Letter to My Granddaughter: How to Decide Whom to Vote for
Mr. Bornet, Ph.D. (Emory, ’39, ‘40G), is a native of Pennsylvania and a research historian with two Emory degrees, a graduate year at University of Georgia, and the history Ph.D. from Stanford University. Among his books are The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in the American Presidency Series in 1983, Welfare in America in 1960, and other books on Herbert Hoover, social welfare, radicalism, and unions. His 383 page autobiography is An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America (Talent, OR: Bornet Books, 1995). Emeritus Professor of History and Social Science from Southern Oregon University, he is approaching 90 in 2007 in the small but widely recognized town of Ashland, Oregon.
Dear Granddaughter Susan:
You have asked me in your e-mail letter about Republicans and Democrats. You want to know some differences. Specifically, what kind of person would be likely to feel comfortable after choosing to be a Republican or a Democrat? Answering this flattering inquiry is supposed to be easy for me, since I have written steadily about American politics for some sixty years and more. But all is not quite what it seems in the highly controversial area of American political parties. Caution is in order. It is not hard to find guideposts through the decades and generations, but there have been variations and peculiarities. I have decided that simplicity is best, so that is what you’ll get—so far as I am able to simplify with accuracy. You will get some history of how the parties developed; there will be brief mention of major party leaders; finally, I will venture some advice about what people in your situation may want to do.
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 party formation--while not seeking it. Foreshadowed in the “factions” (like-minded groups) common to 18th century government, the Federalist and Democratic Republican parties emerging by 1800 were a normal development. Partisanship toward a Cause, a Candidate, a Bill or Law, and a Course of Action 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 must not, of course, control (much less bribe) them.
Registering in a political party is simple enough, as most people know. Surely you have seen registration booths in malls, for example, sponsored by reputable public interest groups. By all means visit the Elections section (variously labeled) of your county courthouse and say, “I want to register.” It is at this point that a choice of party, or of Independent, or maybe a choice not to choose just then will be your reply to the clerk. (Do bear in mind that one’s choice is by no means permanent; it can be undone sooner or later.) It is a good idea to read about the parties before registering. Try a library, and beware of unsigned essays on the Internet.
When beginning his landmark 1924 book on the history of parties, The Evolution of American Political Parties, Edgar Eugene Robinson, a pioneer in study of the subject and compiler of national voting statistics by county, declared, “One may write of party with the comfortable assurance that all who read what he writes have at some time discussed the subject. No topic is quite so generously considered either in conversation or print. In the United States every interested citizen speaks with authority upon matters of party….” This situation has not changed very much. The present essay reaches an audience that is inundated with comment from journalists, TV folk, office holders, candidates, neighbors—and relatives. To say that much of what one reads, views, and hears is biased and obsessed with furthering the Causes of one’s party, is to understate. But knowing where the parties came from is most useful.
Anybody can study up on the origins and history of our two major parties. Highly competent essays on each may be found in Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, for example. Many less reliable versions appear here and there, sometimes heavy with partisan flavor. The Democratic Party traces its origins back to Thomas Jefferson’s party formation efforts as the 1700s gave way to the 1800s. He tended to couple “Democratic” with “Republican,” a combination that lasted into the 1820s. President Andrew Jackson’s era 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 20th century with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. (And in 2000 it did win the national popular vote, but not enough electoral votes, with Al Gore--an election eventually brought to a close by the Supreme Court—although it is still unsettled in the minds of many disappointed, even angry, Democrats.)
Some Americans feel at ease when relying on biographical information when choosing their party affiliation--seeking out the “party of Jefferson” or the “party of Lincoln.” Some cling nostalgically to Franklin D. Roosevelt when seeking a heroic figure. Indeed, historian William Leuchtenburg has successfully spread the idea of a “party of Roosevelt” to describe Democrats from 1933 to 1969 at the minimum. Today, many affiliate enthusiastically with current leaders out of admiration or agreement with their conduct, appearance, or principles. Immigrant groups struggling for their share of the Dream have surprised even expert observers when they register and vote. Some choose in politics simply on the traditional basis of “what’s good for Me and Mine.”Don’t be surprised if party leaders lose some interest in you between elections.
The serious student of political parties will want to study the Democrats’ performance in the Congress when led by famous House Speakers like John Nance Garner, Sam Rayburn, and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. A few distingished Republicans in Congress have been Henry Cabot Lodge, George Norris, Everett Dirkson, and Robert A. Taft. On such leaders, see the comprehensive treatment in A. M. Schlesinger, Jr. (ed.), History of U.S. Political Parties, in 4 volumes. Many governors have been towering figures in their home states, where their names are inextricably linked with the fortunes of their chosen parties. New York State’s Al Smith and Nelson Rockefeller are examples. When the newly registered voter chooses to identify with a president, senator, representative, or governor, he will find innumerable party figures from the past who left their stamp on political parties—from Boss Tweed to James A. Farley.
The 19th century was a time of initial party development. The Republican Party emerged 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 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 Republican part of the Republican Party 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 Age of Roosevelt, beginning in 1933, did African Americans forego allegiance with the party of Lincoln.
Republicans flirted with Progressivism—trust busting, some government regulation of big business, and conservation—for a time in the new 20th Century. With Theodore Roosevelt’s energetic ascendency 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, victorious World War II general and briefly a university president, in 1952. The much too solidly conservative candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 proved a Republican disaster, giving Lyndon Johnson the overwhelming Congressional majorities he needed to pass innumerable new laws. Richard Nixon, who won in 1968 and 1972 and soon resigned in disgrace, was followed eventually by Republicans Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
After the Jacksonian era the Democratic Party had to endure sharp divisions North and South. In 1860 it splintered disastrously. Thereafter it had difficulty achieving national unity, so that defeats became routine, although a leader like William Jennings Bryan aroused enthusiasm. The new issues that developed in the 20th century and Woodrow Wilson, a new leader, brought new life to the venerable party.
It is difficult in a few sentences to try to display old stands taken by these two parties. Still, the Democrats like to recall the leveling ideas and the democratic roots the party displayed from Jefferson to Jackson, the courage of Grover Cleveland, and the liberalism of Woodrow Wilson. The Republicans naturally exalt their record as saviors of the Union and liberators of the slave, for President Lincoln accepted a four year war initiated at Fort Sumter and used a huge army to prevent permanent division of the Union. Democrats like to point to Wilson’s crusade for democracy begun in 1917, and to the victory won in World War II under Democrats Roosevelt and Truman. They are less likely to allow identification with the long and bitter conflict in Vietnam whose intensity magnified in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Democrats naturally lash out at various aspects of Nixon’s years as commander in chief after 1969: (the Cambodian campaign, reliance on extensive bombing).
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 espouse the well-being of business and entrepreneurship, and 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 focus that helped cripple the Soviet “evil empire.” Republican Party Moderates speak well of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation and trust busting, and identify with Progressives who were once prominent in their party (about 1901 to 1933). On both sides, dedicated party partisans naturally dredge up the worst about the opposition while polishing their own record in all of its aspects. One must come to expect such vigorous partisanship--and relax. It comes with self government—and a free media.
Extreme expressions dot the party landscape. They inflamed emotions in yesteryear but now have less power to arouse. Efforts to associate the origins of the Depression with the Republican Party and President Herbert Hoover may be found in party tracts and textbooks alike. On the other hand, “Packing the Supreme Court” was a rallying cry after FDR’s 1937 abortive effort to grasp power by raising the number of justices from 9 to 15. “Yalta!” was an outcry in mid-century from Republican partisans that the Soviet occupation of much of Europe after 1945 was related to FDR and Truman’s misjudgments and alleged naive trust in dictator Joseph Stalin. “Who lost China?” refers to the spread of international communism in Asia after World War II. “McCarthyism” relates to enthusiasm in the 1950s for rooting out communists in the federal government that centered among Republicans and some Democrats. Many at the time thought that possibly uncovering Soviet spies would be worth enduring angry allegations that civil liberties of Communist party members (and others) might be eroded. The “Military-Industrial Complex,” a term used as a warning by President Eisenhower in a speech, is commonly relied on by Democrats for political effect.
Many issues arouse the politically minded. Partisans find pay dirt in many aspects of modern environmentalism. Also fairly new is uncompromising Christian fundamentalism, which has long since entered the party arena--recruiting Republican votes. Such intimate matters as consumption of alcoholic beverages, abortion, expansion of contraception worldwide, and legal and moral aspects of homosexual orientation arouse party partisans. Zoning, fees to use park facilities, equity when taxing incomes, government support of the arts—all kinds of issues enlist parties in their causes. Nevertheless, extreme change has been shunned. Neither party, for example, calls for getting out of the United Nations, casting agricultural subsidies adrift, or jettisoning federal aid to education. Partisan talk is cheap, but actual action against icons guarantees retaliation at the polls.
There have been many major matters on which party platforms have read quite similarly. Extravagant claims of uniqueness and purity in conduct and doctrine lack a factual basis. Neither party is “unpatriotic” per se (whatever the accusatory rhetoric about “treason” that may be advanced by an imaginative polemicist like Ann Coulter in her sturdy 2003 book Treason). Neither party is really laissez faire, for both divide on aspects of Free Trade, Stock Market Regulation, Immigration, and Federal Reserve Board intervention in such monetary matters as virtually controlling interest rates.
If young people sometimes reject early party affiliation, some blame should be placed on those who routinely besmirch America’s great party leaders. Thus Thomas Jefferson’s vast contributions are supposed to be negated by alleged liaison with a slave girl. Surely Abraham Lincoln’s humanity can be blackened if it is stressed that his Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South but not the North—a political concession thought necessary to military success at the time! Smearing party heroes closes the door to acceptance of their parties, it is hoped by most who enjoy tearing down icons. Overall, until now, there has been agreement that great political figures of both parties belong on our money and our postage stamps, but unanimity is difficult to achieve when choosing.
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 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.
Whatever our similarities, our people really are dramatically divided in their choice of political parties. In a 2003 Pew Center study, the Democratic Party enjoyed a 31 to 30 advantage. Yet broken down, it was women 36 to 29; men 27 to 32. Blacks divided 64(D) to 7(R); hispanics 36 to 22. Graduates from high school were 36 to 29; from college, 27 to 38. Research (and sheer speculation) may clarify such startling differences somewhat. They do change over time in any case.
Some generalizations 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. Yet not so fast. 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!). Democratic liberals, meanwhile, 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 a Welfare State in the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations.
Presidents from the Democratic Party led the Nation’s military establishment as commander in chief in World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. Presidents from the Republican Party accepted the burden of leading the Union in the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and the inherited Vietnam War; they sought wars in Grenada and Panama, and led the Nation during both the Gulf War and the Iraq War. This often peace-loving nation has suffered from—and even profited from—wars that each party led or endorsed. Sometimes scorned--but intelligent--historian Harry Elmer Barnes was the one who said America “wages perpetual war for perpetual peace.”
Turning to foreign affairs, criticism of the United Nations is normally Republican, for it was President Wilson, a Democrat, who pioneered in international organization with his idea for a League of Nations, while Roosevelt and Truman helped create the United Nations. Presidents from both parties have used and cooperated with NATO, however. They were aggressive during the Cold War in confronting the Soviet Union to the point of ensuring its defeat as worldwide menace. When that has been said, however, fully steadfast and loyal United Nations devotion is found almost exclusively within the Democratic Party. Whether to support trade agreements and resort to tariffs is now oddly divisive. As for whether to use economic sanctions, President Herbert Hoover was strongly opposed to unilaterally directing sanctions against an expanding militaristic Japan in the early 1930s, while his successor, President Roosevelt, used some sanctions against a shocked Japan until they attacked us at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Although Presidents Kennedy and Johnson showed little weakness when confronting basic Soviet thermonuclear threats in the 1960’s, it was a stubborn President Reagan who used two terms in the 1980’s to expand American military preparedness to the point where the Soviet Union could no longer keep up. Anti-Communism as an uncompromising movement in America does owe something to one wing of the Democratic Party; but it probably owes more to the Republicans who early recognized the worldwide expansionist ambitions and ruthlessness of the Communist Internationale. Reviled for their refusal to be taken in by “fronts” and by the transparent excuse that communists were only seeking a more egalitarian world, the Communist hunters of that era await history’s ultimate favor. There is nothing simple about the history of all this. Party partisans normally simplify the record, nevertheless, especially when crying “Bay of Pigs!” to deflate President Kennedy’s caution over invading Cuba in 1961 or “Contra Scandal!” to diminish President Reagan’s convoluted effort to bring democracy to Nicaragua in the 1980s. Few actions are clearly black and white in American politics.
If asked, Democrats will probably assert, hopefully, that they are more humanitarian than their customary opponents. They try to consider themselves more tolerant, less self-centered and money oriented, less nationalist, and so on. Though decrying militarism, they take great pride in the victories of World Wars I and II under their presidents. Democrats say they are champions of individual security and of protection for free speech. Republicans, meanwhile, tend to observe 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 most government intervention; and that the right to own property certainly ought to include most aspects of the right to its use as the owner sees fit. There is frequent Republican reference to the Constitution, and to the rights of the States, localities, and school systems to minimum interference from that national government in Washington. “We are a Republic, not a Democracy.” “Ours is a federal system.” Meanwhile, Democrats often dwell on the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments) and rely for “real change” on the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. The listener to the ardent claims and assertions of both parties has to say that few outcrys for “Action!” are backed by a fully united party membership.
When the conversation in an American barbershop turns to politics, the Democrats there may well espouse environmentalism, better welfare programs, more federal funds for the schools, and protections for civil rights. We should further relax immigration controls. The Supreme Court must continue approving a woman’s “right to choose.” Gay marriage does not seem to bother many Democrats the way it apparently distresses lots of Republicans. Democrats in an urban Northern barber shop may not line up like many in a rural Southern one, however, for there are geographical differences in belief patterns. The Republicans in both places may dwell on attacks on too much government regulation of business; taxes that take too big a bite out of everybody’s salary; land use planning that is too restrictive; and controls on commercial fishing, farming, home building, and all forms of entrepreneurship and business operation. Truck drivers and gun owning outdoorsmen in the room may well be Republicans; the majority of trade union members and leaders--especially public school teachers and government workers--tend to be Democrats.
College professors as a whole are sharply divided in politics. In the social sciences and humanities they are overwhelmingly Democratic liberals. Some remember the old Socialist Party, still hoping for government ownership and regulation of “the means of production and distribution.” The science and physical education departments are by no means all Democrats, while the business division faculty is probably Republican up and down the corridors. Republicans seem rare in Psychology and Sociology. Faculty in the Education schools may keep their own counsel in politics, for they bear in mind that school board members (who approve teacher appointments) enjoy the right to be decidedly partisan politically.
In politics as in religion there is the traditional state of things, and the modern situation, which is always in flux. Jews ardently supported Roosevelt and Truman (who eagerly recognized Israel). Catholics, in urban settings at least, once could be counted on to support Democrat machines in the cities. The candidacies of John F. Kennedy as a Catholic, and Joseph Lieberman as a Jew, both Democrats, and of Jimmy Carter as a dedicated Southern Baptist, revealed a late twentieth century willingness of the American public to endure identification with deepfelt religion by candidates in the public arena. The votes of some religious groups that parties once took for granted can no longer be counted on. Today, families with deep religious ties may have members in both parties, although politicized fundamentalist Christians have come to embrace the Republican ticket. (Yesterday’s Democratic “Solid South” is gone; now most Southern state governors are Republican.) Nevertheless, many religious bodies are too divided on party choice to offer fully unified support for one party or for any particular candidate. Party leaders keep hoping, however, while hopefully stirring the pot.
When asked about party preference by Pew pollsters in July, 2004, Americans divided by religion. Protestants were 40 percent Republican to 26 Democrat. Jews were only 18 percent Republican to 55 percent Democrat. Catholics were almost evenly divided: 31 to 32, while those professing no religion were only 15 percent Republican to 31 percent Democrat. Will such divisions continue over the years? Those registering for the first time certainly need not follow their religious group’s preferences, in any case. The importance of candidate’s religious affiliation for voters varies quite a bit. The Catholic religion of Governor Al Smith in 1928 and of Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 were considered relevant—but not really compelling--by admirers and opponents alike. The widespread prejudice evident in 1928 was less obtrusive in 1960, for the nation had grown in toleration during the intervening years.
Civil rights and civil liberties do divide the parties, but this is by no means as clearcut as might appear from comprehensive claims. There are all kinds of “rights.” There are many types of “liberties.” Some civil rights advocates will fight for the rights of, say, homosexuals or women or blacks, while at the same time disregarding or seizing the rights of those richer than they, the propertied, and business and corporate entities. Judges vary in party affiliation. When they are appointed to the highest court in the Land, they may very well come to disappoint those who appointed them. Some justices change their ideology appreciably during their years of service, emerging in old age with beliefs foreign to their early careers. As for party platforms, both parties have had sizable numbers of adherents who deplored particular planks, voting against them and attacking them publicly. After the national conventions, party members sometimes even reject the top candidate of their party and “cross over” to “split their ballots” at election time. Only “party regulars” can more or less be counted on to “vote the straight ticket.” (Here are useful terms.)
This is an enormous country, with sections and regions. There are variations in economic conditions and resources, and differing landscapes. Registration of Democrats and Republicans may be quite similar nationally, but it is five to one Democrats in New York City. A Democrat in the West may not easily achieve common cause with one from the Southeast; New England is not like the Southwest in many ways. Moreover, the Florida of old is not the one now populated by millions of senior citizens. One is at a loss to characterize Los Angeles County’s political orientation as it moves into the new century with a vastly internationalized population. Times change; parties change.
Many people find choosing between the parties a hard decision--or may just reject both, saying “A pox on both your houses.” Many don’t bother to register, or, frustrated, they leave a blank or register “Independent.” Unwillingness to join one “side” disregards the fact that the membership of a major party includes a surprising diversity of conservatives, moderates, liberals, pro- and anti-government, pro-regulation and deregulation, internationalist and isolationist, and other attributes that divide people. (You definitely won’t be alone.) Some avoid choosing, saying, “There is already too much partisanship in Congress and our state government. I don’t want to add to it.” Yes, the rise in blind allegiance to Party has gotten out of hand. But so has rejection of Party. Standing idly or critically to one side will do little to bring rationality to the framing and passage of legislation in Washington or your state capital.
Millions of citizens begin their political lives with something of a mindset. Parents, schooling, college perhaps, and work or military experience makes a difference. Asked about their orientation in 2002, Americans replied that they were Moderate (40 percent), Conservative (36 percent), and Liberal (19 percent). The Pew Center provided a breakdown by party in 2003: thus: Moderate: Democrats 35 percent; Republicans 24. Conservative: Democrats 22 percent, Republicans 50. Liberal: Democrats 48 percent, Repubicans only 9! These are striking figures. “Liberal,” by the way, is the meaning of recent years, not the 19th century one which was rooted in freedom from government authority. To earlier liberals who faced human difficulties, government was the problem, not the solution.
Being Independent takes one out of the party arena and may seem to reduce stress and strain, but it excludes one from party primaries in many—but not all--states. A closed primary means that others will choose the candidates who offer themselves in the final election. It facilitates tuning out of the kinds of meaningful disputes over issues that perennially occupy those who affiliate with a Party. It also diminishes the percentage of the electorate who participate in our primary elections. While Independents tend to revel in their freedom from the controls of Party, they actually prevent themselves from having much to do with the orientation of the American System of Government. That power is rooted in political parties and those who work effectively within the party machinery.
After all, a political party is at its core an organization that consists of individuals—leaders and followers alike, at national, state, and local levels. If serious politically, do try to become active in one. Since there is almost certainly some entry for parties in the telephone book (try “Organizations” in the yellow pages or the party name in the alphabetical listing), it is easy to reach a staff member or volunteer. Say, “I would like to be active in party affairs” and see what happens. (Many a lifetime partner has been found when engaging in party work at headquarters or in the precincts!) Precinct work involves knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, attending gatherings and conventions, and even giving talks to groups. Real power may attend acceptance of a precinct post, for in case a candidate falls ill or dies the county precinct people may legally meet and nominate or select a replacement—without having to ask the electorate at all! (I remember once when a hundred of us met in Oregon one Saturday morning to choose our next congressional candidate--who went on to win.) State party platforms do not emerge out of thin air; they are likely to be written and/or revised by delegates from county committees. (My son and I heavily edited one into the draft that passed by the state convention.) Those national platforms emerge from discussions by representatives sent by state committees—and desires of the top candidate, of course. Staff may offer drafts for comment, modification, and vote by those with the true power: people like you.
Should a very young person become a Republican or a Democrat? The question doesn’t lead to a simple answer. Nor is the answer vital. Within each party there are gradations in viewpoint--as one might expect. There are “rock-ribbed” Conservative Republicans, and Moderate or Progressive (a dated word) Republicans. There are Conservative and Liberal Democrats. There are aggressive radicals in the Democratic Party, and rock-ribbed reactionaries in the Republican Party. Extraordinarily rich partisans may be found embedded in each of our parties. (Inherited money is donated by the receiver.) Naturalized citizens may gravitate toward either party; it is unpredictable, these days, which they will choose. Pollsters are often surprised, for the historic monopoly of Democrats with urban immigrants is gone. Party history in one’s state of residence may determine your final choice; for example, a notorious or famous figure sometimes leaves a semi-permanent stamp on the reputation of a party that lingers for decades after they leave public life. (Hiram Johnson in California and Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin come to mind, but there are many others.)
One suggestion will be strongly offered. Do avoid extremes of partisanship during your lifetime of party activity! There is no excuse for one’s friends having to be members of your party as the price of friendship. Nor is it essential for children to join the parties of parents, for the decision is a personal demonstration of citizenship, not of family loyalty. The channels of communication need to be open between relatives and friends alike—disregarding party ties. Only an extreme partisan will say that on no occasion, “Never!” has his party been wrong in human, national, or world affairs. But even the best party leaders and the parties themselves have been humiliatingly in error on occasion. Perfection will not be found in politics (or maybe anywhere else, for that matter).
If when registering one wants no more than to achieve peace of mind, then a casually relaxed choice between the two major parties may be justifiable. If a young person senses that he/she is most at home when agitating publicly, and being noticed while actively “striking a blow,” then time embraced by the Democratic Party may prove a good experience. If an individual focuses on concepts like “stability” and “order,” on preserving what has already been achieved, and on close scrutiny of the new and untried, then Republican Party membership may prove more congenial. These are admittedly glittering generalities to which exceptions and equivocations may be in order. But there is something to these generalizations. They arise from a lifetime of watching our American political parties at work—and reading the fine print.
The capitalist system is not normally under serious threat from leaders of either party, although its form is constantly under review. In the past there have been Populist, Progressive, Labor, Socialist, Socialist Worker, and even Communist parties that took fundamental stands against capitalist basics. There have been Progresssive and Green parties, Libertarians, Reform parties, ad hoc parties that last but one election, and Wallace, Perot, and Nader led parties. Areas like profit, property, and regulatory power are disputed. We can’t know what all those persons who seek public office really want to do with the American System. We do, however, expect them to be working within the System for its modification—not its abolition. Neither major party is hostile to organized religion. Neither admits to having a program designed to restructure all the accumulated wealth so as to remove it from those who have it and give it to those who don’t. Yet tax programs differ substantially. Support of a tax or welfare program may make leaders appear radical (or thoughtless) for a time….
Party membership, in whatever party, gives the right in all states to vote one’s choice among party candidates in the primaries. It is an opportunity through work in precincts, cities, counties, and states to change the way life is lived in one’s locality. It is possible to move from just airing an opinion to really recording that opinion where it counts: the ballot box. Thus: “I am a citizen; I am a Democrat.” Or, “I am a citizen; I am a Republican.” Occasionally, however, there will come the opportunity to register in a Third Party. Some want to join in the folds of something different, innovative, focused, even experimental. Third Parties have been part of America’s political structure almost from the beginning of the Republic. They have had an effect on legislation and institutions. Maybe allying with a third party or independent candidate is best for some in our electorate. It is true that when blocs of voters remove themselves from a major party they may change an election’s results!
What then, overall, are the simplest differences and the really vital similarities between our two major parties? The Democratic Party remains, even now, the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whatever the impact made by its years in the hands of eloquent President Kennedy, productive President Johnson, peace-loving President Carter and Center-leaning President Clinton. In contrast, the Republican Party of Hoover, Eisenhower, and Nixon (and in part, of Barry Goldwater) has now become the party of Ronald Reagan (and to a surprising degree responsive to fundamentalist Christianity). The impetus toward party moderation cultivated by Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, presidential hopefuls Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, Mark Hatfield, and some senators and governors has pretty much faded, for now. The 1930’s radical threat of Louisiana’s Huey Long is gone.
The parties love to seek votes by playing down their liberaland conservative characteristics, but their differences are in plain view. The cynical observation “Tweedledee, tweedledum” is absurd. The two major political parties in America are not alike—but they are not polarized, either. The two parties are similar in major goals, for neither is Marxist or openly fosters class politics. (This writer and his wife have voted for some state and national candidates nominated by each major party in five different sections of the country.) Regardless of which party won in the 21 presidential elections held in my lifetime, we could endure defeat. Democratic candidate Al Smith of New York said after losing in 1928, “No matter with what party we aligned ourselves on election day, our concern should be the future welfare, happiness, content and prosperity of the American people.” (Would he have been calm in 2000?) Winners and losers must keep that vital attitude in front of them if our System is to work. Elections are not wars.They are electoral contests. The war vocabulary is not appropriate when discussing parties, candidates and issues. Old fashioned political partisanship is the American Way in self-government.
There are those who take understandable pride in never having deserted “the straight ticket.” Party loyalty is total—and a lifetime commitment! Feality resembles that idealized for marriage. Unrestrained joy comes with winning; total despair accompanies losing. Anger; lashing out; mortification; exuberance; triumphalism. Such are the swings of emotion felt by the party regulars—the unforgiving, the power seekers. These are the loyalists who never abandon their party on issues or candidates—no matter how great the provocation. Such party faithful live a hard emotional life, by their own choice.
Finally, do be part of the government of your country. Do it by registering; then by joining a party and working for its candidates. Don’t stand to one side, “Independent,” to be sure, but frowning and demoralized, while parties operated by others run your state and nation! Help write or modify those party platforms. Others are no more entitled to be heard than you are. Participating will be fun! The late comedian Milton Berle wisecracked, “Politics is like sex. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it.” Those who join in party activity will find it easy to proclaim, “This ismy Country.” Self-government, you see, needs everybody. Each individual who joins party ranks may sooner or later modify current viewpoints and policies in either the Democratic or Republican party—hopefully, of course, for the better.
Thank you, Granddaughter Susan, for asking about our political parties. I’ve been happy to oblige. Now: become part of the process. Let me know when you are selected chairperson of your political party’s county, state, or national committee! By the way, because of the contacts and friendships you will make through the years, those small unpaid jobs you do for your party may prove real stepping stones. Eventually you could become a party’s candidate for public office—even one of our most important and powerful.
People like you are needed to help run our Country….
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vaughn davis bornet - 5/1/2008
The letter that occasioned this essay was from my granddaughter Susan, age between 30 and 40, mother of five girls. She wrote via email: "Hi, Grandpa! I was wondering if you could help me out.... What exactly are the differences between Republicans and Democrats? How do you decide which one you are (or which one more towards)? Love, Susan
I sent the article when finished, but did not inquire how she eventually registered.
The hope I developed while writing has been realized a number of times in the case of the printed version: that is, it has been passed down to younger members of families to do for them what it was intended to do for Susan. (Just today my former banker solictied a copy for his 18 year old son.) I trust that it merits an extensive audience; that was the idea, anyway.
Vaughn Davis Bornet
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