Are American Party Factions Still King?

For as long as both the Democratic and Republican parties have existed, there have been party factions. We saw the Jacksonians and the Radical Republicans. We’ve had the Roosevelt Progressives and the New Deal Democrats.

Are factions still important, however? It seemed the Democratic Socialists melted away when Hillary Clinton, and then Joe Biden, won the nomination over Bernie Sanders. When it comes to the Republicans, everyone seems to have folded into the MAGA group since Donald Trump won. Do people define themselves by party or belief system (i.e libertarian or socialist)?

Everything else these days is divided. Here are the factions of the two major parties, as we explore whether those factions are still powerful.

Democratic Party

Democratic Socialists


  • John Conyers (MI-1/13/14),
  • Ilhan Omar (MN-05)
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14),
  • Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
  • Rashida Tlaib (MI-13)

Many countries around the world have had a socialist as their leader, yet the United States stands out as one that has not. The idea of socialism is something that many Americans, including Democrats, decry. Its history has not been positive for a variety of reasons: the perceived lack of compatibility with the Constitution, a fractured movement, no identifiable leader, oppression of the movement, and different Democratic factions in short. Those who may have held those views would not have necessarily used that label.

This has changed, however, in recent years. In 2016, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ran for President. Though he failed against the might of the Clinton machine, he inspired a movement that saw voters become more excited by socialist ideals. Four years later, he ran again, the momentum still not having run out of steam. The Senate and the House of Representatives both hold socialists in its ranks, with several being members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Their ideas are getting more attention in the mainstream press and as a result, we’re hearing more about them. Policy positions that would have been unconscionable several years ago are starting to appear; free college tuition, universal healthcare, and a Green New Deal among others. The likeliness of these happening at the moment, even in a metaphorical Democratic legislative, judicial, and executive branch, is pretty much none.

As for their power? Small, but growing. As the 2020 Senate and Congressional elections loom, more and more candidates are using this label to decide themselves. Whilst Sanders failed to win the nomination, he certainly won’t be the last Democratic Socialist to run for President. Members of “The Squad” have captured both the media and the voters. AOC managed to beat a ten-term incumbent to get her seat. The Democratic Socialists have a mountain to climb, but they may well reach their Everest peak one day.

Moderates/New Democrats/ Third Way


  • Joe Biden (DE)
  • Bill Clinton (AR)
  • John Delaney (MD-06)
  • Amy Klobuchar (MN)
  • Barack Obama (IL)

After years in the political wilderness during the Reagan/Bush years, the Democrats finally got their break in 1992 with a young Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton. Similar to Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK, Clinton proposed a more moderate Democratic Party. He was still socially liberal, yet advocated for fiscal responsibility as opposed to the big spending of the past. This was a long way from the days of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Beating George HW Bush in ’92 and Bob Dole in ’96, Clinton managed solid approval ratings. Al Gore, his Vice President, was narrowly defeated by George W. Bush in 2000, with John Kerry being the loser in 2004. The resurgence of New Democrats occurred in 2008 with Barack Obama, who labeled himself a New Democrat, and continued in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, albeit without the repeated success.

The Clintons and Obama have seen a blowback in recent years, as many Democrats re-investigate their legacy. Many in Congress still subscribe to these ideals, but this is not reflected in their leadership. They still hold some sway, but Clinton and Obama have not quite reached the elder statesman status that Jimmy Carter has. The left of the party seems not to hold them quite in high regard, whilst the moderate and liberal wings remain wary. Joe Biden may be a continuation of these ideas in the executive office, but it’s doubtful the legislative branch will ever see it again.



  • John F. Kennedy (MA)
  • Eugene McCarthy (MN)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (NY)
  • Elizabeth Warren (MA)
  • Woodrow Wilson (NJ)

When we think of progressivism, we harken back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party. Whilst progressivism was a movement in the Republican/conservative camp, it’s now commonly associated with the left. Woodrow Wilson used progressivism to gain the Presidency in 1912, whilst FDR was the first to use the “liberal” label. The term is often used interchangeably, though progressives tend to swing to the left.

With a large percentage of Democrats using the term “liberal”, it’s still a dominant faction. Whilst many use liberal as a term for anyone left of center, it is only a specific group in the Democrats and the term often refers to many conservatives in the classic liberal or neoliberal way. Progressives. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) boasts 95 members currently, which is a fair amount of members. Progressives tend to lean in between moderates and democratic socialists, advocating for a mixed economy over the socialist one that Sanders and co do.

They still remain a powerful force in the Democratic Party, probably the biggest faction. They’ve not seen a lot of representation in the executive branch for a while, but they’re likely to churn out more Presidents in the future. Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi, the party’s leading non-Presidential members, are both avowed progressives – the latter even founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus. They’re sitting tight for now. 

Conservatives/ Blue Dogs


  • Ed Koch (NY)
  • Joe Lieberman (CT)
  • Joe Manchin (WV)
  • Kyrsten Sinema (AZ)
  • Strom Thurmond (D-turned R-SC)

From its inception, the Democratic Party had a conservative wing and at times, it was pretty dominant. This was mainly seen in the post-Reconstruction south, where the Democrats held the region tightly for nearly one hundred years. Conservatives started to flock to the Republicans in the Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon years, though a few remained loyal to the Democrats.

Since the 60s, there has been a decline in the number of conservative Democrats in prominence. Those who do tend to represent southern or midwestern states that usually lean Republican. This is due to political allegiances and party bosses knowing a liberal may not do as well. Politicians such as Joe Manchin, who represent red states, have been known to vote with Republicans on key legislation, such as the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice. These politicians club together in the Blue Dog Coalition, a congressional group that represents more moderate and conservative Democrats.

The Blue Dogs are the least powerful faction due to their lack of numbers. They’d also be unable to put up a candidate for President, as the party at large would not give them the time of day in primaries. In certain situations, the Blue Dogs can gain leverage by supporting Republican-led legislation, but their power otherwise remains limited.

Republican Party

Moderate/Rockefeller Republicans


  • Charlie Baker (MA)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (ME)
  • Susan Collins (ME)
  • Lisa Murkowski (AK)
  • Nelson Rockefeller (NY)

Calling someone a “Rockefeller Republicans” is today often an insult, but it’s still a term popularly known nonetheless. Though moderate Republicans have existed since its founding, they found their leader in Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York and later Vice President under Gerald Ford. Rockefeller may have reached these heights, but his fight for the Presidency would be beaten by more conservative opponents. 

Moderate Republicans tend to be economically fiscal but more liberal socially, though not on the level of Democrats. They are more likely to favor abortion and LGBT legislation as well as the expanded welfare state. Similarly to how the Blue Dogs tend to reside in the midwest and south, Rockefeller Republicans often represent the northeast and New England.

Are they powerful? There are enough of them and they maintain a Republican base in New England, but they are fading. They’ve never really had a President, unless you count Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford. As of writing, the moderate Senators are at risk of losing their seats to the Democrats. Though Trump Republicans are not exactly at one with the conservative factions, they’re even more at war with the Rockefeller Republicans.

Libertarian Republicans 


  • Barry Goldwater (AR)
  • Thomas Massie (KY)
  • Rand Paul (KY)
  • Ron Paul (TX)
  • Gary Johnson (NM) 

The Republican Party has always had somewhat of a libertarian streak, but its origins as a faction began in the 20th century. Whilst libertarians tend to be socially conservative and fiscally responsible in the way mainstream Republicans are, they put much more of an emphasis on personal freedom and lack of government. 

As a Libertarian Party does exist, Republican libertarians are small in number. Similarly to the Rockefeller Republicans, they are small in size, but they do still remain steady, unlike the moderates. We’ve not seen a libertarian President, though Ron Paul and Barry Goldwater fave it the old college try. Their influence is small, but that could change with a younger demographic.



  • John Bolton (MD)
  • George W. Bush (TX)
  • Dick Cheney (WY)
  • Lindsey Graham (SC)
  • John McCain (AR)

Neoconservatives have their roots in the Cold War, when Republican Party members became concerned that the left and other Republicans were not doing enough in the fight against communism. They became prominent during the Vietnam War, as many started to question intervention in a far off country that was killing thousands of young men. Though many associate neoconservatism with the right, many Democrats did initially subscribe to its ideology, albeit with a different name. 

In the 80s, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick became the international face of the movement due to her strong views against communism and belief in encouraging democracy in totalitarian regimes. After the USSR was dissolved and the Berlin Wall fell, many thought that neocons had seen their heyday. They got fierce resistance from George H. W. Bush due to his decision not to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime after the first Gulf War. Their treatment was similar during the administration of Clinton. 

Their renaissance came during the George W. Bush administration. 9/11 changed foreign policy for a long time, leading to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz were the key neoconservatives in the government. They were the three that most pushed Bush into interventionism. The 2008 election proved a turning point, as both Bush and the Iraq War were incredibly unpopular. This was part of the reason why Barack Obama won. Whilst John McCain was considered a neocon, 2012 candidate Mitt Romney was not. Though Donald Trump has intervened in some cases, he is mainly isolationist. 

Tea Party


  • Michele Bachmann (MN)
  • Ted Cruz (TX)
  • Nikki Haley (SC)
  • Sarah Palin (AK)
  • Steve Scalise (LA)

Born from anger over Barack Obama’s policies, the Tea Party took its name from the historic anti-tax protest in Boston. Almost immediately after the idea came about, the faction had a meteoric rise. Helped by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Tea Partiers as they came to be called, began dominating the political front in the early Obama administration. They soon saw many followers and rallies, along with electoral success.

In 2010, the Tea Party Caucus was founded by then-Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. An informal version for the Senate was created the next year. The Tea Partiers were influential during the 2013 government shutdown, as they refused to approve any funding for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). A poll of voters showed that 53% blamed the Republicans for this, which may or may not have hastened their decline. As of 2020, it seems as though the Tea Party Caucus is defunct.

Though they were essentially a third party in Congress, the Tea Party is no longer as strong, especially after the 2013 shutdown. Donald Trump praised them in his initial campaign and recently compared his treatment over alleged tax issues to how the Tea Party was treated. Several members are strong Trump allies now and others tend to vote with the Liberty Caucus or similar.



  • Pat Buchanan
  • Tucker Carlson
  • Paul Gottfried
  • William Lind
  • Paul Roberts

The spiritual successor of the Old Right, paleoconservatism came about during the Cold War. Some call them traditionalists, though they may be seen as a separate entity. Paleoconservatives are generally against the free market, advocate for more government control of the economy, and are deeply socially conservative. Their main guidance is tradition, nationalism and religion.

Their power has never been particularly great, though Pat Buchanan did attempt to unseat Bush as the 1992 Republican nominee and eventually got 23% of the vote. Some call Trump a paleoconservative, though he’s mostly seen as a new populist. In terms of legislative power, they’ve had no open members in Congress, though some may have just chosen not to label themselves as such. Fox News host Tucker Carlson seems to be the main paleoconservative in recent times, and is believed to be a presidential contender in 2024.

Religious Right


  • Ben Carson
  • Mike Huckabee
  • Jerry Falwell
  • Pat Robertson
  • Rick Santorum.

Faith has been ingrained in America for a very long time. As society changed in the 60s, members of the religious right fought against the ERA, Roe v Wade and LGBT rights – to mixed success. Though not necessarily a driving force in the executive or legislative branches, the religious right has been a key driving force of the party. Their endorsements and money mean a lot to contenders, hence the many visits to Liberty and Bob Jones. 

A huge help for the religious right has been visual media and other means. Billy Graham’s reach converted millions. Televangelism and the internet have also assisted them. Political figures appear on these shows in order to curry favour with voters in a way they couldn’t before. 

This faction is much more powerful behind the scenes than inside the House. The power players are no longer in any legislative positions, though Dr. Carson sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet. It may seem like the religious right is waning, but a strong sense of faith will push it for  that much longer. 

Trump Conservatives/New Populists


  • Joe Arpaio
  • Steve Bannon
  • Laura Loomer
  • Marjorie Taylor Greene
  • Donald Trump

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2015, pretty much everyone saw it as a joke. It was either a play for airtime or over arrogance for the billionaire. Most expected him to fold before the primaries even started. Somehow, Trump won the presidency in 2016 against seasoned politician Hillary Clinton. His candidacy, depending on who you ask, was either the trigger of a new political faction or the result of it.

Populism is far from new; Andrew Jackson made it his image in the early 1800s. This is a new populism, an age for the right. Its focuses are on economic protection, rejection of globalism, and nationalism. This may sound like paleoconservatism, but it’s for more of a “for the people” vibe. New populism is a result of the Internet age, like Reddit and the infamous QAnon. 

Technically, the faction is the most powerful. As of writing, Donald Trump is still in the White House – though this may change in January. Though many do not subscribe to this ideology, many Republicans have allied with Trump. More candidates are openly supporting their leader, almost parallel to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Whether Trump loses in 2020 or makes it to 2024, he’s set a template that the right will probably follow for the foreseeable future. 

Sarah Stook is a freelance writer with a great interest in US politics. Her area of interest is the Republican Party, presidential elections and how campaigns are conducted. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarah_stook.

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