What Exactly Does "Democrat"/"Republican" Mean?

This is something that has perplexed me for the longest time. In other countries, the names of their political parties usually tell you something about them. The Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Christian Democrats, etc. In the U.S., we have two main parties that usually win the elections (hence the phrase “two-party system”, I guess). But their names have always confused me:

Democrat, Republican.

I have wondered this since I was a child. And before long, I just concluded that the names must have some historical significance that has long since been lost. That is until fairly recently, when a new political party surfaced in Canada. It calls itself the “New Democrats” or something like that IIRC. And like our Democratic Party, it is just left of center, I believe. I think other countries too may be using the word “Democrat/ic” to describe political parties left of center, or maybe even just center (compare “Christian Democrats” above).

So what exactly do the names Democrat and Republican mean when used to describe these parties? Specifically, what is the modern significance of them? I mean, is one party really more democratic (or pro-republic) than the other, or am I misunderstanding their names?


Originally (after the Revolution was over, that is), the two major US parties were the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, which were fairly descriptive names for the competing ideas of having a strong central government vs. giving most of the power to the states.

After the Federalists fizzled and the Democratic-Republicans shortened their name to just “Democrats,” the Whig party appeared. I figure “Whig” means something akin to dying your first year in office, considering that’s pretty much all they did.

When the Republicans appeared, I don’t think the name meant any more to the party what it means today. Their platform was what caused the Civil War: abolishing slavery. Of course, there was a lot more to that, but overall the Republican party represented the split between North and South.

Oddly enough, the Republican party was the left-of-center party after the Civil War. The Democrats represented the conservative side of the spectrum until FDR became the first Liberal Democrat president.

After the Federalists fell by the wayside, the Democratic-Republican name pretty much described the type of government it strove to run, so after shortening its name to the equally meaningless “Democrats,” the discarded Republican name was out there for the taking. I’m sure the emancipationists in the North picked the name because it had that warm, fuzzy, familiar feeling without really saying anything about the issues that separated them from the Democrats. In the end, befitting our American nature, it was a marketing decision.

Well, for the Democrats…

Back at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, there was a party called the Federalist Party. Some of the leaders were people like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. They were generally pro-business, and favored a loose interpretation of the Constitution, and a bigger, more active (by 18th century standards, at least) government.

The Federalists’ opponents, led by people like Thomas Jefferson, accused the Federalists of being aristocratic, not trusting the common man, and betraying the ideals of the American revolution. So, they, as a dig at the Federalists, called themselves the “Democratic Republicans”…to remind people that the US was a democratic republic and not an aristocracy. Eventually they shortened their name to just the “Democratic” party.

The Republican party was founded in the 1850s as an anti-slavery party. It started out as a loose coalition of Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, free soilers, nativists, and people who wanted to see increased Western development. Joseph Meddel is credited with the name, but I don’t know why he chose it.

Just a nitpick here – the original name of Jefferson’s party was the “Republican” party. It was only during Jackson’s time that the party was split between Democratic-Republicans and National Republicans (the John Quincy Adams wing of the party). “Democratic-Republican” was soon shortened to “Democratic.”

So today’s Democratic party was originally called the Republican party.

One side is always right, and the other side is always wrong. Figuring out which is which is the hard part. It usually comes down to whose side you’re on. :smiley:

Look at the definition of democracy:

This is the definition in use in popular speech, so although it is technically contradictory (a “true” democracy does not use representatives) it is the one with the greatest emotional impact.

Calling oneself a democrat or a republican is therefore just a code word for subscribing to the most basic definition of the government of the country.

That’s why the party names don’t have any greater connotations. They’re just basic descriptors. Nor do the parties want it any other way. Because the country is centrist (or at least because the great mass of swing voters that must be recaptured with each election is centrist) neither party could afford to have a modifier in its name. You’ll never see the Liberal Democratic Party or the Conservative Republican Party. Even if that’s what they are, that’s not how they wish to be perceived.

Just FYI, New York does have a Liberal party and a Conservative party. In the 1970s, I think, a Conservative party candidate won a U.S. Senate seat.

Posted by acsenray:

Actually, the Liberal Party disbanded recently – this year, I think.

If you’re interested in political parties in America, go to http://www.politics1.com. There is a “Political Parties” page which lists almost every party active in the U.S., even the really little ones. There’s also a “The 50 States” page which can give you access to information about politics and government in a given state, including a list of all the political parties in that state, some of which exist at the state level only.

As for what the Democratic and Republican labels really mean, let’s look at the beliefs of their supporters. The problem is, each is a “big tent” party encompassing several different factions with very different beliefs and values. These factions are forced to huddle under one big tent because we use the winner-take-all, single-member-district system for electing Congress and all the state legislatures. This system is naturally bipolar. That is, in elections it grants victory to the two strongest parties and marginalizes the rest. Each party becomes a “big tent” of several very different factions in an uneasy alliance, because none of those factions sees any realistic hope of going it alone. E.g., the African-Americans mostly vote Democrat, because why would they vote Republican? The religious conservatives stick with the Republican Party because they have significant influence in it – even if they’re mostly working-class people and not entirely comfortable with the plutocrats who are actually running the party. The result is that each party has its outer flanks pretty much sewn up, most of the time (the Green insurgency in 2000 was an exception), and the only turf left for them to fight over is the center. That is – most seats in Congress are “safe seats” for one party or the other. There are a few “swing” districts, which could go either way, depending on how the few voters at the center of the spectrum within that district decide to vote on election day. Those few centrist voters in those few swing districts are the only Americans who have a real, effective vote in congressional elections; the rest of us might as well have stayed home, for all the difference we make. And that situation artificially inflates the importance of the political center.

When we look at the range of opinions among the people, we find they are not clustered at the center, but distributed all over the map in clusters of roughly equal size. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has developed a typology (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=98) which divides the American body politic into the following ten groups (they revise and refine the model every election cycle or two, but the model retains its basic outlines). Note that almost every group shows a certain level of support for the Dems, the Reps, or both, which allows us to gather some idea of what the party labels really “mean”:

STAUNCH CONSERVATIVES: 10% of adult population, 12% of registered voters. 72% Republican; 24% independent, lean Republican. Pro-business, pro-military, pro-life, anti-gay and anti-social welfare with a strong faith in America. Anti-environmental. Self-defined patriot. Distrustful of government. Little concern for the poor. Unsupportive of the women’s movement. Predominately white (95%), male (65%) and older. Married (70%). Extremely satisfied financially (47% make at least $50,000). Almost two-thirds (63%) are white Protestant.

MODERATE REPUBLICANS: 11% of general population, 12% of registered voters. 76% Republican; 22% independent, lean Republican. Pro-business, pro-military, but also pro-government. Strong environmentalists. Highly religious. Self-defined patriots. Little compassion for poor. More satisfied than Staunch Conservatives with state of the union. White, relatively well educated and very satisfied financially. Largest percent of Catholics across all groups.

POPULIST REPUBLICANS: 9% of general population, 10% of registered voters. 72% Republican, 25% independent, lean Republican. Religious, xenophobic and pro-life. Negative attitudes toward gays and elected officials. Sympathetic toward the poor. Most think corporations have too much power and money. Tend to favor environmental protection. Almost two-thirds are dissatisfied with the state of the nation. Heavily female (60%) and less educated. Fully 42% are white evangelical Protestants.

NEW PROSPERITY INDEPENDENTS: 10% of general population, 11% of registered voters. 69% independent, 21% Republican, 5% Democrat. Pro-business, pro-environment and many are pro-choice. Sympathetic toward immigrants, but not as understanding toward black Americans and the poor. Somewhat critical of government. Tolerant on social issues. Well educated (38% have a college degree), affluent (almost one-fourth earn at least $75,000) and young (70% less than age 50). Slightly more men than women (55% to 45%, respectively). Less religious (only 13% go to church weekly).

DISAFFECTEDS: 9% of general population, 10% of registered voters. 73% independent, 8% Democrat, 6% Republican. Distrustful of government, politicians, and business corporations. Favor third major political party. Also, anti-immigrant and intolerant of homosexuality. Very unsatisfied financially. Less educated (only 8% have a college degree) and lower-income (73% make less than $50,000). More than one-quarter (28%) describe themselves as poor. Half are between the ages of 30-49. Second only to Partisan Poor in number of single moms. One-fifth (20%) work in manufacturing.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: 9% of general population, 10% of registered voters. 56% Democrat; 41% independent, lean Democrat. Pro-choice and support civil rights, gay rights, and the environment. Critical of big business. Very low expression of religious faith. Most sympathetic of any group to the poor, African-Americans and immigrants. Highly supportive of the women’s movement. Most highly educated group (50% have a college degree). Least religious of all typology groups. One-third never married.

SOCIALLY CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRATS: 13% of general population, 14% of registered voters. 70% Democrat; 27% independent, lean Democrat. Pro-U.S., yet disenchanted with the government. Intolerant on social issues. Positive attitude toward military. Think big business has too much power and money. Highly religious. Not affluent but satisfied financially. Slightly less educated, older group (27% are women over age 50). Labor union supporters. Higher than average number (62%) are married.

NEW DEMOCRATS: 9% of general population, 10% of registered voters. 75% Democrat; 21% independent, lean Democrat. Favorable view of government. Pro-business, yet think government regulation is necessary. Concerned about environmental issues and think government should take strong measures in this area. Accepting of gays. Somewhat less sympathetic toward the poor, black Americans and immigrants than Liberal Democrats. Many are reasonably well educated and fall into the middle-income bracket. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) are women and 21% are black. Numerous are self-described union supporters.

PARTISAN POOR: 9% of general population, 11% of registered voters. 85% Democrat; 12% independent, lean Democrat. Xenophobic and anti-big business. Disenchanted with government. Think the government should do even more to help the poor. Very religious. Support civil rights and the women’s movement. Have very low incomes (40% make under $20,000), and two-thirds (66%) are female. Nearly four-in-ten are African-American and 14% are Hispanic. Not very well educated. Pro-labor union. Largest group of single mothers.

BYSTANDERS: 11% of general population, 0% of registered voters. 54% independent, 25% Democrat, 10% Republican. These Americans choose not to participate in politics, or are not eligible to do so (noncitizens). Somewhat sympathetic toward poor. Uninterested in what goes on in politics. Rarely vote. Young (49% under 30), less educated and not very religious. Work in manufacturing, construction and restaurant/retail industries.

Oh, by the way, for a discussion of alternative electoral systems (such as instant-runoff voting and proportional or “full” representation), go to http://www.fairvote.org.

The status of the Liberals is up in the air. After they got taken off the ballot, the party chairman and a lot of the party bigwigs said “it’s over”. But, some of the county party chairmen said “No, the Liberals are still around, the state party leadership are all traitors to the party, etc.” So, it’s kind of ambiguous right now.

Weimar Germany had proportional representation…

Posted by Dogface:

Sigh. All right, I hate to see a GQ thread hijacked into the kind of debate that belongs in GD, where we have already had several threads on the merits and demerits of PR. Please note that most of what I posted above is hard facts and cites, not arguments. I’m definitely biased in favor of PR, but I’m making a sincere effort to just put the information out there, and it is relevant to this thread.

But, dammit, Dogface started it, and I feel obliged to rebut him. Moderators, feel free to step in at any time. (As if you wouldn’t.)

The following is from Michael Lind’s article, “A Radical Plan to Change American Politics,” from the Atlantic Monthly, August 1992 (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/congress/lindf.htm). It should be sufficient to explode the canard that PR leads naturally to fascism or to extremism of any form:

Just to nitpick and force my own opinion, the Democrats are not slightly left-of-center. They’re just not as far right as the Repulbicans.

[hijack] Interestingly enough, the Liberal Party in Australia represents the moderate right side of the spectrum. Go figure. [/hijack]

Posted by punkkid:

And Zhirinovsky’s far-right nationalist party in Russia is known as the Liberal Democrats. In Japan the Liberal Party is really very conservative. And in the UK, the Liberal Democrats occupy a centrist position between Labour and the Tories. In early 19th-century Europe, a “liberal” was anyone who wasn’t a monarchist. In late 19th-century Britain, a “liberal” came to mean a social-and-economic libertarian influenced by the utilitarian ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – that was the politics of the original Liberal Party. It’s really hard to judge a party’s politics by its name; the names change their meaning so much.

For that matter, the parties as institutions can change their meaning if they last long enough. The Republican Party has turned inside-out in the past 40 years. Its main power base is now among conservative white Southerners, whose grandparents were “yellow-dog Democrats,” meaning they would vote for a yellow dog if it were a Democrat. And this is a party that started out in 1854 with practically no support south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Actually, isn’t this thread about the origins of the names of political parties? :slight_smile:

You mean where it asks: “Specifically, what is the modern significance of them?”

Duh, that’s a result of Australia being in the southern hemisphere. The political poles are opposite.

Posted by Captain Amazing:

I read the OP as being about what the parties stand for, in general – “I mean, is one party really more democratic (or pro-republic) than the other, or am I misunderstanding their names?” And I think my post about the Pew typology is relevant because it shows us what various kinds of self-identified Democrats and Republicans (and independents) actually believe.

But I think a thread of this nature is bound to be moved to GD eventually. I mean, how can we discuss this without posters taking sides sooner or later?

My WAG is that the Jeffersonians first took up the name “Republican” as a kind of straw-man exercise. They viewed the Federalists as some kind of neo-monarchists and called themselves “republican” in the sense of “not-monarchist.”

The Jacksonians, then, wanted to emphasise their populism and so added the term “democratic,” creating the “Democratic-Republican” wing of the party.

I can’t say I know why the Republican party founded in the 1850s chose their name – perhaps as a nod to the Jeffersons and Madisons of the past.