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II. American Political Parties Defined
III. The Functions of Political Parties
IV. The Components of the Party
V. A Two-Party System
VI. Third Parties
VII. Future Directions
Although not provided for in the Constitution, political parties emerged in the years immediately following the establishment of the Republic. Initially, they were loose factions of officeholders, what Duverger (1964) would classify as “cadre parties,” and the development of political parties corresponded to the expansion of the franchise, as political parties evolved into mass parties that focused on organizing and mobilizing the expanded electorate. By the late 19th century, urban political party organizations, known as political machines and led by bosses, mobilized immigrant voters (by offering patronage and petty favors) and triggered a reform movement that aimed to reduce the influence of the bosses and party organizations. During the 20th century, as the welfare state emerged and as candidates turned to candidate-centered organizations to run their campaigns and consultants to manage them, the American political party has continued to evolve.
In examining the modern American political party, it is important to understand what they are, their functions and components, and how the present two-party system has developed. However, one cannot ignore third parties in American politics, and many political scientists continue to speculate about the future of parties in the American polity and whether it’s time for a new party—or perhaps a new party system.
II. American Political Parties Defined
Robert Huckshorn (1984) defined the political party as “an autonomous group of citizens having the purpose of making nominations and contesting elections in hope of gaining control over governmental power through the capture of public offices and the organization of the government” (p. 10).
According to John K. White (2009), two contemporary models of political parties have been offered by scholars: the rational-efficient model and the responsible parties model. The rational-efficient model was first presented by Anthony Downs (1957), who contended that winning elections is the principle purpose of political parties. Downs contended that politicians are interested primarily in securing the perquisites of power: “Parties formulate policies in order to win elections, rather than win elections in order to formulate policies” (p. 28). Downs asserted that voters act rationally by using information provided by candidates and parties to make choices that they believe will improve their economic or physical security.
In 1950, the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties (1950) released its report, “Toward a More Responsible Two Party System.” The Committee argued that parties should develop programs and then carry out those programs when their candidates are elected to office. Such parties would offer voters clear choices and give the victorious party a mandate to govern, making them responsible to the electorate for their actions. Voters could then, in the next election, retrospectively vote on the outcomes produced by the party in power.
III. The Functions of Political Parties
Political parties perform a number of functions for the American political system. First, they provide symbols for partisan identification, which provides citizens with a basis for participation in politics (Rosenblum, 2008). Second, parties help socialize and educate voters by making them aware of the issues and by encouraging their participation within the established political processes, playing an important role in channeling social conflict. A third function of parties is the recruitment and nomination of political candidates; what distinguishes parties is this function of nominating candidates. By sponsoring candidates for public office, parties provide a form of quality control. As Janda, Berry, and Goldman (2009) noted, “Party insiders, the nominees’ peers, usually know the strengths and faults of potential candidates much better than average voters do and thus can judge their suitability for representing the party” (p. 231). Once they nominate candidates, parties mobilize voters to support those candidates. Parties also present proposals to voters during election campaigns and help facilitate cooperation between the members of the party in government. Our system of separation of powers within a federal state divides power; the parties, through the cooperation of party members in different branches of government and at different levels of government, bring some cohesion to the processes of governing.
IV. The Components of the Party
Political scientists suggest that there are three distinct elements to the American political party: the party in government, the party in the electorate, and the party organization.
The term party in government refers to all of the elected and appointed officials who identify with a political party. The members of the party in government work to carry out proposals set forth in party platforms or presented in campaigns or developed by party members in government. It is expected that the members of the party in the different political institutions and at different levels of government will coordinate their activities to ensure enactment of their party’s proposals that will result in continued electoral success for the party.
This coordination of activity to pursue a partisan political agenda was recently on display during George W. Bush’s presidency (2001–2008). Observing this development, Cigler and Loomis (2006) wrote that “with President Bush’s polarizing leadership style and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s powerful mix of incentives, cash, and sanctions, national Republicans have sought to govern through a tight-knit majority that leaves little room for representation of minority party views” (p. 3). DeLay’s K Street Project coerced interest groups and lobbyists into supporting Republican candidates and policies and hiring party operatives for positions with their firms and organizations. Barbara Sinclair wrote that “interest groups are being forced to align with one party or the other, to become part of one of two durable coalitions, and this is true of even groups that would prefer to play both sides of the fence” (cited in Cigler & Loomis, pp. 5–6).
Party in the electorate is a term political scientists use to refer to voters who identify with a political party and who usually vote for candidates nominated by that party. In other political systems, individuals may actually buy party memberships or must be reviewed by a party membership committee before being allowed to join. Membership allows voters to participate in many party activities, notably voting for the party’s candidate for legislative office. In the United States, although voters may join political organizations associated with political parties (including chapters of the Young Democrats or College Republicans), this is not required. Party identification is a psychological attachment to a party, which often shapes the voters’ attitudes about the issues of the day and is a significant determinant in how they cast their votes. In states that hold closed primaries to select candidates, voters may enroll in a political party that will permit them to vote in that party’s primary. However, the party has no control over who enrolls in the party. During the 2008 presidential primaries, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh launched what he called Operation Chaos, urging Republican voters to switch parties to create a muddled Democratic Party contest.
The term party identification was first used by Campbell, Gurin, and Miller (1954) in The Voter Decides, where they defined party identification as “the sense of personal attachment which the individual feels toward the group of his choice” (p. 89). They suggested that party identification was passed down from parent to child as part of the political socialization process. Party identification was refined by Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes (1960) in The American Voter, where they described it as “the individual’s affective orientation to an important group-object in his environment” (p. 121). They contended that most voters based their votes on party identification.
In American politics, voters are identified as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents (voters who state that they do not identify with one of the two major parties). Although a majority of voters still identify with one of the two major parties, the number of voters who identify themselves as Independents has increased. A study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (2009) found that 39% of the electorate identified themselves as Independents, a figure that “equals its highest levels in 70 years” (p. 1). The same survey found that 33% of the electorate identified themselves as Democrats and 22% as Republicans.
The third component of the political party is the party organization. The party organization is composed of the permanent structures and procedures that maintain the party on a daily basis. American political party organizations are distinctive in that they are decentralized, reflecting the federal system. At the national level, the Democrats and Republicans have similar structures. Every 4 years, each party holds a national convention, where they formally nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates, adopt a platform, and officially kick off their general election campaign. The Democratic Party’s (2007) charter states that “the National Convention shall be the highest authority of the Democratic Party” (Article Two, Section 2).
The ongoing functions of the national parties are carried out by their national committees. The national committees consist of representatives from each state party organization; the Democratic National Committee (DNC) also includes representatives from various groups of Democratic elected and appointed officials, as well as constituencies that include Young Democrats, College Democrats, women, and senior citizens. Historically, the national party committees organized the conventions and the general election campaigns for their national tickets. In recent years, the national campaigns have been mounted by candidate-centered organizations (also known as principal campaign committees) while the national committees have broadened their roles. Under Ray Bliss (1965–1969), the Republican National Committee (RNC) initiated a number of reforms designed to make it a more professional organization that could recruit candidates and political operatives and provide an array of services to candidates and state party organizations (Conley, 2008). Today, both national committees are engaged in fund-raising, candidate and campaign staff training, polling, and research. As DNC chair, Howard Dean (2005–2009) attempted to rebuild the Democratic Party nationally through a 50-state strategy, where the DNC deployed staff and resources in traditionally Republican states in an effort to expand the party’s reach. Although Dean was initially criticized by party notables, such as political consultants James Carville and Paul Begala and former President Bill Clinton, others suggest that it was the blueprint for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 campaign strategy (Berman, 2008).
Each national committee elects a chair. The president usually selects the chair of their party while the party out of power often holds a competitive election. In 2010, the national committee chairs were Tim Kaine (Democrat), the former governor of Virginia (2006–2010), and Michael Steele (Republican), the ex-lieutenant governor of Maryland (2003–2007) and candidate for the United States Senate (2006).
Each of the major parties has state party organizations in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. These organizations are governed by state election laws and their own bylaws. Typically, there is a state chair who is elected by the party’s state committee, which is made up of representatives from political subdivisions within the state. For example, the Democratic and Republican State Committees in New York are each composed of a male and a female representative from each of the 150 state assembly districts. In Texas, each of the state committees is composed of a chair, vice chair, and two members from each of the state’s 31 state senate districts. In Maryland, the party state committees are made up of representatives from the county committees and the Baltimore city committee.
State political party organizations have a number of functions: candidate recruitment, fund-raising, development of a platform for statewide elections, recommending applicants for state boards and commissions, voter mobilization, and selection of the party’s slate of candidates for the electoral college. Although most states provide for the selection of candidates through primary elections, some states grant the parties some latitude. The Virginia code provides that “the duly constituted authorities of the state political party shall have the right to determine the method by which a party nomination for a member of the United States Senate or for any statewide office shall be made” (West’s Annotated Code of Virginia, 2003, Section 24.2– 509A). It should be noted that party organizational strength in each state varies, depending on the political environment within that state (Morehouse & Jewell, 2003), which includes the nature of competition between the two parties within the state (Rosenthal, 1995).
One of the more recent organizational developments at the state level has been the emergence of state legislative campaign committees (LCCs; Shea, 1996). Patterned after the congressional campaign committees, these LCCs have become what Shea called “the ‘800 pound gorillas’ of legislative politics” (p. 11). Shea, a former operative with the New York State Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, explained that LCCs do the following:
give money, but more important they provide expertise and assistance. A candidate can expect to be invited to Washington, D.C., or a state capital to attend a training session. They can use the media studios to make radio and television spots, and they receive assistance on their direct mail. In some states, LCC operatives join races in the field, essentially running the show. Perhaps the foremost help provided by these units is what Herrnson has termed a “brokerage role.” That is, they link candidates with potential contributors and discount service vendors. If a candidate is interested in a survey, for example, they can be put in contact with a top notch pollster and receive this service at a bargain price. . . . They also bring PAC decision makers and candidates together as part of a fund raising match making service. (pp. 11-12)
Political parties are also organized at the grassroots level, with local committees mobilizing voters to support their candidates. During the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, politics in many urban areas was dominated by so-called political machines. These machines controlled city governments (and had influence over statewide elections) through their ability to mobilize immigrant and working-class voters. These organizations were hierarchical in nature and usually controlled by a so-called boss, who maintained power by dispensing patronage to supporters and the granting of municipal franchises and contracts to businessmen who were willing to kick back some of their profits to the organization. Perhaps the most notorious machine was Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party organization that was a major force in New York City politics for more than a century. William Marcy Tweed, who led the Hall from 1858 to 1871, epitomized the corrupt boss. Between 1865 and 1871, Tweed and his ring stole at least $50 million from the city (Allen, 1993).
During the Progressive Era (1890–1920), there were a number of proposals intended to undermine the bosses. These included the selection of candidates through primaries to reduce the ability of the bosses to pick candidates, the introduction of the merit system in public employment to reduce the patronage controlled by party leaders, and changes in local governance (the replacement of ward-based city councils with at-large elections) and elections (non-partisan elections) that would reduce the power of the parties. While some machines persisted into the 1970s, notably the Cook County (Illinois) machine led by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, most of these organizations lost influence as their traditional supporters moved to the suburbs and the percentage of the vote being cast in urban areas declined (Schneider, 1992).
V. A Two-Party System
George Washington (1940), the first president of the United States, was “above party” and warned against political parties in his 1796 farewell address, writing that “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it” (p. 227). Notwithstanding Washington’s admonition, political parties developed during the latter stages of his first term, and a two-party system quickly emerged.
A two-party system describes a political environment where two parties dominate elections and typically alternate in power (Janda et al., 2009). Although other parties (third parties) may compete, they rarely win.
Political historians have identified five distinct party systems. The first (1792–1817) featured the Federalists, who were led by Alexander Hamilton and favored strong federal government, and Thomas Jefferson’s party (the Democratic-Republicans) who distrusted federal power. After 1800, the Jeffersonians would become the dominant party since they controlled the presidency and both Houses of Congress. The decline of the Federalists after the War of 1812 culminated in the so-called Era of Good Feelings, since James Monroe was elected president without any opposition in 1820.
By the mid-1830s (1836–1852), a new system emerged. The Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson (elected president in 1828), was formed in 1828. Jackson relied on the spoils system, rewarding past supporters and promising jobs to potential allies if they joined his team (Syrett, 1953). He believed that rotation in office would prevent the development of a corrupt civil service.
Those opposed to Jackson called themselves Whigs. Like the Whigs of 1776 who challenged King George III, the new party saw itself as challenging King Andrew. The Whigs supported the American System first proposed by Henry Clay in 1815. This system called for high tariffs to protect and promote American industry, a national bank to provide credit to encourage economic growth, and federal subsidies for internal improvements such as roads and canals that would move agricultural goods to market. The funds for these subsidies would come from tariffs and sales of public lands. Clay believed these policies would allow the United States to become economically independent. Jackson and the Democrats opposed the Whig economic policies, claiming that they favored the wealthy.
For two decades, the parties would compete for power, with the Democrats winning three presidential elections (in 1836, 1844, and 1852) and the Whigs two (in 1840 and 1848).
The election of 1852 would be the last that the Whig Party would contest nationally. The party was ultimately destroyed by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery to the territories. Sharply divided on the issue, the antislavery wing blocked the nomination of President Fillmore in 1852 because he had signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. The Whigs nominated General Winfield Scott, who was defeated by Franklin Pierce. After the election, many of the party’s leaders left politics (including Abraham Lincoln) or joined other parties. The party had also been shaken by the deaths in 1852 of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, two of its longtime leaders. Southern Whigs, known as Cotton Whigs, joined the Democratic Party while Northern Whigs (the Conscience Whigs) moved into antislavery parties.
As the slavery controversy intensified, a number of antislavery political parties appeared, in large part because of the failure of the Democrats and the Whigs to respond to the crisis. Among the parties that appeared during this time were the Liberty Party (1840–1848), the Free Soil Party (1848–1855), the Anti-Nebraska Party (1854), the Opposition Party (1854–1858), and the Constitutional Union Party (1860).
The Republican Party was formed in 1854 by opponents of slavery and supporters of the notion that the federal government should offer free land in the West to settlers. The new party included abolitionists, who wished to eliminate slavery (who became known as the radical wing of the party), and antiexpansionists (known as the conservative wing), who opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories but were unwilling to outlaw slavery in the states where it existed. Abraham Lincoln, the former Whig congressman, was part of this wing of the party.
By 1860, the Republicans were the principal alternative to the Democratic Party in national politics. Meeting at the so-called Wigwam in Chicago, the Republicans selected on the third ballot a dark horse candidate, Abraham Lincoln, as the party’s standard bearer in the general election against a Democratic Party fractured by the slavery issue. The Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and adopted a platform opposing congressional interference with slavery. Southern Democrats, dissatisfied with the platform and Douglas, nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge and adopted a platform that asserted the following:
That when the settlers in a Territory, having an adequate population, form a State Constitution, the right of sovereignty commences, and being consummated by admission into the Union, they stand on an equal footing with the people of other States, and the State thus organized ought to be admitted into the Federal Union, whether its constitution prohibits or recognizes the institution of slavery. (Porter & Johnson, 1956, p. 31)
Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery into the Western territories but believed that the federal government did not have the authority to ban slavery, was elected, and this critical election (Key, 1955) marks the beginning of the third party era.
During the third party system (1860–1892), the Republican Party would dominate presidential elections, winning six of the eight presidential elections between 1864 and 1892. The only Democrat elected during this period was Grover Cleveland, who was elected in 1884 and 1892. In 1876 (Tilden) and 1888 (Cleveland), the Democratic candidates won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. Some of the Republican Party’s success in presidential elections came from its practice of running Civil War heroes and from the North’s domination (until 1877) of Southern politics.
Following the contested presidential election of 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, the last three states under military occupation. With the end of reconstruction, the Republican Party would virtually disappear from the South until the middle of the 20th century, as the Solid South (as it came to be known) went Democratic.
Although the Republicans dominated the presidency, the Republicans and Democrats won an equal number of congressional elections, each controlling the House of Representatives for nine Congresses between 1860 and 1894. During the period, the Senate, whose members were still elected by the state legislatures, was dominated by the Republicans, who were the majority in 13 of the 18 Congresses during this time.
It was during this era that the parties’ traditional symbols came into use. A political cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast and published in the November 7, 1874, edition of Harper’s Weekly depicted a Republican elephant and a Democratic donkey; both symbols endure.
The election of 1896 was a critical election because it changed the political environment and resulted in a clear change in the competitive balance between the two parties. The Civil War and reconstruction were no longer salient issues in American politics. The industrial revolution had transformed America, and it would change the competition between the two major political parties.
The country was in a severe economic depression. The Republicans supported big business, the gold standard, protective tariffs, and pensions for Union military veterans. The 1896 Republican platform was also the first to support women’s suffrage. The Republican presidential candidate in 1896, William McKinley, won an overwhelming victory over the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, the so-called free silver advocate who had captivated the Democrats at their convention with his “cross of gold” speech.
During the fourth party era (1896–1930), the Republican Party’s domination of the presidency continued. Between 1896 and 1928, only one Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, would win the presidency (in 1912 and 1916). The Republicans also controlled both houses of Congress during 30 of the 36 years between 1896 and 1932. Wilson’s first victory, in 1912, was due to a split in the Republican ranks. Theodore Roosevelt, who had become president when McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and was elected in 1904, returned after 4 years to seek the Republican nomination.
Roosevelt, who was a progressive, believed that his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, had betrayed the progressive cause by supporting conservative Republican legislation such as the protectionist Payne–Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909. Denied the Republican nomination despite winning most of the primaries, Roosevelt became the nominee of the Progressive Party and came in second, ahead of Taft; the split between the two Republicans allowed Wilson to win. It also gave the Democrats their brief period of control of both houses of Congress during this era.
Although Roosevelt’s presidency made his party a progressive force in the early 20th century, by the 1920s, the Republican Party’s economic ideology had become promotion of business interests, as exemplified by the party’s support of protectionist tariffs. The party also opposed American entry into the League of Nations.
The stock market crash of October 1929 would set the stage for the end of the fourth party era and the end to Republican dominance. President Herbert Hoover, elected in a landslide in 1928, opposed direct-relief programs to ease the suffering caused by the economic crisis. In the midterm election of 1930, the Democrats narrowed the Republican majorities to one seat in the Senate and two seats in the House of Representatives.
The Great Depression propelled Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition into power. Roosevelt promised new solutions to unemployment and the economic crisis of the Depression. Roosevelt, who was swept into office in a landslide in 1932, carried huge Democratic majorities with him into Congress to enact the New Deal. With the support of Southern whites, white ethnic voters in big cities, and African Americans, Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944.
During the fifth party system (1932–1968), the Democrats were the dominant party, winning 7 of 10 presidential elections and controlling both houses of Congress for all but 4 years.
During this era, there were two wings in the Republican Party. The party’s liberals supported most of the New Deal but believed that these programs, as well as other Democratic social programs, could be run more efficiently. They also tended to be internationalists. This wing of the party was geographically centered in the Northeast, and its leading figures included Governor Dewey, his Republican successor Nelson A. Rockefeller, and New York Senator Jacob Javits. The conservative wing of the party opposed the New Deal and, after 1938, joined with conservative Democrats in Congress to block most liberal initiatives until Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society of the 1960s. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was the longtime leader of this wing, whose base was in the Midwest. During the 1950s, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and other conservative Republicans considered bolting from the party to start a new conservative party with conservative Democrats. Goldwater rejected that option and instead sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Although Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, he set the stage for the rightward shift of the Republican Party that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
During the 1960s, the New Deal coalition began to split over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the Great Society programs proposed by President Johnson as part of his war on poverty. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president as Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat, would fall victim to Vietnam War opponents and Alabama’s Democratic governor, the segregationist George C. Wallace, who carried five states and won 46 electoral votes.
The period since 1968 has been a period of divided government. In the four decades since Richard Nixon’s election, one party has controlled the presidency and both Houses of Congress for fewer than 9 years (1977–1981; 1993–1995; January 20, 2001–June 6, 2001; 2005–2007; and 2009–present), with the Republicans winning 7 of 11 presidential elections and the Democrats controlling at least one house of Congress for more than a quarter of a century (1968–1994), followed by a decade of Republican congressional dominance (1994–2006), with the Democrats retaking control in 2006.
It was also the time when the most significant changes in the selection of presidential candidates in more than 100 years took place. Since the 1830s, party conventions selected the major party’s candidates. Following the 1968 Democratic Convention, the McGovern–Fraser Commission proposed changes in the party’s rules that made the nomination process more democratic by shifting delegate selection from party leaders (who, through the delegates they selected, controlled the conventions) to voters in primaries and caucuses (the Republicans would make similar reforms in their rules as well). The effect of these changes was to make it possible for party outsiders (notably Jimmy Carter in 1976) to win the nomination and for more candidates to actually pursue their party’s nomination in what has become a more drawn out and public process (Asher, 1984).
The Democrat’s New Deal coalition began to collapse in the late 1960s as white ethnic and Southern white voters began to drift away from the party. The 1966 midterm election, where the Republicans picked up 4 Senate seats and 47 in the House, was characterized as a white backlash against Johnson’s Great Society social welfare policies, the Democratic Party’s support of the civil rights movement, and the urban riots. By the late 1970s, the South, which had been a Democratic stronghold since the end of reconstruction, shifted to the Republican column, prompted by President Nixon’s so-called Southern strategy (Murphy & Gulliver, 1971).
Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 moved the Republicans sharply to the right. Reagan won a landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter, attracting Reagan Democrats, who were white, Roman Catholic, and blue-collar voters who supported Reagan because of his social conservatism (opposition to abortion rights and gay rights) and his anti-Soviet rhetoric. The 1980 Republican platform, at Reagan’s behest, dropped support for the Equal Rights Amendment (which had first been included in the 1940 GOP platform, 4 years before the Democrats would add a similar plank), based on the premise that such an amendment was an intrusion by Congress and the federal courts into a state matter. Reagan was reelected in 1984, winning 49 of the 50 states, and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, prevailed in 1988.
After Democrat Bill Clinton defeated President Bush in 1992, the Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. Led by House Republican whip Newt Gingrich (who would become speaker), the House Republicans ran on the Contract With America, which promised that, if elected, a Republican majority would bring to the floor bills for a number of reforms, including a balanced budget, welfare reform, and term limits.
For the first time in more than 40 years, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress (they had controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1987). For the next 12 years, the Republicans held both chambers (except for the period from June 6, 2001, to January 3, 2003, when the Democrats controlled the Senate after Senator James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to sit as an Independent).
In 2000, George W. Bush was elected president, despite trailing Vice President Al Gore in the popular vote by 543,816 votes, becoming the first candidate since 1888 to be elected president without winning the popular vote. It was also the first time since 1952 that the Republicans would control the presidency and both houses of Congress simultaneously.
Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush gained widespread support as he prosecuted the so-called war on terrorism. The president’s popularity helped the Republicans in the 2002 midterm election, allowing them to retake control of the Senate and maintain a majority in the House of Representatives.
Reelected in 2004, Bush’s popularity declined because of his failed effort to reform social security, the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and the decline in public support for the Iraq War. The Democrats won back control of Congress in 2006. Barack Obama, the first African American nominated by a major party for president, was elected in 2008 with 365 electoral votes and 53% of the popular vote. Obama carried nine states won by Bush in 2004 and won states such as Virginia and Indiana, which hadn’t voted Democratic in more than 40 years.
VI. Third Parties
The Republican and Democratic Parties have dominated American politics for more than 150 years. Since 1852, only Democrats or Republicans have been elected president. Virtually all governors and members of the U.S. Congress are Republicans or Democrats. However, these parties are not the only parties that compete in elections. Third parties have a long history in American politics.
During the 19th century, third parties included the Anti-Masonic Party (1828–1838), the antislavery Liberty Party (1840–1848), the Free Soil Party (1848–1854), the nativist American (“Know Nothing”) Party (1845–1860), the nationalistic Constitutional Union Party (1859–1860), the Greenback Party (1874–1884), the Socialist Party, and the Populist Party (1892–1908). The Prohibition Party (1869–present) is the oldest continuously functioning third party.
In the 20th century, there were a number of third party efforts. The Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party) was founded in 1912 by supporters of Theodore Roosevelt after the former president (1901–1908) failed to win the Republican nomination. Roosevelt lost, but 17 members of the party were elected to the House of Representatives and one to the U.S. Senate. The 1914 election returned five Progressives to the House. In 1916, the party again nominated Roosevelt. However, he declined the nomination and endorsed Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate. The party then disappeared.
In 1924, another Progressive Party appeared with Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette (Republican) as their presidential candidate. Running with Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, LaFollette polled 16.6% of the popular vote and carried his home state of Wisconsin. After the election, the party disbanded.
In 1948, two factions split from the Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats were Southern Democrats who opposed the Civil Rights plank in the 1948 Democratic Party platform. Their candidate for President, Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, carried four southern states, polling slightly more than 2% of the national vote. The Progressive Party nominated Henry A. Wallace (vice president during Roosevelt’s third term) and favored desegregation and maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union. Wallace, who polled around the same percentage of the popular vote as Thurmond, failed to win any states. Twenty years later (in 1968), segregationist Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama would lead the American Independence Party and take enough Democratic votes to help swing the election to Richard Nixon.
In 1980, moderate Republican Congressman John B. Anderson dropped out of the primaries and ran as the candidate of the National Unity Campaign. He received 6.6% of the popular vote, as many of his early supporters shifted to Reagan or Carter.
The Reform Party grew out of H. Ross Perot’s 1992 independent presidential campaign. Established in 1995 by Perot as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties, the Reform Party emphasized balancing the budget (one of Perot’s issues in 1992), term limits for members of Congress, campaign finance reform, and tax reform. In 1996, the party nominated Perot for president and Patrick Choate, an economist and talk-show host, for vice president. The ticket received about 9% of the popular vote (half of the percentage Perot had polled in 1992).
In 1998, Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler and actor, was elected Governor of Minnesota, becoming the first Reform Party candidate elected to a major office. Ventura and Perot would seek the control the party and the conflict between the two men led Ventura to leave the party in early 2000.
The party has since declined. Patrick J. Buchanan, a conservative commentator, was nominated in 2000 and received less than half a million votes nationally (although many of the 3,400 votes he received in Florida’s Palm Beach County were probably intended for Vice President Al Gore, since the county’s notorious “butterfly ballot” confused many voters, costing Gore Florida and the election). In 2004, the party endorsed independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. In 2008, the Reform Party qualified for the ballot in one state, where Theodore Weill received 470 votes.
Other contemporary third parties include the Libertarian Party (founded in 1971–present) and the Green Party (1991–present).
Third parties have, with the exception of the Republican Party (in 1860), failed to make a breakthrough. The inability of third parties to win elections can be attributed to a number of factors. First, the plurality system favors Democrats and Republicans since third parties rarely attract enough support to win elections. A system of proportional representation, where legislative seats are awarded in proportion to the votes a party receives, would benefit third parties by ensuring that they would have some representation in the government.
Ballot access is another problem for third parties. In most states, only the Democratic and Republican parties are automatically listed on the ballot. Third parties obtain places on the ballot by either their candidate’s vote totals exceeding a minimum threshold (for example, in New York State, a party is assured a ballot line for the next four elections if their gubernatorial candidate polls at least 50,000 votes) or if they gather a specified number of petition signatures from registered voters.
Third-party candidates have difficulty raising money and are often ignored by the news media and are excluded from most debates where Democrats and Republicans are routinely invited. Voters often don’t even consider voting for third-party candidates because they don’t want to waste their vote.
Although third parties have not won a presidential election and rarely win at other levels, they do play a number of important roles in the political process. First, they offer a safety valve for voters who are unhappy with the major parties by giving them a way to express their unhappiness by voting. They also affect policy by introducing issues that the two major parties have avoided; the major parties then often respond out of fear that they will lose votes to the third party. Ross Perot’s injection of the deficit and national debt into the 1992 campaign forced the Democrats and Republicans to take up the theme of deficit reduction. Third parties have, at times, helped transform the two-party system. The many third parties that appeared during the 1850s helped pave the way for the third party system; the Populist Party helped reshape the competition between the Democrats and Republicans after the 1896 election, and the American Independent Party, by further distancing Southern whites from the Democratic Party, offered the Republicans an opening during the 1970s that transformed the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.
VII. Future Directions
Political parties and the two major parties are likely to continue to adapt to the changing political environment. The increasing proportion of the electorate that identifies itself as Independent, coupled with the calls for a post-partisanship by Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, and others (Rauch, 2008), suggest that parties are likely to be weaker in the future.
The rise of the candidate-centered organization has also undermined the parties (Wattenberg, 1991). As candidates employ their own organizations, especially in presidential politics, the national committees (aside from their role in organizing the national conventions) seem less important at that level.
There are other indications that political parties are growing stronger. One such indicator is the incidence of party-line voting in Congress. In the 110th Congress (2007–2009), party-line voting in the U.S. Senate was 84.2%, with 44 of the 102 senators who served in that Congress voting with their party more than 90% of the time (U.S. Congress Votes Database, 2009b). In the House of Representatives, 89.4% of all votes were party line, with 369 of the 448 members who served in the House during this time voting with their party more than 90% of the time (U.S. Congress Votes Database, 2009a). Notwithstanding President Obama’s efforts to secure Republican support for his stimulus package, it received no Republican votes in the House of Representatives and 3 (out of a possible 40) in the Senate. In 1970, 58% of House Democrats voted the party line as did 60% of Republicans. Over in the Senate, 56% of the Republicans supported their party’s position, and about 52% of the Democrats cast votes on the party line (Janda, 2009). The increase in party-line voting is seen by some as an indicator that parties are growing stronger (Brady, Goldstein, & Kessler, 2002). Others suggest this is more a reflection of the growing ideological polarization of the parties in Congress, with moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats seeing their numbers diminish.
Another indicator of party strength has been the ability of the national committees and each party’s congressional campaign committees (the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee) to raise funds, recruit candidates, and offer other forms of assistance in campaigns.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, with its ban on soft-money contributions to the political parties, was expected to have a substantial impact on the fund-raising activities of political parties. After the legislation was enacted, then-DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe set up a task force to determine how to re-channel the banned soft-money contributions into the campaign process. As a result, a number of so-called 527 committees were set up for the 2004 campaign cycle. In 2004, anti-Bush 527s spent more than $200 million in their efforts to defeat Bush (Cigler & Loomis, 2006). The Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth attacks on Senator John Kerry’s war record certainly damaged his chances of defeating Bush.
The Center for Responsive Politics (2009) analysis of Federal Elections Commission disclosure reports for the 2008 election cycle found that Democratic Party committees raised more than $961 million and Republican committees collected more than $920 million. Therefore, although the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act may have cut off soft-money contributions to the parties, the Democrats and Republicans have adapted their fund-raising efforts to the changes in the law.
As noted earlier, the parties (especially the national committees) have evolved. The national committees have become service organizations, providing an array of campaign services to state and local party organizations and candidates. Some have suggested that this development has revitalized the parties (Aldrich, 1995).
Of course, the parties still retain one important point of relevance to the electorate: They are a cue for the voter. If the voter knows nothing else about the candidate (which is often the case with candidates in down-ballot elections), party affiliation offers some guidance as to where the candidate stands on the issues.
As for the future of the two-party system, the 2008 election may turn out to have been a critical election. Barack Obama’s historic victory, with the Democrats expanding their majorities in both the House and Senate, creates the opportunity for a new period of political domination by the Democratic Party (Sabato, 2009).
However, history has demonstrated that the two major parties are remarkably resilient, and the significance of the 2008 election will, more than likely, be based on the success that the Democratic president and his colleagues in Congress have in reversing the nation’s economic decline and keeping the nation secure.
Although not established in the Constitution, political parties have become essential to the American political process. Their roles in elections and governing have evolved over time, and some have questioned the continuing viability of our parties. However, others argue that the move from party-centered to candidate-centered elections has revitalized the parties and that they continue to remain an important part of our political landscape.
The parties play important roles in elections and governing and stabilizing our political system. The two-party system has existed almost as long as the republic, with the same two parties (the Democrats and Republicans) dominating the political landscape for more than 150 years. Third parties, while rarely an electoral threat, provide those dissatisfied with the two parties opportunity to use the electoral process to raise issues and question the system.
Elections have changed, and the parties, rather than withering away as some have predicted (or hoped), have continued to evolve and remain critical to the functioning of American democracy.
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