issues: a strong national defense; good education for our children, standards of excellence in government.

More Republicans than not favor an arms-length relationship with the United Nations, whereas the Democrats see the UN as an effective diplomatic forum for the U.S.

Democrats tend to favor social action programs, such as those which help the poor and middle class; while Republican believe more in a 'pull yourself up by your own bootstraps' philosophy.

For years, the Democratic party has been the leader in Civil Rights legislation--an irony since the Republican Party was born out of the Radical Idea of Civil Liberties for all, and the Democratic Party of the time was reactionary regarding them.

There is a difference in what kind of administration each would have, despite how much alike the candidates of both parties seem to some people.

Those differences would be most noticeable in the nominations for judgeships and in the appointments for positions in running the government.

A Democratic administration will be more aggressive in appointing administrators who favor dealing with economic difficulties and in favoring pro-active Judges; while the Republicans will be the opposite, generally speaking.

This evaluation comes from a partisan who has spent his whole adult (and some of his childhood) life in partisan politics.

But, that's the way it works.

Anonymous asked this question on 8/15/2000:

I feel a bit dumb asking this question, but what is the difference between a republican and a democratic party?

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/15/2000:

One is pro-business and the other is REALLY pro-business?

All kidding aside, one wonders doesn't one.

Historically, the parties could not have been more different. The Democrats in the 1850's were generally pro-slavery and for liberal economic policies with a populist bent. The Republicans were formed by anti-slavery forces who generally had conservative economic policies and were corporatist.

After the Civil War, the Democrats became the pro-white, pro-settler party, and the Republicans the pro-black, pro-rancher party. In the movie "Shane", the Democrats are the farmers and the evil trail boss and his henchman are the Republicans.

However, by 1890, both parties were pro-white and the only difference between them was that the Democrats were still pushing liberal high spending loose money policies supported by most people and the Republicans were pushing conservative low spending tight money policies supported by business.

However, in the 1940's the roles started to reverse. By that time, Northern Democrats became pro civil rights although Southern Democrats opposed this and Republicans were wishy-washy on the issue. This issue split the Democratic party for the next twenty years leading to some Southern Democrats making a separate run for the presidency to protest pro civil rights policies of the Northern Democrats - Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968.

Today, the roles of both parties with respect to economic policies are pretty much the same as they always have been, and so is their support base.

Anonymous asked this question on 7/22/2000:

What is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?

stevehaddock gave this response on 7/22/2000:

I liked NPScott's answer, but it looks like a longer answer is called for.

It is unfortunate how the Democrats and Republican presidential contenders are almost identical (Bore and Gush, I mean Gore and Bush, even look alike). However, Democrats usually run better when they act like, well, Democrats! As Harry Truman said, give the people a choice between a Republican and a Republican and the people will chose the Republican every time.

However, things are not always like this at the local level, and certainly are not like this at the voting level. Democratic voters and Republican voters are so different as to make you wonder why their candidates look the same. Of course, it is to try to get votes away from the other party.

Democratic voters are predominately lower class to middle class, young, liberal, minorities (about 90% of Blacks vote Democrat), urban immigrant, women (about 60% of women vote Democrat), support choice issues on abortion, agree with government spending programs and don't mind paying higher taxes if the burden is borne primarily by the better off.

Republican voters are predominately middle class to upper class, older, conservative, suburban or rural, religious, white, men (about 55% of men vote Republican), are pro-life on abortion issues, disagree with government spending and are in favour of flat or regressive (i.e. independent of a person's ability to pay) taxes.

So why do Democrat candidates even try to woo Republican voters? On a national level, although Democrats have the majority of voters, many more Democrats don't vote, and too many states have small Republican majorities and large Democratic majorities. Thus many Democratic votes are wasted in states they often win easily.

But the main problem is money. All candidates tend to be well off, and most seem Republican just to start off. Moreover, many Democratic candidates come from backgrounds where they hold a lot of Republican ideals (free market, laissez faire government). As such, most candidates hold more moderate views than many members of their party.

None of this is cut and dried -

In the deep south, Democrats tended to be anti-racial equality and most Republicans were pro-racial equality. This is over for the most part which is why Blacks overwhelming supported Republicans after the U.S. Civil War, but overwhelmingly support Democrats now.

In the U.S. "Range Wars", ranchers tended to be Republicans while farmers tended to be Democrats. This tendency holds today among rural voters in the west with small family farms supporting the Democrats and large ranch owners supporting the Republicans.

Return to index