Chapter 7: Political Parties
Political parties and their candidates compete for control of the presidency, each
offering different visions of what government should do. Parties unify and mobilize
disparate groups in society, simplify the choices facing voters, and bring efficiency
and coherence to government policy making.
What Are Political Parties?
Political parties are organizations that run candidates for political office and
coordinate the actions of officials elected under the party banner. American political
parties are best described as a collection of nodes, groups of
people who belong to, are candidates of, or work for a political party, but do not
necessarily work together or hold similar preferences. Scholars describe these organizations
as being comprised of three separate and largely independent pieces:
- The party organization involves the structure of national, state,
and local parties, including party leaders and workers.
- The party in government is made up of the politicians who were
elected as candidates of the party.
- The party in the electorate includes all the citizens who identify
with the party.
History of American Political Parties
There have been six party systems in American history. The term party system
is used to describe periods in which the major parties’ names, their groups of supporters,
and the issues dividing them are all constant.
- The First Party System, 1789–1828
Political parties formed soon after the founding of the United States. The first
political parties were the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.
Federalists favored a strong central government and a national bank. Jeffersonian
Democratic-Republicans took the opposite positions based on their preference for
concentrating power at the state level. These political parties differed from the
modern party system in that few citizens thought of themselves as party members,
and candidates for office did not campaign as representatives of a political party.
- The Second Party System, 1829–1856
The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans transformed into the Democratic Party, the
ancestor of the modern-day organization. As the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican
Party dissolved, most of its politicians became Democrats, while the others formed
another party known as the Whigs.
The new Democratic Party embodied two important innovations:
- It cultivated electoral support as a way of strengthening the party’s hold on power
- The party built organizations at the state and local level to mobilize citizens
to support the party’s candidates. This innovation became known as the party
principle, the idea that a political party exists as an organization
distinct from its elected officials or party leaders.
These developments gave way to the first party in the electorate. A spoils system
was created whereby party supporters were rewarded with benefits like federal government
- The Third Party System, 1857–1892
The issues of slavery split the second party system. Antislavery Whigs left the
party and formed a new organization, the Republican Party, which also attracted
antislavery Democrats. The demise of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican Party
illustrates that parties exist only because elites, politicians, party leaders,
and activists want them to.
- The Fourth Party System, 1893–1932
While the Civil War settled the issue of slavery, it did not change the identity
of the major American parties. In the postwar era, the Republicans and the Democrats
remained the two prominent parties. The parties divided on concerns such as the
withdrawal of the Union Army from southern states and the size and scope of the
- The Fifth Party System, 1933–1968
The New Deal Coalition assembled groups who aligned with and supported
the Democratic Party in support of New Deal policies, including African Americans,
Catholics, Jewish people, union members, and white southerners. This transformation
established the basic division between the Republican and Democratic parties that
would persist for the rest of the twentieth century. Democrats generally favored
a large federal government that took an active role in managing the economy and
regulating individual and corporate behavior. Republicans believed that many of
these programs should either be provided by state and local governments or kept
entirely separate from government.
- The Sixth Party System, 1969–Present
Changes in political issues and technology drove the transition from the fifth to
the sixth party system. Democrats came out against the “separate but equal” system
of racial discrimination in southern states, and in favor of programs designed to
ensure equal opportunity for minority citizens. Furthermore, democrats argued to
expand the federal government into health care funding, antipoverty programs, education,
and public works. Republicans opposed expanding the role of government into society.
Both Republican and Democratic parties became parties in service,
involved in recruiting, training, and campaigning for their party’s congressional
and presidential candidate.
Each party system is separated from the next by a realignment,
a change in the size or composition of the party coalitions or in the nature of
the issues that divide the parties. Realignments typically occur within an election
cycle or two, but they can also occur gradually over the course of a decade or longer.
Modern American Political Parties
- The Party Organization
The principal policy-making body in each party organization is the national
committee, comprised of party representatives from each state. Parties
include a number of constituency groups (the Democrats’ term) or teams (the Republicans’
term), which are organizations within the party and work to attract the support
of particular demographic groups considered likely to share the party’s issue concerns.
Many other groups are loosely affiliated with one of the major parties. Political
action committees (PACs) are interest groups or divisions of interest
groups that can raise money to contribute to campaigns or to spend on ads in support
of candidates. The amount they can receive from each of their donors and their expenditure
on federal electioneering are strictly limited. 527 organizations
are tax-exempt groups formed primarily to influence elections through voter mobilization
efforts and issue ads that do not directly endorse or oppose a candidate. Unlike
political action committees, they are not subject to contribution limits and spending
caps. While these groups often favor one party or the other, they are not part of
the party organization and do not always agree with the party’s positions or support
- Because the parties stand for different things, both in terms of their preferred
government policies, as well as their ideological leanings, the party names themselves
are like brand names because they offer a shorthand way of providing
information to voters about the parties’ candidates.
- Party organizations are not hierarchies. Because individual committee members are
not appointed by their state party organizations, they have freedom of action. If
the majority of committee members disagree with the party leader, they can remove
him or her from office. The national party organization is also unable to force
state and local parties to share its positions on issues or comply with other requests.
State and local parties make their own decisions about state- and local- level candidates
and issue positions.
- A political machine is an unofficial patronage system within a
political party that seeks to gain political power and government contracts, jobs,
and other benefits for party leaders, workers and supporters.
- The Party in Government
The party in government consists of elected officials holding national, state, and
local offices who took office as candidates of a particular party. Because it is
comprised of officeholders, it has a direct impact on government policy. Democratic
and Republican parties in government in the U.S. House and Senate are organized
around working groups—Democrats call theirs a caucus, and Republicans
have a conference. The caucus or conference serves as a forum for
debate, compromise, and strategizing among party’s elected officials.
The modern Congress is polarized; in both the House and Senate,
Republicans and Democrats hold different views on government policy. Over the last
sixty years, the magnitude of ideological difference between the parties in Congress
- The Party in the Electorate
The party in the electorate consists of citizens who identify with a particular
political party. Party identification (party ID) is a critical
variable in understanding votes and other forms of political participation. If you
are trying to predict how someone will vote, the most important predictor is party
Real participation in party operations is open to citizens who become activists
by working for a party organization or one of its candidates. Only 5 to 10 percent
of the population are activists.
Early theories of party identification described it as a deeply-felt attachment.
Further work, however, has shown that party ID is more of a running tally,
or an evaluation that takes account of new information. Thus, when one chooses a
political party, that decision is based on what they have seen in American politics.
New information tends to reinforce existing loyalties.
During the 1970s, nearly half of adults identified with the Democratic Party, and
only about 20 percent identified with Republicans. During the 1990s, the percentage
of Democratic identifiers decreased significantly and the percentage of Republican
identifiers increased slightly, to the point that in 2002 the parties had roughly
the same percentage of identifiers.
Early analyses concluded that independents were unaffiliated with a party because
they were in the process of shifting their identification from one party to the
other. Others saw independents as evidence of dealignment, a decline
in the percentage of citizens who identify with one of the major parties, usually
over the course of a decade or longer. Many people who identify as independents
actually have some weak attachment to one of the major political parties.
- Party coalitions are groups who identify with a political party,
usually described in demographic terms, such as African American Democrats or evangelical
Republicans. The Republican and Democratic party coalitions differ systematically
in terms of their policy preferences.
The Role of Political Parties in a Democracy
- Contesting Elections
Virtually everyone elected to a state or national political office is either a Republican
- Recruiting and Nominating Candidates: The process of recruiting candidates
has become very systematic, with national party leaders playing a central role in
finding and recruiting candidates.
Parties do not control who runs in House or Senate races. In most states, candidates
for these offices are selected in a primary election or a caucus. A primary
is a ballot vote in which citizens select a party’s nominee for the general election.
A caucus (political) is a local meeting in which party members
select a party’s nominee for the general election.
In most states, the number of signatures required to earn a candidate a spot on
the ballot are much lower for the major party candidates than for independent and
minor-party candidates. Thus, virtually all prominent candidates for Congress and
the presidency run as Democrats or Republicans, even if they do not agree with all
the party stands for.
National parties manage the nomination process for presidential candidates., which
involves a series of primaries and caucuses. Voters in these primaries and caucuses
determine how many of each candidate’s supporters become delegates to the party’s
national nominating convention, where delegates from each state
select the party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees and approve the party
- Campaign Assistance: One of the parties’ primary activities is helping
candidates with their campaigns. Along with supplying campaign funds, party organizations
give candidates other kinds of assistance, ranging from offering campaign advice
to conducting polls.
- Party Platforms: A party platform is a set of objectives
outlining the party’s issue positions and priorities, although candidates are not
required to support their party’s platform. Party platforms generally reflect the
brand name differences between the parties, giving citizens an easy way to make
judgments about candidates.
- Cooperation in Government
Conditional party government refers to the theory that lawmakers
from the same party will cooperate to develop policy proposals. Preferably, these
policies will be attractive to backbenchers, legislators who do
not hold leadership positions within their party caucus or conference. There is
no guarantee that compromise will be reached.
- Developing agendas: Throughout the year, the parties in government meet
to devise strategies for legislative action. Leaders in Congress use their power
to control when proposals are considered, which amendments are allowed, and how
long debate will proceed to ensure speedy consideration and to prevent the opposing
minority party from delaying votes or offering alternatives.
- Coordination: Political parties can play an important role in coordinating
the actions taken in different branches of government. Such coordination is important
for enacting new laws: unless supporters in Congress can amass a two-thirds majority
to override a veto, they need the president’s support. Similarly, the president
needs congressional support to enact proposals that he or she favors. Thus, the
president routinely meets with congressional leaders from his party, and occasionally
meets with the entire caucus or conference.
- Accountability: One of the most important roles of political parties in
a democracy is giving citizens identifiable groups to reward or punish for government
actions, thereby providing a means for voters to focus their desire for accountability.
During periods of unified government, a situation in which one
party holds a majority of seats in the House and Senate and the president is a member
of that same party, that party is the party in power; it has enough
votes to enact policies in Congress. During times of divided government,
when one party controls Congress but not the presidency or the House and Senate
are controlled by different parties, the president’s party is considered the party
Some political scientists argue that legislators from the same party should be forced
to work as a team—to run on the same campaign platform, work together in Washington,
and be collectively held accountable. Political organizations that function in this
way are called responsible parties, and they have never existed
in American politics.
Minor political parties in America are so minor that they are not significant
players on the political stage. Very few Americans identify with minor parties,
especially since most minor parties exist for only a short period of time. People
vote for minority party candidates because they find those candidates’ positions
more attractive than those of the major parties, and also because they believe that
neither major party can govern effectively.
Duverger’s law states that in a democracy with single-member districts
and plurality voting, like the United States, only two parties’ candidates will
have a realistic chance of winning political office. Single-member districts
comprise an electoral system in which every elected official represents a geographically
defined area, such as a state or congressional district, and each area elects one
representative. Plurality voting is a voting system in which the
candidate who receives the most votes within a geographic area wins the election,
regardless of whether that candidate wins a majority (more than half) of the votes.
Thus, many people will consider a vote for a minor party candidate to be a wasted
vote. Moreover, minor party candidates face significantly higher legal hurdles to
get on the ballot.
What Kind of Democracy Do American Political Parties Create?
The question of whether political parties are good or bad for democracy depends
on how the individual party members and officials carry out these tasks. Despite
all the efforts parties put forth to select good candidates, the problem remains
that the people who make up American political parties are not primarily interested
in democracy; they are interested in their own careers, policy goals, and winning
- Recruiting Candidates
One of the most important things the Republican and Democratic parties can do for
democracy is to recruit candidates for national political offices who can run effective
campaigns and responsibly uphold their elected positions.
- Working Together in Campaigns
Parties can also work to simplify voters’ choices by trying to get candidates to
emphasize the same issues or take similar issue positions. The problem is that members
of the party organization and the party in government do not always agree on what
government should do. Party leaders have very little power over candidates by way
of rewards and punishments.
- Working Together in Office
Voters cannot expect that putting one party in power is going to result in specific
policy changes. Instead, policy outcomes depend on how (and whether) individual
officeholders from the party can resolve their differences.
A party must serve as an accountability mechanism that gives citizens an identifiable
group to reward when policies work well and to punish when policies fail.
- Citizens’ Behavior
Citizens are under no obligation to give money or time to the party they identify
with or to any of the party’s candidates. They do not have to vote for their party’s
candidates, or even to vote at all. When party members refuse to cooperate, political
parties may be unable to do the things that help American democracy work well.