Political Parties in America

There were two original national parties in the United States, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. The ideals of the Democratic Republicans, which were opposed to those of the Federalist Party, were known as Jeffersonian democracy and were largely based on faith in the virtue and ability of the common man and the limitation of the powers of the federal government.

After the Federalist Party died out in 1816, it left a single political party for a short time. However, in the middle of the 1820s, as a result of a split in the Democratic-Republican Party, there were two factions – the National Republicans and the Democrats. After Andrew Jackson lost in 1824, his supporters created their own organization to get him elected, which following his election in 1828 became known as the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is the oldest continuous political party in the United States. It includes a diverse group of individuals who typically emphasize the need for the federal government to have a greater role in promoting social, economic and political opportunities for all. The party generally argues for more government control over economic matters combined with less government control over individual rights.

The symbol of the Democratic Party is a donkey, which is said to have stemmed from Jackson. His opposition called him a jackass and he adopted it as a symbol instead of taking it as an insult. The party holds the record for controlling both houses of Congress for the most consecutive Congresses. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress from 1955 to 1981. Apart from Jackson, Democratic presidents include Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945), Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and Barack Obama (2009-).

The Republican Party was founded in the 1850s. At that time the Democratic Party and the Whig Party, which was formed by those who had opposed Jackson's dissolution of the Bank of the United States and the nullification controversy, were split over the crucial issue of the extension of slavery into the territories. The opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 organized the new Republican Party.

The major, initial policy position of the Republicans was their opposition to the extension of slavery into new states and territories. Like the Whig and Federalist parties that preceded it in the two-party system, the Republican Party backed high, protective tariffs, a national bank and federal supremacy over the states.

Between 1876 and 1896, which was a period of closely contested presidential elections, political cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the use of the elephant as the unofficial symbol of the Republican Party. The party was also nicknamed the "Grand Old Party" because of its close association with the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union army veterans of the Civil War (1861-1865).

The Great Depression began in 1929 during the Republican presidency of Herbert Hoover. As a result, the Republican Party's reputation for competent economic leadership was discredited and their association with national prosperity came to an end. Until the 1930s, African Americans were the most loyal Republican voters, but because of Roosevelt and the popular New Deal economic policies, during that period they became the most loyal Democratic voters in spite of the continuing associations of the Democrats with Southern whites and segregation.

However, a substantial minority of African Americans continued to support the Republicans who they perceived as more sincere and effective on civil rights, because of the party's Lincoln legacy. As the presence and influence of conservative Southern whites within the Republican Party increased steadily, fewer white Republican politicians backed liberal policies on race, including affirmative action, court-ordered busing and anti-poverty programs.

Ronald W. Reagan, who was elected president in 1980, had policy goals prioritizing the conservative agenda of major tax cuts, defense spending rises, reduced federal regulation of the economy, lower domestic spending, more domestic policy responsibilities for the states and a more aggressive foreign policy. The Republican presidential nominee in 2000, George W. Bush, realized the need for the Republican Party to express more inclusive and less divisive type of conservatism. He promised an ideology and domestic policy based on compassionate conservatism. While Bush was re-elected in 2004, the Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, with signs that voters reacted against lobbying scandals, the Iraq war, inadequate health care and Republican control of the presidency and Congress.

Political Parties in America: Selected full-text books and articles

Class and Party in American Politics By Jeffrey M. Stonecash Westview Press, 2000
Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Political Campaigns By Ronald J. Hrebenar; Matthew J. Burbank; Robert C. Benedict Westview Press, 1999
The Tyranny of the Two-Party System By Lisa Jane Disch Columbia University Press, 2002
Two Parties--Or More? The American Party System By John F. Bibby; L. Sandy Maisel Westview Press, 1998
Challenges to Party Government By John Kenneth White; Jerome M. Mileur Southern Illinois University Press, 1992
Southern Parties and Elections: Studies in Regional Political Change By Robert P. Steed; Laurence W. Moreland; Tod A. Baker University of Alabama Press, 1997
Losing Control: The Intraparty Consequences of Divided Government By Rose, Melody Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, December 2001
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