The political party is the one institution that aims to develop broad policy and leadership choices and then presents them to the voting public to accept or reject. This process gives citizens the opportunity, through elections, to influence how they will be governed.
- Party Competition and Majority Rule: The History of U.S. Parties
Party competition in America takes place between the Democratic and Republican parties. Competition between these two major parties narrows the choices of options to two and in the process enables people with different opinions to render a common judgment. In electing a party, voters choose its candidates, its philosophy and its policies over those of the opposing party.
Durability of the two parties is due not to their ideological consistency but to their remarkable ability to adapt during periods of crisis and remake themselves with new bases of support, new policies and new public philosophies.
- The first parties in America originated from the rivalry between those who favored a strong national government that defended commercial interests (Federalists) and the supporters of states' rights and small landholders (Jeffersonian Republicans).
- Emergence of grass-roots political parties during the Jacksonian era strengthened the power of popular majorities.
- Dissention over the issue of slavery, resulting in the Civil War, ended nearly three decades of competition between the Whigs and the Democrats.
- After the Civil War, the nation settled into a pattern of competition between the Republican and Democratic parties that has prevailed ever since.
The post Civil War era brought political change to parties known as "realignment." A party realignment disrupts the existing political order because a significant proportion of voters favored one party over the other. Realignment results in an enduring change in party coalitions that forces the government to take new policy directions.
Dealignment offers an alternative explanation for electoral change. Dealignment suggests that the U.S. electoral system, rather than undergoing a realignment favorable to one party, has been in the process of moving a partial but enduring number of voters away from partisan loyalties. The dealignment thesis portrays a wavering sector of voters as shifting its support from one party to another, arguing that parties have a weaker hold on the voters than in the past. Increases in split-ticket voting and in numbers of voters who label themselves as "independents" are indicators of this trend.
- The Civil War realignment benefited the Republican Party, which became the dominant party in the larger and more populous North. It dominated national politics for the next thirty years. The Democratic Party developed its stronghold in the "Solid South."
- From 1896 until the 1930s, the Republicans dominated national government.
- The parties realigned again after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Democrats became the nation's majority party until 1972, and their political and policy agenda favored a significant social and economic role for the national government. It was during this period that the Democratic party became known as the party of the common people, of jobs and social security, while the Republican party became associated with business and wealthy interests.
- Party realignment again in 1972 was earmarked by the beginning of a shift to the Republican party in the South, where the Democratic party had become identified as the party of civil rights and social change. During the period from 1972 through 1992 the Republicans dominated the presidency (except for the Carter term) while the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives.
- A major shift of power to the Republicans occurred in the House and Senate in 1994 as a result of voter dissatisfaction and the public's feeling that the national government had become too big and wasteful. Republican reforms to implement the idea of smaller, less intrusive government made some sectors of the public nervous. In 1996 a Democratic president was re-elected to work with a more moderate Republican Congress.
- The decline of partisanship began in the 1960s and 1970s over civil rights and other issues that undermined popular faith in parties.
- Current day voters who are better educated and more protected from financial hardships than those in previous generations find it hard to identify with rigid arguments for either a less active government (Republicans) or a more active one (Democrats).
- Electoral and Party Systems
While the United States has historically been a two-party system, most other democracies have multiparty systems, in which three or more parties have the capacity to gain control of government separately or in coalition.
Though the American electoral system discourages the formation of third parties, minor parties have existed throughout American political history.
- Factors that help perpetuate the two-party system in the U.S. include plurality voting in single-member election districts. Election of a single candidate who receives the most votes perpetuates the power of a dominant party in an area making it difficult for challenging parties to gain power.
- European democracies use proportional representation and multi-member districts, which encourages smaller parties to compete for power. They can draw support from minority factions and take more decisive stands on issues.
- The American two-party system encourages both parties to stay near the center of the political spectrum and avoid divisive issues in order to attract the most voters. Both parties tend to follow shifts in public opinion.
- Groups and interests that support a party are collectively referred to as a party coalition. European parties tend to divide along class lines while American parties must attract broad coalitions since they have to accommodate a wide range of interests to gain the voting plurality necessary to win elections.
- In a general sense, the American Democratic and Republican parties appeal to different coalitions of the electorate and vary somewhat is stands and priorities for policy.
- Minor parties in the U.S. have formed largely to advocate positions that their followers believe are not being adequately represented by either of the two major parties.
- Minor parties force major parties to pay attention to issues that draw wide support outside the two-party system.
- Various types of minor parties include:
- Single-issue parties which form in response to the emergence of a single controversial issue such as the present-day Right-to-Life party.
- Factional parties develop as a result of a rift within one of the major parties. An example is the American Independent party in 1968 and the earlier Bull Moose party of Theodore Roosevelt.
- Ideological parties form out of a commitment to a certain ideology or belief in a broad and radical philosophical position, such as redistribution of economic resources. Examples are the Green Party, Libertarian party and the older Populist party.
- Independent candidates can draw public support and serve as the catalyst for the formation of a party, such as Ross Perot and the Reform party.
- American dissatisfaction with the two major parties may encourage more attention to the messages of third parties.
- Party Organizations
The Democratic and Republican parties have organizational units at the national, state, and local levels. Their major purpose is to contest and win elections by recruiting candidates, raising money, developing policy positions and canvassing for votes. A characteristic of modern times has been the weakening of party organizations.
- Candidates for office now dominate most party activities.
- Primary elections and reduction of patronage positions have reduced the ability of parties to control all facets of the nominations and elections process.
- Today's candidates have acquired more control over campaign money, thereby reducing their dependence on party leaders for funds.
- In European democracies, parties still exert great influence over nominations and elections.
- Modern American party organizations provide a service in assisting candidates with polling, research, media production and get-out-the-vote efforts on election day.
- U.S. parties are organized from the bottom up with local organizations providing basic grass-roots level support for candidate-centered campaigns, state organizations increasingly becoming a more important factor in statewide races, while the national organizations select sites for presidential nominating conventions, raise money for campaigns for national offices, and assist in training staff and collecting electoral data.
- The national parties' major role in campaigns is one of raising and spending money providing a service to candidates.
- The Candidate-Centered Campaign
Modern day campaigns are largely controlled by candidates.
- Candidates spend a great deal of time raising money for their campaigns. Incumbents have an advantage in fund-raising.
- The "old politics" emphasized party rallies and door-to-door canvassing, which required organizations built around campaign volunteers. The "new politics" emphasizes effective use of the media, reliance on campaign consultants, pollsters, media producers and fund-raising specialists.
- Old-style campaigns relied on party loyalty to bring out the vote whereas today's campaigns depend on creating and sustaining a favorable media image for the candidate and presenting a negative image of the opponent.
- Modern day candidates have become increasingly dependent on televised ads, which means more air time is devoted to national rather than state and local races and candidates. Media campaigns also include debates and talk-show appearances.
- Political parties have adapted to technology-based campaigns by increasing their services to candidates.
- Parties have come to depend more on "soft money" donations to fund general advertising, registration and get-out-the-vote drives.
- Candidates are increasingly using the internet to raise money, attract volunteers and increase public support. The internet lends itself to use of direct attacks on rival candidates.
- Parties, Candidates and the Public's Influence
There are advantages and disadvantages to candidate-centered campaigns.
- Advantages include giving more flexibility to the candidates to adjust to changing issues and conditions as well as bringing new blood into the electoral process. They also encourage national officeholders to be responsive to local interests, thus strengthening relationships between voters and their individual representatives.
- Disadvantages include stressing personality over issues, encouraging more contributions from special interests, and making it easier for office holders to evade responsibility for actions taken by government. They also make it harder for voters to act in unison on issues of national consequence, thus weakening relationships between the full electorate and representative institutions.