What does it mean to be a democrat or a republican?
To understand what the two major parties represent, it might be helpful to take a broader look at the entire political spectrum. It might help to visualize a long stick, like a yardstick, that is balanced in the middle by your finger. Everything to the right of your finger represents the "Right Wing" of the political spectrum, and everything on the left of your finger represents the "Left Wing."
Starting on the far right would be political parties such as the Nazi Party. Far Right-Wing ideology is generally termed fascism. Fascism, as it is typically defined, is marked by extreme nationalism, with a tendency toward a desire to create ethnic purity. However, it is also marked by varying degrees of capitalism, but not democracy.
On the opposite end of the stick - the far left - there is socialism, and its more extreme incarnation, communism. Communism is the philosophy that the community (or nation) is central, and that individuals are not so important. It contains the premise that each individual should labor according to his abilities and be paid according to his needs.
Nobody "gets ahead in the world." Nobody owns property, land, or businesses. The government owns and operates everything, and divvies out the production equally to the populace, at least in theory.
Even though fascism and communism are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they both require an authoritarian form of government. Both forms of government repress the individual in favor of a centralized and all-powerful state.
Closer to the middle of the yardstick you will find the radicals on the left and the reactionaries on the right. These are the typical "left-wing" or "right-wing" fanatics. An example of a reactionary might be a member of the Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazis, or it might be someone like Timothy McVeigh. A less extreme example, a conservative, might be someone associated with the religious right, like Pat Robertson.
An example of a radical might be a member of the Black Panthers, or someone like Louis Farrakhan. The term “radical” was given to the anti-war protesters of the late 1960s who burned their draft cards and gathered on college campuses for “sit-ins.” A less extreme example, a liberal, might be someone who is a member of the gay rights movement.
Near the center of the yardstick lie the more moderate forms of government that most Western nations enjoy.
Most people say that America is a democracy. However, this is not exactly true. In a true democracy, everybody votes for everything; all laws of the land must be put to a referendum.
The U.S. is actually a republic. We elect representatives to pass laws for us. If we don't like the laws they pass, we vote for someone else in the next election, at least in theory. In practice, once you’re a member of Congress, you’re seldom voted out.
But everybody in America is not exactly dead-center on the yardstick. Those that tend toward the right wing are republicans, and those that tip the balance slightly to the left are democrats.
Although this is an over-generalization, democrats tend to be more liberal. They tend to favor equality of status. And to achieve this goal, they vote in favor of laws that create social programs such as welfare, Medicaid, and affirmative action.
Democrats tend to favor less government and greater individual freedoms, at least in theory. Most minorities tend to be democrats.
Republicans are more conservative. They generally believe in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of status. They are more capitalistic. They believe that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed, but that government has no place helping them out.
Republicans also tend to restrict certain freedoms that democrats tend to grant. These include things such as abortion rights and freedom of certain extremes of expression. And republicans tend to have less tolerance for religious differences, being more dogmatic. Most conservative Christians are republicans.
The most thoughtful among us tend to take the best characteristics of both parties and meld them into a third option, that of being politically independent. Being independent doesn’t mean you have no opinions, it just means your opinions are strictly your own.
Independents never play party-line politics. Of course, they seldom get elected to office, either.