IMO the stand US Republican and Democrats take on various social issues is completely illogical from the viewpoint of political philosophy. I cannot decipher the true underlying philosophy behind the choices so-called "left" and "right" make.

For example, I tried to figure out how the parties measure up on the principle of liberty. On the gun control issue Republicans insist that people have right to bear arms; not the Democrats. On the other hand, on the gay rights issue Democrats side with liberty, not the Republicans.

Something similar happens on the principle of the sanctity of human life: on the issue of abortion Republicans favour life, but on the issue of death penalty the Democrats do.

The same happens for every underlying principle I could think of, liberty, safety, etc: the relative stand of the two major party on various social issues is not consistent according to any given principle.

Therefore the question: what underlying principles, if any, determine the major US political parties' stands on issues?


I've got to explain why "voter base" explanation doesn't resolve the question.

Suppose political parties D and R address issues Q1..Qn and sided with answers D1..Dn and R1..Rn respectively. Suppose that each party attempts to maximize their voter base. What would that say us about correlations Corr(Di,Dj) and Corr(Ri,Rj)?

Since each party attempts to strengthen their voter base they wouldn't pick combinations of issue position that would alienate the voters. Therefore Corr(Di,Dj)>0 (as well as Corr(Ri,Rj)>0) implies that there is a positive correlation between voter positions on issues Qi and Qj.

Therefore on average the voters who agree on one issue with their favourite party would also agree on another issue with the same party. If that wasn't so the parties would choose a different issue division among them in order to avoid alienation of their voter base.

Hence there are some underlying causes, perhaps psychological one among voters, for the particular division of the issue stands among the parties. Therefore an answer "parties choose their stands on the issues to attract more voters" to a question "what are the reasons parties correlate their stand on issues" begs another question: "what are the reasons voters correlate on average their stand on issues?"

For example, there is no question that Republican party side with liberty on the gun issue and against liberty on the gay rights issue. It is also very much possible that these choices are made to attract their voter base. However, this begs the question why most people who vote Republican side with liberty on the gun issue and against liberty on the gay right issue. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that this is indeed so: the majority of Republican votes indeed have the described above opinions.

Which brings us back to essentially the same question: what are the cultural, psychological, or philosophical reasons for the seemingly inconsistent choices the voters have on the variety of issues?

  • Two words: voter base
    – David H
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 22:36
  • @DavidH: these two words don't explain the inconsistency, they just push the inconsistency from the politician to the voter. The question "how can a politician be simultaneously pro death penalty and anti abortion" just becomes "how can a voter be simultaneously pro death penalty and anti abortion." What puzzles me here is how philosophically contradictory stands got glued together so consistently, regardless of in which minds they got attached - politicians' or voters'.
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 22:45
  • 2
    Individual voters need not be inconsistent his/her principles. The problem is, there are surely hundreds of distinct permutations of consistent sets of stances towards political issues, and in a two-party system you have to settle upon no more than two sets. If a party attempts to base its ideology on of the internally consistent sets of principles, a small percentage of people will have few disagreements, but most people will have many disagreements! Ergo, such a platform is not electable. What parties try to do is optimize the number of voters with whom they're more in alignment than not.
    – David H
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 23:25
  • @DavidH: just edited the question with the explanation why I'm still dissatisfied with your answer.
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 0:49
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    @michael: republican and democrat (right and left) mean nothing. The two groups can easily be divided into 30 different groups all against each other. It comes down to an individual's own best interest and how many have the same or similar interests. For example, tell a poor republican you will pay him $500,000/year to lobby for democratic power and all of a sudden he is not a republican anymore. Perhaps it was differnt in the early days of America but now it is more like the CEO's of today, all that matter is the golden parachute - they could care less if the company goes down,. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 23:02

6 Answers 6


The dominant ideology of the Republican Party is known as American conservatism, and it was developed by William F. Buckley and his magazine National Review starting in the 1950's. The founding mission statement of National Review (see "The Magazine's Credenda" at the end) is a good elucidation of this philosophy. It is formed from two strands:

  1. Traditionalism, the philosophy of Edmund Burke which states that there is great wisdom embedded in our social institutions and culture, so we should be careful before we try to tamper with them

  2. Libertarianism, the philosophy of John Locke which says that people have fundamental negative rights that the government should not infringe

There are two principles that unite these two philosophies:

A. The belief enunciated by Hayek (in his essay "Why I am not a conservative", which despite its title was one of the driving forces behind the development of modern conservatism) that in the Anglo-American context, traditionalism is a fundamentally libertarian impulse, because America at its beginning was founded on the idea of liberty (and to some extent England was too if you consider the Magna Carta), so if you try to preserve the institutions and spirit that America had at its founding, then you'll inevitably end up preserving liberty.

B. Fusionism, the belief enunciated by Frank Meyer in his book Defense of Freedom, that the promotion of virtue in society, which is the goal of traditionalism, is best achieved by promoting freedom, because if you're forced to be virtuous then your acts are not truly virtuous because you're not the one responsible, so in order to have true virtue we need to allow people to freely choose whether to be virtuous or not.

Those two beliefs are what made people believe that traditionalism and libertarianism depend inexorably on one another, and's what gave rise to the ideology that we call American conservatism. Of course, this is all just abstract political theory, but in 1964 it finally became a powerful enough force in the Republican party that they chose a conservative to be the Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater, who suffered such a profound defeat in the election that Republicans didn't nominate another conservative until Ronald Reagan in 1980. And conservatives have dominated the party ever since.

Also, I should mention that there have been two changes to conservatism since its founding by National Review: conservatives have become more interventionist on foreign policy (because they see it as the best way of ensuring that liberty and the American way of life are preserved), and they've also become more accepting of the fact that the welfare state exists (they've come to the conclusion that it's a losing battle to keep trying to abolish Social Security and Medicare, so they advocate more modest changes like benefit cuts and privatization). To reflect these two changes, associated with Irving Kristol and his followers, people often refer to the current ideology of the Republican party as "neoconservatism" rather than just "conservatism".

  • This is a very informative answer (+1), but I note that it is not a complete answer because it fails to address why there are so many apparent inconsistencies in the Republican platform. E.g. traditionalism is about interfering in lots of things, which runs headlong into libertarianism. And even then you're left with puzzles--why is not the whole parting hopping mad about the NSA stuff? That's non-libertarian and non-traditional (and non-welfare and non-foreign-interventionist). Republican-appointed judges tend to be very fond of eminent domain. And so on.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 19:55
  • @RexKerr The guiding ideology of the Republican Party is that both libertarianism and traditionalism are necessary, and one cannot flourish without the other, so we need to continually strike the right balance; it's believed that sometimes we have to put up with intrusions into our liberty in order to preserve traditional institution and culture, because the preservation of tradition leads to the preservation of liberty, but we can't go too far in the direction of tradition, because then any ostensibly virtuous actions that we do won't have been freely chosen, so true virtue won't be promoted. Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 0:43
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    @RexKerr Concerning eminent domain, it's a tricky issue touching on issues of federalism and other things, but I think most conservatives are solidly against eminent domain. Note that conservatism may be the dominant ideology of the Republican Party, but it's not the ideology of all Republicans, and some Republicans may take unconservative positions on certain issues. But I'd have to see the details of the eminent domain cases you're talking about. Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 1:05
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    For eminent domain solidly supported by Republicans (as long as Democrats are on the other side!) see calwatchdog.com/2011/03/18/ca-gop-saves-eminent-domain The problem with having the "right balance" between libertarianism and traditionalism is that they are deeply contradictory. (The democrats have less clearly stated ideology, but they also suffer from a freedom/tolerance ideal colliding with the government-is-to-support-people philosophy.) It's this aspect that the OP questioned and which your answer doesn't really explore. But, anyway, it's still highly informative as I said.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 7:46
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    I should add that there's another mechanism by which conflicts between the true philosophies are resolved. Part of Burke's traditionalism is the notion that we should treat challenges to traditional institutions with skepticism at first, because of how much wisdom is embedded in our traditions, but if it becomes clear enough that some tradition is bad, then eventually we should change our traditions. For instance, conservatives were originally pro-segregation, but then eventually, when they saw how much damage it was doing to freedom, Buckley and National Review changed their mind. Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 12:29

I thought I'd add a similar answer about the dominant Ideology of the Democratic Party, known as American liberalism. Like American conservatism, it was formed from two strands:

  1. Classical liberalism, the philosophy formed in the Enlightenment by thinkers like John Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and providing the driving force for both the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which states that the autonomy of the individual should be maximized, and the individual should be freed from whatever institutions are preventing them from reaching their potential, be it the Church or the State.

  2. Progressivism, a populist reform movement in the early twentieth century, espoused by Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and grounded in Protestant moralism, which sought to make government both more responsive to the plight of the people, for instance using Constitutional amendments to deal with social problems like alcoholism and using government force to quash monopolies, and at the same time more representative of the will of the electorate, for instance instituting more democracy like the direct election of Senators and ending the corruption of Machine politics in the cities.

These two strands were merged into the ideology we call American liberalism by John Dewey and his followers, who argued that we needed a broader conception of liberty than the one maintained by laissez-faire negative-rights libertarians. The key idea can be summed up in a quote from Anatole France: "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread." Basically, the idea is that the freedom to starve because you have no food is not a meaningful freedom at all, because it does not maximize your autonomy or allow your to realize your potential, which were important goals in classical liberalism.

Thus Dewey argued that we should recognize positive liberty as well as negative liberty, meaning that e.g. just as we ought to recognize a right to live without someone killing you, we similarly ought to recognize a right to live without dying due to lack of food. Thus American liberalism advocates that the government should play some role in the economy in order to give people autonomy and enable them to pursue their own happiness, along the lines of the "responsiveness" part of the Progressive philosophy. Thus Americans liberals still try to achieve the goals of classical liberalism, but they sometimes do it through Progressive means. (This is akin to how, as I discuss in my other answer, American conservatism tries to achieve the goals of traditionalism, but often through libertarian means.)

There's one other way that American liberalism differs from classical liberalism: classical liberals took a deontological perspective on liberty, viewing personal autonomy and the pursuit of happiness as things that are inherently worthy of being promoted, regardless of what they lead to. American liberalism, on the other hand, because it emerged partly from Progressivism, tends to take a more utilitarian perspective on such things, viewing autonomy merely as a means to an end, the end being increasing the happiness of as many people as possible. The liberal understanding of utilitarianism is perhaps best understood through the work of John Rawls, who proposed a thought experiment along roughly these lines: suppose that you're a soul waiting to be born, but you don't know which body you're going to be born into and what experiences that body is going to have. But before you're born, you have the opportunity to design how society and government should be. How should you design it in order to maximize your chances of having a good life? Well, you don't know what desires you're going to have, but whatever they are, you're probably going to want them fulfilled, so you would want a society that as much as possible allows people to pursue their own happiness. And you may end up being born in utter poverty that may prevent you from being happy, or you may start off being wealthy but then you may suffer calamities like disease and natural disasters, so assuming you're risk averse (as humans tend to be in most circumstances), you'd want the government to have a safety net to shelter you from such risks. So that's where the basic contours of the liberal position emerge.

Finally, let me mention something about foreign policy. The Progressive presidents advocated a very interventionist foreign policy, since they were motivated by the desire to help people as much as possible, even people abroad. Liberals still share some of this impulse, and are willing to support limited American military intervention in circumstances of extreme humanitarian crisis. But mostly their foreign policy views were taken from classical liberalism, so they they're antiwar for the most part.

EDIT: Yuval Levin has just written a book which argues that the positive rights vision of liberalism originated not with Dewey in the early twentieth century as I suggested, but rather in the late 1700's with Thomas Paine, one of America's founding fathers. Levin argues that the modern American left-right divide originated in the debate in America and England over the French Revolution. Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, because he thought that government is an institution deliberately created by people to sageguard their individual liberty, and so it could be overthrown whenever the people thought it wasn't doing a good job. On the other hand, Edmund Burke, a predecessor to modern conservatism, saw government as an institution that grew organically as a tradition, and that we should be suspicious of making changes to it just because individuals in the current generation happen to object to it. In any case, Paine's philosophy of individualism led him to believe that an individual can only realize his full potential if he's not constrained by material want, so he believed in the government providing basic necessities to everyone. Thus, Levin argues, the early twentieth century Progressive movement was merely reinventing the wheel.


There is no necessary requirement that a successful political strategy in a democracy be fully rational or internally consistent if the voter's decisions are not rational and internally consistent. The only requirement for a political party is that it succeed, politically (i.e. win elections).

Overall I see two facets that are required a party to succeed

  1. have sufficiently good public policy outcomes when their policies are implemented that the voter's are not driven away from the party.
  2. arbitrage between different voters' (not-fully-rational) decision making processes to achieve a winning coalition, and

Point 1 (probably) requires some degree of consistency since policy implementations will butt up against the real world, but by no means requires absolute internal consistency, especially since the criterion is "good enough" rather than "best possible". Point 2 only requires the degree of internal consistency that the voters require, which is apparently pretty low.

For example, the existence of "single issue voters" means that if a party takes position X (and the other party(ies) take position not-X), then they can be assured of all X-issue voters, irrespective of whether their position on issue Y can be justified using the same underlying principles as were used to justify X. There are some indications, that on average, these voter's decisions are not made fully rationally, nor with a goal of achieving overall consistency. The book "What's the Matter With Kansas" by Thomas Frank, for example, claims that voters in Kansas are not voting with there own self interest in mind, but is more anecdotal. Various studies have tried to tease out the interactions between personality and politics, there is even an entire journal of Political Psychology.

Political parties can assemble whatever hodgepodge of issue positions that they require in order to succeed. There will only be a cost to the party in a democratic society if enough of the voters require policy consistency to affect the outcomes of elections. It is plausible that for the majority of voters in most societies are not explicitly rational. To the extent that political party affiliation is not rational, this is not a philosophical, but rather a psychological question.


Classically, the internal contradictions within the two U.S. parties come from the slight disparity between their original stated positions, and their current alignment on Left vs Right lines.

The Democratic party is founded on the notion of collective action and trust of the stability of institutions. It favors big government only as a side effect of wanting uniformity in the approach of all large institutions to all individuals. (The traditional alignment of Democrats and Conservative Catholics in the South, which confuses many, originates in the idea that institutions should be large enough to be stable and reliable.) This is slightly at odds with modern Leftism, as it leads to a profusion of social and governmental institutions, which often develop conventions that attack individual conscience, the wellspring of action for the Left.

The Republican party was founded on the notion of inescapable individual responsibility and the freedom to express it. So it favors limited regulation, but also ended slavery and promoted the individual conscience of religious adherents. (Even its origin in Lincoln's fight for clear bankruptcy laws is about responsibility -- without them the debtor simply commits suicide or vanishes and everyone loses. Inescapable partial responsibility is better than complete responsibility that one is forced to evade.) This is at odds with modern Conservatism as corporations and religions are large institutions that simply happen to have been helped historically by limiting regulation.


Snarky answer:

  1. Republican party stances are primarily determined by the political favors their major donors demand, while paying lip service to the "conservative" portion of the U.S. population.

  2. Democratic party stances are primarily determined by the political favors their major donors demand, while attempting to maintain the facade of caring about the common good and "liberal" ideals.


You will find definitions of "left" and "right" not only in the French Revolution, but also in the much older Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching).

"Left" is on the side of the people. "Right" is on the side of the powerful.

That's why those on the right side of the political spectrum usually deny/blur the distinction between left and right. In a "democratic" society, they can't assume that they are against the people.

"On the gun control issue Republicans insist that people have right to bear arms; not the Democrats."

The powerful usually prefer to kill a robber than to be robbed. Those who are on the side of the people usually believe that no diamond, or whatever, has more value than a human life. So, to save lives, the left chooses the smallest amount of guns possible. The powerful usually wanna save their money, they don't care about saving human lives (even more that of a robber! I mean, of someone who rob THEIR property).

On gay rights, who are the gays bothering? They only wanna live and be happy. But church insisted, millenia ago, that being gay is "wrong". Since the church is responsible for defending the status quo, the powerful will defend the church, so they are against gays. The left are closer to understand that the church is wrong in this aspect. And, being on the side of the people, they wonder even why is the church so powerful?

"on the issue of abortion Republicans favour life, but on the issue of death penalty the Democrats do."

Again, the powerful ones profit over misery. If a miserable girl gets pregnant, she could choose abortion in order to be able to complete her studies (trying to escape from misery). But if everybody is able to escape from misery, how could the powerful profit? Anyway, when THEY want to do an abortion, they have the money to pay for it in a safe place.

On death penalty, those who are on the side of the people know that the State also commits mistakes, so death penalty may be applied on an innocent person, thus it's not desirable. The powerful, on the other hand, believe that death penalty could increase their security, and they don't fear to be killed, because they have the money to buy their freedom.

So, in a deeper look, there is plenty of logic in each party's behavior.

  • So, @Michael, are you one of those who disagree but won't say why?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 2:53

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