The Speaker
Saturday, 25 May 2024 – 20:48

What are the political parties in the United States?

The most important thing to know is that depending on who you ask, the United States is either a two-party system, or a one hundred party system.

The United States is and has undoubtedly been a two-party system – for the last 150 years the President of the United States has only been elected as a Democrat or a Republican. However, the United States is a nation of 300 million people and 50 states, with the parties in each state varying to such a degree that some have argued they are entirely different.

Typically, Republican candidates in the coastal states will be far more liberal, often supporting abortion rights for women and progressive LGBTQ+ positions, despite the party typically opposing such issues. Equally, many Democrats in southern states will adopt strong support of the first amendment (right to carry guns) into their platforms, which is largely against the party’s overall position, which seeks to regulate the ownership of firearms.

Although only these two parties can expect to win in the United States, there have however been a number of significant third parties throughout history which have had an impact on the election result. The last third-party candidate to win more than 10% of the vote was Ross Perot, of the Reform Party in 1992 and 1996 – the two elections won by Bill Clinton. The last time any candidate from a Third Party won any states to gain Electoral College votes was 1968, where segregationist George Wallace won five southern states, contesting Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.

Read through the below to learn more about political parties in the United States.

Democratic Party

Considered the oldest still-functioning party in the United States – and sometimes even on Earth – the Democrats were founded in 1828 by supporters of Andrew Jackson to support his candidacy for the presidency. Throughout most of the next 150 years, the Democratic Party were considered the party of the south, supporting slavery and segregation up until the party switch that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. They have since come to be considered as the more progressive of the major parties in the United States. With recent candidates for the presidency including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and elected in 2020 Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, they are considered to be amongst the most progressive national political figures in the United States.

The party will typically support social policies which are considered on the left-wing, such as protecting women’s right to an abortion (as it’s legally their right under Roe Vs Wade, 1973), and are usually stronger on redistributive policies to help marginalised and minority communities. They will usually support relatively capitalist economic policy, unlike parties in many other countries who are considered on the left, who will often support socialist economic policies.

The Democratic Party will typically gain the majority of their support in wealthy coastal states, such as California, New York and Massachusetts; they will typically have younger and wealthier populations, with more dense cities than areas where the Republican Party performed well. They are usually strong in gaining support from minority communities – particularly African American voters, since the Civil Rights Movement – and women voters.

President-Elect Joe Biden in 2020| Credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Republican Party

Although known as the Grand Old Party (GOP) they are officially younger than the Democratic Party, although they can trace their roots farther back. Originally founded to oppose the expansion of slavery through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the party were anti-slavery and considered more progressive until the past 50 years.

The ‘party of Lincoln’ traditionally found their base of support in the north, but have since come to represent the old confederate states following the party switch and are now typically supported in the rural states, with older, less diverse populations and lower levels of wealth. The most recent president from Republican Party is Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016 but lost his fight for re-election in 2020 to Joe Biden, supported by democrats.

The party is considered to the right of the Democratic Party, supporting First Amendment rights and opposing firearms regulation, as well as typically opposing LGBTQ+ rights and redistribution of wealth.

Photo: President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence

Third Parties

Although third parties are not typically successful in the United States there are several relatively large third parties, notably the Green Party and Libertarian Party.

The Green Party achieved their highest ever national percentage in the 2016 election, winning 1% of the vote. They typically stand on the left of the Democratic Party, and like their name suggests, strongly support environmental policies.

The Libertarian Party also performed historically well in 2016, gaining 2% of the overall vote. The party supports a libertarian platform, which emphasises the absence of government intervention in the economy, instead of allowing market forces to determine what happens. They are typically on the right of the Republican Party, and many of the most notable ideologically libertarian politicians in the United States – such as Rand Paul – are members of the Republican Party, not the Libertarian Party.

Although not successful this century, the Reform Party performed strongly in 1996, securing 8.4% of the vote in 1996 and their candidate Ross Perot had secured 18.9% as an independent in 1992. Donald Trump was briefly expected to be their candidate in 2000 after joining the party in 1999, with supporters of former wrestler Jesse Ventura – later elected as Reform Party Governor of Minnesota – encouraging Trump to run. He decided to withdraw before the presidential election.

More historically successful third parties include George Wallace’s run for the presidency as a candidate for the American Independent Party – a far-right party in the American South. He secured 55 Electoral College votes in the 1968 presidential election, the only third-party candidates to win any states in a presidential election in the last 60 years.

What was the party switch?
The switch between the parties during the 1960s and 1970s led to a change of beliefs in the biggest American political parties. Originally, the Democratic Party supported slavery and racial segregation and now their members are one of the most progressive politicians in the US.

The Party Switch has been alluded to throughout and began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from the Democratic Party, supported social security and other reforms during his presidency. This was solidified when John F. Kennedy won the presidency for the Democratic Party in 1960, supporting African American rights and the Civil Rights movement, with his successor Lyndon B. Johnson taking this further in his administration. The switch was considered complete during the administration of Richard M. Nixon, whose Southern Strategy at the 1968 election aimed to win the votes of white southerners disaffected by the Democrats support for Civil Rights. With Ronald Reagan being elected in 1980, the switch was complete, as Reagan supported a liberal economic policy and opposed the idea of redistribution of wealth. He also supported a tough on drugs and tough crime policies which have since become the bedrock of the Republican Party.

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