Election years always bring about the "straying from our ideals" rhetoric, but do you realize just how flip-flopped the parties have become? Speaking of Republicans and Democrats, of course - although other parties do exist, until they come up with a viable candidate, voting for one of them truly is throwing your vote away.
Of the two biggies though, their founders would never recognize them by what they have become. We take for granted that Republicans cater to state's rights supporters and the religious right, while Democrats support minority rights and government regulation, but these positions are relatively recent. In fact, it was FDR's New Deal that made the parties begin the transition to liberal versus conservative rather than true Democrat versus true Republican.
The Democratic party was actually founded on the principle of state's rights, opposition of a national bank and a verbatim devotion to the Constitution - which party does that sound like to you? The Republicans? Yes, well, they have also become something completely different than what they were supposed to be.
The Republican party was founded as an anti-slavery party, and fought for equal rights (for all men) during the Civil War. The Reconstruction was their idea. They were highly supportive of big business even then, but they were also willing to set up government programs to help small businesses become big. Very much not about small government. Hmmm.... doesn't... sound... right... does it?
The New Deal
The Democrat versus Republican warfare we're all familiar with actually began in the Thirties with the New Deal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented a massive plan that not only turned the Democrats into liberals, but turned our government into something we would recognize from today. Welfare, equal rights and the federal regulation of businesses began, and the government became less of a headmaster and more of a parent to its citizens.
Helping the less fortunate is a noble cause, but it's certainly not free - these new programs were paid for by tax increases. Most of the Democratic party was fine with this, but a portion of dissenters began calling themselves "conservatives" - but not the type of conservative you're thinking of. Classical conservatives were more concerned with blocking government regulation in areas under states' jurisdiction than they were about any social issues.
Black voters originally flocked to the Republican party because of their support during the Reconstruction. White Southern voters, on the other hand, generally voted Democrat over that very same issue. Today, those demographics have switched - black voters tend toward the Democratic party in support of civil rights legislation, while Southern white voters tend to vote Republican over social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Women have only relatively recently won the right to vote, but they have historically voted mostly Democratic by a very slim margin - likely due to the Democrats' stance on women's issues.
Think For Yourself
People tend to let themselves get caught up in the entertainment of politics without studying the issues. Don't be one of these people. If you get your news from a pundit's radio show, do some independent research. If you are a rich, white, Christian male, vote Republican. If you receive money from Medicare, Medicaid, social security, welfare, disability, or any other money that doesn't come from your place of employment, vote Democrat.
Without getting caught up in partisan politics - seriously, read the parties' websites if you doubt the information - Democrat versus Republican doesn't matter any longer. It's now liberal versus conservative, and the ideology of each is based on a knee-jerk reaction to the other. Conservatives stand for lower taxes but fewer rights, the liberals stand for higher taxes but more rights.
It's imperative that you do your own research and get your information from impartial sources. Otherwise, you just may become the most doomed person ever - the gay, black, poor, female Republican.