There is a much greater sense of party loyalty and voting participation today in Europe than in America because in America, being a part of a political party isn’t as important or major as before.
However, at one time, being a part of the Democratic or Republican Party was very important.
A political party seeks to elect candidates to a public office by supplying them with a label—a “party identification” name—by which they are known to the voting population, or the electorate.
This broad definition covers well-known parties, like the Democrats and the Republicans, as well as lesser-known parties, like the Whigs, Libertarians, and Socialist Workers.
On ballots, though, political party names rarely even appear!
Strong parties have strong labels—these labels appeal to people greatly; but nowadays, parties are much weaker, since fewer people participate in elections and identify themselves as belonging to a certain party.
People see parties as a label in the minds of voters, an organization that recruits and campaigns for candidates, and a set of leaders who try to organize and control government.
Recently, the drop in strong party affiliation has been gradual (22%-18% in Democrats; 13%-11% in Republicans), and more and more people are calling themselves “independent’s.”
As the set of leaders who organize gov’t, parties have remained strong, but as organizations that elect people to office, they have lost a LOT of power, since more and more states are having primaries (less influence by the political elite) and boss corruption has been broken.
In Europe, things are different: candidates are elected by party leaders, elected officials should vote in favor of what the party wants, and the party runs the campaign, not the candidate.
The difference is because of the decentralization of gov’t in America, since power is not held on a national level and national parties are basically coalitions of local parties; though lately, American gov’t has become more nationalized—the federal gov’t, not the state ones, makes the decisions on schooling and welfare, issues that affect people’s lives and once were made by local governments.
However, political parties have become more decentralized, since in the U.S., state and federal laws regulate how political parties function: the public selects candidates to run for office in election primaries (in Europe, the parties do that); and the party that wins control of Congress does not, as it does in European nations, control the right to select the chief executive of the gov’t.
The leader does not pick cabinet members from Congressmen, but rather, from people NOT in Congress, thus weakening the significance and power of parties in terms of organizing gov’t and conducting business.
In America, political parties rarely play an important role in the lives of citizens, whereas in Europe, “joining” a party means paying dues, attending regular meetings, and going to party-sponsored groups like labor unions, youth groups, educational programs, and even chess clubs.
In America, rarely does local gov’t excite the people; usually, it’s presidential elections.
The Rise and Decline of the Political Party
In the beginning of America, there were no political parties, but later, they formed, became very powerful, and then weakened due to reform, and that’s where they are today.
Four broad periods showing this are: creation of parties (1820s); two-party system emerges (Andrew Jackson’s presidency to Civil War); parties developed comprehensive organizational form and became popular (Civil War to 1930s); reform weakens parties (New Deal to today).
The Founding Fathers thought parties were bad and called them harmful factions; George Washington even warned of the dangers of political factions in his Farewell Address.
When Thomas Jefferson organized his followers to opposed Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton though Tom was opposing the very concept of gov’t, while Tom thought Hamilton was subverting the Constitution itself.
The first organized parties were there Jeffersonian Republicans (today’s Democrats) and the Hamiltonian Federalists, loose caucuses of political notables.
New England tended to be strongly Federalists while the South tended to be Jeffersonian Republican.
After Jefferson won the presidency, Federalists feared that he would dismantle all the things that Federalists had done, but Tom instead adopted a policy in which he eventually incorporated many of the Federalists ideas, thus leading to the decline and eventual extinction of the Federalist Party.
From Madison’s presidency to past Monroe’s, there was virtually only one party standing—the Jeffersonian Republicans, just as Jefferson had hoped, and during this time, differences in party opinions did not fall on economic lines, but rather, more geographical ones.
In around 1824, Andrew Jackson made his first run for presidency; a decade later, voting requirements had been so stripped that all white males could vote, bringing the total number of voters from 365,000 in 1824 to over 2 million in 1840.
As time went one, presidential electors were also increasingly chosen by the popular vote rather than by state legislatures.
After the caucus system, where a group of chosen representatives chose a “qualified” candidate, was ended in 1824, the party convention, where more people could participate, was invented.
The Anti-Masonic Party held the first convention in 1831, while the first one from a major party was of the anti-Jackson Republicans later that year.
In fact, the party convention was created in order to make America more democratic; practically no other country adopted this method.
After the split over slavery, Whigs and Democrats tried to saddle the issue, but this could not be done, and thus, a new part against slavery emerged: the Republican Party.
Republicans tended to be Northern and anti-slavery, while Democrats tended to be Southern and pro-slavery, but while Republicans tended to win the presidency and the Senate, they often lost the House of Representatives.
William Jennings Bryan also split the Democrats from the South to the West.
As a result, states tended to be one-party states, and competition went down to the state level.
In the Republican Party, there emerged the Stalwarts, who were professional politicians, called the “Old Guard,” built up party loyalty, and were skilled in organization, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise; and the mugwumps (aka progressives), who wanted to reform politics, disliked party machinery, and wanted to see the party take unpopular stances on issues like free trade.
Progressives began to attack corruption in big business, and big gov’t.
They wanted more voting rights, stricter voting regulations to reduce voting fraud, nonpartisan elections, primary elections, and civil-service reform to eliminate patronage.
In California, progressives found success in Governor Hiram Johnson, who adopted procedures called initiative and referendum so that citizens could vote directly on proposed legislation.
These reformists lowered gov’t and political corruption but also weakened political parties, and thus, indirectly lowered the odds of having good, qualified, intelligent candidates.
The National Party Structure Today
In today’s governments, each level of gov’t (federal, state, local) exists on its own, with little or no organization, and all are practically independent of each other.
Democratic and Republican parties do look alike, since both have national conventions that meet every four years to choose a presidential candidate, national committees that manage party affairs in between elections, and congressional campaign committees that help their members of Congress running for re-election, and national chairmen who manage the day-to-day work of the parties.
In the 1960s and the 70s, Democrats became a factionalized party while Republicans became a bureaucratized one, and after Republicans won four of the five presidential elections from 1968 to 1984, Democrats decided that the Rep. way of doing things was better and emulated them.
The Republicans had used computerized mailings to build up huge files of people who had donated money to the party and used that list to make a big budget for itself.
In 1983, the Republican National Committee (RNC) raised $35 million from over 1.7 individual donors, and by 1994, the RNC, Senate Committee, and Congressional Committee had raised $246 million from 2.8 million donors.
The RNC used this money to run the party and help its candidates, and later, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) used the same strategies to raise money for its party.
By law, national parties can only spend $12 million on presidential candidates, but by sending money to states to help the candidates, the law was bypassed.
RNC money also goes to taking polls to see what the people are concerned about.
In 1996, Republicans and Democrats redoubled their efforts to raise soft money, or funds to aid parties and their ads and polls, but President Clinton and VP Al Gore were caught funneling illegal funds into these fundraisers…
Party conventions are chosen, and then the place has to be selected; for years, Democrats and Republicans have been split over where to put a convention, since the area near the convention is likely to have its opinions addressed more solidly, since more people there can go to the conventions.
The Democrats have been split between South and West/North while Republicans are befuddled between East and South/Southwest.
The way people who attend these conventions are chosen is very complex, but the Democrats have recently tried to make the field more diverse and equally representative of minority groups, etc…
The rules have been altered many times, but basically, they aim for intraparty AND interparty democracy: men and women delegates must be equally divided; “goals” of minority races must be established and addressed; selections procedures must be open; 75% of the delegates must come from the congressional district of lower; there is a limited number of party leaders and elected officials who can vote at conventions; all delegates pledged to a candidate must vote for that candidate.
As a result of these rules, more senators and representatives became delegates.
These “superdelegates” helped elect Walter Mondale.
After a while, Democrats decided not to change the rules and put on a mask of uniformity to cover the turbulent faction that lied beneath the skin of the party.
Still, people like Jesse Jackson protested that the rules made it harder for candidates like him to win delegates in proportion to their share of the primary vote.
The response was more rule changing: winner-reward systems were banned; proportional representative system was put into use; rule-violating states lose 25% of their delegates.
State and Local Parties
In every state there is a Democratic and Republican state party organized under state law, where each will consist of a state central committee, below which exists county committees and sometimes, city, town, and precinct committees.
It’s better to know the actual distribution of power in each state party, but first, the incentives that motivate people in a place to become active in a party organization must be found.
A political machine is a party organization that recruits members through the use of tangible incentives like jobs, money, and the chance to get high favors from the gov’t.
At one time, patronage, or the struggle over political jobs, was the main concern of party organization members.
Places like Tammany Hall became famous for the political machines that operated there, and the federal bureaucracy became in important source of jobs (incentive), with the New York Custom House and the postal system becoming “rewards for good service.”
Fraud reigned supreme, and the arrival of Italian and Irish immigrants made it easier to gain cheap support, but gradually, fraud was curtailed, as civil service reforms and laws like the Hatch Act of 1939 cut down on offering gov’t jobs in return for service or support.
In many cities, however, ways were found to get around the law and maintain machines, but as voters grew in education, income, and sophistication, their need for party welfare system sank.
Politics requires organization, and machines were efficient ways of maintaining that, plus there was huge voter turnout (even with fraud) where machines operated most heavily.
Since machines were interested in winning, they didn’t usually care about the political views of a candidate, as long as he had the best chance of winning.
The old campaign machine is almost extinct, but new machines that use money from donating individuals to knit together many politicians are springing up more frequently.
Example: Henry A. Waxman and Howard L. Berman’s west Los Angeles machine gets lots of money but also has a strong interest in issues, especially at a national level.
The opposite of a political machine is an ideological party, which is all about principle, spurns money incentives, and is usually contentious and factionalized (like pro- and anti-abortionists).
Usually, ideological parties are third parties like the Socialist Workers or Libertarians.
In the 1950s and 60s, many of these groups were “reform clubs” that actually saw some success against mainstream political groups, but in the 1960s and 70s, these “clubs” coalesced into more focused social movements, based upon a sense of liberalism (Democrats) or conservatism (Republicans).
Example: Pro-Republican Christian Coalition, which is very conservative and pro-life.
Now that social movements are the “farm clubs” of the big-league Republicans and Democrats, the major parties behave differently than before, when party machines were the “minor leagues”: internal factions abound while party leaders have greatly reduced powers.
People who participate politically just for fun respond to solidary incentives.
Many of these solidary associations are old machines that broke down and whose members continue to work and participate for sake of comradery and friendship.
Such groups are not corrupt or inflexible, but they are lazy.
If an organization that can sponsor a local party structure exists in a community, a sponsored party can occur (example: the Democratic Party in Detroit is sponsored, led, and somewhat funded by the United Auto Workers union).
The UAW has been successful in carrying Democratic wins in state and national elections, but sponsored parties are still not common in the United States.
Some candidates form personal followings, made up of friends and family, to ascend the political ladder (i.e. the Kennedy family) and later try to form them into ideological groups, but to do this, a prospective candidate must have an appealing personality, a lot of friends, and/or a big bank account.
This strategy is often used where political organization is weak or nonexistent.
The traditional party organization exists only in about 8 states today, usually the old northeastern ones.
The Two-Party System
A two-party system is rather rare in the world, as many other nations have multi-party systems, but in the U.S. the Republicans and Democrats have balanced each other rather well, even reviving after having been called politically dead (Dem.’s in the 1st third of the century and Rep.’s in 1930s & 60s).
On the state level, though, there is rarely balance (South used to be REALLY Democratic while New England and the Dakotas were Republican), but parties are less competitive here than in presidential contests or the national level.
This may be because of the system of elections, since most states are based on a plurality, or winner-take-all system, rather than a majority system where candidates must get more than half the vote, rather than just the most votes.
In France, if no one gets the majority, run-off elections are held until someone wins.
The biggest example of this is the Electoral System, because only two states don’t use the plurality system, and as a result, a person who didn’t get more than half the votes in a state still can win all the votes of that state (see Clinton in Missouri in 1992 or the 2000 Election).
In England, proportional representation is used: if a party gets 35% of the vote, its members sit in 35% of the Parliament seats, and this system has been tried in the U.S.
To win the presidency (huge prize), a party must have broad support and broad ideas; only one third party has ever won the presidency—the 1860 Republicans, but by then, they had virtually replaced the dying Whigs anyway.
There hasn’t been a successful group that has objected to the U.S. economic system, the non-monarchial way of U.S. life, or the privatization of religion.
Despite racial or sectional differences, the system has prevailed, which means that the way it’s run is very important; pluralities make it useless for anyone to create, say, an all-Black or all-White national party to take away votes from one of the two major parties.
For many years, state laws made it very difficult for a third party to get onto a presidential ballot (i.e. George Wallace originally had to collect 443,000 signatures to get on), but gradually, these laws were ruled unconstitutional or repealed.
Minor parties my not win, but they certainly can form, and there are four main types of minor parties:
Ideological parties have outlooks that are radically different from that of established parties.
One-issue parties usually stay focused on one issue, like abortion, slavery, or alcohol.
Economic-protest parties are usually based in one region, protest certain economic conditions, and disappear when conditions improve.
Factional parties have split off of the Republicans and/or Democrats.
Minor parties have carried several states in Congressional elections or received a good chunk of the popular vote in presidential elections (i.e. the Populists or Eugene Debs and the Socialists), but they seldom caused the defeat of a party that they hoped to split (exception: Republicans and the “Bull Moose” Progressives in 1912, which enabled Woodrow Wilson to win the election).
It’s surprising that there haven’t been more minor parties, as the Civil Rights and the Anti-War movements of the 1960s failed to form a third party, as did the labor movement earlier in the century.
The Blacks were with the Republicans after the Civil War and with the Democrats after the New Deal, while antiwar protesters supported Democrats; labor unions have been w/ the Dem.’s.
This is because direct primaries and national conventions have made it possible for dissident elements of a major party to still have influence, unless they’re completely upset with things.
Some say that minor parties come up with ideas that major parties later adopt, but this isn’t necessarily true because FDR adopted Socialists ideas into the New Deal because parts of his own party threatened to leave if he did not do so; also, prohibition was adopted from the Anti-Saloon League, not the Prohibition Party.
The minor parties most successful in influencing the major parties have been the factional parties, since leaving a major party for sake of an issue sensitizes that issue.
Recently, Ross Perot’s Reform Party, or United We Stand America has been a strong 3rd party.
Nominating a President
Major parties must balance the desire to win the presidency and lead the nation with the need to compromise with extreme factions (perhaps hurting the party itself) to avoid having them leave.
In old days, when party leaders controlled or heavily influenced candidate selection, it was easy to ignore the extremists, but lately, with weakened leader control, it has been much harder.
Oddly, often, party delegates and candidates have different and sometimes opposite opinions and views from the normal party members (the public).
The main question is why certain elements of minority groups are represented at conventions, NOT why delegate and public opinion are so different.
Before, party leaders chose delegates, but after 1972, more and more primaries and caucuses, or meetings of party followers, occurred more often, thus letting people chose candidates who may or may not have the qualifications or the connection to the public as before.
Only the most dedicated members attend caucuses.
Delegates are no longer “in it for the money” or there to help their won re-election prospects, and today’s delegates tend to be issue-oriented activists.
Thus, they might not choose a candidate with similar views to the public, since they themselves don’t share similar views with the public; on the other hand, this new trend increases the chance for those with strong policy preferences to play a role in the party and decreases the chance that they will leave the party out of dissatisfaction.
Basically, since now, convention delegates are mostly ideological activists, the presidential nominating system has changed dramatically from what it was in the mid-1960s.
Parties versus Voters
In the past forty years, Democrats have usually won Congressional seats but lost presidential elections while the Republicans have usually won the presidency but not Congressional seats.
This is because the Democratic presidential candidate or the Republican Congressional candidate has usually NOT shared the same views as the public.
To win, a party simply has to present a candidate that shares similar opinions and views to the public, and in the long run, the desire to win will make one major party or another take that step.