Are you a Democrat or a Republican? If you can answer that question, you're ahead of the game. For many people, political parties are a puzzle. The dictionary defines them as groups of people "who control or seek to control a government." So much for music and dancing.

The U.S. Constitution doesn't even mention political parties. President George Washington warned about "the danger of parties." But even then, our leaders didn't always agree. In the 1790s, a quarrel broke out between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over how much power to grant the federal government. The argument split their followers into two separate groups — the beginning of U.S. political parties.

The argument still forms the underlying dispute between our two main political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. What does each group stand for?

The Party of the People

The Democratic Party is the oldest existing political party in the United States. Some scholars say that it began when Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republicans in 1792. Jefferson opposed a strong central government.

The party later split. Some scholars say that the Democrat Party grew from a branch headed by Andrew Jackson. Jackson, elected President in 1828, believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a limitation of the government's powers.

Today's Democratic Party takes a different stand. Democrats are sometimes referred to as "the Party of the People," attracting immigrants, blue-collar workers, women, and minorities. Democrats tend to take a more liberal stand on important issues. They believe that the federal government should take a more active role in people's lives, particularly those who are in need.

One example is Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency (1933–1945). To pull the United States out of an economic depression, Roosevelt started a slew of government programs to create jobs.

The Grand Old Party

The Republican Party was formed in 1854, when a man named Alvan E. Bovay brought together antislavery leaders. These leaders opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would permit slavery in these new territories if the people voted for it.

The party's candidate lost in 1856. The Republicans realized they needed more than one issue to win. In 1860, they still opposed slavery in the territories, but also called for a transcontinental railroad and free land to settlers. The candidate that year, Abraham Lincoln, won.

What do Republicans stand for today? In general, Republicans tend to take a more conservative stand on issues. They believe that the federal government should not play a big role in people's lives. Most Republicans favor lower taxes and less government spending on social programs. They believe in less government intervention in business and the economy.

Who Would You Choose?

Not everyone agrees with everything his or her party stands for. Most voters choose a party that most closely represents their values, concerns, and ideals. Which party would you support?

Other Voices in the Electoral Crowd

Over the last 40 years, Americans have seldom granted their Presidents much freedom to enact their proposals. For example, when Republican Presidents have been in the White House, while Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress or vice versa. The result is what we call a divided government.

Some experts say that this situation can spark trouble. Each party blames the other when things go wrong. Voters, in turn, have grown disillusioned with a government that is constantly deadlocked.

While we have a two-party system, there are hundreds of political parties in the U.S. There are also people who are not linked to any party and run as independents. No third-party or independent candidate has ever been elected President. But several third-party proposals have gained such widespread support that the major parties were forced to adopt them. The direct election of U.S. senators and primary elections, which are part of selecting presidential candidates, both began as third-party ideas.


Adapted from Junior Scholastic.