Political Parties in America: Not a Dime's Worth of Difference between the Two

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, a myth that the two political parties are more similar than different dominated the field of politics in the United States. It originated in the notorious statement made by George Wallace, Alabama governor, who ran for presidency in 1968 (Baumgartner & Garcia 107). Wallace claimed that "there's not a dime's worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties" (Baumgartner & Garcia 107). Since then, thousands of Americans have come to associate American politics with the two major parties that display serious commonalities and few, if any differences in their respective platforms. As of 2000, 39 percent of American voters believed that the Republican and Democratic Party platforms were identical (Baumgartner & Garcia 107). In other words, roughly one third of voters in the U.S. do not see any considerable differences in how the two major parties treat and address the most pressing political, social, economic, and environmental issues. Yet, it is not a problem of the two parties. Rather, it is a problem of voters and their perceptions of politics, elections, and decision making. This paper is to dispel a popular myth of the similarity between the Democratic and Republican parties, by taking a look at their platforms during the 1988 elections.

To begin with, 1988 was the year of landmark elections, which would change the course of political evolution in the U.S. The domestic and international climates revealed substantial political tensions that had to be resolved. The Democrats sought to regain their prominent status in American politics, while the Republicans used the opportunity as a moment of truth: they simply revisited and advertised the political, economic, and social achievements they had accomplished since the beginning of the 1980s. Both parties willingly resorted to criticism and blamed their opponents for the dramatic failures encountered in the decade preceding the elections. Both parties spoke of the most pertinent issues that included but were not limited to job creation, pay equity, trade development, education and health care, drugs and other crime, the housing crisis, environmental pollution, rural development and farming, as well as the INF treaty and its implications for foreign relations. However, as Baumgartner and Garcia suggest, the two parties displayed substantial differences in their attitudes toward those issues (107). Among others, the domestic issues of job growth, taxation, education, health care, and environmental pollution attracted considerable attention from both the Democratic and Republican Parties.

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Job creation and economic growth were among the priority issues the Democratic and Republican Parties wanted to address during the 1988 elections. However, while Democrats promoted the value of fairness and justice and once again emphasized the importance of raising minimum wages, Republicans insisted that the federal government did not and counld not play any role in creating the economic wonder (American Presidency Project, "Republican Party Platform"). In fact, this statement reflects the fundamental difference between the two major parties. The Democratic Party historically promoted increased government involvement in all spheres of life, including economy and job growth. In the meantime, the Republican Party stood on a position that such involvement, be it in the form of increased minimum wages or affirmative action, was increasingly damaging to businesses and economic growth (Baumgartner & Garcia 110). As an extension of this philosophy, in their 1988 election platform, Democrats reminded their voters of the importance of raising taxes for the rich (American Presidency Project, "Democratic Party Platform"). In contrast, the Republican Party claimed that entrepreneurship and reduced burden of taxes were the most vital preconditions for achieving sustained job growth, creating better economic and market opportunities, and improving economic wellbeing for everyone (American Presidency Project, "Republican Party Platform").

No less pronounced were the party differences in the contexts of health care and education. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties spoke about the need to create a quality and accessible health care system. Both prioritized the importance of effective education over other social issues. However, according to Baumgartner and Garcia, Democrats always supported increased government spending as a strategy for improving the quality and accessibility of education and healthcare (109). In their 1988 political platform, Democrats confirmed: "We pledge to better balance our national priorities by significantly increasing federal funding for education" (American Presidency Project, "Democratic Party Platform"). In contrast, Republicans announced that they had been successful in reducing the pressure of regulations on education, health care, and housing (American Presidency Project, "Republican Party Platform").

Nevertheless, in some issues, the party differences were minor or non-existent. What looks unusual for the two parties is how they treated the domestic problems of environmental pollution in 1988. Baumgartner and Garcia write that, throughout their political history, Democrats had been more in favor of strict environmental legislation compared with Republicans (111). In 1988, both parties promoted the importance of effective environmental regulations and claimed that they would monitor the enforcement of the existing and future environmental laws to promote environmental protection, preservation, and wildlife in the best interests of the American nation (American Presidency Project).

Speaking of foreign relations, the positions of the Democratic and Republican parties did not differ as much as in domestic issues. Five foreign dilemmas noted during the 1988 elections included: (1) the use of defense and armed forces in foreign conflicts; (2) South African apartheid; (3) the INF Treaty; (4) the Soviet Union; and (5) the political conflicts in Central America. The main difference between the two parties was in how they treated the importance of U.S. involvement in international military conflicts. For decades, Republicans had been on a position that greater military standing would give the country a strong political edge (Baumgartner & Garcia 112). That was also the case of the 1988 elections – the Republican Party maintained its commitment to more active involvement in protecting the independence, autonomy, and human rights of its political allies overseas. However, that seems to have been the only noticeable difference in the parties' positions on foreign issues. That year, the Republicans and Democrats agreed that the INF Treaty was a crucial step for the U.S. in reducing the scope of the global arms race. The two parties criticized the apartheid regime of South Africa. They also insisted on the importance of managing quality affairs with the countries of Central America (American Presidency Project). In contrast, where Democrats sought new opportunities to establish effective relations with the Soviet Union, Republicans were ready to do everything to prevent the Soviet dominance in Europe (American Presidency Project). All in all, the foreign relations policies of the two parties proved to be more similar than different during the 1988 elections.

The results of this comparison confirm that Wallace's statement about the two major U.S. parties is quite subjective. That is, even though the Democratic and Republican Parties display numerous commonalities, their election platforms are different. In 1988, Democrats and Republicans occupied different positions in relation to almost every domestic and foreign issue, from environmental protection, housing, and education to the relationships between the U.S., the Middle East, and Central America. It is time to dispel the myth of the political similarity that has been haunting the two parties since the end of the 1960s. Time has come to realize the dramatic role, which the difference between the Democratic and Republican platforms plays in maintaining a unique political climate in the U.S.

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