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1.9: Parties

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    204119
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    It is difficult to think of American politics without also thinking of parties. Almost every aspect of the American political landscape — from the choices voters make in elections to the arguments and alliances between politicians that play out in government — is structured according to the familiar battle lines drawn between Democrats and Republicans. These two major parties permeate American politics so thoroughly that one could easily conclude that they are baked into the American political system, as fixed and permanent as checks and balances or the Bill of Rights.

    Photograph of Hillary Clinton onstage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    Democrats cheer Hillary Clinton as she accepts her party’s nomination for president at its 2016 national convention in Philadelphia.

    Yet neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party — nor, for that matter, any party — is mentioned in the Constitution. No statute passed by Congress establishes Democrats and Republicans as the principal combatants in the American political arena or decrees that almost all elected positions shall be held by members of these organizations. Furthermore, nothing about the population of the United States suggests that it would naturally lend itself to being represented by any two parties, let alone these two parties. In fact, many Americans express frustration that their political participation always seems to boil down to a choice between one of two options, neither of which they find particularly appealing.

    The two-party dominance that characterizes American politics today is neither a dictate of constitutional or statutory law nor a reflection of intrinsic social divisions among the populace. Rather, it arose as a natural consequence of the rules which govern American elections, as groups of people coordinated around shared interests to maximize their influence on politics. Contrary to the expectations of the Founders (who believed the country was too diverse for large coalitions to form), both major parties have survived more than a century of political upheaval, constantly adapting to new circumstances to maintain their competitiveness. To comprehend how any of America’s official institutions function, it is necessary to grasp the nature of these unofficial institutions which shape so much of the American political experience.

    Parties & Ideologies

    A party is an organized group that seeks to influence public policy. It pursues its goals by nominating candidates for political offices in hopes of winning elections and therefore being in a position to influence policymaking. This act of nominating candidates distinguishes parties from interest groups, which also attempt to influence public policy but from outside government (though interest groups do sometimes endorse candidates running for office).

    Parties are often conflated with (but are not the same as) ideologies. An ideology is a system of beliefs about how society could be improved, whereas a party is a collection of people who work together to influence public policy. Parties often profess an ideology, but not always with one accord. Sometimes different wings of the same party advocate different ideologies and compete for control of the party’s agenda. Other times a party may organize around a particular politician or narrow policy goal and lack any unifying ideology.

    In the contemporary United States, the Democratic Party tends to pursue policies consistent with the ideology of liberalism. Liberals value both equality and freedom but tend to prioritize equality and are generally willing to accept less freedom if it means more equality. Liberals are skeptical of the virtues of an unregulated economy and favor government intervention to prevent problems such as environmental damage and the exploitation of the poor by the rich. They like “big government” programs (largely funded by taxes on the rich) which provide welfare, healthcare, education, and other services to those who can’t afford them, but dislike it when government tries to impose traditional moral standards on “social issues” such as abortion, drug use, and same-sex marriage.

    In contrast to the Democrats, today’s Republican Party arranges its policy goals according to the principles of conservatism. Conservatives also value both equality and freedom, but unlike liberals they tend to prioritize freedom and are generally comfortable with less equality if it means more freedom. Conservatives see government intervention as more harmful than helpful and favor leaving the economy alone as much as possible to maximize competition, innovation, and prosperity. They prefer “small government” and want to cut taxes and turn programs like healthcare and education over to the private sector as much as possible so that they can be provided more effectively and efficiently. Despite their antipathy toward government, conservatives do see a role for government to play in maintaining traditional moral standards on social issues.

    Left and right are frequently used to refer to liberals and conservatives, respectively. This terminology comes from the French Revolution, during which members of France’s National Assembly chose their seats according to their political faction: revolutionaries on the left, royalists on the right. This practice continued despite great political turmoil in France: institutions and factions changed, but the radicals consistently sat to the left of the traditionalists. Eventually, these positions became shorthand for the ideologies themselves.

    Today, parties around the world are often described as being far-left, center-left, center-right, or far-right, regardless of where they actually sit in the legislature.

    Today, most Democrats are liberals and most Republicans are conservatives, which leads some to use the terms Democrat and liberal (or Republican and conservative) interchangeably. But this overlap has not always been the case. As recently as the 1970s, both conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans were commonplace. Today those ideological-partisan combinations are increasingly rare, and on average Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans more conservative (as shown in Figure 9.1 below).

    Line chart showign the average ideological positions of partisans from 1972 to 2020, according to the American National Election Studies
    Figure 9.1: Average ideological positions of partisans, 1972–2020 (Source: American National Election Studies)

    The increasing ideological uniformity of the major parties over the past half-century has raised concerns about polarization. As the ideological gap between the two parties widens, there is less opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to find common ground on policy and more reason for each party to firmly oppose the other, which can make for bitter politics. Political scientists generally agree that political elites (such as members of Congress) have become more polarized in recent decades, but they disagree on whether Americans as a whole have done the same. It’s also possible for American politics to be more polarized than Americans themselves are. Many Americans hold moderate views on most political issues, but those same moderates tend to be less politically active in general and therefore less influential on politics. Thus, the American public may seem more polarized than it is because its loudest voices also happen to be its most extreme.

    Party Structure

    In his 1942 book Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups, political scientist V. O. Key describes parties as having a three-part structure. Most prominent is the party-in-government, the party members who hold official government positions, including the president, vice president, members of Congress, governors, and other elected and appointed officials at different levels of government who affiliate with the party. By virtue of their official status, these members have formal legal powers to craft and implement the party’s desired policies. A party’s goal is to get as many of its members as possible into high-ranking or influential government positions to maximize its impact on policy.

    The party-as-organization is the formal administrative structure of the party. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Republican National Committee (RNC) serve these roles for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Members of the party-as-organization work behind the scenes to support and promote the success of the party. Their duties include campaigning on behalf of candidates, coordinating communication strategies, crafting party platforms, managing party primaries and nominating conventions, and recruiting new party members.

    The party-in-the-electorate is the share of the electorate that supports the party, the average citizens who either are registered party members or simply think of themselves as members. They play their most crucial role on Election Day, as the votes they cast have the power to propel the party’s candidates to victory. Because of their importance, both the party-in-government and the party-as-organization work hard to grow and maintain the party-in-the electorate by listening to what it has to say and trying to appeal to its policy interests.

    One way to understand this tripartite party structure is by analogy to a professional sports team. The party-in-government is like the players on a team: they are the most famous and visible members of the party, the ones who actually go “on the field” to play a direct role in the policymaking process. The party-as-organization is akin to a team’s managers, coaches, trainers, and doctors: they are not as famous as the party-in-government and do their jobs mostly out of sight, but they are nonetheless instrumental in keeping the party-in-government organized and able to perform to its maximum potential. The party-in-the-electorate is similar to a team’s fans: they play no direct role in the party’s “on-field” success in policymaking, but without their votes and donations the party would not have the resources to field a competitive team, which gives the party a strong interest in keeping its supporters passionate and satisfied.

    Each of these three parts is essential to the overall effectiveness of a party. A professional sports team could not long exist if it had coaches and fans but no players, or players and fans but no coaches, or players and coaches but no fans. The same is true of a party: if it had no members in government, or lacked an organizational structure, or had no support from the electorate, it would be unable to gain or maintain enough political power to further its policy agenda.

    A professional sports team’s success is closely tied to how well its parts work together. If the players ignore the advice of the coaches, or if the coaches berate and mistreat the players, or if the players and coaches act dismissively toward the fans, or if the fans stop buying tickets or boo from the stands, the team’s competitiveness is undermined. Likewise, a party must maintain a certain level of cohesion among its parts in order to function as designed, lest its politicians and candidates stop cooperating, its organization stop assisting, or its supporters in the electorate stop voting or donating.

    The Origins of America's Parties

    Though the Founders designed a constitution that would inevitably give rise to parties, they were nonetheless apprehensive about parties and their potential effects on government. Benjamin Franklin feared “the infinite mutual Abuse of Parties” would “[tear] to Pieces the best of Characters.” Thomas Jefferson declared, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Most famously, George Washington dedicated a large portion of his farewell address to cautioning Americans against “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party.”

    Photograph of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in which the Democratic Party is represented by a donkey and the Republican Party by an elephant
    The donkey and the elephant — illustrated here in two political cartoons from the 1870s by Thomas Nast — have been the unofficial mascots of the Democratic and Republican parties (respectively) for most of their existence.

    Notwithstanding these warnings, parties began to take shape almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified. Supporters of strong central government and urban interests such as banking and manufacturing styled themselves the Federalist Party, while their opponents who favored decentralization and rural interests such as agriculture called themselves the Democratic-Republican Party. The Federalist Party lost power after 1800 and collapsed shortly thereafter; thus, for the first few decades of the 19th century, the major conflicts in American politics were intraparty ones, between different factions of the Democratic-Republican Party.

    The Democratic Party (which began as one of these factions) became a dominant political force in 1828 with the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. Breaking with the tradition of elite-centric parties in the United States and elsewhere, the Democratic Party was the first to embody the party structure we are familiar with today (and remains the world’s oldest active party). Jackson was the first presidential candidate to build a national organization of loyal followers, including many average citizens, which propelled him to victory with a strong base of popular support. Jackson’s Democrats styled themselves the party of the common man, opposed national government intervention in states’ affairs, and supported slavery.

    For a time, the Democrats were opposed by the Whig Party, which initially emerged as an anti-Jackson coalition. The Whigs broke up in the 1850s, largely due to their inability to agree on the issue of slavery, and were replaced by the newly-established Republican Party, founded in 1854. The first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, lost the 1856 presidential election. Four years later, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, who won the presidency in 1860 and established the Republican Party as a major party. Lincoln’s Republicans opposed slavery and supported both civil liberties and economic modernization.

    Both the Democratic and Republican parties have evolved considerably since first appearing on the American political scene. Over time, each has abandoned its positions on certain issues and adopted new ones. Each has also been supported by different demographic groups at different points in history, with periodic realignments during which certain groups shift their support from one party to another. These changes reinforce one another: parties adjust their positions to recruit blocs of voters to their side, and those same blocs gain power and influence over parties as those parties become increasingly reliant upon them for votes. (Some of these blocs are visible in Figure 9.2 below, which displays a demographic breakdown of voting in the 2020 presidential election.)

    Bar chart showing presidential vote by demographic group in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center
    Figure 9.2: Presidential vote by demographic group, 2020 (Source: Pew Research Center)

    The Two-Party System

    The Democratic and Republican parties are not the only parties in the United States. Minor parties (most prominently the Green Party and the Libertarian Party) also field candidates in elections and have organizations and supporters. Furthermore, independent candidates unaffiliated with any party often throw their hats into the electoral ring. When it comes to winning elections, though, Democrats and Republicans dominate. In 2023, for example, all but three U.S. senators, all U.S. representatives, and all state governors were either Democrats or Republicans, as have been all presidents since 1853.

    This electoral dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties is referred to as a two-party system, and it is caused by the rules of American elections. This doesn’t mean that minor-party and independent candidates are banned from participating in or winning elections in the United States. Rather, America’s two-party system evolved organically from the fact that most elected officials are chosen in single-member districts (where there can be only one winner) by plurality vote (in which the candidate with the most votes wins). Under these conditions, electoral competition tends toward the development of two major parties. This tendency is called Duverger’s law, named after the French sociologist (Maurice Duverger) who first proposed it.

    To understand how Duverger’s law works, consider a typical American general election involving two major-party candidates, one Democrat and one Republican. Suppose the election is expected to be close, with each candidate winning about half of the votes cast. Now suppose a candidate from the Green Party decides to run against the Democrat and the Republican. Of the two major-party candidates, the Green prefers the Democrat (though of course he prefers himself to both of them). However, by running in the election as a third-party candidate, the Green takes away more votes from the Democrat than from the Republican (because most of his supporters would have supported the Democrat if he hadn’t run). The Green does not earn nearly enough votes to have a chance of winning, but he does earn enough to make it harder for the Democrat to win and easier for the Republican to win. By competing in the general election, the Green increases the likelihood of what he would consider the worst possible outcome: a Republican victory.

    This phenomenon is known as the spoiler effect, and is a common occurrence in American elections featuring minor parties. In fact, the previous paragraph accurately describes the 2000 presidential election, in which Green candidate Ralph Nader siphoned enough votes from Democrat Al Gore to help Republican George W. Bush win the presidency. (Nader wasn’t the only reason Bush won, but the election was so close that Gore probably would have won had Nader not run.) Minor-party and independent candidates usually lack the support necessary to win, but their presence on the ballot risks “spoiling” the election by reducing the chances of victory for the major party whose views are most similar to their own.

    Duverger’s law is not a law in the sense that a constitution or statute is a law. No one voted on it or decided it should be applied to the United States, nor could anyone choose to amend it like a constitution or repeal it like a statute.

    Rather, Duverger’s law is more like the law of gravity: it is how party politics works naturally under the rules of American elections, whether people like it or not. In countries with different electoral rules (such as Germany or Israel) or greater regional variation (such as Canada or the United Kingdom), multiparty systems have developed just as naturally as America’s two-party system did.

    The spoiler effect essentially punishes minor parties and independents for running in elections by increasing the likelihood of their least-desired electoral outcomes. In a sense, their inability to regularly win elections is a self-fulfilling prophecy: voters perceive minor parties as noncompetitive and choose not to vote for them, which makes them less competitive, which reinforces voters’ perceptions of their noncompetitiveness, and so on.

    Partisanship

    The party-in-the-electorate is key to any party’s electoral success. A person’s personal attachment to a party is known as his or her partisanship (alternatively called party identification, or party ID for short). For some Americans, this party membership is formal, in the sense that they have officially registered to vote in their state under a particular party label or have signed up with a national, state, or local party organization. But partisanship can also refer to the informal feeling of belonging or closeness to a party, which need not be accompanied by formal registration.

    Partisanship functions differently for different people. In an instrumental sense, a person’s party identification can serve as a heuristic, a mental shortcut for making decisions based on limited information. A typical American voting in a general election will be unfamiliar with most of the candidates on the ballot, especially those seeking lower-level offices such as city council or public utility commissioner. If that voter identifies with a party, however, she can use the candidates’ party affiliation as shown on the ballot to help her choose which candidates to support.

    Voting for candidates solely on the basis of their party affiliation is often criticized as ignorant or unsophisticated, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as voting blindly. A person’s party identification in the United States contains a great deal of information about his or her ideology and political stances. A relatively uninformed voter can encounter an unfamiliar candidate, see that the candidate’s partisanship matches her own, and reasonably assume that she and the candidate agree on abortion, gun control, healthcare, immigration, taxes, and a whole host of other issues. Because parties in America today tend to be ideologically uniform (thanks in part to polarization), most of these assumptions will turn out to be correct most of the time.

    In addition to its instrumental use as a heuristic, partisanship can also be an identity. If a person’s partisanship shapes his or her social relationships, leisure activities, geographical living preference, involvement in groups and organizations, or self-image, it may be as much of an identity as his or her race, ethnicity, religion, or sex. Like all identities, partisanship is more central or influential for some people than others, and can be more or less influential for any particular person at different times depending on the circumstances.

    In the United States, a voter’s partisanship is the single best predictor of his or her vote choice. Not all Democrats vote for Democrats all the time, and not all Republicans vote for Republicans all the time, but Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans more consistently than any other group votes for either of the major parties. Again, this consistency is not necessarily a reflection of blind loyalty. If a typical Republican took the time to research the positions of all the candidates on the ballot before voting, he or she would probably still vote for the Republican over the Democrat in almost every instance — and the reverse is true for a typical Democrat. Partisan voters use their party identification as a shortcut the same way a driver uses a stoplight to determine when it is safe to proceed through an intersection rather than checking each of a dozen or more cars individually: it is quicker, easier, and usually just as accurate.

    Indispensible Parties

    Are parties a bug or a feature of the machine that is America? They’re certainly useful tools for politicians seeking to win office and achieve policy goals, as well as for voters looking to make sense of a complex political world. They’re also nearly as unpopular as they’ve ever been in the United States: polls show pluralities of Americans have unfavorable views of the Democratic and Republican parties.

    Bug or feature, it’s crucial to remember that America’s parties exist not because the Founders, Congress, or anyone else decided that the country’s political landscape should be divvied up between Democrats and Republicans, but because these groups formed naturally in their pursuit of political power. The election laws of the United States did not create a two-party system on purpose, but they did create an electoral environment in which a two-party system would naturally develop.

    Of course, the fact that something is natural does not automatically make it good, and reasons for pessimism about America’s parties are legion. Americans often express frustration at the limited options available to them, looking jealously at other countries’ multiparty systems and feeling discontented with their binary choices. The tendency of both major parties to frame partisan conflict in the United States as an ultimate battle between good and evil, particularly in polarized times such as these, can make for uncomfortable and confrontational political conversations. Moderates, independents, and minor-party sympathizers who feel unrepresented by either major party may be inclined to disengage from politics rather than enter the fray or “waste” their votes on candidates and parties with no chance of winning.

    The First Amendment guarantees the right of U.S. citizens to peaceably assemble. Unless and until that stipulation is removed, parties are here to stay. Changes to electoral rules might cause welcome or unwelcome changes in the parties or the party system, but as long as working in groups to influence politics is more efficient than going it alone, parties — or something like parties — will endure.


    This page titled 1.9: Parties is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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