Chapter 12: Political Parties I roots of the American Party System

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Chapter 12: Political Parties

I Roots of the American Party System

  1. Political party—an organized effort by office holders, candidates, activists, and voters to pursue their common interests by gaining and exercising power through the electoral process.

  2. The goal is to win office so as to exercise power

  3. Political parties are not interest groups.

  4. Interest groups exist to pursue issue outcomes,

  5. Political parties have existed to win elections

  6. The difference is a matter of emphasis, with parties stressing the role of elections in gaining and exercising power.

  7. Political parties consist of three separate but related entities:

    1. Governmental party—the office holders who organize themselves and pursue policy objectives under a party label.

    2. Organizational party—the workers and activists who make up the party’s formal organization structure

    3. Party in the electorate—the voters who consider themselves allied or associated with the party.

A The Birth of American Political Parties

  1. John Adams barely beat his rival Thomas Jefferson to become President.

  2. Jefferson became the Vice President according to the Constitution

  3. Two parties the Federalists (Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans(DR) (Jefferson) developed around these two men.

  4. Adams supported a strong central government.

  5. Jefferson inherited the mantle of anti-federalist and preferred a federal system where the states maintained a balance of power.

  6. Election of 1800 Jefferson won the election; Jefferson became the first president elected as the nominee of a political party.

  7. The congressional factions organized around Adams and Jefferson primarily were designed to settle the dispute over how strong the new federal government would be.

B The Early Parties Fade

  1. By 1820 the Federalist party had dissolved having not gotten anyone elected since Adams.

  2. James Monroe’s presidency produced the Era of Good Feelings (1817 to 1825) when party politics was nearly suspended at the national level.

  3. Party growth continued to grow during this period due to the enormous increase in the electorate caused by the westward expansion b/w 1820 and 1840.

  4. By the 1820, all states except South Carolina had switched from state legislative selection of presidential electors to popular election of Electoral College members. This change helped transform presidential politics. No longer just the concern of society’s upper crust, the election of the president became a matter of all qualified voters to decide.

  5. 1832 the Democratic Party had the first national presidential nomination convention.

  6. The Democratic Party formed around President Andrew Jackson’s popularity

  7. His opposition was called the Whig party

  8. Jackson was the first president who won the White House as the nominee of a truly national, popularly based political party.

  9. The debate over slavery within the Whig party led to its eventual dissolution and replacement by the Republican party

  10. Formed in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, the Republican Party set its sights on the abolition (or at least containment) of slavery.

  11. The party got its first win the with Abraham Lincoln in the fragmented election of 1860.

  12. That year the south voted Democratic, beginning a tradition so strong that not a single southern state voted Republican for president again until 1920.

C Democrats and Republicans: The Golden Age

  1. Party stability, the dominance of party organizations in local and state governments, and the impact of those organizations on the lives of millions of voters were the central traits of the era called the “Golden Age” of political parties.

  2. This era 1874-1912 called the Golden Age lasted from the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction until the reforms of the progressive era.

  3. Political machines—a party organization that recruits voter loyalty with tangible incentives and is characterized by a high degree of control over member activity.

  4. Party machines were a central element of life during the Golden Age

  5. For city-dwellers, their party and their government were virtually interchangeable during this time.

  6. Political parties not only served the underlying political needs of the society, but also supplemented the population’s desire for important social services.

D The Modern Era

  1. Historically the governments gradual assumption of important functions previously performed by the parties such as printing ballots, conducting elections, and providing social welfare services had a major impact.

  2. 1930’s with FDR’s New Deal, social services began to be seen as a right of citizenship rather than a privilege extended in exchange for a person’s support of a party.

  3. Direct primary—the selection of party candidates through the ballots of qualified voters rather than at party nominating conventions.

  4. Championed by the Progressive movement, direct primaries removed the power of nomination from party leaders and workers and gave it instead to a much broader and more independent electorate thus loosening the tie between party nominees and the party organization.

  5. Additional progressive movement reforms reduced party influence in the US: example civil service laws.

    1. Civil service laws—these acts removed the staffing of the bureaucracy from political parties and created a professional bureaucracy filled through competition.

  6. Post WWII a weakening of the party system gave rise to candidate and issue-oriented politics.

    1. Issue-oriented politics—politics that focuses on specific issues rather than on party, candidate, or other loyalties.

  7. Interest groups and lobbyists have stepped into the void that weaker parties have left behind.

  8. Issue politics tends to cut across party lines and encourages voters to ticket-split

    1. Ticket split—to vote for candidates of different parties for various offices in the same election.

  9. Candidate-centered politics—politics that focuses directly on the candidates, their particular issues, and character, rather than on party affiliation.

  10. Another Post WWII social change is the population shift from urban to suburban locales.

  11. Also population growth has made it nearly impossible to knock on every door and shake every hand.

E Realignment

  1. Party realignments—a shifting of party coalition groupings in the electorate that remains in place for several elections.

  2. One or more critical elections always precede a major realignment.

    1. Critical election—an election that signals a party realignment through voter polarization on new issues.

  3. Three tumultuous eras have produced critical elections:

    1. First, Jefferson, in reaction against the Federalist Party’s agenda of a strong, centralized federal government, formed the Democratic-Republican party which took the presidency and congress in 1800.

    2. Second in reaction to the growing crisis over slavery, the Whig Party gradually dissolved and the Republican Party gained strength and ultimately won the presidency in 1860.

    3. Third, the Great Depression in the 1930’s caused large numbers to repudiate Republican Party policies and embrace the Democratic Party.

    4. SEE FIGURE 12.2

    5. The last confirmed major realignment period happened from 1928 to 1936 as Republican Herbert Hoover’s presidency was held to one term because of voter anger about the Depression.

F Secular Realignment

  1. Secular realignment—the gradual rearrangement of party coalitions, based more on demographic shifts than on shocks to the political system.

II The Functions of the American Party System

A Mobilizing Support and Gathering Power

  1. The parties aid office holders by giving them room to develop their policies and by mobilizing support for them.

  2. The party creates a coalition—a group made up of interests or organizations that join forces for the purpose of electing public officials.

B A Force for Stability and Moderation

  1. As mechanisms for organizing and containing political change, the parties are a potent force for stability.

  2. The parties represent continuity in the wake of changing issues and personalities, anchoring the electorate in the midst of the storm of new political policies and people.

  3. The parties encourage stability in the types of coalitions that they form.

C Unity, Linkage, and Accountability

  1. Parties are the glue that holds together the disparate elements of the US governmental and political apparatus.

  2. Parties help compensate for the drawback on power designed by the Framers by linking the executive and legislative branches.

  3. Although rivalry b/w the two branches of the US government is inevitable, the partisan affiliations of the leaders of each branch constitute a common basis for cooperation as the president and his fellow party members in Congress usually demonstrate.

  4. These linkages of party work throughout the political system.

D The Electioneering Function

  1. The parties help to funnel eager, interested individuals into politics and government.

E Party as a Voting and Issue Cue

  1. Parties try to cultivate a popular image and help to inform the public about issues through advertising and voter contact.

  2. Parties supply a short cut for the least informed voters and a time saver for the more informed voter.

F Policy Formulation and Promotion

  1. National party platform—a statement of the general and specific philosophy and policy goals of a political party, usually promulgated at the national convention.

  2. The party platform also describes more clearly the important differences b/w the two dominant parties.

  3. Besides mobilizing Americans on a permanent basis, then, the parties convert the cacophony of hundreds of identifiable social and economic groups into a two part semi-harmony that is much more comprehensible.

G Crashing the Party: Minor Parties in the American Two-Party System

  1. Proportional representation—a voting system that apportions legislative seats according to the percentage of the vote won by a particular political party.

  2. The US has a “single-member, plurality” electoral system, often referred to as a winner-take-all system

    1. Winner-take-all system—an electoral system in which the party that receives at least one more vote than any other party wins the election.

  3. The winner-take-all system encourages the grouping of interests into as few parties as possible.

  4. The two parties will move to the left or to the right on issues to gain popular support.

  5. The adaptive nature of the two parties in the US further forestalls the growth of a third party.

  6. Third parties find their roots in sectionalism, economic protest, in specific issues, ideology, charismatic personalities.

  7. Minor-party candidates for the House are most likely to emerge under three conditions:

    1. When a House seat becomes open

    2. When a minor-party candidate has previously competed in the district; and

    3. When partisan competition between the two major parties in the district is close.

  8. Third parties make progress in direct proportion to the failure of the two major parties to incorporate new ideas or alienated groups or to nominate attractive candidates as their standard-bearers.

  9. Third parties do best when declining trust in the two major political parties plaques the electorate

  10. Third parties are usually co-opted into one of the two major parties.

III The Party Organization

A National Committees

  1. Whereas the DNC and the RNC focus primarily on aiding presidential campaigns and conducting general party building activities, the congressional campaign committees work primarily to maximize the number of seats held by their respective parties in Congress.

B Leadership

  1. The key national party official is the chairperson of the national committee

  2. He or she is usually selected by the sitting president or newly nominated presidential candidate.

  3. The chair often becomes the prime spokesperson and arbitrator for the party during the four years between elections

  4. He or she is called to damp down factionalism, negotiate candidate disputes, and prepare the machinery for the next presidential election

  5. The chairs most critical assignment is to raise funds and keep the party financially strong.

  6. The chair is normally expected to be neutral.

C National Conventions

  1. National convention—a party meeting held in the presidential election year of the purposes of nominating a presidential and vice presidential ticket and adopting a platform

  2. In addition to nominating the presidential ticket, the convention fulfills its role as the ultimate governing body for the party. The rules adopted and the party platform that is passed serve as durable guidelines that steer the party until the next convention.

D States and Localities

  1. The party is structurally based in the states and localities.

  2. The smallest voting unit, the precinct, usually takes in a few adjacent neighborhoods and is the fundamental building block of the party. More than 100,000 precincts in the US

  3. The state governing body supervising this collection of local party organizations is usually called the state central (or executive )committee.

E Informal Groups

  1. Political Action Committees

  2. Think tank—institutional collection of policy oriented researchers and academics who are sources of policy ideas.

F The Transformation of the Party Organization

  1. The Republican Party can generally raise more money than the democratic party

  2. Soft money—the virtually unregulated money funneled through political parties for party building purposes, such as the get out the vote efforts or issue ads. Banned after 2002.

  3. The real strength of the Democratic Party is the number of activists.

IV The Party in Government

A The Congressional Party

  1. The party is most visible in Congress.

  2. Party labels have consistently been the most powerful predictor of congressional roll-call voting.

B The Presidential Party

  1. Voters’ perceptions of the incumbent president and the presidential candidates determine to a large extent how citizens perceive the parties.

C The Parties and the Judiciary

D The Parties and State Governments

V The Party in the Electorate

  1. In any democracy, where power is derived directly from the people, the party’s real importance and strength must come from the citizenry it attempts to mobilize.

  2. The party is the electorate—the mass of potential voters who identify with a party label—is crucial element of the political party, providing the foundation for the organizational and governmental parties.

  3. The trend is for fewer voters to declare loyalty to a party.

  4. 29% called themselves independents.

A Party Identification

  1. Universal party membership does not exist in the US

  2. A party has no real control over its adherents

  3. Party identification—A citizen’s personal affinity for a political party, usually expressed by a tendency to vote for the candidates of that party.

  4. See Chart pg 435.

  5. For those Americans who do firmly adopt a party label, their party often becomes a central political reference symbol and perceptual screen.

  6. Individual party identifications are reinforced by the legal institutionalization of the major parties.

  7. Parents are the single greatest influence in establishing a person’s first party identification.

  8. Factors that can lead one to change party loyalty: marriage, economic status, charismatic political personalities (particularly at the national level), cataclysmic events, hot button social issues, social class.

B Group Affiliations

  1. Variations in party identification are particularly noticeable when geographic region, gender, race, and ethnicity, age, social and economic status, religion, martial status, and ideology are examined.

Geographic Region

  1. The South was strong democratic region and is now more Republican when electing national leaders.


  1. Men vote more republican and women vote more democrat. A challenge for the Republicans is how to gain the female vote and not lose their male voters.

  2. See figure 12.6 p. 437.

  3. Most researchers find its not the Republican party’s fault but the failure of the Democratic party to attract male voters.

  4. Most of these differences stem from issues about social welfare and military issues.

Race and Ethnicity

  1. The Democratic party attracts more African-Americans.

  2. Hispanics are also more likely to be Democratic then Republican.

  3. Question: Would this change if the AA and Hispanics were the controlling ethnicity?


  1. Today, generally the very youngest and very oldest voters tend to prefer the Democratic Party, while middle-aged voters disproportionately favor the Republican Party.

  2. The young favor the Dems because of their liberal stance; the old because of the focus on Social Security and medicare

  3. Middle-Aged voters, often at the height of their careers and at the height of their earnings potential, tend to favor the low taxes championed by Republicans.

Social and Economic Factors

  1. Occupation, income, and education influence party identification.

  2. The GOP remains predominant among executives, professionals, and white-collar workers, whereas the Democrats lead substantially among trial lawyers, educators, and blue-collar workers.

  3. Democratic support drops as one climbs the income scale.

  4. Those with college degrees tend to become Republican and those with advance degrees tend to be Democratic.


  1. White Protestants especially Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, favor Republicans/ Catholics and Jewish voters tend to be Democrats.

Marital Status

  1. Married people tend to favor the Republican party due to their conservative nature while single people who have never been married tend to favor the Democratic Party.

  2. The divorced and the separated, who may be experiencing economic hardship, appear to be more liberal than the married population.

VI Toward Reform: Dealignment and the Strength of Political Parties

  1. Dealignment—a general decline in party identification and loyalty in the electorate.

  2. Reasons for anti-party attitudes:

    1. The growth of issue-oriented politics that cut across party lines for voters who feel intensely about certain policy matters.

    2. The emphasis on personality politics by the mass media and political consultants.

  3. When we view parties in the scope of US history several strengths become clear:

    1. Although political parties have evolved considerably and changed form from time to time, they usually have been reliable vehicles for mass participation in a representative democracy.

    2. The parties journeys through US history have been characterized by the same ability to adapt to prevailing conditions that is often cited as the genius of the Constitution.

    3. Despite massive changes in political conditions and frequent dramatic shifts in the electorate’s mood, the two major parties not only have achieved remarkable longevity but also have almost always provided strong competition for each other and voters at the national level.

    4. While the party in the electorate might have waned in recent years, depending on whether you look at the relatively modest rise in pure independents or more robust increase in leaners evident in some surveys, the party in government and the party organizations are stronger than ever.

  1. Perhaps most of all, history teaches us that the development of parties in the United States has been inevitable. Human nature alone guarantees conflict in any society; in a free state, the question is simply how to contain and channel conflict productively without infringing on individual liberties. The Framers’ utopian hopes for the avoidance of partisan faction, Madison’s chief concern, have given way to an appreciation for the parties’ constructive contributions to conflict definition and resolution during the years of he American Republic. Political parties have become the primary means by which society addresses its irreconcilable differences, and as such they play an essential role in democratic society.

Key Terms:

Candidate-centered politics, civil service laws, coalition, critical election, dealignment, direct primary, governmental party, hard money, issue-oriented politics, national convention, national party platform, organizational party, party identification, party in the electorate, party realignment, political machine, political party, proportional representation, secular realignment, soft money, think tank, ticket-split, winner-take-all system.

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