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Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns

This chapter investigates America's two-party system and its role in American politics. It traces the historical development of political parties in the United States, examining the role of minor parties and the reasons for the emergence and persistence of the two-party system. The chapter also discussed the effects of this system on policy and coalition formulation. These are the main ideas of this chapter:

  • Party competition is the mechanism that enables voting majorities to have a substantial influence on the direction of government. This competition peaks during periods of realignment but at all times is a vital aspect of democratic government.
  • Throughout most of the nation's history, political competition has centered on two parties. This two-party tendency is explained by the nature of America's electoral system, political institutions, and political culture. Minor parties exist in the United States but have been unable to compete successfully for governing power.
  • The Republican and Democratic coalitions are very broad. Each includes a substantial proportion of nearly every economic, ethnic, religious, and regional grouping in the country.
  • To win an electoral majority, each of the two major parties must appeal to a diverse set of interests; this necessity normally leads them to advocate moderate and somewhat overlapping policies and to avoid taking detailed positions on controversial issues. Only during national crises are America's parties likely to present the electorate with starkly different policy alternatives.

Political parties serve to link the public with its elected leaders and to organize political conflict. In the United States, this linkage is provided by a two-party system; only the Republican and Democratic parties have any chance of winning control of government. The first political parties (Hamilton and Jefferson) evolved through Jackson's grassroots framework to the emergence of Lincoln's Republican party in 1860. Since that time, the Republicans and Democrats have monopolized the system, alternating through victory and defeat.

Many other democracies, such as France and Great Britain, have a multiparty system. The fact that the United States has only two major parties is explained by several factors: an electoral system--characterized by single-member districts--that makes it difficult for third parties to compete for power; each party's willingness to accept political leaders of differing views; and a political culture that stresses compromise and negotiation rather than ideological rigidity. America's two major parties are also maintained by laws and customs that support their domination of elections. Minor political parties (there have been more than a thousand in the nation's history) have mainly been short lived, although they have been responsible for raising issues that have been neglected by the major parties. Minor parties can be classified as single-issue (Prohibition party), ideological (Libertarian), and factional (Roosevelt's Bull Moose party in 1912).

A realignment occurs when new and powerful issues emerge and disrupt the normal pattern of party politics. Realigning elections offer voters the opportunity to have a large and lasting impact on national policy. In responding to these issues and then by endorsing the action of the party that takes power, the electorate helps to establish a new governing philosophy and its associated policies. A realignment is maintained in part through the development of loyalties among first-time voters to the new governing party and its policies. Realignments have occurred around the time of the Civil War, during the 1890s, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s (FDR and the New Deal). Some argued that the GOP sweep of Congress and many state governorships in the 1994 midterm elections represented a new realignment, yet the Republicans suffered a setback in the 1996 election. It may be that recent elections are best explained by dealignment, the weakening of partisan loyalties coupled with the extreme volatility of the electorate.

Because the United States has only two major parties, each of which seeks to gain majority support, they normally tend to avoid controversial or extreme political positions. The parties typically pursue moderate and somewhat overlapping policies. Their appeals are designed to win the support of a diverse electorate with moderate opinions. This form of party competition is reflected in the Republican and Democratic coalitions. Although the two parties' coalitions are not identical, they do overlap significantly; each party includes large numbers of individuals who represent nearly every significant interest in the society. (Democrats are identified with the "underdogs" of society while the GOP is usually linked to wealthier citizens and big business.) Nonetheless, the Democratic and Republican parties sometimes do offer sharply contrasting policy alternatives, particularly in times of political unrest. In recent years differences have revolved around the degree of governmental involvement in policy, i.e., "big government and spending" vs. power being decentralized back to the states. It is at such times that the public has its best opportunity to make a decisive difference through its vote.

The ability of America's party organizations to control nominations, campaigns, and platforms has declined substantially. Although the parties continue to play an important role, elections are now controlled largely by the candidates, each of whom is relatively free to go his or her own way.

U.S. party organizations are decentralized and fragmented. The national organization is a loose collection of state organizations, which in turn are loose associations of autonomous local organizations. This feature of U.S. parties can be traced to federalism and the nation's diversity, which have made it difficult for the parties to act as instruments of national power.

Party organizations have recently made a "comeback" by adapting to the money and media demands of modern campaigns. However, their new relationship with candidates is more of a service relationship than a power relationship.

Candidate-centered campaigns are based on the media and the skills of professional consultants. Money, strategy, and television advertising are key components of the modern campaign.

America's party organizations are flexible enough to allow diverse interests to coexist within them; they can also accommodate new ideas and leadership, since they are neither rigid nor closed. Sometimes, ideological or group fissures occur within each party, such as racial polarization among Democrats or religious fundamentalism within the GOP. Although American parties do not represent class-oriented differences as many European parties do, they still represent the public's best protection against an unresponsive government.

Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:

Describe the role of political parties in democratic political systems.
Trace the evolution of the American two-party system. Also, discuss the dynamics of realigning or critical elections.
Discuss the role and nature of minor parties in American politics.
Explain the endurance of the two-party system. Describe the obstacles inherent in the American electoral system preventing minor political parties from successfully competing for governing power.
Compare and contrast the American two-party system and the more common multiparty system with regard to popular representation and accountability. Discuss the influence of each system on coalition building and public policy formulation.
Offer reasons for the organizational weakness of American political parties and the decline in their influence as compared to the powerful role of parties in European politics. Comment on the influence of electoral reforms, particularly of the Progressive era, on the evolution of political parties.
Describe the effects of the decline of parties and candidate-centered campaigns on popular influence on government. List other methods through which segments of the public exert control over candidate nomination, election, and policy implementation.
Discuss the roles played by parties, money, consultants, and media in today's candidate-centered campaigns.

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