Political Parties and their Functions

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A political party is an organization that sponsors candidates for office under the organization’s name.

The link between political parties and democracy is so close that many democratic theorists believe democracy would be impossible in modern nation-states without parties. Parties perform several important functions in a political system, including the following:

Also read: Identity politics and the politics of identity

  • Nominating candidates for election to public office. This provides a form of quality control through peer review by party insiders who know candidates well and judge their acceptability. Parties may also take an active role in recruiting talented candidates for office.
  • Structuring voting choices. Parties reduce the number of candidates on a ballot to those that have a realistic chance of winning. This reduces the amount of information voters must acquire to make rational decisions.
  • Proposing alternative government programs. Parties specify policies their candidates will pursue if elected. These proposed policies usually differ between the parties.
  • Coordinating the actions of government officials. Parties help bridge the separation of powers, to produce coordinated policies that are effective in governing the country. A History of U.S. Party Politics

Today, political parties are institutionalized parts of the American political process, but they were not even mentioned in the Constitution. Although there were opposing factions from the beginning, the first party system developed during Washington’s administration. It was not until the election of 1800 that the parties began nominating their own candidates. In these early elections between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, the candidates receiving the most votes would be elected as president and vice president regardless of their party affiliation. Because the president and vice president could be of two different parties, they could possess opposing positions and ideologies. The Twelfth Amendment modified the electoral system so that the president and vice president were elected from the same party. And yet by 1820, the Democratic Republicans dominated the political system so that the Federalists did not even field a candidate. Soon the Democratic Republican Party began to fracture from within, and new parties began to emerge.

The first system developed during a period with limited suffrage and little popular participation in the electoral process. As states began allowing popular selection of presidential electors and relaxing the voting requirements, the first popular national political parties began to emerge in Andrew Jackson’s

Democrats and John Quincy Adams’s Whigs. These new parties began to hold national conventions and draft party platforms. Slavery and sectionalism eventually destroyed the Whigs and led to the formation of a new party in 1855 opposed to the spread of slavery, the Republican Party.

More to read: Erasure and Visibility: Media, Art, and the Politics of Historical Representation

Thus, the election of 1856 marked the first contest between Democrats and Republicans, the parties constituting our present-day party system. Since then, there have been three critical elections signaling new, enduring electoral realignments in which one of the two parties became dominant. In the period from 1860 to 1894, the electorate supported both sides equally. From the critical election of 1896 until 1930, Republicans dominated much of our government. The critical election of 1932 produced a Democratic majority. That majority retained control until 1994, when the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. We could be in a period of electoral dealignment, and, if so, party loyalties will become less important to voters.

The American Two-Party System

The history of American party politics has been dominated by successive two-party systems, but minor parties—including bolter parties, farm-labor parties, ideological protest parties, and single-issue parties—have not fared well as vote-getters. The main functions of third parties are to allow voters to express their discontent with the choices offered by the two primary parties, serve as policy advocates, and act as safety valves for the system.

American election rules have supported the two-party system. Although candidates campaign for a popular vote in each state, the winner is decided in the electoral college. This federal structure contributes to the persistent power of the Democrats and Republicans. Even when one party wins a landslide presidential election, the loser can retain significant strength in other branches of the government and in many of the fifty state governments. This makes it possible for the minority party to rebuild, and eventually retake, the presidency.

The longevity of the present two-party system is also a result of the tendency for citizens to be socialized from childhood to think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans. They identify with one party or the other, and this identification predisposes them to vote for candidates of that party. Whereas a citizen’s actual voting behavior may change from election to election or from candidate to candidate, party identification usually changes more slowly over time. As citizens begin voting against their party, only then do they consider reassessing their party identification.

Other resources: The Role of Political Parties

Party Ideology and Organization

The Democratic and Republicans parties differ substantially on ideology. More Republicans than Democrats consider themselves as conservative. The 2000 platform of the Republicans called for tax cuts, more military spending, and smaller government. On the other hand, the Democratic platform advocated active but smaller government, fiscal discipline, free trade, and tough crime policies.

The federal structure is apparent in the organization of the country’s political parties. Each party has separate state and national organizations. At the national level, each party has a national convention, national committee, congressional party conference, and congressional campaign committee.

Historically, the role of the national organizations was fairly limited, but in the 1970s, Democratic procedural reforms and Republican organizational reforms increased the activity of the national organizations. The national organizations have increased in strength and financial resources, yet state party organizations are relatively independent in organizing their state activities, and so the system remains decentralized. The Model of Responsible Party Government Responsible parties is a key feature of the majoritarian theory. For a party system to work, the following four things are necessary: (1) the parties must present clear, coherent programs, (2) the voters must choose candidates on the basis of these programs, (3) the winning party must carry out its program, and (4) the voters must hold the incumbents responsible for their program at the next election. This chapter argues that the first and third criteria are met in American democracy.

These a re the essential facts you need to learn in order to understand the basics of parties.

Definition of-a political party

A political party is a political organization that originates from society that attempts to sponsor candidates for office under their party label. Parties are not required in our constitution. In fact the founding fathers did not want to see parties emerge, they regarded them as divisive forces which worked against unity within the country. Madison and others wanted to protect us from majoritarian factions . Political parties at the national level have one overriding goal which is to become the party in power in all of the branches of government. Today the republicans control the senate and the presidency which makes them the party in power. The democrats control the house so they dictate activities in this branch.

From a comparative perspective parties around the world fall into 3 categories, one- party domination, multiparty control, and two party competitive systems. One- party governments are authoritarian controlled. Multiparty systems have several parties in power in their branches of government. Two party countries such as ours have 2 parties in control of the three branches of government. We have the two party system wherein third parties at the national level have minimal influence. We have a few independents in congress, but remember independents are not part of an official party. Bernie Sanders is an independent so he joined the Democratic party to run for the presidency to have a chance of being president. In two party systems the parties are broad-based organizations. Each party tries to expand its membership and is not particular about who joins their fold. In multiparty countries parties are more ideologically oriented. In other words they have religious parties, liberal parties, labor parties, socialist parties, and conservative parties , all having some influence in their coalition governments.

Party membership

We have more independents in our country when compared to the other two major parties. Most younger voters do not have a traditional connection with the two parties. They prefer to not affiliate with the party system except when they vote. They have no choice but to vote for candidates within the two party structure. The larger party is the Democratic party, they have a greater number of members than the Republicans. Demographically the trend reflects a greater increase of Democrats over Republicans. This trend will continue over time. When one examines party preferences we see fundamental differences in the demographic characteristics of party members. Democrats are primarily from lower socioeconomic groups, from minorities, women over men, regional groups such as urban residents over rural residents, labor union members, civil rights groups,and those who want to reduce income inequality. Republican members are from upper socioeconomic groups, the business community, rural regions of the country, whites over minorities, and suburban women.

Party identification and voting preferences

As stated above we have many independents in our country that don’t identify with parties, however when it comes time to vote, especially in Presidential elections they have no choice but to vote within the confines of the two party system. Most democrats, close to 90% will vote along party lines, republicans will also vote along party lines in national elections. In making predictions about who will win in a Presidential election, the unknown factor is how will independents vote. Also depending on the issues and candidates running a small number of party members will switch to the other party. This switching during pivotal times is called realignment.

Party Functions- structural- functional analysis

Party Functions- structural- functional analysis is about how parties serve to make the entire political system function smoothly. Parties function to reduce the number of candidates running in elections. With parties in presidential elections we have one incumbent running as a republican, Donald Trump and after the primaries only one democratic nominee. Parties by reducing the number of candidates running make the selection process much more manageable. The second function parties serve is to train and vet candidates running for office. Candidates within parties develop a record and a certain reputation. They are known for their accomplishments and reputation through developing a performance record. Donald Trump was not in party politics before he decided to run so few people knew about his politics or business practices. He was an unknown unlike other professional politicians. The third function of parties is to create platforms which articulate their policy preferences. If you examine the Republican v. Democratic platforms you will read about stark differences in their policy positions. The policy contrasts give voters a clear choice when deciding which party is best for them. The final function is about what parties do in government to organize and operate policy directions. The party in control of congress has a tremendous advantage over the opposition party. The majority party controls what legislation is proposed, what executive actions will be investigated, and what committee work will be done. The minority party serves only as a loyal opposition that has nominal control over the business of congress.

Why do we have the two party system?- we have a set of election rules that predetermines that only the Republicans and Democrats will be elected in most house and senate elections. We have winner- take- all rules based on plurality numbers. In house elections candidates run in Single Member Plurality Districts. In order to win in the general elections you need the greatest number of votes which can be under 50%. There is only one winner in each district. The districts are very small in size, with a population of about 750,000. This is the winner take all formula used in our House elections. The winner only needs the greatest number of votes. Under these rules it is next to impossible for third parties to win and receive a modicum of representation. The electorate realizes this and has a tendency to vote within the two party system. They make a rational decision to vote within the two party system based on the probability that third party candidates will not aggregate enough votes. Other systems throughout the world have proportional rules , with large districts, wherein several candidates are elected from very large districts. Read the link on a proposal to have multimember districts for the House of Representative

You have to run as a Democrat or Republican to win, there are a few exceptions . The winner take all rules favor the two party system. But their are some features that we have that reduce the power of parties in America. First you run for office by selecting the party you want to represent. The party leadership structure doesn’t select the nominees. The public selects the nominees through primary elections. Most countries that have centralized parties control who runs and whether you are a loyal candidate. We mentioned the Donald Trump decided to take over and join the Republican party without an endorsement from party leaders. Party leaders were skeptical as to whether he was a true republican or not. It didn’t matter because he made the decision to run on his own . Candidates are also independent from party influence when they campaign. candidates and politicians run and manage their own campaigns apart from the party platform or party organization. They decide what policy issues are important based on what their constituency needs and demands are. Some incumbents in swing states have to take into consideration the demands and preferences of conservatives, moderates, liberals and progressives. Doing this requires them to adopt strategies that deviate from the party platform. Every district in congress has different needs, values, and problems. We have a very decentralized system of government under federalism.

Party in the electorate and party in government

Let’s look at the party in the electorate first. We have federalism which means each state has a party organization independent from the National Party Committees. The national committees of both parties are not involved in local politics unless they are invited in to help state candidates. The national committees play a strong role during and shortly after the primaries. These committees are now on the Democratic Party side setting up the primary debate schedule allowing candidates to be on stage based on fund raising and poll survey popularity. The committees work to fund raise, study the electorate and their preferences, manage data about who supports what parties and candidates. They plan for their conventions , create a platform of programs and policies, and confirm who the official nominee is as a result of the primary election process. The state parties decide who the delegates are to the respective conventions and later on pick members to serve in the electoral college. Now lets look at the party in government. The party that controls each is called the majority party. The party out of power is called the minority party. The majority party meets and confers in caucuses or in conferences. The republicans call their meetings conferences. The party leaders decide on a legislative agenda. If your party is in control of a branch of congress they can try to execute on the agenda by submitting a series of bills which further their policy choices. The majority party organizes the legislative process. This is an important function that parties serve. The majority party pursues its agenda and the minority party opposes almost all of their proposals.

Early history of our party system- A good video covering the history of our two-party system

The early formation of our political parties

answer these questions using the text and lecture

  1. What is our class definition of a political party?
  2. Why do we have the Two-Party system when we have so many parties in America?
  3. Give some reasons why party leaders have little control over their candidates?
  4. Name and describe the four party functions?
  5. What forms of control does the majority party have in congress?
  6. Why are many young voters going independent?
  7. Who are the Democrats demographically.?
  8. What party in America has the most members.
  9. What is the ideology of each party and where do you find this out?
  10. How are parties organized in a federalist system of government
  11. What are the platform positions on positive freedom in the democratic party platform? read about the platform below

Discussion Only about 60% of the population identify with a traditional political party. That means around 40% of the public are classified as independents with no party identification. Do you have a party identification or are you an independent and would you like to see a third-party emerge with significant membership numbers?

  1. Why do we have the two-party system in our country? Keep in mind this has to do with our election rules. Explain in full how these election rules determine that we have only 2 viable parties in America.
  2. How are parties organized in congress?
  3. What is the lecture and textbook definition of political parties?
  4. We mentioned in the lecture that parties enable to make the entire system work. How do they perform these important functions? Their 4 functions to comment about.
  5. Each political party promotes a certain ideology. What ideology is promoted by each party? You need to consider all of the three values and federalism in your answer, so review the lecture on ideology.


Last Updated on October 23, 2020 by EssayPro