Political parties are groups of individuals organized for the purpose of electing candidates to public office. The Constitution contains no mention of parties, and the Framers regarded them as undesirable or even dangerous. Nonetheless, the federal structure and electoral institutions they created give ample incentives for party building.
The first American parties formed during the first few decades of the Republic as congressional members attempted to build stable coalitions to control the machinery of government. These attempts quickly spilled over into the electoral arena. With the plurality voting rule penalizing all but a few serious candidates for each office, the two-party pattern of electoral competition quickly emerged. Two-party competition lapsed briefly during the Era of Good Feelings but revived following the 1824 presidential election and has endured without interruption ever since.
In the 19th century, many state and local parties could be classified as party machines—hierarchical organizations controlled by a single boss. Party machines operated under an exchange relationship: politicians provided favors and services to people in exchange for continued electoral support. During the Progressive Era, reforms were implemented to weaken machine rule. The most important of these were civil service laws, the Australian ballot, and primary elections.
Diverse party alliances formed during the New Deal helped illustrate the coalitional nature of American politics. As new issues emerged, these coalitions began to unravel. Trends such as increased indifference to the parties, growing vote shares won by independents and third-party candidates, and divided control of government suggested parties were on the decline. However, the Democratic and Republican Parties continue to dominate electoral politics, and partisanship has resurged among voters over the past two decades.
While the characteristics and strength of American political parties have changed over time, they continue to perform vital functions in our system of government. Parties recruit and train political leaders, organize the activities of government, and facilitate the collective action needed to translate voter preferences into public policies. For voters, they provide useful cues and mechanisms for holding elected officials accountable. Thus, despite the disdain that many citizens and politicians profess for them, their usefulness ensures that political parties will continue to thrive.
- Why didn’t the Framers of the Constitution want parties? How did the Constitution help promote the emergence of parties?
- Where did U.S. parties first arise? Why did they prove necessary in this setting? Why did parties spread from there to other areas of politics?
- What incentives did 19th-century parties provide to encourage prospective voters and party workers to participate in politics? What changed this system?
- Why do third parties tend to do so poorly in U.S. elections? Why do such parties do so much better in other democracies?
- How have the roles of national and state party organizations changed over time? Are these organizations more or less important than they were in the past?
- How have rates of “ticket splitting” changed over time? How have public attitudes toward the parties changed over that same time? Are Americans more or less partisan in their views and behavior than they were in the 1970s?
- How has the nomination process for party candidates changed over time? If national conventions no longer decide on the party’s presidential nominee, why are they still held?
- How do party activists differ from rank-and-file voters of their party? What consequences does this difference have for American politics?
- How has the decline of the New Deal coalition affected recent developments in American politics?
- How do parties affect the fund-raising of candidates? What limitations do parties face in giving their members financial assistance?
- How and why have the parties become more polarized on ideology and issues over the past several decades?