Are you a Democrat or Republican? Maybe you're a Libertarian. Perhaps you belong to some fringe party. Or it could be you have no party affiliation at all.
Although many voters belong to a political party by choice, some have been thrust into one by default. Since I was raised by parents who called themselves democrats, I always considered myself one as well, without actually knowing what a democrat was. I'm sure the same thing happens in republican families.
What does it mean to be a Democrat or a Republican? The two terms represent different, though fairly similar ideologies. Although their ideologies seem to be farther apart than they were a decade or two ago.
But 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 communism, an extreme form of socialism. 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.
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 government.
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. A less extreme example might be someone associated with the religious right.
An example of a radical might be a member of the Black Panthers or the Animal Liberation Front. A less extreme example might be someone who is a member of the feminist movement or 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.
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 more government regulation. The emphasis is on the society as opposed to the individual, although individual rights are considered a just goal.
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 certain extreme forms of expression, such as flag burning. Emphasis is placed on the individual, but more importantly, on the corporate individual. Republicans have become much more conservative since the George W. Bush era. And Democrats have become more centrist.
Conservative Republicans are more likely to denigrate the idea of separation of church and state. They tend to be more religiously conservative and are supported by a majority of the evangelical faiths. Democrats are more religiously liberal, or not religious at all.
Some views of the political spectrum also include a vertical component, with the top representing total governmental control and the bottom representing anarchy. A libertarian would be near the bottom right of this spectrum.
So there you have it. You can now go back to the first question and find out where you really stand on the political spectrum. Are you a Democrat, a Republican, or neither? Personally, I tend to think of myself as an extreme moderate! That's because I tend to hold a very liberal view of some issues and a quite conservative view on others. As examples, I am very much in favor of things like abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, and separation of church and state. But I tend to go very conservative when it comes to issues such as affirmative action or welfare.