Chapter 8

Political Parties


In the United States the voting population is nearly evenly divided among people who identify themselves as Democrats, as Republicans, and as “independents” (voters who do not identify with a political party). The number of independent voters has been gradually rising, though. Very few people are actually “card-carrying” party members, however, because to become a member you do not have to pay dues, pass an exam, or swear an oath of allegiance.

I.         What Is a Political Party?

A political party is a group of political activists who organize to win elections, to operate the government, and to determine public policy. This definition makes a distinction between a political party and an interest group. Interest groups want to influence public policy, but are not interested in controlling the government. This definition also distinguishes parties from factions, which are groups or blocs in a legislative or political party that are trying to obtain power or benefits. For a political party to be successful, it must unite diverse groups that have different policy orientations. These are the functions of political parties in the United States:

A.      Recruiting candidates to run for elective offices at all levels of government on the party label. By attracting quality candidates the party enhances its chance of winning the elective positions and controlling the government.

B.       Organizing and running elections is technically a government responsibility, but the parties mobilize citizens to vote and participate.

C.      Presenting alternative policies to the electorate is an essential role. By understanding the position of each party on the major issues, the voter has some indication of the position of the party’s candidates.

D.      Accepting the responsibility of operating government at all levels of the government is crucial to the functioning of the political process. Parties organize Congress (see Chapter 11 for details on committee organization), affect how the president selects individuals to serve in the executive branch (see Chapters 12 and 13 for details), and affect how the president nominates federal judges (see Chapter 14 for details on the nomination process). Parties also perform these same functions at the state and local levels of government.

E.       Acting as the organized opposition to the party in power is an essential role for a party that does not control one or another branch of the government.

II.       A History of Political Parties in the United States

The U.S. has a two-party system that has been around since about 1800. Political parties did not exist when the Constitution was drafted and are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Yet the debate on the ratification of the Constitution helped give rise to the first political parties.

A.      The Formative Years: Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The two-party system can be said to have originated in the debate between supporters of the Constitution (the Federalists) and those who thought the states should be the locus of authority and advocated a Bill of Rights (the Anti-Federalists). Under George Washington and John Adams, the Federalist Party was the first party to control the national government. By 1796, however, another party came into the political process. This party was headed by Thomas Jefferson and was called the Republicans. (Do not confuse this party with the later party of Lincoln.) While Jefferson’s party supported the Constitution, it was clearly the heir of the pre-revolutionary republican movement and the later Anti-Federalists.

B.       The Era of Good Feelings. The Federalist Party began to erode as a viable party after 1800. By 1816 it was unable to field a presidential candidate and was essentially extinct. Only the Republicans were left to control the government and intra-party competition was the only conflict. This period, sometimes called the era of personal politics, is perhaps the only time in which the United States did not have a two-party system.

C.      National Two-Party Rule: Whigs and Democrats. With the fiercely contested election of 1824, the Republican Party split into the Democrats (Jackson supporters) and the National Republicans (Adams supporters). The National Republicans soon renamed themselves as the Whigs.

D.      The Civil War Crisis. The argument over slavery first split the Whigs and then the Democrats along North/South lines. Northern Whigs formed the largest element in the new anti-slavery Republican Party.

E.       The Post-Civil War Period.

The abolition of the three-fifths rule meant counting all former slaves in allocation House seats and electoral votes. With this addition, and after the readmission of all Confederate states, the reunited Democratic Party was about as strong as the Republicans.

1.       “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Cultural factors divided the parties. The Republican ranks contained an aggressive evangelical Protestant element that was hostile to Catholicism and favored moralistic initiatives such as banning the sale of liquor. Democrats opposed a strong national government that could impose coercive moralistic measures in the North and protect the rights of the “freedmen” in the South.

2.       The Triumph of the Republicans. The parties were very evenly matched in strength, and the Republicans did not gain a decisive edge until 1896 when, at the bottom of an economic depression, the Democrats endorsed a pro-debtor populist platform (inflation) that frightened Eastern workers. The Republicans won just in time to benefit from the end of the depression, and so sealed their reputation as the party of prosperity.

F.       The Progressive Interlude. A temporary split in the Republican ranks allowed the Democrats to gain control of the government under President Woodrow Wilson from 1912 to 1920. This period is significant because under Wilson, the Democrats began to evolve away from their former hostility to government action in the economy.

G.      The New Deal Era. The Great Depression shattered the working-class belief in Republican economic competence. President Franklin Roosevelt completed the evolution of the Democrats into a party of active government. (One characterization by a sympathetic professor was, “Hamiltonian means, Jeffersonian ends.”) Roosevelt’s “big tent” was big enough to welcome African Americans, an unprecedented development.

H.      An Era of Divided Government. Northern Democratic support for the civil rights movement tended to push Southern conservatives out of the party. The unrest of the late 1960s (urban riots, anti-Vietnam War protests) alienated other cultural conservatives from the Democrats. These voters largely became Republicans, though the process was a slow one lasting decades rather than an overnight revolution such as was seen in 1896 and 1932.

1.       The Parties in Balance. In any event, the result has been a modern nation very evenly divided between the two major parties. In the years after 1968, the pattern was often a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. Under the Democratic President Clinton, the pattern was reversed.

2.       Red State, Blue State. The extraordinarily close presidential election of 2000 focused attention on the supposed differences between so-called Democratic “blue states” and Republican “red states.” The geographic pattern of state support for the parties is the reverse of the pattern of 1896, neatly exemplifying the reversal of Democratic Party ideology and support.

             I.   Tilting Toward the Democrats. By 2006, the violence in Iraq left Republicans in trouble and the

                  Democrats picked up thirty seats in the House of Representatives, which gave them the

                  majority.  During the 2008 elections, the Democrats gained additional seats in the House and

                  Senate as well as the presidency.

III.     The Two Major U.S. Parties Today. Despite allegations to the contrary, the major parties do have substantial differences, both in their policies and in their constituents. 

A.      The Parties’ Core Constituents. Democrats receive disproportionate support not only from the least well educated but also from individuals with advanced degrees. The Jewish electorate, Hispanics, and African Americans are strongly Democratic, while city dwellers and women are somewhat more likely to be Democratic. Upper-income voters are generally more Republican; businesspersons are much more likely to vote Republican than union members. White evangelical Christians and rural people tend to be Republicans. In presidential elections, the South, Rocky Mountain states, and the Great Plains states typically vote Republican; the West Coast and Northeast are more likely to vote Democratic. Labor and minorities have been Democratic core constituents since the days of the New Deal and their social and economic positions tend to reflect this. Republicans are more supportive of the private marketplace, and believe more strongly in an ethic of self-reliance and limited government. Traditionally, polls have ranked Republicans as the stronger party on national security issues, but now voters are more evenly divided on the strength of the parties regarding security and defense. 

B.      Economic Convergence? Some argue that both parties in practice now favor “big government.” In recent years, however, and especially under President George W. Bush, the Republicans have in practice matched or exceeded the Democrats in their support for public spending. This and trends in the Reagan and Clinton presidencies have led some observers to argue that the traditional party roles with respect to spending have been reversed.

C.      Cultural Politics. Cultural politics have become more important in recent years as reasons why people support one of the major parties.

1.       Cultural Politics and Socioeconomic Status. In cultural politics, the upper classes tend to be more liberal, a reversal of the pattern seen in economic politics. It is, however, difficult to stereotype along socioeconomic lines.

2.       The Regional Factor in Cultural Politics. Wealthy states and regions now appear more supportive of the Democrats and less-well-off ones more supportive of the Republicans.

3.       Cultural Divisions within the Democratic Party. The hard-fought race for the Democratic presidential nominee between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exposed cultural divisions within the Democratic party.

4.       Cultural Divisions among the Republicans. One wing of the Republican party represents the Religious Right while another wing is more oriented toward economic issues and business concerns.

D.      Partisan Trends and the 2006 Elections. Between 2004 and 2006 the mood of the American electorate changed significantly. The Iraq war continued despite criticism about its conduct and secret surveillance programs raised constitutional concerns. Questions arose about oversight by the Republican-led Congress and a number of scandals involving mostly Republican congresspersons also came to light. These developments were clearly reflected in the electorate as the percentage of Republican identifiers dropped. Some analysts see the 2006 elections as the beginning of the end of the Republican coalition that began in the 1960s.

IV.    The Three Faces of a Party

Political parties in the United States can be said to be made up of three components. The party-in-the-electorate comprises the people who identify with the party or who regularly vote for the candidates of the party in general elections. Without the party-in-the-electorate it would not be possible for the party to have electoral success. The party organization is the second element, with the function of providing leadership and structure for the party. The last element is the party-in-government. This includes the elected and appointed officials who gained office under the label of the party. Once in office these leaders organize to influence governmental policy toward the platform of the party.

A.      Party Organization. In theory, American political parties are structured like a pyramid, with the national party organization at the top and the local party organization serving as the base. This theoretical structure is not realistic. Rather, American political parties tend to operate like a confederation, where the state parties have significant autonomy and only loose connections to each other and to the national committee.

B.       The National Party Organization. Key concept: the national convention, at which a party nominates presidential and vice-presidential candidates, writes its platform, and chooses a national committee.

1.       Convention Delegates. The national party organization receives the most publicity during the national convention. Convention delegates typically have political views further from the center than the supporters of the party in the electorate.

2.       The National Committee. Elected by the national convention, this body serves as the party’s governing body until the next convention.

3.       Picking a National Chairperson. This person is picked or approved by the party’s presidential candidate. If the candidate loses, however, the national committee may choose a different chairperson.

C.      The State Party Organization. Each state also has a party organization. There is a state chairperson and a state central committee. Like the national party, each state party holds a state convention that may endorse some candidates, depending on state law. A state party platform is drafted to focus on state-level issues.

D.      Local Party Machinery: The Grassroots.

1.       Patronage and City Machines. In the 1800s and early 1900s, major cities typically had powerful political “machines” that supplied welfare services and jobs to an immigrant-based or poor clientele in return for votes. Such machines no longer exist; the last patronage system died with Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1976. Welfare services are now provided by a nonpartisan bureaucracy and government jobs are assigned through competitive examinations.

2.       Local Party Organizations Today. Local organizations have important functions, such as getting out the vote. The local party organization differs in different regions of the country. In some areas the party has little local organization while in other areas there may be a very strong local organization that controls the local governmental process. The national party has little control over local organizations.

E.       The Party-in-Government. Which party wins an election is important for a number of reasons. The majority party can dominate committees in legislatures, decide appointments in the executive branch, and set the political agenda.

1.       Divided Government. The winning party has less control over the government when divided government exists, with the executive and legislative branches controlled by different parties. For example, after the 2006 elections, the Democrats are largely unable to pass any legislation because they do not have sufficient votes to override a presidential veto.

2.       The Limits of Party Unity. Legislation often does not pass on party-line votes. The reason in part is that candidates for the House and Senate are not dependent on their party, but rather put together personal campaign organizations.

3.       Party Polarization. Despite limits on party-line voting, there have been times when the parties have been polarized and defections from the party line have been rare. Since the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007 both Democrats and Republicans have occasionally crossed party lines in congressional voting, but the Republican Party achieved a great deal of unity from 1994 to 2006.

V.      Why Has the Two-Party System Endured?

A.      The Historical Foundations of the Two-Party System. Often, on major issues confronting the country there have been two clear sides. This duality helped to initiate a two-party system and has maintained this system through the present.

B.       Political Socialization and Practical Considerations. For generations, all that has existed is a two-party system. If individuals are not exposed to anything but a two-party system, they will not likely seek change to a different type of system.

C.      The Winner-Take-All Electoral System. This system elects the candidate who receives a plurality, not necessarily a majority, of the votes. Candidates who finish second receive nothing.

1.       Presidential Voting. In all but two states, the presidential candidate with a plurality gets all the electoral votes of that state. This is the unit rule.

2.       Popular Election of the Governors and President. In most European countries, the chief executive is a premier or prime minister elected by the legislature. If there are three or more parties, two or more can band together to elect a premier. In America, however, governors are elected directly by the people and presidents are elected indirectly by the people. There is no opportunity for negotiations between parties.

3.       Proportional Representation. Many countries use proportional representation in elections. Such a system allows a party to receive the number of legislators equal to the percentage of the vote the party received. If a party receives 19 percent of the vote it would then receive 19 percent of the seats in the legislature. As long as the U.S. continues to use a winner-take-all electoral system, it is highly unlikely that a minor party will be successful.

D.      State and Federal Laws Favoring the Two Parties. This occurs because the two major parties are in control of the policy making process. As long as the Democrats and Republicans are in power at the state and national levels they will continue to pass laws which favor the two-party system and make it difficult for new parties to develop.

VI.    The Role of Minor Parties in U.S. Politics

Though minor parties rarely win elections, they have still had an impact on the American political landscape.

A.      Ideological Third Parties. Many third parties are long-lived organizations with strong ideological foundations. A historical example is the Socialist Party, which existed from 1900 to 1972. Current examples include the Libertarian Party and the Green Party.

B.       Splinter Parties. Not all minor parties have been based on a different ideology from the major parties. A few minor parties are formed when members of one of the two major parties are dissatisfied with the leader of the major party, or the members are dissatisfied with the platform of the major party. For example, the Bull Moose Progressives splintered from the Republican Party to give their support to the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt over that of William Howard Taft.

C.      The Impact of Minor Parties. No presidential candidate has been elected from a minor party. Very few members of Congress have been elected on the label of a minor party. But minor parties have had an impact in that they raise issues that the two major parties must address. These parties also provide voters with another option.

1.       Influencing the Major Parties. Minor parties can raise issues that major parties then adopt. The Populist Party was an example. Many of its policies were taken over by the Democrats in 1896 (which ultimately hurt the Democrats rather than helping them). During its existence, the Socialist Party advanced many proposals that were picked up by liberals (and sometimes even by a bipartisan consensus).

2.       Affecting the Outcome of an Election. Some claim that the candidacy of Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket hurt Democrat Al Gore’s chances of winning the presidency, particularly given how close the election was. Nader may have taken votes from Gore, thus giving George W. Bush an edge.

VII.  Mechanisms of Political Change

A.      Realignment. Key term: Realignment, a process in which a substantial group of voters switches party allegiance, producing a long-term change in the political landscape.

1.       Realignment: In American Politics. Realignments do not have to result in a dominant party. The realignment associated with the creation of the modern Republicans eventually produced a country that was relatively evenly divided between the parties. The same is true of the most recent realignment in which conservative Democrats became conservative Republicans.

2.       Is Realignment Still Possible? Realignments followed from party coalitions that included contradictory elements—both slave owners and opponents of slavery (the Whigs), both workers and their employers (the Republicans after 1896), or both African Americans and segregationists (the Democrats after 1932). It is almost inevitable that such coalitions will break up

B.       Dealignment. Some argue that realignment has been replaced by dealignment—a major drop-off in support for the parties.

1.       Independent Voters. The number of independents has grown steadily since the 1930s. Split ticket voting, voting for candidates of two or more parties for different offices, is more common.

2.       Not-So-Independent Voters. But many “independents” really do prefer one or another of the two parties. About one-third of independents typically vote Democratic and one-third typically vote Republican. The remaining third consists of true independents and are known as swing voters, who swing their support from one party to another.

C.      Tipping.

1.       Tipping in Massachusetts and California. If one ethnic group grows more rapidly than another, it can “tip” a state from one party to the other. The famous example is Massachusetts, where in 1928 the Democratic Irish finally outnumbered the Republican Yankees. California appears to have recently tipped to the Democrats due to an increase in the Hispanic and Asian population.

2.       Tipping in the Twenty-First Century? Because of the large growth of the Hispanic population, which historically vote Democratic, tipping may begin to occur in the southwestern states.

VIII.       Features

A.      What If…Parties Were Supported Solely By Public Funding? Today’s major political parties are supported by hundreds of millions of dollars offered by unions, corporations, other groups, and individuals. Public financing would come from taxpayers. If the public funds provided were well below the current level of spending of the major parties, the parties’ influence on American politics would be lessened. Public funds would be available for numerous political parties.

B.       Politics and Terminology. What is the Difference between a Liberal and a Progressive? Because the term liberal has become associated with big government, which is not a popular concept, many Democrats have begun using the work progressive 

C.      Elections 2008. Partisan Trends in the 2008 Elections. The disapproval of the war in Iraq and poor performance polls for George Bush helped Barack Obama win the 2008 election.

D.      Which Side Are You On? Is Partisanship Good for America? Partisanship offers voters a choice but many Americans also find it offensive.

E.       Politics and Ideology. The Increasing Significance of Independent Voters. Independents are usually better educated and younger than the average American and they are strongly against  big government. Because the ranks of independent voters are growing, political candidates will no longer be able to win elections unless they have the support of the independent voters.

F.       Why Should You Care About Political Parties? The individual voter can easily become involved in the nomination of delegates to attend a state or national convention. A voter can sign petitions for delegates, attend a party’s caucus, or collect signatures to become a delegate. The political power exercised by convention delegates goes beyond voting and can have implications for other offices, such as a university Board of Regents.