The difference between Democrats and Republicans

Thursday 26 October 2006This is over 16 years old. Be careful.

In these days leading up to the mid-term elections, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the possibility of control shifting from Republicans to Democrats. There’s also a steady undercurrent of the disillusioned claiming that there’s really no difference between the two parties.

In some ways, they are right: both parties are prone to scandal, both spend more than their constituents would like, both tend to grow government, both need to practice more what they preach, both are likely to be beholden to “special interests”, both fight dirty when their backs are against the wall, and so on. In short, they both tend toward the typical negative behaviors we find among those in power everywhere. This is what people mean when they say there is no difference.

And it doesn’t help that the cliche distinguishing characteristics are contradicted frequently. Bush is a Republican, but spends a lot of money. Kerry is a Democrat, but is wealthy and privileged. When Bush came into office, there were those who pointed out that he was anything but conservative: in some ways he was a true radical, and they were right. So the classic differentiators are often proven wrong.

But I’ve been pondering this point for a long time: is there an essential difference between Democrats and Republicans? What is at the core of the character of the two parties? There is an essential difference, and it is summed up by their attitude towards Community.

By Community, I mean the balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. Democrats lean toward the community, Republicans toward the individual. This inclination emerges in many aspects of political life:

  • Taxes: Should you keep your money, or should it go to the community?
  • Labor: Corporations are individuals in the eyes of the law, workers are a community.
  • Environment: Preservation for the common good often conflicts with individuals’ use of natural resources.
  • Foreign policy: The US is an individual country, the UN represents the community of countries.
  • Demographics: Urban areas (where many people live closely) are more Democrat, and rural areas (where people are relatively isolated) are more Republican.

These characterizations are simplifications of complex issues. Some classic differentiators are not explained well by this distinction (abortion comes to mind) but the general theme holds: Republicans tend toward individuals, Democrats toward communities.

I’m not making a value judgement. It’s no secret that I vote Democrat, but my point here is not to sway anyone. I’m just trying to unravel a political puzzle.


I, too, am a Democrat and this really made me think. Some would say that rather than this being a matter of prioritizing community over the individual, Republicans prefer the use of individual *choice* (and I don't mean Choice, as in choosing whether or not to abort a fetus); Republicans would rather choose the community that their money and other efforts go towards (often private communities, like private schools, or charities, for example). Democrats believe that the government has an obligatin to set up communities because (they believe that) the natural order of things (and individual choice) doesn't always end up helping those in need.
The distinction is often described in terms of economic and personal freedoms. Republicans support economic freedom more than personal freedom, and democrats support personal freedom more than economic freedom. For instance:

among other charts on that page.
Your and Susan's take on "Crunch Cons" would be fascinating.

aynti-Rand-ly y'rs, - Dean
That's the model I had in my head for all the years I voted strictly Democratic but I don't believe it any more. I believe in the vision, heck, I am a product of the 60s - peace, love and all that crap - but not the realities. For example, how can pro community Democrats be pro gun control, pro smoking restrictions, pro seat belts laws (disclaimer: I don't own a gun nor do I smoke) be against the 'patriot act' that's aimed squarely at helping the community. You don't think it helps the community do you? Me neither, but my point is it's all relative and you can use words like communities, greater good, family values to drizzle your ideas about controlling other people's liberties with sweet goodness. My general response to both the Democrats and the Republicans would be the same - thanks for caring, but I'd prefer to be left alone.
"be against the 'patriot act' that's aimed squarely at helping the community."

and another little piece of FUD gets dished out.

Ned, you knew that you were going to attract trolls with this post, I really don't see what's the point.
For example, how can pro community Democrats be pro gun control, pro smoking restrictions, pro seat belts laws (disclaimer: I don't own a gun nor do I smoke) be against the 'patriot act' that's aimed squarely at helping the community. You don't think it helps the community do you?

Simple: The USPATRIOT act, in the eyes of Democrats, does little to help the common good and infringes too much upon individual civil liberties. The balance between the two is negative.
Max: I like the economic vs. personal freedoms comparison also. It helps explain a point not predicted by the Community model: Dems greater support of personal civil liberties.

Giacomo: "I really don't see what's the point" As I said, I'm not trying to sway anyone. The point of this post is the same as the point of most posts in this or any blog: it's something I was thinking about that I thought other people might be interested in, and that I thought might generate interesting reactions. Besides, Pete isn't a troll, he's a friend of mine.

Pete: I have to admit to being a bit confused by your mention of the PATRIOT act. Are you for it or against it?
Giacomo: I don't know you but I know Pete. Calling him a troll for stating his opinion doesn't seemed like reasoned debate to me.

Keith: I also don't agree with many of the provisions of the Patriot Act, but it passed in the Senate by a vote of 98 to 1, and in the House by a vote of 357 to 66. Obviously a heck of a lot of Democrats voted for it.
Michael Brazier 2:11 PM on 26 Oct 2006
The real difference between the US political parties is soteriology. Democrats are Pelagian, Republicans are Augustinian.
Personally, I am against anything that curtails personal liberty - including the Patriot act. I was just using the Patriot act as an example of Republican government action that's sold as being for the greater good of the community.

Ned's thesis was about Democrats being more community focused than Republicans and I just was pointing out how I think that's not a useful distinction. Each party will spin their platform as either being about personal choice or the good of the community as it fits their agenda.
I think I agree with Ned's summary of "Democrats focus on the community, Republicans on the individual." I've noticed it myself in the sphere of identity politics. Perceiving a person as primarily part of a group -- gays, or blacks, or women, or ... -- tends, in my experience, to be a more left-wing / Democrat thing. Whereas the right wing tends to look at identity politics with a bit of suspicion (at least, I do, and so do the other leaning-right people I know). My reaction to affirmative action, for instance, tends to be, "O.K., so because various minority groups (primarily blacks) experienced racial discrimination and prejudice some time ago, now we should discriminate in their favor to re-balance the scales? Hmm. I completely agree that racial discrimination and prejudice are bad things, but I don't see how continued focus on a person as being primarily part of a racial group, rather than being primarily an individual, will help reach a color-blind society." Likewise with other things such school voucher programs: they appeal strongly to Republicans because the programs lean towards restoring individual choice, whereas Democrats criticize the programs on the basis of the harm it would do to various communities.
I'm with Pete. I don't think a preference for community vs. the individual is exactly the right differentiator. You may not agree with them, but Republicans talk about moral issues in the context of protecting the community. They also think keeping taxes low will improve the economy as a whole and "float all boats".

Here's the real differentiator. I think Democrats and Republicans have fundamentally different attitudes toward human nature. Democrats are idealists while Republicans are skeptics. Democrats want the government to fix problems through policy because they believe in human nature. They believe the contributors to government programs (taxpayers) have a moral obligation to help, the administrators of government programs are universally well-intentioned and effective, and the recipients of government programs are well-intentioned, deserving, and grateful. Republicans distrust government programs because they are skeptical about human nature. Republicans try to solve problems by appealing to enlightened self-interest.

I'm a right-leaning Independent and I often vote Republican, but I'm not knocking idealism. For example, Social Security is an idealist's program. It has saved a lot of older people from poverty. It also appeals to my enlightened self-interest. I hope I can benefit even a little from Social Security when I retire.

And I am really disgusted with today's Republican party. In fact, I don't think the idealist vs. skeptic comparison holds for the leadership of the parties. I think both parties are lead by cynics who care about nothing but power for power's sake. We need independent idealists and skeptics to meet in the middle and solve problems. Heaven knows the major parties won't do it.
Sylvain Galineau 7:58 PM on 26 Oct 2006
Whether correct or not, can such a characterization or conclusion be useful or relevant in the first place ?

With only two parties in the game, this kind of otherwise brave attempt can only result in a very jumbled and unsatisfying average. Conservative Christians come rather strongly on the Community side of your equation, whether on Darfur, poverty, global warming not to mention abortion which they argue is not an individual choice. And, assert (too) many Democrats, these people hold enough sway over the Republican party to warrant warnings of creeping theocracy.

Likewise on the side of the Democratic Party, where you will find people suing the NSA to defend the civil liberties of the individual. While some among their opposites label them as unpatriotic wimps for doing so, in the name of the Community's welfare and survival.

Things get even more confused and farcical when you get stuck at some party between a Democrat who will argue that people should not be profiled at the airport but can be for the purpose of affirmative action, and a Republican who will argue the exact opposite. And both do manage to hold these contradictory positions because one is argued in the name of the individual while the other is supported for the sake of the collective.

So Community and Individual maybe, but on what ?

So I would qualify your fine post by saying this is a good characterization of the way the >>parties
Sylvain Galineau 8:05 PM on 26 Oct 2006
(oops comment truncation) So I would qualify your fine post by saying this is a good characterization of the way the parties are most likely to justify the policies they advocate. The execution is another story entirely - Clinton reforming welfare with an axe, Bush increasing Medicare with a forklift - never mind the difference between average voters, assuming such a thing even exists.

Lastly, people also vote for different parties depending on the election. They may vote Democrat at the state level and Republican for federal polls, for 'individual' motives in one case, 'Community' ones in another.

As bizarre as it may sound, I voted for a social ist mayor once. (space to prevent Ned's spam filter from screaming about some well-known pill for males with, ahem, deficiencies...)

Dave : can independents be idealists ? And do we want idealists in power ? Idealists are a great check on power. They are terrible at exercising it.
Sylvain: there's a pill that can make you a socialist?
Sylvain Galineau 8:39 PM on 26 Oct 2006
Bob, and as it so happens, it's a blue pill.
I disagree with this individuals/group characterization. I could come up with nearly as many counter-examples as you can come up with examples. E.g., on gay marriage, the GOP comes down squarely on the side of preserving the institution of marriage for the community, versus Democrats favoring the rights of the individuals. Well, some Democrats, in safe districts, anyhow. And on obscenity/indecency type issues, once again it is the GOP tends to be out there for community values, whereas the Dems tend to favor the rights of individual consumer and producers. And on education, both parties, frankly, are schizo: the GOP favoring "school choice" for individuals and yet creating a national "no child left behind" program that sets standards at an even larger community level than the Democrats tend to favor, except of course that the GOP doesn't tend to favor national standards when it comes to allowing communities to choose to teach evolution or not to teach sex education. The Dems are similarly schizo.

I also disagree specifically with your condensation of party positions on taxes, because the GOP position through most of recent history has not boiled down to "should you keep your money" so much as it has boiled down to "should rich people keep their money". And note: although I am a strong Democrat, I don't consider that to be an inherently wrong position, as the motivation behind that position is (or can be, though it isn't always) to preserve and strengthen the profit motive, which is an extremely powerful driver of many benefits to society and the economy.

Politics are complex. As this is a blog that geeks tend to hang out in, I will point out that one can think of politics as an N-space (of very large N) with each individual voter's positions on N issues defining a point in that N-space. And since I've probably not lost all that many of you with the previous sentence, I will further point out that you can think of party platforms as projections of that N-space onto a 2-space in which the two dimensions are defined by the parties attempts to maximize the number of points in the N-space that project to high values on their dimension and low values on the other dimension. And to cap it off I'll point out that, through arguments not unlike those behind the mathematical basis of entropy, it can be shown that if a projection of that 2-space onto a 1-space exists that accounts for a significant amount of the overall variance in the 2-space, then it is extremely unlikely that the 1-space corresponds to anything organized -- i.e., something that is meaningful in and of itself, such as an ideological spectrum as simple as "favors community" vs. "favors individual".
Sylvain Galineau 10:33 PM on 26 Oct 2006
Richard, that was awesome. It reminded me of Imagining the Tenth Dimension. (Run the Flash animation on the right).
Thanks, Sylvain. That was excellent. I had actually thought about adding a time component so that it would be an N+1 space, and talking about how the parties' positions evolve without necessarily having a consistent ideology, but doing that concisely seemed to be a bit beyond my ability. And the N+2 space where the individual people influence each other's positions just by observing each other... it makes my head hurt even thinking about trying to explain how that would impact parties. But after seeing that animation and realizing how simple it is to explain these concpets, I might consider extending the story to all possible timelines in all possible political issue N-spaces arising from all possible initial conditions, collapsed to a point and folded through the N+7th dimension.

On the other hand, maybe not ;-)

I've bookmarked that site.
An alternative method is the subgroup method of discussing the parties (and one that is easier than the n-dimensional space one to discuss with mathophobes). For example the Republican Party has many subgroups within it: Taft Republicans, Eisenhower Conservatives, Neocons and "The Christian Right" (this listing is not exhaustive, and if you want you can divide these into at least a couple varieties of each). The Democrats have even more subgroups, and are probably less unified as a result.

Obviously both parties want their platforms to seem coherent even where they aren't. Parts of the platform just will not fit under a simple ideology. This is usually the result of some group that needed to be "thrown a bone" to stay on board, and a clause had to be weakened, added, or whatever. This undermines the ideological justification for the platform, but still must be done for the party as a whole to remain viable. Thus, the policies of any party makes the most sense as a compromise between its subgroups, and not as something that arises from unified ideology. (IMHO, YMMV)
Tom Van Buskirk 5:53 PM on 21 Nov 2006
I like the original post - very elegant and to the point - better than a lot of what followed, except for pieces of Schwartz's comment, which nicely pointed out some of the contradictions we see in the two parties' behavior today. I also thought the Delay comment on Republican skepticism vs Democratic idealism was on the money - partly. The bit about n-spaces simply made my head hurt and made me feel a little stupid.
But I think that any attempt to boil the two parties down to a core philosophy is bound to be too simplistic in these times. That's why this past election turned out the way it did. The trouble for me - and probably a lot of others - is that any attempt to identify either with a core philosophy or value system is bound to lead to disappointment, because the only consistency throughout each party's ideology is that it is almost always the polar opposite of the other party's view. What we end up with is two opposing hodgepodges that please almost noone. Democrats are seen as champions of certain personal liberties (Bill-of-Rights-type stuff), while Republicans are about others (economic freedom, personal property, religious expression). Often it seems that each party is trying to restrict the personal liberties most prized by the other. Likewise, Dems are all about community in certain respects (race, class), while Republicans are aligned with others (faith, nationalism). Adding to that, Democrats are perceived as idealistic in the sense that they believe that as a society we have certain responsibilities to help and protect our brethren (civil rights, due process, the welfare state), but this is also a skeptical - even cynical - perspective because it presumes that human nature is basically bad and that a powerful, centralized, paternalistic government is needed to keep self-interest in check, to keep Republicans from screwing the little guy. Republican idealism leans towards the responsibility of the individual and some pretty high - some would say unrealistic - standards of behavior, such as abstinence. Republican cynicism manifests itself in the distrust of big government, and tries to limit that government to prevent its encroachment on the individual throuth the confiscation of wealth and property, and the restriction of religious expression.
So what are the vast majority of people - who most likely fall somewhere in the middle - to do? Look at me. I will almost always vote for the candidate that I think will keep my taxes down, but I acknowledge that some entitlement programs are necessary. I am pro family values, but I view gay marriage as something that actually is consistent with promoting the family. I am against abortion (life is sacred), but pro birth control (abstinence is unrealistic). I think removing the statue of the ten commandments from a courthouse was RIDICULOUS, but I am indifferent on the question of keeping the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, because its addition was an afterthought anyway. I support the Patriot Act because I think our safety as a nation trumps the risk of a small loss - if any - of individual freedom. However, I am against the death penalty (life is sacred), and mandatory sentencing, for that matter. I am OK with embryonic stem cell research, as long as we aren't creating tons of embryos only to destroy them. I think school choice is a good idea, but I also like the idea of having at least some national standards.
I think what we really need is more common sense, and a willingness among politicians to break ranks when their constituents are at odds with the extreme views that can dominate the parties on either side.
The difference is this. Republican's are for big business
and the rich.
Democrat's are for the guy or woman who gets up and goes to work everyday.
My Great Grandad told me that when I was very young.
He was a politician for 40 years.
hard rock miner 4:19 PM on 5 Jan 2012
s_u_z_ etc.......What a bunch of hooey! Democrats are the party of unions and entitlements! Something for nothing. I am a union steelworker, single parent. I have never voted for a democrat, never will. As far as who gets up and goes to work every day? You must be kidding.

Add a comment:

Ignore this:
Leave this empty:
Name is required. Either email or web are required. Email won't be displayed and I won't spam you. Your web site won't be indexed by search engines.
Don't put anything here:
Leave this empty:
Comment text is Markdown.