Every four years Americans head to the polls and vote for president. In 2004 both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party will spend tens of millions of dollars on the presidential campaign. Republicans hope to re-elect President George Bush for a second term, while Democrats are hoping to unseat him. As the 2004 contest heats up, VOA’s Serena Parker talks to some scholars about the history of each party and the shifting nature of American politics.
America’s two political parties have been around for a long time -- the Democratic Party since 1828 and the Republican Party since 1854. Though many Americans strongly identify with either the Democratic or Republican Party, a large number are independent. They may switch their vote from one party to the other depending on particular issues.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the program in Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, says for that reason the two parties try to appeal to the widest possible electorate. That may tend to blur party differences.
“Nearly from the founding we have had a democracy organized by two parties with wide wingspans,” he says. “It’s often confusing to people why folks of different ideologies, different economic classes, racial and ethnic communities join under a particular political party.”
While trying to draw as many voters as possible, each party was more successful in certain regions of the United States than the other. Republicans traditionally did well in the industrialized, wealthy North, while Democrats did well in the rural, poor South. However, over the past 150 years the two parties’ strongholds have shifted.
As the parties have changed their geographic base, their platforms, or party principles, have also changed. Thad Kousser, assistant professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego, says only in the last 30 to 40 years have the party platforms developed into what they are today.
“The Democratic Party since the 1960’s in America has been a party that has generally favored larger government,” he says, “with more support for social welfare policies like providing health care to poor citizens and welfare. And the Republican Party has generally attacked and wanted smaller governments and has been pushing lower taxes and more of a role of the private sector in providing those sorts of welfare services.”
Mr. Kousser says that in addition to differing over the size and role of the federal government, each party has a different stance on some of the major social questions of the day -- abortion, the death penalty and the role of religion in public life.
“The Republican Party has generally favored having society come to an agreement on what its values are and then enshrining those values in law,” he says. “It’s been opposed to legalized abortion on demand. It has been more supportive of having school prayer allowed. And the Democratic Party has been in favor of abortion rights and strongly in favor of separating church and state.”
The contemporary Democratic Party also favors affirmative action programs that help minorities by giving them an opportunity for jobs and education that traditionally have been the domain of white Americans.
This pro-affirmative action stance has led many minorities, in particular African Americans, to vote Democratic, which wasn’t always the case. The Republican Party and its support of the abolition of slavery initially attracted black Americans. But in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt began to attract African Americans with his New Deal social policies. His successor, Harry Truman, de-segregated the U.S. Army, a move which also appealed to blacks.
The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided specifically that the right to vote not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. While the amendment was ratified in 1870, almost a hundred years later most Southern states still had rules in place that effectively denied black Americans the right to vote. Ferrel Guillory of the University of North Carolina says the 1965 Voting Rights Act dramatically changed this.
“A major turning point came in the mid-1960’s when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” he says. “This brought millions of black Americans into the political process, who had been shut out under the segregationist laws and customs that were in effect, particularly in the South, through the first half of the 20th century. That Act shifted the loyalty of blacks from the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, the party that had freed the slaves. It shifted their allegiance to the Democratic Party.”
However, the Democratic Party’s emphasis on civil rights cost it the vote of white Southerners, who shifted to the Republican Party. Kenneth Kollman, professor of political science at the University of Michigan says this remains true today.
“Southern partisanship is very correlated with race,” he says. “In general, white voters tend to be Republicans and African American voters tend to be Democrats. And there are of course, some whites who are Democrats in the South, but for the most part a majority of whites are Republican.”
Outside of the South, says Mr. Kollman, party membership can be defined on broader terms, although Democrats tend to attract voters from minority communities.
“I think it’s safe to say that the Democratic Party thinks of itself as the party that represents more working people, lower-income people,” he says. “Certainly it considers itself the party that represents racial minorities more effectively to the national government. The Republican Party in recent times has been the party that represents more business managers and wealthier individuals. Also, it’s the party that has taken as part of its coalition Christian Conservatives.”
Kenneth Kollman says if the Democrats hope to win back the White House, they will have to convince swing voters in the southern United States that it’s in their interest to vote Democratic.
A Democratic strategy to win more white Southern votes is to focus on the state of the economy. Ferrel Guillory says the candidates for the Democratic nomination have stressed the loss of 2.2 million American jobs during the Bush Administration.
“The southern part of the United States,” he says, “particularly the southeast, the quadrant where textiles and furniture are produced, has had major job losses as low wage, low skill industry has moved offshore. And so there’s been a lot of economic distress in several southern states that in recent history have been voting Republican. And now Democrats feel that they may have a chance to appeal to these voters who are feeling economic distress.”
The Republicans, to the contrary, are counting on an economic recovery to keep them in the White House. Now and for the foreseeable future, these two parties will continue to frame the politics of America.