More than just choosing the American leader, voters in the November 6 U.S. presidential election also will effectively be deciding what role they want the federal government to play in their lives.
Either U.S. President Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent, will be re-elected, or his Republican challenger, wealthy businessman Mitt Romney, will take over in January.
Aside from winning a political contest, however, the two candidates represent political parties that have grown increasingly distinct over a several-decade evolution. The person who wins a four-year term in the White House is likely to present a sharply different view than the other of the scope of the national government’s programs, taxation and spending.
Steve Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, explains the distinctions between the two American political parties.
“The two camps do represent very different views of the role of the federal government. The Democrats and the President Obama camp certainly believe that the federal government should have a strong, positive role in addressing the major challenges that face American society. The Romney-Republican camp believes that the federal government should stay out of many aspects of American life and that the overall role of the federal government should shrink. Along with that, taxes should shrink, in their view.”
In shorthand form, Obama’s Democratic Party has come to represent a robust expansion of the federal government, with a broad health care plan for the uninsured and regulation of major Wall Street financiers. Meanwhile, Romney’s Republican Party, aside from cutting taxes, wants to repeal the near-universal health care plan, sharply trim federal regulation of American corporations and eliminate other programs, such as support for a government-funded broadcasting system.
George Nation, a professor of finance and law at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, says the differences are rooted in the philosophical differences between the two presidential candidates.
“On the one hand you have President Obama who believes strongly in the power of government to improve peoples’ lives directly. And I think in Governor Romney is someone who believes in the power of government to allow people to improve their lives.”
John Gilmour, a public policy professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, says the political viewpoint of the two parties has shifted over a lengthy period of time.
“The Democrats have long supported big programs, social insurance programs, Social Security and Medicare, that provide, in the case of Social Security, pensions for the elderly, and in the case of Medicare, health insurance for the elderly. Also Medicaid [health care assistance for the poor.] The Republicans traditionally have been relatively supportive of those programs, but they are less so today.”
All three academics point to legal and societal changes in the U.S. in the last half century that have served to split the parties along ideological lines, with little overlap. The 1960s civil rights movement in the southern portion of the country pushed many conservative Democrats into the Republican Party. Liberal supporters of gender equality and abortion rights more often than not landed in the Democratic Party, while those supporting conservative social values, lower taxation and less government joined like-minded people in the Republican Party.
Smith says the distinctions between the parties are well-known to voters.
“This difference between the parties is now so well established, so well recognized that long before this presidential campaign started, the public had a pretty good idea about this important difference between the two parties.”
The philosophical gap between the two American political parties has often led to a stalemate in attempts to enact major legislation in Congress. Soon after the election, the country is faced with a major spending and taxation debate, the outcome of which only partly depends on the election results. Some significant decisions will require action even before Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney starts a new term in office early next year.
Gilmour says Americans can expect the political gridlock will continue.
“What we have with two polarized parties is the new normal. That’s what we should expect for the foreseeable future. The problem is that our political institutions are based on compromise and accommodation. They don’t work well with polarized parties.”