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By Ashley Zartner, 16, Bell HS
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Ashley wishes that people paid attention to politics.

It saddens me that so many teens do not care about what goes on in our country. They don’t seem to realize that politics actually affects us all, and we need to pay attention to it. When we become eligible to vote, we should have reasons other than, "I’m voting for him because he has cool hair."

But as a teen who watches MSNBC, Fox News Channel and reads the Los Angeles Times, even I get confused by some of the terms and ideas they talk about. How are teens supposed to be informed about politics, when they don’t even know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?

So I thought I would explain this basic part of our political process. What’s a Democrat? What’s a Republican? I figured it would be simple.

I started off with the easiest source I could think of: Yahoo! Reference. I always used it for vocabulary homework and such. But when I typed in "Republican" the definition it gave me was, "Republican: A member of the Republican Party of the United States." How was that supposed to help me?

Another Web site,, had a chart listing what Republicans and Democrats believe. It stated that Republicans wish to stick to the Constitution and protect rights, whereas Democrats want to take away people’s rights to religious freedom, guns and private property. That didn’t make sense to me though because I always believed that Democrats were the people who fought for more rights. They have fought for women to have the right to an abortion and gay marriage. But then again, they also have fought against prayer in school, which does in fact take away people’s rights to religious expression, doesn’t it? It was too confusing.

I asked a few of my friends for their views, but they did not want to be quoted. I told them there was no wrong answer, but they would not budge. I think they feared they would look stupid. One friend asked me, "Well, what is the difference?"

Another friend of mine was hesitant at first, but finally let me quote her. The funny thing is that she thought she knew nothing, but when she started talking about it, I thought she sounded quite informed. She said, "To me a Democrat is a person that helps lower-class people, like with programs for teenagers and kids and more opportunities. A Republican is like someone that is neutral about high and lower class. Someone that listens to both sides." It really made me realize that there are probably many other teens out there who think they are dumb and clueless about politics, but actually do know something.

I finally found someone who I didn’t have to beg to tell me what he thought—my super smart friend, Horacio Villa. He said, "A Republican is more inclined toward making money… they tend to help wealthy people, which are a low percent in the United States. Democrats are mainly people in the upper-middle and lower class. [They] tend to be more liberal and want more freedoms for people." I thought it was a good answer, but sometimes Horacio himself is confusing in his views. He considers himself a Democrat, but oftentimes I find him agreeing with me. Even though I do not like political labels, I consider myself a Republican because my religious views are very important to me, I’m against abortion and most of the time I tend to agree with what Republicans have to say. Horacio agreed with me when I said I thought John Kerry flip-flopped on some issues (meaning he changed his views a lot). I just wouldn’t really expect that from the mouth of a person who called himself a Democrat. But that made me realize that not all people vote for the candidate of their party. He’s also never criticized President George W. Bush, as I often find Democrats doing.

Illustration by Larry Zamel, 17, Fairfax HS

Another person I interviewed was my world history teacher Mr. Keating. All year we’d talked about Iraq, the election and everything that was on the front page of the L.A. Times. He said something that I never thought of, "Republicans are more likely to attend church on a regular basis whereas a Democratic voter is a more infrequent churchgoer." I never considered church attendance as a factor in an election but when I thought about it, it made sense. Religious views do affect our political positions. I suppose that’s why a Republican voter (who may have learned in church that abortion is a sin) is generally pro-life, whereas a Democratic voter is generally pro-choice.

Another factor Mr. Keating brought up was where voters live. "The Democratic party is stronger in urban areas, cities, and the east and west coast. Republicans are stronger in rural areas, the South, and the Midwest," he said. After researching voting patterns in the 2000 election, I learned that Bush won states like Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana and Tennessee. The Democratic candidate Al Gore won states like California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois—proving Mr. Keating’s point.

You could say that in general, Republicans like Bush are conservative, meaning they are more rooted in the past and like to stick to the way things have always been. Democrats like Kerry could be considered more liberal, meaning they are for change. But a Republican isn’t always a full-blown conservative.

Some politicians take moderate positions

Both Democrats and Republicans can be described as "middle-of-the-roaders" or "moderates." A moderate Republican would have some views that are generally considered Democratic. Today a moderate Republican in the public eye is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He spoke out for Bush at the Republican National Convention, yet supports abortion rights, gun control and gay rights—all issues that usually a Republican would be against.

Over the summer, I was listening to talk radio and I heard one of the hosts ask a caller, "Is a he a leftie?" I knew that didn’t mean left-handed, but what did it mean? I’d also heard the words "left-wing" and "right-wing." I researched it and found out that this practice dates back to the French Revolution in 1789, when revolutionaries (who wanted change) sat on the left, and the nobility (conservatives who wanted to continue to have a monarchy) sat on the right. Left-wingers are more liberal whereas right-wingers are more conservative.

I hope you’ve come away from my article seeking more information about politics. I know that the news is sometimes hard to comprehend, but it gets a little easier when you pick up a dictionary or ask your parents or a teacher. Are you a Democrat or a Republican? How do you feel about important topics like this year’s presidential election? You decide.