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What is a Republican?

Byron Gajewski writes in with a good question:

My seven year old daughter asked us “what is a Republican?” We struggled. Do you have a working definition? Democrat too?

My reply:

There are different answers to this one. Simplest is party registration (that is public record), or party identification (which is a survey response). It’s kinda like being a Christian: One one hand, you are a Democrat if you say you are, similarly to how you are a Christian if that’s how you identify. On the other hand, others might not accept your identification. For example, Mormons consider themselves Christian, but I think most Christian churches don’t consider Mormons to be a Christian denomination. Similarly, Jeb Bush etc have argued about whether Donald Trump can really be considered a Republican. And remember what Ronald Reagan said: “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic Party left me.”

P.S. Some commenters didn’t like my answer! Here’s what Gajewski wrote to me a few months ago in response:

This is what I was thinking too, kind of a fluid definition of republican/democrat throughout history. I might give examples of democrat and republican presidents to my daughter to help her understand. Regan and Truman will be where I begin, probably. We have the Truman library in town here and I took her to that which may help build an answer to her fundamental question.


  1. James C says:

    I was always taught it was somebody who didn’t believe in the Queen as head of state ;)

  2. Walter Reade says:

    I don’t have data on how many religions consider Mormons to be Christians, but 52% of Americans polled consider them to be, compared to 31% that don’t.

    “A slim majority of the public (52%) says that Mormonism is a Christian religion, while nearly one-in-three (31%) say that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. White evangelicals stand out for their view that the Mormon religion is not Christian: a 45% plurality says that Mormonism is not Christian, while 40% say it is. Among white evangelicals who attend services at least weekly, 52% believe that the Mormon religion is not Christian. By contrast, large majorities of white mainline Protestants (62%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (59%) say that Mormons are Christians. In addition, those with no formal religious affiliation also say that the Mormon religion is Christian by a wide margin (59%-25%).”

    • Andrew says:


      Thanks for the data!

    • Harald K says:

      People may have different definitions of Christian (or Republican), but people can disagree both on the definition and on the facts. When evangelicals label Mormons as Christians there are two possibilities:

      1. They may have a definition of Christian which comfortably includes Mormons, or
      2. They may have a definition which in fact would exclude Mormons, but are mistaken about Mormon beliefs and think that they fit it.

      conversely for rejecting Mormons as Christians, or for accepting/rejecting whales as fish if you prefer. There’s nothing wrong with having “easy” definitions of who is and who isn’t, it’s all just labels anyway… but I do think it’s worth it to keep the notion that people can be wrong in their labeling, even according to their own definitions. So, majoritarianism isn’t necessarily the way to go for reaching answers on correct labels (not that I say you did that).

  3. Rahul says:

    A perennial problem with putting objects into Bins. Taxonomy cannot be objective. Use a working definition and move on, I guess.

    Why not tell her: “A person is probably Republican if he /she says he is Republican or if he has this kind of symbol planted on his lawn, house, car etc. or he says he’s going to vote for XXX etc.”

    Sure, you can find exceptions but just live with that.

    • Chris W says:

      Well, this would answer the question “How do I figure out if someone is a Republican?”, but doesn’t tell her what the nature (or a definition) of the category is. A bit like if you’re a kid standing in a barn and asking “What’s a sheep?” and the adult answers “the ones that have ‘sheep’ marked on their stall doors are sheep, and the ones that have ‘horse’ are horses.

      I lean towards the answers that recommend a small (!!) history lesson, international contextualization, and some simple keywords. Despite the current muddle.

  4. gdanning says:

    Telling her that a person is a Republican is someone who calls him or herself a Republican is not particularly responsive to her question. She is really asking one of two things: 1) “I don’t understand what a political party is. Please explain.” or, (and this seems to be what the letter writer thinks she is asking) 2) What distinguishes Republicans from Democrats (and others)? Why would a person decide identify with/vote for the Republican Party, rather than a different party?”

  5. Andrew says:

    Rahul, Gdanning:

    As I wrote above, “There are different answers to this one.” Each of you has a particular answer you’d like to give, and that’s fine, but I think it’s better to recognize that the question can be, and is, answered in different ways.

    • gdanning says:

      But, Prf. Gelman, is that really a sufficient response? Just because there are different ways of answering a question does not mean that every way has equal merit. There are at least two general approaches to answering statistical questions, but I daresay that you do not deem them equally valid. Similarly, if a Columbia freshman approached you and said, “I have heard talk of Bayesians. Can you tell me what a Bayesian is?”, I imagine that you would not respond, “A Bayesian is a type of statistician.” That would not be particularly responsive to the student’s question. Yet, that is exactly analogous to the answer some would give to the child’s question.

    • Rahul says:

      Yes, but sometimes we create complexity and nuance where there really isn’t much need for it.

      Answering “What is a Republican” for a 7 year old seems like one of those situations.

  6. numeric says:

    There’s a sizable body of polysci work on PID (back at least to the American Voter). It has been compared to a religion, a propensity, or an endogenous reflection of vote choice (pollsters like Dick Morris consider it such). We would like to think it’s a reflection of some deeper ideology (though we know 90% of the American public can’t begin to be classified as ideological), with the Republicans believing in the individual and the Democrats believing in the collective. Trump’s candidacy has made clear this isn’t the case (the polysci research by Bartels on policy choices and preferences of the top 1% is relevant here), as Trump is as close to a Peronist that we’ve had in this country (well, maybe Huey Long, but not nearly the nationwide appeal). Just tell her the Republicans are the party of reaction and the Democrats are the party of ineffectuality and you’ll be close enough.

  7. Walter Reade says:

    This also might be a good opportunity for Byron to teach his daughter about the No True Scotsman fallacy. (I say that tongue in cheek, as my kids usually run in horror any time I get too excited about answering one of their questions.)

  8. Dzhaughn says:

    P. J. O’Rourke is the best source for modern answers to this question.

  9. You clearly don’t have any children, Andrew. I could write more, but gdanning’s answer above is a good one. Kids (or any honest questioners) are not looking for a discussion of the semantics of the question, but rather insight into its meaning. My own kids would have little tolerance of your answer!

    • Rahul says:

      One option is to not try to wrestle with a definition but try to define by example. I think kids do well with that.

      “Someone having this poster on his window” or “Someone planting that sort of flag on his lawn” Or “Someone voting for so and so in the coming elections” et cetra.

    • Andrew says:


      Kids vary, and you may be right that your kids would not like my answer. But I don’t think you speak for all kids or for all parents. Regarding my specific response, I was trying to contribute in a useful way. As commenter Numeric notes above, party ID has been studied from many angles in political science. My response is intended to be a starting point: If a kid is interested in a topic and you answer her question, she’ll typically follow up with a Why, and the conversation goes from there. I was giving my correspondent what I think is a useful first answer, ripe for follow-up.

  10. gagan says:

    that sure feels like the american interpretation of republican, doesn’t it?
    people call john locke a liberal, but he was a republican.

    i don’t understand why people think being conservative means you have to support lunatic policies. mitt & co have hijacked the right-leaning side for the past 40 years. sir winston was most definitely a conservative, and a great one at that.

    while most today want to call me a “liberal”, i identify as centre-right and do accept her majesty the queen as the head of state. i also, however, accept that her power is very rarely used (see royal prerogative, which is STILL a ‘checkmate’ in situations where government goes arye, ahem ahem). under the pretense of responsible government, her majesty rarely need be involved (except for when she signs the cheques for our budgets, which are drawn from HM treasury, which itself draws from banks that were established in Canada after the napoleonic wars).

    what is the difference between my version of republican and the current version of conservative? here’s an example using abortion.

    i believe, as someone who expects to practice in clinical settings in the near-future, that abortion is a service that should be *available* to everyone, but not necessarily *subsidised* (except in cases of rape or incest, or similar extenuating circumstances that involve unwilling impregnation). i also believe that, until we have a better handle on when consciousness arises in the fetus, which is probably a decade or two (maybe three) away, it is unfair to force any practicing medical professional to perform the service. note, my latter statement doesn’t mean that i think fetuses are conscious at, say, one month of development, but what i am trying to say is the determination of when consciousness arises in the fetus would serve as a useful threshold timeframe that could be employed into medical practice, thereby forcing all doctors to perform it if the fetus is no older than the aforementioned timeframe.

    just my two cents. current politics are too dimwitted to understand the nuances in such beliefs, but i think the time is ripe for the evolution of government (and a reduced emphasis on politicians. government gets things done, politicians are the meddling nuisance).

    • Rick says:

      Well there’s a difference between republicans and Republicans. One is based on an idea of how government should be organized. The other is a political party in the US.

      Sometimes it’s important to use capitalizations.

  11. gilford says:

    Quite correct. Highly unlikely that any 7 year old has any practical understanding of the political party concept. Thus the alleged question is non-serious, along with any proposed answers. Few American adults understand political parties either.

    Seems to be blog fluff and perhaps a mild slam at Republicans, lightly cloaked.

    • Andrew says:


      Whoa—what did you say? The “alleged question”? What, do you think I made up the question? Maybe I made up Byron Gajewski too? Maybe I don’t exist either. Maybe you don’t exist either. Maybe we’re all just aliases of Scott Adams!

      And just for the record, I think it’s just fine to talk to seven year olds about political parties and physics and all sorts of other things of which they have little or no practical understanding. When a kid asks a question, it’s polite to respond. To dismiss a kid’s question because you think it’s “non-serious” . . . give me a break!

    • Elin says:

      Well my kids both knew about political parties at 7, by age 7 many American children have accompanied their parents to vote and would have been through at least one presidential election. And of course many have voting at their schools. They almost certainly have seen advertising that identifies parties (“Republican for Congress”) and probably have seen or heard discussions about the election. Seven year olds hear and see a lot.

  12. Roger says:

    A Republican wants to make America great again. Democrats focus on the identity politics of non-whites, non-Christians, welfare class, govt workers, single moms, low-info voters, and the super-rich.

    • Phil says:

      Ha, good one!

      Or we could try it the other way: “Democrats think America is great now. Republicans think America was great back in the fifties, when blacks couldn’t live in the same neighborhoods as whites or use the same rest rooms and water fountains, and when many retirees lived in abject poverty, and rivers were so polluted they sometimes caught fire, and thousands of women died every year because of something called “abortions” that we won’t go into until you’re a lot older.”

      If you want to give the kid an answer based on a stereotype, it’s pretty easy!

  13. Jason Clark says:

    Here’s my attempt at explaining this to Byron’s daughter. I’ve been both Republican and Democrat in my life, so I feel I’ve got a better shot than average of making this balanced. Turn on your cable box when you give this explanation:

    Imagine that the only thing you could watch were either even channels or odd channels. Now, you really like Doc McStuffins, so you’d really like to watch that. But, you really like Animal Planet, too . If we had to pick either odd channels or even channels, which one would you choose?

    Being a Democrat or a Republican is a lot like that. For some people, there’s one thing that they really care a lot about – like what countries we want to be friends with, how we treat people in businesses, or how we decide to help people in our country. When people care enough about that thing, and the Democrats care about it too, then they may become a Democrat. Same for Republicans. It doesn’t mean that person likes everything that the Democrats or Republicans like, it just means that there are enough things they think the same about to join them. Not everybody decides to be a Democrat or Republican – some people just don’t want to pick a side because there aren’t enough odd channels or even channels they like enough to pick one over the other.

    There are a lot of really grown-up issues that the Democrats and Republicans disagree about, and even Democrats themselves don’t agree and Republicans themselves don’t agree. Within each political party, people get together to talk about what they think they should do. Some people want a channel, some people don’t want it, and then they talk about whether they should include that channel in the cable. After each party picks their channels, they tell the world “these are our channels! Ours are the best! Pick these channels!” Not everybody likes all the channels that get picked, but almost everybody in the party likes one really important channel that’s in the set of channels.

    As far as what Republicans believe, they like helping businesses pay less in taxes so they will give more people jobs. Democrats believe that we should collect the money and use it to help other people who the businesses might not help. The Democrats and Republicans also think differently about how we should treat other nations and people who have done bad things to us, who we think might do bad things to us, and who we have decided to be friends with. They also think differently about how to treat people who break certain laws, how we should help people who are sick, and how to help people going to school.

    There are a bunch of other things that they don’t agree with each other on, and it can be hard when you hear things on one side which you agree with and things from the other side you agree with. When you are older, you can think about which of these things you like, which you do not like, and decide whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or neither one! And, you can change your mind if you want to be something else. It’s all up to you.

  14. Lord says:

    I don’t know myself. Is registration affiliation? Is it propensity to vote? In primaries or generals? Are those associations with parties, pundits, or candidates/elected officials? At some limit it is related to conservative and liberal though conservatives aren’t always conservative and liberals aren’t always liberal.

  15. gilford says:

    …..relax; you got the question second hand without any objective verification of the 7 year old’s exact words, question or context.
    And quite possible that Byron Gajewski imposed a bit of his own subjective interpretation/recollection on the reported conversation.
    People often put their own twist on things.
    Kids often say things they have no clue about…but nobody here stated/implied that talking to 7 year olds was not “just fine”.

  16. Clyde Schechter says:

    OK. Interesting discussion. How would you respond if someone asks you what it means to be White (or Black, or any other race)? That’s another categorization that is variously used to refer to a self-reported identification, or an assessment by others, or perhaps some (vaguely) defined constellation of physical attributes, or might (in principle, though it’s too expensive now to be practical) be definable through some DNA-based criteria.

    I think there is no real answer to either question. In any given context, you operationalize a definition and use it. You have to always be clear which operationalization you are relying on when reporting your results. And you have to be at least somewhat wary of comparing conclusions that are based on different ways of operationalizing what is ostensibly the same construct.

  17. Brad Stiritz says:

    I’ve had good success with the following general explanation :

    Republicans are like fans of a sports team. Their team is called the Republican Party. They have a major competitor, called the Democratic Party. Every four years in the USA, there’s a huge competition between the teams, like the Olympics or the World Cup. During the competition, Republicans cheer on their players, who are called politicians, against the players from the other team, the Democrats.

    Just like in sports, the Republican fans try to convince everyone that their team and their players are best. So it’s like “Go Republicans! Boo Democrats!” At the same time, the Democratic fans are cheering for their team : “Boo Republicans! Go Democrats!”.

    It can be confusing to decide which team to support. Both teams are basically saying the same thing : “Listen to our ideas! Don’t listen to the other team’s ideas! Vote for our team, not for their team!” At the end of the competition, people choose who they want to win in each category. That’s called voting. The person who gets the most votes in each category is one of the winners. The whole competition is actually a giant popularity contest, like ..

    Republicans like feeling that they belong to a group where everyone shares many of the same feelings and ideas. They’re happy when their team members win in the voting. Democrats are the same: they have their own feelings and ideas that they share, and they’re happy when their team members win.

    So what are the actual “different ideas and feelings” between the two teams? It’s complicated to explain, because the competition is actually about choosing who’s going to be one of “the bosses”. The bosses decide what the rules are that everyone has to follow, which are called laws. For example, one law in many states is “You have to be at least 16 years old to drive a car.” Republicans and Democrats probably have different ideas about whether this is a good rule, and if it should be changed or not..

    Maybe Republicans might say “16 years old is fine”, but Democrats might say, “Oh, that’s too young. Teenagers get into too many accidents. We should change the law so that you have to be at least 21 years old to drive a car.” And so, if there are more Democrats who are chosen to be bosses, they would be able to change that rule. But if more Republicans are chosen, they will probably be happy with that rule the way it is, and not allow it to be changed.

    For other rules, it would be the opposite: Democrats would say, “This is a good rule the way it is.” But Republicans would say, “This rule is terrible, we have to change it!”

    Etc, etc..

    • Brad Stiritz says:

      (Markup problem : text within angle brackets is redacted. Here’s what got cut out at the end of the 4th paragraph)

      The whole competition is actually a giant popularity contest, like (the Oscars / that old show American Idol / etc) ..

  18. Roger says:

    Phil, be sure and mention that Democrats were the ones who had blacks drinking from separate drinking fountains.

    • Clyde Schechter says:

      I think we can all agree that whatever it means to be a Republican or Democrat today, it is different from what it meant in the 1950’s. Both parties have changed substantially since that time.

  19. jd says:

    Republicans say you can play when your chores are done. Democrats say you can plan when everyone’s chores are done.

  20. zbicyclist says:

    For a grade school kid, I’d say there are two parties, Republicans and Democrats, that are like two teams trying to be the team in charge. Like the Cubs and the Sox, only in the same league.

    On the issue of Christian, there clearly is no ANSI standard. For example, this set of the top 50 Christian colleges
    does not include a single Catholic college, so in their view Catholics are not Christians. (BYu isn’t there either, of course.)

    Recently I saw a different set of “top Christian colleges” with Valparaiso (Lutheran) as #1. It also has no Catholic colleges.
    But on that first list, Valpo doesn’t show up, and neither does the word Lutheran. So I guess the makers of that first list don’t even consider Lutherans as proper Christians.

    Yes, Christianity is a religion of tolerance. Shalom/Salaam to all.

  21. HG says:

    Republic: country first.
    Democratic: people first.
    Am I missing anything else here to explain a 7 year old?

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