The Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

When I teach political philosophy, I usually include some test online to determine where one fits politically in America.  In the end, a student wanted to thank me for providing that test because she can now get more involved politically and have an understanding at becoming an active citizen, especially with an election coming up.  She did have a question that really got to me, yet it’s a simple question: what is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?  I hesitated to answer because it was kind of hard.  After all, can you simply try and explain the difference, at least to students who honestly can’t tell the difference?  I really couldn’t provide a good answer, she kind of put me on the spot.  On the way driving home, it kind of bothered me.  After all, here I am teaching political stuff and being a citizen, and I can’t even explain the different ideologies of our political parties.  Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and my thoughts have evolved and developed while I was researching.  So let me start with the first definition that I found:

1.  Democrats are watered-down Communists (or at least Socialists) whereas Republicans are watered-down Fascists. Interesting definition, I thought.  I forgot where I got this definition, but while this may have some truth to it, it’s just plain silly.  I doubt that if you go to any democrat or republican, they’ll agree with that definition.  But more then that, it seems odd to define these positions in terms of extremes.  This is like saying Christians are watered-down fundamentalists, or sad people are watered-down suicidal people, or horny people are watered-down rapists.  It’s just silly.  Why define something in terms of an extreme?  The essence of a term doesn’t need to be defined at extreme end of the spectrum; we can easily define something without going to the extreme.  Thus, we can define Democrats and Republicans without going to the extremes.

2.  Democrats are liberals; Republicans are conservatives.  Ok, this is a better definition.  But then what does liberal and conseravative mean?  These terms change over time.  Take Affirmative Action.  Right now, the Republican thing to do is to against it.  But Republicans were first for affirmative action.  They were, after all, the ones that wanted to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  It was the Democrats who were mainly against it.  It wasn’t until 1890 that the Republicans gave up on the prospect of race equality (mainly because the Democrats were blocking them from doing so).  Over time, the roles switched to where the Democrats aim for affirmative action and the Republicans don’t.  Another switch was a free market economy.  Democrats were really big on laissez-faire economics, but now the role switched to Republicans being big on it.  And now, people claim that affirmative action is a liberal thing.  It’s not, it was a Republican thing, but now a Democrat thing.  Same thing with the full-blown free market economy.  So although we’re getting closer, I think we can get more specific.

3.  Democrats are more social oriented whereas Republicans are more individual oriented. Possibly, but there are a lot of programs that show the opposite.  Democrats are against taking away any civil liberties that we have seen under the Bush administration, which seems to suggest some stance on individuality.  Republicans usually endorse the No Child Left Behind Act, which seems to suggest a social stance.  But I think this is getting us closer to the truth. . .

4. Namily, I think the issue comes down to rights.  Now of course they both believe in rights, but there’s a difference between positive and negative rights.  What’s the difference, you ask?  Negative rights are rights where you have the freedom from something.  These are rights where they’re recognized by the government NOT doing something to you.  So things like freedom from slavery, civil rights, and freedom concerning religion are good examples of these.  In other words, the government cannot interfere with your rights.  Now on the opposite side are positive rights.  This is freedom to do something.  The government has to make some effort to make you aware and exercise this right.  These are rights that everyone can have that’s above the minimal.  Good examples of positive rights are public education, minimum wage, and certain adequate health care.  So let me give more examples to bring this home.

Freedom of speech:
Negative right: government cannot interfere with our right (except in certain circumstances).  I’m free to speak my mind.  But so is the New York Times, so is Bill O’Reilly.  So is Rosie O’Donnell, so is Sean Hannity.  But when those people speak, their voice is much more, shall we say, at a higher volume than mine.
Positive right: So there is a sense of equality, everyone has the right to speak, but there’s also a sense of inequality: people with more money, louder voice, more persuasion and charisma may be able to get more volume out of their speech.  Thus, their speech may have more of an impact than yours. Therefore, the government has an obligation to help us realize that right.  Maybe even make it for the little people possible to speak.  Or to let the people who have been silenced to let them speak in a larger, louder place. A good example of a positive right is there should be equal time in the media, where there has to be, say, an hour of conservative talk on the radio, with an hour of liberal talk on the radio.

Let me give another example:

Negative right: a woman is able to get an abortion during a certain part of the pregnancy.  Government may not interfere with that right.  So the woman has the freedom from any governmental intervention.  That means that wealthy woman have the same right to get an abortion as a woman in poverty does.
Positive right: But let’s be honest, wealthy women are more likely to get an abortion than a woman in poverty because (a) she can afford it, and (b) a wealthy woman is usually educated about these sorts of things whereas the impovershed woman isn’t.  Therefore, the positive right to abortion is that the government not only can interfere with an abortion, but must enable woman to pursue an abortion as well so that poor woman may be able to achieve their right.

Now I’m not saying that Democrats or Republicans aim for this all the time (I actually haven’t heard of some governmental official claiming a positive right for abortion), but I think you can notice the differences between negative and positive rights.  Again, to reiterate, negative rights mean freedom from something; positive rights mean freedom to something.

So here’s my claim, both of them want both kinds of rights, but I think Democrats want more positive rights.  You can see this in terms of health care, education, welfare, the economy, taxation, and other aspects of society.  One more example: Does the homeless have rights?  Well, they’re not being interfered with, but can they exercise their full rights?  The Democrat will say no; the Republican will say yes.  Now why do Republicans not want more positive rights?  It’s because they see it as interfering with the negative rights.  Here’s a dialog:

Democrat: We should help the poor because they cannot simply live by extreme means.  To live in America means to fulfill the American dream, and being poor is certainly no one’s dream.

Republican: It’s true that being poor is a bad thing, but wait a minute, my American dream is to keep what I’ve earned.  So why should you take something away that I’ve earned and give it to someone who didn’t earn it?

Democrat:  This isn’t about keeping what you earn.  It’s about the right to live out your life.  After all, Jefferson declared that we have the right to life.

Republican: But he also said we have the right to liberty.  If you’re taking money away from me, then that is a violation of my liberty.  Besides, the poor do have the right to life, but not at my expense.  The poor is still living.

Democrat:  Would you honestly say that’s a good way to live?  Besides, we’re only taking away a small portion of what you earn, can’t you afford some charity?

Republican: But it’s my property.  I can afford to be charitable, but when you force me to give my earned money and give it to the poor, it’s not called charity, it’s called theft.

Democrat: Don’t think of it as theft.  Think of it as fulfilling the rights of every American.

Republican: But at the expense of mine!

So we can see the argument: the Republican finds most positive rights violations of negative rights, whereas the Democrats see positive rights to help fulfill the rights that is guarenteed by the American dream.

Of course, this is just a generalization and there are many nuances to it, but I think you can get the general idea that the difference, I believe, comes down to negative and positive rights.  Any other nuances or differences?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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7 Responses to The Difference Between Democrats and Republicans

  1. shaunmiller says:

    I just thought of another. Well, actually, it’s more of a nuance. It deals with taxation and redistribution.

    Most Republicans don’t want to raise taxes because, again going with the notion of negative rights, it’s taking away your property. Democrats usually are seen to raise taxes because it’s a benefit of society, including you. However, Republicans see this as a problem because if you tax the bigger people, like oil companies, then the community suffers. Now this is just an idea, this only works if we can find an example. Can we find examples of this? Absolutely. Take oil companies. The thinking is that we tax them because gas is too expensive. And so these taxes go toward the people and everyone benefits. The problem that Republicans see is that if we tax the oil companies, the oil companies will raise prices to make up the difference from being taxed. Thus, gas prices will rise and anything else that involves oil will rise. Republicans usually see this as a top-down approach: if you mess with the top, the community will suffer.

    Now Democrats see this as the other way around. Their approach is that there should be some sort of safety net at the bottom, otherwise the people of the bottom will “bottom out” and everyone else will suffer. So we must tax the people in some arbitrary upper limit (for Obama, this upper limit is anyone making more than $250,000) In other words, Democrats usually see this as a bottom-up approach: if you mess with the bottom, the community will suffer. Again, this is an idea, do we actually see this in real life? We sure do. (Note: I must thank my friend, Victor Chelaru for providing me with this example.) Think of banks. They give out loans to everyone. Now if they don’t provide some saftey net, then the poor people can’t make a payment and they have to foreclose or declare bankruptcy. Now you may say, “well, it sucks being poor.” But wait a minute, who usually has a big share in the shareholders and stocks of banks? Well, it’s the rich. And so to make up the difference, the shares and stocks of banks go down, which means the upper start to loose out, which means economically, everyone goes down, not just the poor.

    I think both approaches have merits, but I think the practical answer is to have some sort of safety net but also a way for you to keep what you earn. It sounds like a contradiction, but an upper and a lower limit I think is something that people are constantly trying to find. It’s also because it seems arbitrary to say that this is going to be the limit. Well, why should it be? I would like to ask Obama why $250,000 is considered the upper limit. If there was some mathematical formula or scientific way to find these limits, I think this case will be resolved. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is possible. Thus the fight continues on.

  2. Killer J says:

    Good essay man. When my brain isn’t fried I’ll try to come up with a worthwhile response.

  3. Killer J says:

    It seems like negative and positive rights are determined as either negative or positive by the person analyzing them.

    In other words, all issues can probably be viewed as negative or positive depending on perspective. The Fairness Doctrine can be viewed as infringing on negative rights or propagating positive rights.

  4. Killer J says:

    Now that I just read through what I wrote I realize that’s the point you’re trying to make. Or is it? Shit! I’m confused, bro.

  5. shaunmiller says:

    Negative and positive rights are actual legal terms that philosophers and lawyers use to differentiate between these different rights.

    So when it comes to the Fairness Doctrine, you’re right. The negative rights position would see it as an infringement, whereas the positive rights aspect would see it propagating the right to freedom of speech. So yes, that’s the point I’m making.

  6. Pingback: Another Difference on Democrats and Republicans « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  7. shaunmiller says:

    I’ve made another post about another difference I saw. You can see it here at:

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