In a tense political climate, it is more important than ever for students to understand the political parties, where they came from, and what each party’s platform looks like. 

Kids need to know this information in order to be principled people, good citizens, and informed voters as they go into a political world, where politicians and activists on both sides will undoubtedly try to win them over with propaganda and platitudes. Children also need to know about the political parties as politics impact all that they will learn, from history to religion to science classes. 

Origins of American political parties 

As early as 1796, leading politicians of the day who were founding fathers with differing opinions on how to execute the laws laid out in the Constitution broke into two factions or parties. Over time, these two parties have changed in name, constituency, and official platform, but have delivered the two-party system we have come to know in America. From 1796 to present-day historians have created six eras of the two political parties, describing them by the changes they have undergone in support and beliefs, as well as historical events that defined them.

The first party system was the first time factions emerged in American politics, between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (who became the Democratic-Republicans). The Federalists were generally for a more centralized federal government, including notably a national bank championed by Alexander Hamilton. The Democrat-Republicans were for more decentralization and states’ rights, formed in response or opposition to the Federalists. 

The second party system began in the 1820s when the National Republicans, which grew to be the Whig party, were on one side and the Democrat party on the other. Whigs supported a stronger legislative branch over the executive branch, while Democrats supported a strong executive. In the mid-19th century, the Whig party split over slavery, prompting a new era.

The third-party system lasted for the second half of the 19th century and consisted of an anti-slavery, pro-legislative, pro-modernization Republican party, and a pro-slavery, pro-executive, pro-farmers (over industry) Democratic party. 

The fourth party system went until the 1930s, with the same parties and only some constituency shifts. The parties argued mainly about government regulation of railroads and corporations, with Democrats remaining popular in the South and with ethnic groups of the North, and Republicans popular among northern industrialists. 

The fifth party system, from the 1930s to the end of the 1960s, created a Democratic party centered around contemporary liberalism centered on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal politics, and a Republican party that was generally split between the contemporary definition of moderates and conservatives.

The sixth party system began in the latter third of the 20th century and has either ended in 2016 or continues to the present day. This time period saw major shifts in both parties to be extremely polarized on social and cultural issues. Southern whites shifted to conservatism and the Republican party, and the religious right and many conservatives were activated against the Civil Rights Movement and countercultural movements like the Women’s Movement and the Student Movement. As the new millennium began, the parties have diverged further on all the issues. 

The two-party system 

The biggest ways the parties contribute to politics are by recruiting and presenting candidates, getting voters to vote by running campaigns, and conducting the business of the government along anticipated party lines. By labeling politicians by their party affiliations, voters are able to understand whether they might agree or disagree with their policy stances. 

There are more than just two parties in American politics, with the largest minor parties being the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party. However, Democrats and Republicans have remained the largest, most dominant parties in all 50 states. 

Official platforms of contemporary American political parties 

Contemporary politics find Republicans to be increasingly conservative and Democrats to be increasingly liberal, with a growing portion of the Democratic party self-identifying as Democratic-Socialists. 

This is true for cultural or social issues, with Republicans generally being against abortion legality and government funding, and generally opposing laws enforcing and funding of the LGBTQ lobby’s requests, for example, funding for gender transitions and government identification based on gender identity rather than biological sex. Conversely, Democrats have recently shifted to support not only legalized abortion but a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which currently blocks the government from directly funding abortion. Democrats also support each request of the LGBTQ lobby. 

For fiscal or economic issues, Republicans have increased their willingness in recent years to pass large spending bills, but remain dedicated to less government regulation, spending, and lower taxes. Democrats have consistently supported increased government regulation on business, increased spending, and higher taxes.

Republicans tend to favor more support and spending for the military, though in recent years there has been a shift to a more isolationist viewpoint with the presidency of President Donald Trump. Democrats tend to want less spending on the military and less military involvement in other countries, while still favoring economic support to developing nations. 

On the other issues, Republicans tend to be pro-legal immigration with increased border security and control, pro-voter ID laws, pro-gun rights, anti-universal healthcare, anti-climate change legislation, anti-marijuana legalization, pro-school choice, and pro-police. Democrats are pro-immigration of many forms, including amnesty and open borders, anti-voter ID laws, anti-gun rights, pro-universal healthcare, pro-climate change legislation, pro-marijuana legalization, anti-school choice, and pro-defund or reallocate police budgets. 

There’s a lot more to the story

The parties, their platforms, their constituencies… these ever-changing, yet relatively stable American institutions cannot ever be completely understood. Money in politics, the media, lobbyists, and so many other factors make it difficult to know what to believe. These days, it seems like every bill that is presented in Congress seems too large or too complicated to understand, whether a Democrat or Republican bill. 

Our government is set up to allow no faction to rule over the other, no tyranny of the majority to take hold. Checks and balances provide the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches ways to control things and be limited by the other branches, discouraging the political parties from steamrolling over each other and forcing a decent amount of compromise and working together. 

As the parties seem more polarized than ever before, it’s important to remember two things: 

  1. Principled, informed citizens will lead to quality parties and candidates, and 
  2. America has survived and declared immoral things like inhumane industrial practices and racism, and she will continue to progress if Americans continue to seek the realization of our ideals such as justice and freedom.

Judah Catholic Academy: creating good American citizens

Judah Catholic Academy is ready and excited to teach your kids about American history and politics– the good, the great, the bad, the ugly. We firmly believe that if a kid can form a belief system and maintain an open mind, they will be equipped to take on the wild world of American politics. 

Check out our course catalog today for all things American history and politics! 

Joshua Rystedt

Joshua Rystedt is the Co-Founder and Managing Owner of Judah Catholic Academy, a homeschool grad and dad, and former Protestant Youth Director. His formal education in theology and years of nonprofit leadership have allowed R Creative to successfully lead nonprofits and churches to increased digital engagement. Joshua funded JCA’s launch in 2020 and currently serves as her Managing Owner. Joshua is the father of five children and founder of multiple businesses. You can usually find him reading an old book, playing with his children, or hanging at his favorite local brewery. "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible." ~ St. Francis of Assisi

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