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6.3 Political Parties

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Another important feature of electoral politics is parties. Political partiesGroups of individuals who unite in pursuit of common political goals. are a basic way in which the conduct of politics is organized. Parties are in some sense political factions, a broad-based form of interest group. They are formal organizations of like-minded individuals who unite in pursuit of common political objectives.

Parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and yet much of American politics is built around them, as is politics in pretty much every democratic state in the world. Even in the rare instances in which legislative bodies are organized on a non-partisan basis, party-like factions emerge. Parties evolved first in Great Britain and the United States, although there have been party-like factions in government dating back to Ancient Athens.

Learning Objectives

In this section you will learn:

  1. How parties have evolved.
  2. What functions parties perform.

The Evolution of U.S. Parties

We have been through a number of what political scientists call party systems. After George Washington’s terms in office, the new nation’s politically active citizens began to divide into two parties, the Federalists and the Republicans. Scholars sometimes refer to them as the Democratic-Republicans, since the party eventually became known as the Democrats, but they apparently never referred to themselves as this. The Federalists were the business party, the mercantile party; the Republicans were the party of agricultural interests and ordinary workers. Being regionally and commercially based at a time when most of the country was made up of farmers, the Federalists were quickly overwhelmed and became a footnote in political history. By the election of 1824, all the candidates were of the same party.

But the party split in 1828, into a new party calling itself the Democrats and another group that called itself the National Republicans (changing to the Whigs after 1835. The term whig may come from a British party of the same name, or from a group of American revolutionaries). This was the Second Party System, and it lasted until near the start of the Civil War. The Democrats continued to be the party of agrarian interests and of states’ rights, as in just say no to the federal government. The Whigs were the party of commerce and industry, and of a strong federal government. While the Whigs elected a couple of presidents, they fell apart over the issue of slavery in the 1850s.

The Whigs were replaced by the Republicans in 1854, with the Republicans becoming the first and only successful third-party movement in the history of the country. The Republicans were avowedly anti-slavery, which helped make them the dominant party in the U.S. after the north won the Civil War. Until 1930–32, Republicans dominated national politics, except in the American South, where Democrats predominated. Some scholars divide this era into two periods, the first one ending in 1896 and then succeeded by the Progessive era, but either way, Republicans were often in control.

Republican dominance was ended by the Great Depression, which saw huge electoral gains for Democrats in 1930 and 1932. Under Franklin Roosevelt, Democrats forged what became known as the New Deal Coalition, combining working-class citizens, people of color, and Southern Democrats to become the major force in American politics for the next 50 years. Remember that politics make strange bedfellows: The coalition included northern African-Americans, who could vote, and Southern Democrats, who wanted to keep them from voting. Somehow, it worked.

The election of 1980 changed that once again. Ronald Reagan won the presidency and the South finally forgave the Republican party for the Civil War. Control of the presidency and Congress has since swung back and forth between the parties. Political historians will someday give this era a coherent name, but probably not before one of you is teaching this class. As for now, we’re in the middle of it. It is an era of divided government.

Third Party Movements

Why do we have a two-party system, especially when you hear so many people decry what they see as a lack of options when there are only two choices? Remember that it’s the nature of U.S. elections that makes it so. In winner-take-all elections, there’s little reward for voting for a third-party candidate, and starting a new party is no small (or cheap) endeavor. As a result, serious candidates and most voters gravitate toward one of the two major parties, because to do otherwise is to waste one’s time and effort. Nonetheless, U.S. third parties do play an important role: bringing new ideas into politics. The Populists and Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pushed for a number of reforms, and as those movements had success at the polls, they were adopted and absorbed by the major parties. The DNA of the Populists and the Progressives is wound into that of the Democrats and Republicans of the 21st century. For example, in Minnesota, Democrats appear on the ballot as DFL—Democratic-Farmer-Labor—so named for a 1944 merger between Democrats and the Farmer-Labor Party. It would be difficult to predict whether a growing party movement such as the Libertarians will someday influence the future of Republicans or Democrats, but that is how things get started. Libertarians believe in the least amount of government possible, so their economic ideals are closer to what some Republicans say they believe, but their social concerns align more closely with what some Democrats profess.

American parties used to be stronger. Before electoral reforms in the 20th century, they controlled who ran for office and who got the money to do so. Voters’ only real say in the system came in the general election, where it was not uncommon, for example, to get a ballot that allowed you to check one box and vote a straight Republican or straight Democrat ticket.

What Parties Do

U.S. parties still perform a number of important functions, however:

They recruit and train candidates. Especially in legislative races, each party wants a candidate in every district. This is so that even if someone is the candidate of the dominant party in a “safe” (leaning heavily) Republican or Democrat district, the majority party candidate will have to spend time and resources campaigning. This means they can funnel less support (money) to candidates in more competitive (“swing”) districts.

Parties, therefore, also provide financial support for candidates. Party officials will talk to potential donors and steer money toward those candidates who stand the best chance of winning.

Parties try to mobilize voters at election time, spending money on direct mail, e-mail and social media, traditional advertising and telephone banks to find and get voters to the polls (or mail in their ballots in states where that’s the norm). They try to identify likely Democrat or Republican voters and make sure that they vote.

Parties organize legislative politics. In Congress, and in every state except Nebraska, which has a non-partisan legislature, legislative bodies, such as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, are organized by party. Party members meet in caucus as a group, where they plan legislative strategy and make assignments for thing such as floor debates over bills. The majority party will control the chamber, and the minority party will try to figure out how to slow them down.

Parties also write platformsStatements of policy principles drafted and approved at party conventions., which are statements of general principles of the party. Platforms are serious, but they’re also a bit of window dressing, as they don’t have the force of law and don’t compel any elected officials to adhere to the platform. And as the people who get involved in party politics enough to get elected, say, to the state or national platform committee, tend to be either Really Republican or Diehard Democrat, the platforms that emerge tend to be a bit to the right or to the left of where the average voter (and many candidates and officials) might be. In 2012, the Texas state Republican platform, for example, advocated barring the teaching of critical thinking skills. One state reason was that it might make young people disagree with their parents. A number of Texas Republican officials backpedaled away from that plank as soon as it got out, but it’s in fact not atypical of what ends up in the platforms of both parties.When Harry Truman was running for re-election in 1948, he introduced the Republican party platform as legislation in Congress, then gleefully watched as the Republican majority voted down their own platform.

In a two-party system, the parties tend to be pretty broad. Until the 1990s, it was not uncommon in U.S. politics to find Republicans who were effectively more liberal than some Democrats, and Democrats who might be more conservative than many republicans. Parties in many other democratic states tend to be more narrowly focused, however, especially in states where proportional representation is the rule. Remember that under such electoral rules, a party need only get so many votes—not necessarily winning individual seats—to get seats in the national or regional legislature. That encourages multiple parties, because it rewards voters who choose any party, not just the top two.

Parties Outside of the United States

One thing we don’t have in the United States is a true labor party, a standard feature in most European democracies. This is because we have no aristocratic tradition. We don’t have the longstanding class divisions that still define a lot of European politics. Democrats tend to be more pro-labor than Republicans, but in such a broad party organization, labor is only one of many factions under the party umbrella. In Europe in particular, the ancient echoes of aristocracy and opposition to it are still heard in more class-based politics of the present. The British Labor Party, which has grown more centrist in the last few decades, was for much of its history the unapologetic voice of the working person. European democracies also are more likely to have an avowedly socialist party, such as the Social Democrats. Although they have shifted rightward in recent decades, they still tend to advocate for more government involvement in the economy. Nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe have parties that either call themselves or adhere to Social Democratic principles.

Communist parties still exist in nearly every nation, and in some, such as Brazil, Bangladesh, Denmark and Uruguay, they hold enough legislative seats to participate in the coalitions that rule the country. Like the Social Democrats, communist parties have tended to soften their stances at bit since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Green” parties that advocate more concern for the environment are sprouting up, along with libertarian-flavored parties that argue for the least amount of government possible.

Opposite them we often find the Christian Democrats, who had religious roots but have become more of a market-oriented party in recent years. Nations from Albania to Venezuela have variants of this kind of party. Liberal parties are also right of center, leaning toward markets and away from government control of the economy, but without the religious roots of the Christian Democrats. Conservative parties are farther right still, campaigning for unfettered markets and what they see as greater economic opportunity.

Voters in other countries may face quite a few more real choices than do voters in the United States. So, for example, Germany has seven active parties: the Christian Democrats, the Christian Social Union, the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats, the Left, and the Greens. Canada has five parties: the Conservatives, the Liberals, the left-leaning New Democrats, the Parti Quebecois, which advocates Quebec leaving Canada, and the Greens. Brazil has four major and 15 medium-sized parties, and more than half a dozen other minor parties.

Wherever we find parties, we do find partisanship, which can be both good and bad for the body politic. Party politics can lead to pursuit of partisan advantage over sound policy; parties in legislative bodies sometimes spend more time trying to make the other side look bad than trying to get something positive done. Parties also can get stuck in ideological ruts, and hence fail to pursue needed reforms.

But despite their challenges, parties will never fade away. Some cities and local governments in the west have non-partisan elections, but it’s usually not difficult to figure out what stripes every tiger has. Uganda recently experimented with party-free politics; the fact that the experiment didn’t last ought to tell you something. James Madison, in campaigning for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, warned against the evils of factions. But within a decade, he was leading one.

Key Takeaways

  • Political parties are a broad form of interest group.
  • Parties recruit, train and fund candidates; they educate and mobilize voters; they organize the legislative process.
  • U.S. parties are not as powerful as they once were, but still perform important functions in American politics.


  1. Which party do you more closely align with? Why? Visit that party’s website and look at their most recent political platform. Does it match what you believe about politics and government?
  2. Interview an elected official, and ask them why belong to one party instead of another?


  1. How do you register to vote where you live? What would it take for you and your classmates to register people to vote? Do it, and keep track of how many people say no, and why they say no.
  2. Survey people on campus: Are they registered to vote? Do they intend to vote in the next election?

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.