10.2 Political Parties Today

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of modern-day American political parties?
  2. What are political party platforms?

Political parties play an important role in politics today. Whereas observers like the Washington Post’s David Broder could write a book in 1972 with the title The Party’s Over, such eulogies were premature. Compared to the 1970s, party organizations today are larger, farther reaching, and better financed. Relations among party officials in Washington and the states have improved dramatically. Voters are still more likely to cast their votes along partisan lines than independently.

American political parties have a number of distinctive characteristics. The two major political parties have been dominant for a long period of time. The parties are permeable, meaning that people are able to join or leave the party ranks freely. The two major parties are ideologically ambiguous in that they are umbrella organizations that can accommodate people representing a broad spectrum of interests.

Two-Party Domination

A two-party system is one in which nearly all elected offices are held by candidates associated with the two parties that are able to garner the vast majority of votes. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are the major parties that have monopolized American politics since the early 1850s (Chambers & Burnham, 1975). A major party runs candidates for local, state, and federal offices in a majority of states and holds one of the two largest blocs of seats in the US Congress (Rovenstone, Behr, & Lazarus, 2000).

Many people consider the two-party system as a uniquely American phenomenon. Some scholars argue that this acceptance of the two-party norm is a result of Americans’ aversion to radical politics and their desire to maintain a stable democratic political system (Rossiter, 1960). Having too many parties can destabilize the system by confusing voters and allowing parties who take extreme ideological positions to become prominent in government, much like Madison feared at the founding.

Ideological Ambiguity

Rather than assuming strong, polarizing ideological alignments, the two major parties represent the core values of American culture that favor centrist positions inherent in the liberal tradition of liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity (Gerring, 1998). These values appeal to the majority of Americans, and political parties can advocate them without losing followers.

Former Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill was fond of saying, “In any other country, the Democratic Party would be five parties” (Clymer, 2003). O’Neill was referring to the fact that the Democratic Party has no clear ideological identity and instead accommodates interests from across the liberal-conservative spectrum. Groups who both favor and oppose gun control can find a home in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is loosely associated with a liberal attitude toward politics, which proposes that government should take a more active role in regulating the economy, provide a social safety net, and ensure equality in society through programs like affirmative action.

Similar things have been said about the Republican Party (Pomper, 1992), although the Republicans have a more unified message than the Democrats. The Republican agenda favors capitalism and limited government intervention in people’s lives. The Republican Party’s base includes fewer disparate groups than the Democratic base. The Republican Party is associated with a conservative outlook that advocates limited government intervention in society and a free-market economic system.

Party Platforms

Rather than developing distinct ideological positions, parties develop policy platforms. Policy platforms are plans outlining party positions on issues and the actions leaders will take to implement them if elected (Epstein, 1986; Pomper, 1992). Parties frequently assume middle-of-the-road positions or waffle on issues to avoid alienating potential supporters (Downs, 1957). For example, party platforms may oppose abortion—except in cases of rape or incest (Green & Herrnson, 2002).

Some scholars contend that American parties have become more ideologically distinct over the last three decades. Party leaders are expressing polarized opinions on issues, especially at the national level. These differences can be seen in the highly partisan debate over the health-care system. Democrats in Congress support government involvement in the health-care system and worked to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act endorsed by President Obama in 2010. Republicans sought to repeal the act in 2011, arguing that it would cost people their jobs.

Permeability

Political parties in the United States are porous, decentralized institutions that can be joined readily by people who choose to adopt the party label, usually Democrat or Republican (Epstein, 1986). American parties are not mass membership organizations that require people to pay dues if they want to belong, which is the case in many European democracies. Instead, party membership is very loosely defined often by state laws that are highly variable. In some states, citizens declare a party affiliation when registering to vote. People also can join a state or local party organization, or work for a candidate associated with a particular party.

Parties are umbrella organizations that accommodate labor and business federations, interest groups, racial and ethnic constituencies, and religious organizations. Traditionally, the Democratic Party has been home to labor unions, and the Republican Party has accommodated business interests, although these relationships are not set in stone.

The fact that groups seeking to achieve similar political goals are found in both parties is evidence of their permeability. Pro-choice and antiabortion forces exist within the two major parties, although the Democratic Party is far more accommodating to the pro-choice position while the Republican Party is overwhelmingly pro-life. The WISH List is a group supporting pro-choice Republican candidates. The Democratic counterpart supporting pro-choice women candidates is Emily’s List. Democrats for Life of America and Republican National Coalition for Life represent antiabortion constituencies.

Parties compete for the allegiances of the same groups in an effort to increase their bases of support. As the Latino population has swelled to over 35 million people, the Democratic and Republican parties have stepped up their efforts to attract Latino voters and organizations. Both parties have produced Spanish-language television ads and websites, tailored their messages about health care and education to appeal to this group, and recruited Latino candidates (Milligan, 2002). The parties also have increased their appeals to Asian American voters.

Key Takeaways

Political parties today are experiencing a period of renewal. They have strengthened their organizations, improved their fundraising techniques, and enhanced the services they offer to candidates and officeholders.

American parties have three major characteristics. Two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, have dominated for over 150 years. These major parties are ideologically ambiguous in that they take middle-of-the-road rather than extreme positions on issues. Parties are permeable institutions that allow people and groups to move easily in and out of their ranks. Rather than having strong ideological predispositions, American parties devise broad platforms to outline their stances on issues.

Exercises

  1. How does the two-party system differ from other party systems? What are the advantages of a two-party system? What are its disadvantages?
  2. What do you think explains the enduring appeal of the two major parties? How are they able to adapt to the changing ideas of the electorate?

References

Chambers, W. N. and Walter Dean Burnham, eds., The American Party Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Clymer, A., “Buoyed by Resurgence, G.O.P. Strives for an Era of Dominance,” New York Times, May 25, 2003, accessed March 23, 2011, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950CE1D91531F936A15756C0A9659C8B63&pagewanted=all.

Downs, A., An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper, 1957).

Epstein, L. D., Political Parties in the American Mold (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986)

Gerring, J., Party Ideologies in America, 1828–1996 (New York: Cambridge, 1998).

Green, J. C. and Paul S. Herrnson, eds., Responsible Partisanship? (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002).

Milligan, S., “Midterms May Hinge on Votes of Latinos: Both Major Parties Tailoring Messages to Growing Minority,” Boston Globe, October 31, 2002.

Pomper, G. M., Passions and Interests (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

Rosenstone, S. J., Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus, Third Parties in America, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 9.

Rossiter, C., Parties and Politics in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960).

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