Parties, Political

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Parties, Political

I PARTY UNITSJoseph A. Schlesinger





The term “political parties” emerged in the nineteenth century with the development of representative institutions and the expansion of the suffrage in Europe and the United States. It designated organizations whose goal was the capture of public office in electoral competition with one or more other parties. Subsequently the term “party” was extended to include political organizations not engaged in electoral competition: minor parties which had no realistic expectations of gaining office through appeals to the electorate, revolutionary organizations seeking to abolish competitive elections, and the governing groups in totalitarian states.

Party theory

The expansion of the term “party” to include organizations with varying goals has resulted in the scarcity of viable party theory. Apart from the pioneering works of Ostrogorskii (1902) and Michels (1911), there exist mostly descriptive studies of parties in individual countries (e.g., Neumann 1956). The most ambitious attempt to carry party theory forward has been that of Maurice Duverger (1951). But Duverger uses a historically determinist framework which makes the mass membership party the inevitable product of universal suffrage and renders archaic many existing and seemingly durable electoral parties. In contrast, this discussion will focus upon the political organization which actively and effectively engages in the competition for elective office. This emphasis makes it possible to resolve at least one issue which has hampered the development of party theory: the function of the party within the political system.

One consequence of the indiscriminate use of the term “party” has been preoccupation with the party’s functions and goals. The literature on political parties is replete with classifications of parties according to their goals. The most common distinction is that between the mass-based party, which is ideological, doctrinaire, programmatic, or issue-oriented, and the cadre or brokerage party, which is pragmatic and patronage-oriented. Although there is no logical barrier to mass-based parties’ being programmatic or cadre parties’ being doctrinaire, the distinction persists because the question of the function of the party is fundamental: is the party the instrument of its membership, or is it a public agency, primarily responsive to the electorate?

The perception of the party as the instrument of its membership is characteristic mostly of European writings and has led to an emphasis on party structure. The classic example is the work of Michels, who formulated the “iron law of oligarchy” to explain the triumph of the leaders’ ambitions for office over the membership’s revolutionary goals. Michels’ “iron law” is the product of his preoccupation with the German Social Democratic party and his disdainful neglect of the party system in which that organization developed. In Duverger’s work the acceptance of the party as the tool of its members is basic to the conclusion that the entire electorate will inevitably be incorporated into parties, thereby rendering the restricted cadre party archaic. But Duverger’s structural scheme is constructed at the expense of viable cadre parties, notably the American parties and the Radical party of the French Third Republic.

Perception of the party as primarily responsive to the electorate has been mostly a product of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This perception has sometimes resulted in concern only with the total picture of party competition. Although McKenzie’s study of British parties (1955) does examine structure in relation to the parties’ office goals, Schumpeter (1942) and Downs (1957) ignore the internal workings of the party and concentrate on its place in a competitive system. Most American writing about parties is ambivalent. Although there is acceptance of the office-seeking definition of party, and the importance of party interplay, there is also the persistent longing to make the party’s function service to its membership. As a result, discussions of American parties are often fragmentary and confined to descriptions and criticisms of local machines and formal institutions.

The office-seeking definition of party allows us to recognize that in a competitive system the fundamental issue of the party’s function is a matter of value judgment and a constant source of organizational tension within parties. As complex organizations dealing with matters of importance, major political parties attract participants with a variety of motives. Some are interested in public policy; others enjoy the social life of the party; still others participate because they are ambitious for office or for the rewards that come from association with public officials. While these motives need be neither exclusive nor conflicting, the tension between policy interests and office interests within a political organization is increased within a competitive system. In a competitive system a party maximizes its chances for office by offering policy concessions to marginal voters and parties. What distinguishes the competitive political party from other forms of political organization, therefore, is that the question of electoral tactics is ever present. The competitive party need not always make decisions in tactical terms, and errors in tactics are always possible. But over the long run, if the party is to remain an effective competitor, the goal of office must be the crucial factor in the party’s decisions.

By choosing the office-seeking definition of party, therefore, we are able to distinguish the party from other forms of political organizations. The policy goals of parties change. The problem which has worried observers of parties since Ostrogorskii and Michels is not the rejection of office because of principle but the unseemly pursuit of office at all costs. The weight of the evidence indicates that the goal of office dominates in all parties whose expectations of office are high. In every European country where socialist parties have achieved a realistic chance at office, socialist doctrine has been tempered. However, the extent to which the American Federalists and Whigs were predominantly officeseeking organizations is evidenced by the speed of their disappearance once they lost their chance at office.

For purposes of analysis, the major implication of the office-seeking definition of party is that the party must be viewed in relation to the offices which it seeks to capture. In other words, basic to the understanding of political parties is the awareness of the structure of political opportunities within a given political system: the public offices available; the rules, formal and informal, for their attainment; and the attitudes of politicians and voters toward these offices. A revolutionary organization which rejects existing institutions, a social club, a debating society, a pressure or propaganda group with independent goals, can all be studied as discrete entities. But political parties compete to control a process which they did not establish and which could go on without them. Parties recruit leaders, educate the electorate, and even organize governments; but the state organizes elections. Therefore, everything of interest about a political party—its organization, its leaders, its policies, its income, and its capacity to attract voters—is affected by the structure of political opportunities within a given state.

To assert that party organization reflects the structure of political opportunities is not to deny that parties in turn affect the opportunity structure. Certainly the developments which took place in British party organization at the end of the nineteenth century greatly transformed the process of becoming prime minister. In the United States, parties early captured the Electoral College, which was to choose the president. At the same time, the differences between American and British parties reflect the different methods by which the two countries choose their chief executives. Clearly, parties and institutions affect each other.

It has been fashionable, since the advent of Marx, Weber, and Freud, to reject institutional explanations of the nature and activities of parties, in favor of social, cultural, or psychological explanations (e.g., Truman 1955). Recently, however, some students of parties have concluded that institutions are not epiphenomena but critical variables (e.g., Epstein 1964; Lipset in Ostrogorskii, 1964 edition).

The present discussion treats parties as responses to the ways states structure the opportunities for elective office. This approach is especially useful because the structure of opportunities provides a framework for the comparative analysis of parties and party systems. It enables us to compare the relative standings of parties as office-seeking organizations, in their own countries and across national boundaries.

Party organization

The basic party unit is the nucleus, or the organization aimed at capturing a single office. The broader structure of the party emerges from the relations among nuclei. Electoral nuclei develop within the constituencies of elective offices. Governmental nuclei form around those offices which popularly elected officials fill from among themselves, as in the selection of legislative leaders or of the executive in parliamentary systems. The nuclei of a party are not necessarily discrete, either in personnel or in other resources. For purposes of analysis, however, we shall examine the basic units first and then the relationships among them.

It is important to note that the development of a nucleus rests upon the expectation that it will be able to capture office—if not immediately, then in the foreseeable future. Seldom are a party’s chances for office evenly divided among all its nuclei. A party will have some safe constituencies, some where it competes, and others where it has no chance at all to win elections. Indeed, a party’s durability will depend in great part upon safe constituencies, which assure some continuity in office regardless of the party’s general electoral fortunes.

At the same time, parties often run candidates in constituencies where they have no hopes of winning office; but we must clearly distinguish these efforts from the party activities. The major British parties contest many hopeless constituencies, in part to provide training and trial runs for candidates who hope to advance to more favorable constituencies, and in part to accommodate the national character of British elections, which means that the campaign in one constituency may well affect the results elsewhere. In the United States during the period of Democratic dominance of the South, the Republican party maintained a network of organizations which drew federal patronage and exerted influence within the national nominating convention. But this network was in effect an appendage of the presidential nucleus. Such efforts do not in themselves constitute party nuclei; they are significant only in relation to the organizations which have a chance to win office.

Cooperation among party nuclei is determined at least minimally by the structure of political opportunities, which gives substance to the party’s goals. The American and the British political systems present two very different opportunity structures and allow us to observe the varying impact of the opportunity structure upon party organization. The American presidential system, which operates within the federal framework and utilizes the popularly elected bicameral legislature, encourages party nuclei to act independently. In the United States thousands of officials are nominated and elected, many on different occasions. Even when and where the potential electorate is the same, different offices can attract substantially different numbers of voters. While there is little pressure for nuclear cooperation to control the independently elected executive, such pressure does exist in the legislature, where positions of leadership can be captured by multinuclear action.

In contrast, the British structure of opportunities imposes tighter relationships among party nuclei. The British parliamentary system provides for a single popularly elected chamber, all of whose members are elected together at a time determined by the dominant party leader. The electoral nuclei in turn define the governmental nucleus. In such a system the structure of political opportunities encourages multinuclear cooperation and party cohesion.

At the same time, within each political system the refinements of the opportunity structure modify its general impact upon party organization. Beyond the number of offices in the opportunity structure, there is the arrangement or hierarchy of offices. In the United States, the federal system provides no long-range career outlets for state officials. For the ambitious state governor there is only the national senate or the presidency and its surrounding administrative offices. Thus, the American federal system provides a restraint upon the independence of state party nuclei as well as pressure for cooperation between the state nuclei and the nuclei for national office. The Canadian federal system, on the other hand, provides for miniature parliaments in its provinces, which make long-range careers possible for provincial leaders. In turn, indigenous provincial parties which have little hope of developing into national organizations are able to flourish. The Social Credit party in Alberta is a good example.

In addition to the arrangement of offices, the opportunity structure imposes upon the party the procedures which it must follow to achieve office. In the United States the provisions for numerous independent elections encourage the independence of party nuclei. But there are also provisions for the sharing of electorates which facilitate multinuclear cooperation. Presidential candidates share the ballot with a host of other candidates for office; governors and senators frequently run for office at the same time; and United States representatives, along with lesser state officials, appeal to the subelectorates of the higher officials. These arrangements make possible the “coat-tail” effect, the possibility that the candidate for one office will influence the vote for other offices; they thereby create pressure for party nuclei to consider the activities and the candidates of other nuclei. On the other hand, in parliamentary systems which use the single-member district and avoid shared electorates, the basis for nuclear independence exists, as, for instance, in the French Third Republic.

Within parliamentary systems, however, the similar behavior and attitudes of different electorates can exert pressure for cooperation among nuclei. Despite the major advances in our knowledge of electoral behavior, the impact of the party upon the voter remains largely unknown. England appears to have a disciplined electorate, receptive to party activity. Such an electorate encourages maximum nuclear cooperation by making possible the electoral destruction of a recalcitrant leader who has been denied his party’s nomination. American and French electorates are rarely willing to behave in this manner. The Converse-Dupeux study (1962) shows that American voters identify with a party more closely than do French voters, but aggregate American election results show that in any given election enough voters will split their ballots to allow victories to both parties within the same constituency.

Undoubtedly the reasons for which voters support parties have important organizational consequences. The reasons are usually complex and include ethnic, religious, social, economic, ideological, and geographical factors in a variety of combinations (Alford 1963). Within a party, shifting voter support can produce factions or clusters of nuclei contending with each other because their electoral bases are divergent. In the French Fourth Republic the rising social and economic status of the Radical voter brought the new Radical leaders into conflict with Radicals of the Third Republic, who wished to retain the party’s prewar doctrinal concern for “the people.” In the United States the geographic support of the South for the Democratic party has increasingly caused conflict with those who support the party for economic and social reasons elsewhere.

Another source of organizational tension within parties is provided by the party system, or the competitive relationship of parties, and by the modifications which the structure of opportunities imposes upon the party system. Party systems vary in the number of parties which have a chance at office. Depending upon the structure of opportunities, party systems vary also in the distribution of the chances for office among party nuclei. More than one party must have a chance at office in order for the party system to be competitive. Yet the chances do not have to be, and often are not, equally distributed, even when there are only two real competitors. Prior to 1932 the American Republican party won most national elections; since 1932 the Democrats have been the dominant national party.

From the standpoint of nuclear cooperation, the uneven distribution of strength among nuclei affects the flow of organizational resources and causes tension within the party. We have assumed that party nuclei will exist only around those offices for which there is the chance of victory. But even for these offices the party’s chances can range from perfect to doubtful. Differences in electoral strength will produce nuclear organizations with different needs and resources. The nuclear organizations with the strongest electoral support are likely to be in the best position to command the other resources of organization, money, and personnel. At the same time, they are under the least pressure to compete with other parties for votes. The nuclei most subject to electoral pressures are those which face the strongest competition. Given the varied electoral needs of its nuclei, a party may well find itself with two or more nuclei or nuclear clusters framing different appeals to the voters.

Of course, a party is subject to additional tensions arising from its needs during the governmental phase. The needs of the governmental nucleus may well conflict with the needs of the electoral nuclei. In government by coalition the fate of competitors who are also allies becomes the concern of the governmental nucleus and imposes further strains upon the electoral nuclei of the dominant party.

Party activity

The structure of political opportunities determines not only the extent of party organization but also its quality or content. Offices foster nuclear organization, and electoral procedures and practices provoke nuclear cooperation or dissension. Another consequence of the close relationship between party organization and the structure of opportunities is that the limits of party activity are unclear. Imbedded in the electoral and governmental process, the party in its activities is often indistinguishable from voters and pressure groups, on the one hand, and from government, on the other. In the search for office, parties go outside their ranks for leaders; they accept an occasional vote as the basis for party identification; they allow government bureaucrats rather than the party program to define party policy.

In describing the content of party activity, therefore, it is more useful to employ the concept of contribution to the party organization than the concept of membership. The term “membership” connotes an unwarranted clarity in the boundaries between the party and its environment, whereas, as has just been noted, even such critical contributions to the maintenance of the organization as voting, recruitment of candidates, and even candidacy itself may come from individuals not readily identifiable as formal members. Conceiving of party leadership, recruitment, money, and communications as contributions to party organization enables us to ask not only who makes them but also to focus on the flow of contributions from one nucleus to another. Thus, it is the transfer of contributions which creates the multinuclear party.


In party organization, leadership is a contribution of first importance. The fluctuating, ephemeral, and largely voluntary character of most contributions to party activity makes it most useful for someone to move people to participate, to make agreements with other leaders, and to bring together the materials of party combat.

Yet in parties, more than in any other type of formal organization, the official lines of authority are suspect, and there is always implicit the question of who is the “real” leader. This is true in great part because a political party is a leader-producing organization, and the ambitious men attracted to parties find it advantageous at least to seem to be playing a major role. If the “real” party leader is often difficult to locate, it is because many competitors for leadership have a stake in keeping it so.

The contribution of leadership is also difficult to assign because there are two broad categories of party leaders, which in fact may or may not merge. There are the public leaders, men who also represent the party as its candidates for public office, and there are the associational leaders, men whose office is limited to the party organization. Often, but by no means always, there is no sharp distinction in personnel between the two categories; men move from one to the other or hold both public and party office concurrently.

The difficulties for analysis presented by these overlapping categories pertain especially to the American system. In American parties there is no formal hierarchy of authority or delineation of functions. The committees, chairmen, and conventions which range from the locality to the nation have no consistent authoritative relation to each other or to the parties’ officeholders and nominees. At the same time, the actual conditions for office-holding in the United States, numerous public offices with a high rate of turnover, favor the distinction in leadership. This situation contrasts with that of the parliamentary system, where the availability to the party of “safe” public offices or seats almost always assures the merger of both categories of leaders. Thus, whatever the original source of the party leader’s strength, organization work or officeholding, party and public leadership easily combine and provide the necessary continuity in an organization where most activity is transitory. [SeeLeadership, article onPolitical Aspects.]

Recruitment and nomination

The major task facing the leaders of the nuclear organization is the choice of its candidate for office. Who contributes to this task, and how is it accomplished? There are two aspects to the process. One is the recruitment—and discouragement—of candidates for the nomination. The second is the choice of the nominee from among the active seekers. The latter aspect is more overt and is normally surrounded by rules of procedure which serve to make the nomination authoritative. But the recruitment process is equally critical in defining the choices which can be made within the party.

Although there are a few empirical studies of the recruitment process, those which exist place the burden of the task with the aspirants themselves. There is little evidence from which to conjure the picture of an organization actively seeking candidates. Studies of candidates for lesser offices, such as the state legislatures of the United States (Wahlke et al. 1962), show relatively few who perceive themselves as recruited by party organizations. A high proportion of politicians come from families with active political experience. Party organizations give evidence of actively recruiting candidates for offices where there is little expectation of victory, but when the nomination is of value, the nuclear organization normally responds to choices presented to it by men actively seeking the nomination, who advance along various career lines. [SeePolitical recruitment and careers.]

The opportunity structure, therefore, in defining the paths of advancement, has much to do with the recruitment of party candidates. The loosely ordered American system provides multiple lines of advancement, so that parties have diverse sources for candidates. Parliamentary systems, on the other hand, channel most recruitment through legislative offices.

The contribution of nomination, which follows recruitment, to party organization is equally complex and often obscure. In the United States, reforms such as the convention and the direct primary have clarified some aspects, but some decisive activity still takes place in private. Much of the organizational activity in a nomination consists of discouraging other men’s ambitions and, if the organization is to succeed at the polls, tying their ambitions to those of the candidate. Therefore, the nomination ideally combines a maximum of discouragement of all but one of the ambitious with a minimum of public disgrace for the others.

The discouragement process takes place within a set of rules according to which one man gains the designation “nominee” of the party. In a stabilized party system, capture of this label is important, and the state frequently acts to assure that only candidates selected according to the rules can appear in the general election under that label. This does not prevent officeseekers, however, from organizing their own campaigns to capture the label. As with recruitment, nomination is less a case of an organization’s selecting candidates according to qualifications than it is of providing the framework within which they contest for the nomination.

The actual choice of a candidate may involve numerous individuals, and, although parties normally establish their own procedures for nominations, the state may intervene. In the United States the direct primary imposes upon the party maximum participation in the nominating process. This imposition can produce irrational consequences for the party, for there is no assurance that the primary voter is imbued with the officeseeking drive which works in favor of the most effective electoral candidate. As a result, pre-primary conventions have developed in several American states as a means of controlling the nomination. Party conventions are, in fact, among the most common methods of nomination. They are usually made up of delegates apportioned according to party membership. In Norway the state intervenes in the convention process by paying the expenses of the nominating conventions if they follow prescribed methods (Valen & Katz 1964). Nominations by party caucus or by constituency committee are also common.

Whether or not the state plays a role, the ability to control a nomination is one of the few observable tests of strength within a party. As a result, party leaders usually avoid taking the test unless forced to, or if they do, they seek to support a certain winner. The problem is particularly germane to the delicate relationship between the nuclei for higher offices and lesser offices. For this reason, open intervention by party leaders in the nomination contests for lesser offices is rare. Even in the disciplined British parties, control of constituency nominations by the central office is far less than has been assumed by those who would infer discipline as radiating from the center (Ranney 1965). Although empirical studies of nominating procedures are rare, the evidence seems to be that constituency nuclei are in control in most systems.

Whatever the contribution to nomination, whether it be the discouragement of ambitions or their open defeat, it is dysfunctional if it leaves the nominee too weak to win the general election. Thus, although not all of the actors may be so motivated, all of the candidates who do hold office ambitions will be under a common restraint at least not to oppose, and preferably to support, the nominee. The most effective control the party has is the defeated candidate’s own hope for preferment. It is peculiar to party organization that at one and the same time it encourages men to open conflict and then forces them to curb animosity to achieve a subsequent goal. Much of the two-facedness of political activity as it appears to external observers comes from this inherent characteristic of nuclear organization. That burying the hatchet is not easy is evident from the frequency with which it fails or, if done, is done grudgingly. Still, the constant process of personal advancement through organized conflict either repels or weeds out personalities incapable of sustaining the tension. In his earlier work, Lasswell (1948) emphasized the dominance of power drives in the personalities of political leaders. More recently, he has come to note that such persons do not rise to the top in democracies (Lasswell 1954; see also Lane 1959, pp. 124-128). The pure power seeker, as distinct from the man with office ambitions who sees office as instrumental to other goals, can probably find more satisfactory outlets in areas other than politics. An important aspect of the contribution of nomination is that self-interest must control itself and create cooperation out of what might be the most divisive and corroding of ambitions, the drive for political power. [SeePersonality, Political.]

Issue formulation

Once the nuclear organization chooses its candidate, it must seek support for reasons other than its power drives. Although it is known that the voters’ response to parties involves much more than a choice between policy stances, there is a good deal of issue content in electoral decisions, and to succeed, a party must devise a program or platform. The position of the party as seen by both its leaders and the voters is only partially covered by the formal “platform.” Therefore, one must ask who contributes the issues. To a great extent, the process of leader selection decides the policies for which the party will stand. But beyond the party leader there are “leading citizens,” specialists in public affairs, scholars, and journalists on whom the party can call for contributions in devising policy.

The intellectuals’ function, however, is severely limited by the way in which competitive governing parties are forced to devise policy. A party in control of government must make choices, but its range of alternatives is usually narrow. The party is restricted by time, internal differences, the administrative apparatus of government, and other relevant elements of the political system, including foreign relations. A drastic reformulation of public policy, therefore, requires either massive continuous support or the elimination of the competitive rules. Otherwise, the party in government finds its position defined largely by the way it responds to issues which arise during its tenure. Thus, the formulators of the party’s position must consist largely of its elected leaders and its administrative corps. Although parties out of power presumably have greater freedom in defining their stands, they also must respond to the government and to the issues as they arise, and allow public officials the major role.

Parties which govern in coalitions, however, can more easily develop a refined ideological position than can parties which must govern alone. The extent to which a party can be held responsible for government affects its ability to retain or to define a stand independent of the government. In coalitions where the governing responsibility is shared or obscure, parties can govern and retain a doctrine which has little relation to the governing experience.


As in any organization, communication is critical to all aspects of party activity. Very little, however, is known about this contribution. Historically, newspapers were closely associated with the growth of parties, and party newspapers are still common, especially in Europe. But there have also developed independent news media which collect and disseminate information vital to the party. For example, public opinion polls provide information on voter attitudes far more reliable than the reports of party workers; yet more often than not, the polls are conducted and reported by media outside the party’s control. An important party activity, therefore, consists of affecting the information which independent news media report. [SeeCommunication, Political.]

Technical services

The nuclear organization can use many technical contributions. Periodic contact with the electorate, quite apart from testing their sentiment, is useful in keeping track of the party’s supporters. Every campaign creates a surge of possible tasks for which volunteers must be recruited. Each party affair, rally, or coffee hour involves bringing together as many people as possible to give the appearance that the party enjoys popular support. On election day itself, there are many things which an organization can do to make sure that the committed voter gets to the polls and has his vote tallied. The British parties have career staffs which assign professional agents to constituencies; in this sense the agent is independent of the candidate. Characteristically, in American parties technical contributions are made by small permanent staffs which blossom during the campaign. Such professional staff members exhibit no tendency to develop a sense of direction independent of party leaders. They gain influence in their relations with associational or public leaders of the party, not as a separate bureaucracy.


Since useful services are by no means all voluntary, money is a prime contribution to the nuclear organization. Money represents “instant” organization by helping to satisfy the periodic need to expand activities rapidly. The active nucleus, therefore, puts much effort into gathering money.

Money may come in small amounts from many people. In addition to providing funds, the small contribution also serves to reinforce popular identification with the party. The small contribution may also be used to clarify party membership when it is regularized in the form of dues. This procedure is common in European parties and is not unknown in major American state organizations, e.g., in Wisconsin and Michigan. Fear of the corrupting influence of money has led to the formulation of legal restraints in several countries on the amount and sources of money, as well as on the amounts that can be spent in a campaign. Nevertheless, the consequences of money, either in directing party policy or in affecting elections, are hard to evaluate. [Seepolitical financing.]

Party effectiveness

It is difficult to assess the impact of any of the connective contributions upon the fate of the political party or the outcome of the electoral process. The effects of the activities of parties are surrounded by an even higher level of uncertainty than those of other organizations. The only test of effectiveness is whether or not a party wins office. But it is seldom clear whether victory or defeat is due to the party’s decisions, the decisions of its opponents, or even to the decision of some foreign government over which the party can have no possible means of control.

Nevertheless, as long as a party remains a viable competitor within the party system, it attracts resources. Any party with a reasonable chance at office will attract those with an interest in office. The greater the expectations of victory, the more attractive the party becomes to individuals and to interest groups concerned with the actions of government. Thus, dominant parties often become holding companies for competing political factions and interest groups; the Indian Congress party, the Israeli Mapai, and the Democratic party in the American South are good examples.

On the other hand, parties whose chances for office are small tend to attract those whose goals are not the goal of office. The disaffected or groups whose limited objectives can be attained through the influence of a minor organization gravitate toward minority parties. Indeed, the major danger to minority parties is their attraction for participants who have a vested interest in preserving a party’s minority status. In order for a political organization to become or to remain a true political party, it must respond or adapt to the structure of political opportunities.

Joseph A. Schlesinger

[See alsoElections; Interest groups; Legislation, article onlegislative behavior; Nonpartisanship; Political machines; Political participation; Representation, article onrepresentational behavior; Voluntary associations; Voting; and the biographies ofKey; Lowell; Michels; Ostrogorskil]


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The study of political parties has two major facets. One involves their characteristics as discrete entities—for example, their various social bases, histories, goals and appeals, formal organizations, and actual power structures. This is the study of party “units,” a subject discussed in the preceding article. The other involves the competitive interaction patterns among party units or, as Duverger puts it, “the forms and modes of their coexistence” (1951, p. 203 in 1954 edition). This is the study of party “systems.”

Scope and definition

Party units and party systems are so closely related that one cannot really deal adequately with either without reference to the other. Interactions among parties obviously are affected by the nature of the interacting units, while the interactions in turn have repercussions on the units themselves. These relations between units and systems will, of necessity, be alluded to frequently in this article. However, only party systems will be treated systematically here, party units being referred to only in passing, literally by allusion. This is not simply a matter of arbitrarily limiting the scope of the discussion, for, to an extent, party systems both can and must be treated independently of the units that constitute them. In no sense are they merely sums of their parts. The interactions of party units invariably have attributes not fully stated in the description of the units, and while they are obviously much dependent on individual party characteristics, they also reflect other factors, not least the broader settings—society, political system, general structure of political competition—within which parties exist.

Party units and party systems constitute separable subjects also in two other senses. First, defining party systems as competitive interaction patterns among parties implies that political systems could conceivably have parties without having party systems. Manifest cases in point are those monolithic parties that serve regimes as instruments of control, coordination, and permeation, rather than being structures of genuine political competition. Second, a party might stand outside of the party system of a polity even where such a system exists. A party will do so if it does not competitively interact with other parties in a substantial way—for example, if it is a very minor party exercising very little political influence, or if it is essentially a pressure group (or revolutionary organization) that goes through the motions of party competition only to publicize or disguise itself or to get advantages that party status often confers (such as free railway travel and free radio or television time).

One could, of course, make participation in a party system a condition of including an organization in the universe of parties in the first place, regardless of what the organization calls itself. One probably should do so if the concept of party is to delimit a coherent theoretical subject—that is, a set of cases similar enough to one another, yet different enough from others, to permit the formulation of informative generalizations that pertain to all of the cases and some that pertain to them alone. “False” parties, needless to say, must be studied but under rubrics other than that of parties. They may form special theoretical universes of their own, and they may belong to larger universes to which genuine parties, as well as many other structures, also belong—for example, the very large world of structures for seeking and maintaining political power or the still larger universe of human organizations.

To delimit the concept of party systems precisely, it is necessary to concentrate on, and to be more specific about, the patterns of competition that characterize the interactions of their units. Political competition takes, after all, a great many forms. The protagonists in a civil war are certainly engaged in a kind of political competition; so are lobbyists maneuvering for minor advantages, legislators attempting to constitute majorities or to attain sensitive positions in the law-making process, bureaucrats promoting pet projects, and mobs demonstrating or rioting in the streets. What sort of political competition, then, is peculiar to party systems? Manifestly, it is electoral competition: overt participation in open, formalized, genuine elections. Not only is this a process that cannot possibly be confused with the activities of other political participants; not only does focusing upon it promise to yield a homogeneous and highly differentiated universe of organizations for theoretical study; but the association of party competition with elections happens also to be implicit in conventional usage, at least since the time when the parliamentary combinations of representative oligarchy, under pressure of democratization, first developed extraparliamentary machines to provide them with new sources of power.

When one speaks of party systems, then, one speaks at bottom of interactions in a particular kind of political process. That process, however, is closely tied to certain political structures and functions. The structures are representative governments (although a party system may well grow out of organizations operating in other contexts). The functions are those important ones that elections perform in representative systems: political recruitment and relating the recruitment of leaders to the articulation and aggregation of political goals—in Neumann’s words, “organizing the chaotic public will” (1956, p. 397) in order to shape choices that elections can resolve. The aggregation performed by party systems should not, however, be conceived solely as the internal process of resolving conflicts between particular men and measures that always precedes electoral competition; the whole history of parties, which gradually turns their labels into “images,” is involved as well.

Aggregation is necessary not only for the sake of electors but also to provide a foundation for authority in representative, especially parliamentary, regimes. Effective authority in a democracy must always rest on “solid masses of steady votes” in the representative assembly, and these must perforce be provided by organizations that form a persistent legislative will out of the myriad possible shifting constellations that might arise in representative assemblies. But while in both cases the formation of collective will is involved, the two functions of aggregation—to represent bodies of opinions and to support authority—may very well conflict. The more faithfully divergent opinions are represented, the more likely it is that authority will be insufficiently supported; the reverse is true as well: the maximum support of authority would come from a party system so overarchingly aggregative as to offer no choice at all. In the final analysis, then, aggregation involves the search for an optimum between the conflicting values of unity and divergence, the one to support power, the other to provide choice.

However vital the functions that party systems perform, and however closely they may be tied to the process of electoral competition, it is nevertheless inadvisable to make these functions central to a delimitation of party systems. This is for two reasons. One is that many substantially different structures, in the same and different political systems, recruit leaders and aggregate preferences. In representative systems, for example, aggregation of preferences is carried out not only within the legislative process but also by any moderately complex pressure group and, increasingly nowadays, by bureaucrats, who consult among themselves and with others both in and out of government. The same holds true for recruitment. The second reason is that recruitment and aggregation are certainly not the only functions of party systems. The units that constitute them serve a host of other ends. Parties continuously provide political education and inculcate political skills. Above all they do so internally to their militants, by such means as discussions in branches, study courses (most typical of Marxist parties), conferences and summer schools (as in Britain), the publication and dissemination of research reports and handbooks, and training schools (like those of the Neo-Destour in Tunisia); most obviously, they provide, in their internal structure, facilities for the acquisition of political skills of every kind. In many countries they serve also as frameworks for their members’ social life, sometimes indeed all-embracing frameworks. This is the case mainly in some non-Western countries, where parties often furnish a badly needed cement for men suddenly cut off from their traditional ties and often perform, especially in urban areas, some of the functions discharged elsewhere by traditional structures. Sometimes this involves rather surprising activities; Hodgkin cites the example of a section of an African party which combines the activities of “emancipating young women from family influences, assisting the process of matrimonial selection, providing on a contributory basis marriage and maternity benefits (including perfume and layettes for the newborn), preserving the Dioula tribal spirit, and running an orchestra” (1962, pp. 144-145). Such activities are characteristic of sham parties that serve as adjuncts to dictatorial regimes, but one can also find them in less dubious cases; Scandinavian parties, for instance, often sponsor boy-scout groups and summer camps, provide adult education courses, and—less peculiarly—publish newspapers and journals. In some cases, the party system even directly supplies governmental services, although this is unusual and occurs mainly in new or newly independent countries where governmental frameworks have not yet hardened. More commonly, party systems perform the functions of directly controlling the executive, most often in colonial systems that permit party competition but sometimes also in highly developed countries like Britain, where informal legislative committees probably do more to call the executive to account than formal parliamentary institutions. Finally, party systems, quite apart from their constituent units, may serve perhaps the most basic function that must be performed in any sound polity: that of giving the polity an identity above the separate realities of its constituent units. The regular interplay of competing electoral forces may in some incohesive new nations be the only central point to which loyalties that rise above parochial attachments may be tied.

To summarize: The subject of “party systems” is concerned with the interaction patterns among significant and genuine electoral organizations in representative governments—governments in which such systems serve pre-eminently (whether well or badly) the functions of providing a basis for effective authority and for defining choices that can be resolved by electoral processes.

The study of party systems

Until very recently studies of party systems almost invariably consisted simply of discussions of the units constituting them and dealt chiefly with particular countries, while little attention was paid to general system characteristics. This applies particularly to the early textbook and monographic literature on parties. But it even applies to comparative and theoretical works like those of Weber, Ostrogorskii, and Michels, which, possibly excepting some highly value-laden passages in Ostrogorskii (1902), deal entirely with party units. Today, despite some small advances toward the special theoretical study of party systems, it is still this sort of literature that provides the main underpinning for the subject. No descriptive concepts for characterizing party systems have been settled upon (although various ones are used), and no generalizations about such systems have been adequately tested (although many have been proposed). Hence, no settled body of ordered knowledge can be reported in this article, and much space must be devoted to quarrels, gropings, uncertainties, and tentative suggestions.

The first works that accord party-system characteristics any sort of explicit treatment appeared during the late interwar and early postwar years. During this period scholars became increasingly aware of the links between patterns of party competition and the performance of representative governments. Representative government in the interwar years was in a state of crisis, which often seemed to stem from the party systems, particularly the fragmentation and ideological intensity of party competition in certain countries. Critical fire was directed at representative systems because the facts of party life—bosses, oligarchies, cliques, interest-mongering, unscrupulous electioneering, insensitivity to opinion or real problems—seemed to make a mockery of the ideals of liberal government. Early writings on party systems, consequently, concentrated heavily on remedies and prophylaxis: on how party systems could be made more democratic, more responsible, less fragmented, and less dogmatic, so that antidemocratic criticism might be disarmed and crises averted. Typical of this genre of writings is F. A. Hermens’ Democracy or Anarchy? (1941), a book which argues with great vigor that proportional representation produces party systems inimical to successful democracy and recommends the single-member simple-majority system as a cure for practically all democratic ills. An even more famous specimen is the special report, Toward a More Responsible Two-party System, produced by a committee on political parties of the American Political Science Association (1950), which makes an intimidatingly large series of interrelated proposals designed to produce parties “able to bring forth programs to which they commit themselves” and possessing “sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs,” parties able to provide both integrated government and an integrated opposition, parties more able to resist pressure and to formulate the public interest, parties responsive to public will, and party leaders responsive to party members.

This premature but useful emphasis on therapy was followed, in the 1950s, by some first efforts to systematize our knowledge and understanding of party systems: their anatomy and physiology, so to speak; how they respond to conditioning factors; and how in turn they affect their larger settings— all matters that therapy presupposes to be known.

The main pioneering work in the systematic empirical study of party systems is Maurice Duverger’s Political Parties (1951). Duverger devotes about half of that work to party units (his term is party structure) and half to party systems, making him, to my knowledge, the first to raise the distinction between units and system to a highly explicit level. In both sections of the book he tries to construct general descriptive categories for characterizing and classifying cases, as well as empirical generalizations about the cases and types.

Duverger’s book does not pretend to furnish a finished theory; how could it as a first exploration? On the contrary, it is hedged at every turn with caveats and disclaimers. His theories, according to Duverger himself, are “vague, conjectural and approximate” and intended merely to raise issues and provide tools for further inquiry. Few even of Duverger’s more mordant critics seem to have had greater doubts about his work than Duverger himself; almost everything he says is presented as merely suggestive, indecisive, tentative, superficial, vague, preliminary, incomplete, and imprecise— the adjectives again being his.

Unfortunately, few other scholars have so far tried to go beyond Duverger’s first attempt. A symposium volume, Modern Political Parties (Neumann 1956), did provide some well-summarized data on many national party systems, as well as a few well-formulated questions and concepts in its introduction and conclusion; but it too remained very much on the level of preliminary concept formation and very tentative hypothesizing. Nor do works like Hodgkin’s African Political Parties (1962) or the many textbook sketches of party systems in non-Western areas and countries go much further. They add a great deal to our data, but, as to theory, they either present ad hoc interpretations or apply uncritically Duverger’s formulations.

However, the main lines of inquiry to be pursued in the general study of party systems have by now emerged. First and foremost, one needs adequate descriptive concepts for characterizing, distinguishing, and classifying party systems; without such concepts, theorizing in other forms can hardly proceed. Second, there is the problem of finding the determinants of the various forms of party systems. Third, there is the problem of the functional impacts of different party systems on the larger political and social systems in which they exist.

Variations in party systems

Number of interacting units

In thinking of differences in the patterns of interaction among party units, one variable has always come first to mind: the number of interacting units, or, in other words, the extent to which party systems are consolidated or fragmented. In fact, this is not just the foremost but the sole dimension on which most existing studies distinguish party systems. Much the most frequently used typology of party systems has been a purely numerical division into three classes: oneparty systems, two-party systems, and multiparty systems; with, occasionally, one-party systems subdivided, particularly to distinguish dictatorial from representative structures. Practically all generalizations about the determinants and functional impacts of party systems are couched in terms of this typology. Examples of such generalizations are propositions to the effect that the process of nation making, or a commitment to rapid social and economic development, leads to and/or requires one-party systems, that the single-ballot simple-majority system of elections leads to two-party systems, and that multiparty systems make parliamentary governments unstable and ineffective.

No doubt, the number of parties is a basic and obvious dimension along which party systems vary. But despite appearances, it is not a dimension that lends itself to making distinctions clearly and easily. In fact, the numerical typology has seemed to act as a positive barrier to the discovery of trustworthy hypotheses. Writings on party systems are very rich in empirical generalizations yet extraordinarily poor in any that have withstood rigorous testing; so often does reality seem to confound propositions based on the traditional typology, that one has reason to think that the fault lies in the typology itself.

The fundamental difficulty with the established numerical typology involves its application to concrete cases: the typology cannot sensibly be taken to mean literally what it says, and it is difficult to use in a nonliteral sense. Take, to begin with, the concept of a one-party system. Strictly speaking, there can be no such thing. If party systems involve interactions among party units in the process of electoral competition, then the idea of a one-party system is logically absurd, for one cannot have a competition or an interaction with only one actor. It follows that if the concept is to be used, there must be specific conditions under which the existence of all parties but one should be ignored for purposes of generalization, even in genuinely competitive systems, or under which a single party without competitors is nevertheless considered to be genuinely engaged in electoral competition. This in fact is the procedure in most writings on one-party systems. Duverger, for example, includes in the category—like many other writers—the American South as well as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Portugal under Salazar, and Turkey from 1923 to 1950 (1951, p. 275 in 1954 edition). Coleman has listed as one-party systems in Africa (as of 1959) northern and eastern Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia, and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, despite the fact that in each case more than one party actually contested elections and managed to win representation. Blanksten similarly regards Mexico as a one-party system (Almond & Coleman 1960).

These writings raise the essential problem of finding sensible but unconventional criteria for including and excluding parties in a party system. In much of the literature, however, such criteria are not stated at all, and parties are ignored or taken into account practically at will, while works that do state their criteria usually arrive at them on an ad hoc, arbitrary basis. The result is that the universe of one-party systems depicted in the literature, sometimes even in a single work, is extremely heterogeneous, including such very diverse phenomena as monolithic dictatorial parties that suppress all opposition (for example, totalitarian “parties”), parties that do not use a high degree of coercion but nevertheless have a literal monopoly (for example, the True Whig party of Liberia or the African Democratic Rally in the Ivory Coast, Niger, and the Sudanese Republic), “unified” nationalist and postnationalist movements that consist of many, sometimes not very cooperative, groups (for example, the Burmese Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League until 1958), and parties that simply greatly overshadow their competitors (like the Democrats in much of the American South, or the Northern People’s Congress in Nigeria, or the Congress party in India). That such heterogeneous cases do not yield valid generalizations is hardly surprising.

Much more than a straightforward count of organizations calling themselves parties is necessary to make sense of the category “one-party systems”; and even excluding all but genuine electoral organizations does not quite overcome the difficulty. The same is true of two-party systems. The category is not logically absurd, but two-party systems in the literal sense are extremely rare, if indeed they have ever existed. Not even Great Britain, usually considered the paragon of bipartism, really fills the bill. For one thing, minor parties have always operated alongside major ones in Britain—parties like the Liberals of today, the early Labour party, the Irish Nationalists, the Liberal Unionists, National Labour, the Independent Labour party, the Communists, the Fascists. Furthermore, in the 77 years between 1885 and 1962, the era of modern parties and elections, Britain has had only 43 years of straightforward one-party majority government. It can be argued as well that the major British parties function cohesively only at election time, when much less is decided than is generally believed, and that at other times they are simply combinations of factions, despite their discipline in parliamentary voting, much in the manner of the major American parties. That at any rate seems a tenable position in regard to certain party functions, for example, the formulation of interests. Talking about two-party systems, therefore, also requires one to choose what units to include in and exclude from a party system, and such choices, if made without sensible and explicit criteria, will once again lump together a very heterogeneous set of cases, difficult or impossible to generalize about. Take but one example: the familiar proposition that bipartism promotes stable government will almost certainly founder if tested against both British and postwar Italian experience. The reason is that in Italy the opposing forces (until the recent, still inconclusive “breakthrough to the left”) were constituted very differently from the British. One force, the Christian Democrats, has consisted of factions representing a far wider spectrum of far more antagonistic positions than either British party, while the other, the Communist-Socialist alliance (formal until 1952, thereafter informal and to some extent uncertain—but little more so than the alliance of forces in the Christian Democratic party), has been substantially an antidemocratic force, the existence of which, one may suspect, is all that has bound together its opponents. (There are, of course, other parties in Italy, but all extremely weak; in the 1958 election no other party got as much as 7 per cent of the vote.)

The concept of a multiparty system also poses a logical difficulty. Again, if taken literally, it is a classification that does not classify, for virtually all party systems fall under it. Even if we departed somewhat from literal meaning (for example, by discounting very minor or vastly overshadowed forces), the concept would still describe a staggering variety of cases. On one extreme would be countries like Australia with its three major parties (the Australian Labour, Liberal, and Country parties) or Canada with its two large and two smaller parties (the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, the New Democratic party, and Social Credit); on the other extreme would be countries like Indonesia which has had an astonishingly large number of electioneering groups, more than forty having contested one election. The classic multiparty systems, so often held up to our dismay, like Weimar Germany (which generally had about nine or ten significant electoral forces) or the French Fourth Republic (which had six or seven), would only fall around the middle of the spectrum. Moreover, the category would comprise some systems in which single parties can win and have at times won outright majorities (for example, Sweden and Norway); systems in which single parties consistently come close to that point (Denmark and Norway); systems in which no party even approaches a majority (the Weimar Republic, the Fourth Republic); systems in which the distribution of party strength is fairly even and systems in which it is remarkably skewed; systems in which effective party alliances are easy to form and maintain and systems in which they are hard to form and harder to preserve; systems rent by dogmatic ideological conflicts and systems divided by less intense, sometimes picayune, policy disputes or by regional, religious, ethnic, linguistic, or socioeconomic divisions; systems in which party cooperation is virtually nonexistent and systems in which parties collaborate on the parliamentary level almost as much as distinct party factions in some so-called two-party systems collaborate in elections. Under these circumstances, again, a lack of tested generalizations is just what one would expect.

The upshot is that if the categories one-party, two-party, and multiparty systems are taken at face value they yield a classificatory scheme that simply does not classify. Taken literally, all but a very few idiosyncratic cases fall into the third category, since the first is logically untenable and the second is empirically nearly empty. And if the categories are not taken literally, criteria for counting and discounting units must be specified, justified, and consistently applied, which is nowhere done and is very difficult to do. In addition, however, a further difficulty should be mentioned: The propensity for failure of generalizations about party systems that are couched in the traditional typology may be due to the fact that many factors independent of numbers shape the impacts of such systems and reflect the conditions that impinge on them; among these factors the number of party units may be only a minor source of difficulty.

Constructing an adequate set of concepts for characterizing and classifying party systems thus clearly requires (a) technical precision about establishing the number of competing party units so that the numerical dimension can be precisely used and (b) proper attention to other dimensions of variability.

Distributions of strength

The two requirements just mentioned can be met to a considerable extent by distinguishing among party strengths. In regard to the number of party units in party systems, measures of strength can help one identify the number of genuinely competitive units, those strong enough to play a role worth noting in electoral competition and in any combinative processes subsequent to elections. If it is sensible to characterize a game by the number of players, then surely it is also sensible to count only those players who really make a difference. Beyond that, persistent (that is, patterned) differences in distributions of strength among party units merit consideration as a separate dimension in characterizing and classifying party systems.

Party strength refers in the first instance, and most obviously, to quantities: the number of votes or representative offices that a party is able to obtain. One speaks of a two-party system in Great Britain chiefly because of the extreme quantitative weakness of all but two parties in that country and of a one-party system in northern Nigeria because of the overwhelming strength of the ruling Northern People’s Congress, not because it has no competitors at all. Duverger, in this connection, classifies parties into four types: (1) parties with a majority bent, that is, capable of commanding an absolute parliamentary majority; (2) major parties, which cannot normally command absolute majorities but can govern with some external support; (3) medium parties, which can participate in government only by playing a subordinate role in coalitions and which cannot get an opposition to coalesce around them; and (4) minor parties, which are so small as to be incapable of playing any significant role at all in government or opposition (1951, pp. 283-290 in 1954 edition). One might add the concept of the dominant party—which Duverger uses in another connection and different sense—to denote a very strong party not confronted by any significant opposition.

Party strength, however, is not a matter of quantities pure and simple; note that Duverger’s criteria for classifying parties according to their strength are not explicitly numerical but are concerned with the actual or potential role of parties in government and opposition. While that role is certainly determined substantially by the size of their representation and electoral support, it may also be affected by other factors. Some of these are themselves quantitative. It is necessary, for example, to consider the size of a party’s competitors. One must also consider the distribution of numerical strength among the larger parties; in some cases that distribution might allow small independent parties persistently, not just under unusual circumstances, to call the tune in the formation of governments and in decision making. In addition, a small political force could be important because of its sheer capacity for entering coalitions of many kinds in rather fragmented party systems (that is to say, because of its opportunistic desire for offices) or because its location in the political spectrum makes it somehow indispensable in coalition making, regardless of whether its leaders are opportunists or men of principle. The Weimar Republic’s Center party thus played a role in government far greater than its size might lead one to suppose (its vote varied between 14 and 19 per cent) precisely because it was truly a center party in a very wide spectrum of parties and, by Weimar standards, a party conspicuously lacking dogmatic principles or monolithic class support. The case of the Radical Socialists in France is even more blatant. Never a massive force in sheer numbers they were nevertheless the dominant party in the Third Republic, the payoff value of its representation (as measured by access to offices) being greatly enhanced by the quantitative weakness of, and deep divisions among, other parties, by its center position, and by its leaders’ quite extraordinary appetite for office. The Radicals usually controlled important positions, especially the Ministry of the Interior and the premiership itself, and this regardless of electoral fluctuations.

Qualitative factors of this sort can also make a party less of a force than its size might indicate. Above all, a party may be weakened by lack of internal cohesion. Indeed, the nominal unity of parties that are in fact very disunited is often best disregarded in the categorization of party systems. It is, therefore, possible to speak without violation of logic of a one-party system even where no nominally separate organizations fight elections. The term then denotes that genuine competition takes place among persistent factions within a formally unified party rather than among formally autonomous parties. Usually, but not always, this is what is meant by a parti unifié as against a parti unique,terms first developed to distinguish between African party systems that are monolithic and those that display considerable intraparty pluralism (Schachter 1961, p. 306). Similarly, a nominal two-party system can consist of such weak structures that it might best be classified with certain multiparty systems, a case sometimes argued in regard to the American party system—implicitly by V. O. Key and explicitly by James McG. Burns. This is particularly the case where factions belonging to the nominal parties frequently collaborate across formal party lines, rather than merely representing, as in the British case, distinct intraparty tendencies that rarely, if ever, coalesce with kindred factions in other parties. On the other hand, certain formally independent parties can be counted as a single force because of their persistent and close alliance; such is the case of the communists and Nenni Socialists in Italy before the Hungarian uprising (the parties then were “two-in-one and onein-two,” according to Nenni).

It is very difficult to specify precise, general, and easily applicable indicators of the capacity for, and strategic position in the process of, coalition making, of the degree of interparty identification, and of internal party cohesion. While some useful measures exist (for example, the amount of cross-party voting in legislatures or the frequency of significant participation in coalitions), these qualitative factors must necessarily be gauged to a large extent by thorough acquaintance with particular cases; they are more matters of informed judgment than of exact measurement. For that reason they may be used to modify the results obtained from quantitative assessments of party strength, but the latter must necessarily be basic, if only because they produce the least equivocal results.

It may be useful at this point to illustrate how quantitative indicators of party strength are and could be used to determine the number of units in a party system—although this exercise should be prefaced by saying that not enough has as yet been done along these lines to permit more than suggestions. In existing writings on party systems, two measures of party strength are used, usually implicitly, for this purpose. One involves the absolute size of party units, that is, parties with less than a certain percentage of votes or seats are disregarded or parties with more than a certain percentage are considered to constitute single-party systems. The other involves relative sizes or ratios of forces, parties being disregarded if they fall far below the size of the principal party or parties. Both measures, although they may lead to different results, clearly help establish the number of genuinely competitive units in a party system, as do such less frequently used measures as the extent of division of control over certain offices over time or the rate of alternation in office of various parties.

On consideration, it would seem advisable to combine measures of absolute and relative size to determine the number of competitive party units. Suppose, for example, one classified as a one-party system any country in which a single party, over a number of elections, gets 60 per cent or more of the votes or seats. In that case one will end up placing in the same class systems which clearly are greatly dissimilar, for example, systems in which the remaining 40 per cent go to a second party, which has at least a chance of becoming the governing party (precisely the situation in Dahomey as of 1959—before the cessation of party politics—and approximated in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in 1958), and systems in which the 40 per cent are divided among many inconsequential parties, none of which has the slightest chance of governing (as in northern Rhodesia and the Cameroons in 1959). Such a questionable result can be avoided if one takes into account the ratio of forces between parties, but that criterion alone also seems unsatisfactory. For example, classifying as a one-party system any in which the ratio between the largest and next largest party is more than 2:1 would make likely an even more questionable result: classifying as a one-party system one in which no party can govern by itself, because none gets even a bare majority, but in which one party is markedly stronger than the others (a condition approximated in the Weimar Republic until 1924 and again from 1928 to 1930). Combining the two criteria—for example, defining as a oneparty system one in which a single party over time gets more than, say, 60 per cent of votes and seats and in which the ratio between the largest and next largest party is more than 2:1—avoids both difficulties. Similar formulas could be worked out easily for party systems having any number of units, although distinctions beyond four or five units may not be important to make and may be adequately covered under some more general rubric. (For example, a two-party system might be defined as one in which two parties get about 75 per cent or more of votes and seats, and in which the ratio between the first and second party is less than 2:1 and that between the second and third party more than 2:1—the 75 per cent minimum, rather than a lower one, being advisable because parties which poll less than 35 per cent of the votes are not likely to have a “majority bent/’

The obvious advantage of such formulas is that they can make the concept of a one-party system logically tenable and the concept of a two-party system empirically relevant, while introducing some basic distinctions into the very large, nearly all-encompassing and very heterogeneous universe of multiparty systems—distinctions that particularly draw lines between very fragmented systems and those that display a considerable amalgamation of political forces. They thus solve the most basic problems that arise in a classification of party systems by number of constituent units. But, to repeat, the results obtained by such formulas must still be modified by assessment of qualitative factors that affect party strength within the broad categories used, and such assessments may even lead to shifting a party system from one category to another.

Usually one will want to make further quantitative distinctions to get more detail about the comparative strength of parties within the various categories, particularly when strength is treated as a separate dimension and not as a tool in the count of party units. For some theoretical purposes, for example, a distinction may have to be made between one-party systems that barely satisfy the minimum quantitative requirements and those in which a single party virtually has a monopoly of votes and seats—no less than between dominant parties that are highly cohesive and those that are extremely pluralistic. In addition to the distinction between cohesion and pluralism in the units of two-party systems, one may have to distinguish between two-party systems that persistently and markedly favor a single party (like the Bonn Federal Republic so far) and those which, like Britain, consist of two rather evenly matched forces. So also three-, four-, or five-party systems may be evenly balanced or markedly skewed, and this difference may matter a great deal. The Scandinavian party systems, for example, are certainly pluralistic, but so skewed that they have not prevented effective authority in parliamentary government. The same might be said today of India.

Party-system integration

To characterize a pattern of competition one needs to know not only the number of competitive units and their relative strengths but also how the units compete. This aspect of party systems has many facets, most of which are difficult to discuss in language at once general and precise. There is, for example, the large question of what sorts of appeals parties commonly use—whether, among other things, their appeals tend to be emotionally intense or sober, intellectually dogmatic or pragmatic, a matter of policies or slogans, programs or platforms. There is the very large question of tactics—whether, for example, the parties want mainly to make new converts or to mobilize old supporters, try to exaggerate divisions or to minimize their importance, operate independently or in more or less close, more or less national, more or less open alliances. There is the related question of what sort of supporters the parties can muster and toward whom precisely they direct appeals: for example, whether the parties in a system tend to have distinct social bases or targets or whether they are rather similar in these respects (as American parties are similar in their heterogeneous supporters and targets, and the Indian and some African party systems are similar in recruiting militants from a single social segment, the urban middle class). There is the question of the more general similarity or dissimilarity of parties in a system: whether the parties fundamentally resemble each other, so that there is a rather simple pattern of competition between them (for example, in that all are “communal” parties or “national” parties, all “interest” parties or “aggregative” parties, all “ideological” or “pragmatic” parties, all “mass” parties or “caucus” parties), or whether they belong to fundamentally different species and thus use fundamentally different practices in more complex patterns of competition (as is the case, for example, in many transitional societies before stable regimes, competitive or noncompetitive, are established—for example, in the early years of Indonesia, where one found simultaneously religious and secular parties, broadly aggregative and narrow interest parties, national and ethnic parties, organizationally strong and weak parties, ideological and pragmatic parties).

Despite the rich technical language available for characterizing individual parties, there is no general and precise vocabulary for dealing with variations of this sort on the party-system level; and one must rely, to a large extent, on unsystematic descriptions of particular party systems. However, at least a start has been made toward the construction of appropriate concepts, perhaps the most notable attempt being Helmut Unkelbach’s use of the concept “party system integration” (parteipolitische Integration), which can subsume many aspects of the different modes of party competition (1956, see especially pp. 36-41, 51-95).

To Unkelbach, a party system is integrated when it involves a low level of conflict or enmity (Gegnerschaft) or a relatively small “distance” between parties; it is unintegrated when the opposite holds. The term may describe dynamic processes as well as stable states: party systems “disintegrate” when Gegnerschaft is activated in them and become integrated when it is toned down. And it can be used to describe particular parties or complexes of parties within a party system as well as the system in general. Unkelbach mentions, for example, two special forms of party integration which obviously involve subsystems of party systems: two-party systems in which each is highly aggregative and successful in avoiding centrifugal tendencies, and groups of parties that are both close to one another and capable of commanding parliamentary majorities between them. He also distinguishes between genuine integration, which is based upon a consensus sufficient to allow different parties or factions to carry out a common program, and false integration, that is, mere electoral collaboration.

The crucial consideration throughout is the political “distance” between parties or factions, and this concept summarizes many important aspects of the modes of party competition. It is gauged (unfortunately, as yet not measured) on the basis of five general criteria: (1) differences in fundamental views or orientations (weltanschauliche Grundlagen); (2) differences in concrete goals or in the rank order of goals pursued; (3) differences in the means of striving for concrete goals; (4) differences in the assessment and valuation of political personalities; and (5) differences in the social composition of the parties or factions, particularly their class basis and the extent to which they aggregate diverse forces. The results obtained on these bases can, however, be modified by two related conditions: the existence of a higher consensus, which creates an emphasis on the requirements of the common welfare and thus lessens political distance, and the predominance of elements of conflict over elements of harmony, which increases the distance by creating “artificial” divisions. In parliamentary regimes another criterion, one that does not involve electoral activity, can be used to supplement, or to indicate, the others: the character of collaboration in coalitions. The collaboration may be frictionless or involve only minor differences, indicating political proximity or even kinship; or it may involve great differences or prevent the maintenance of coalitions, indicating various degrees of enmity. (Collaboration in opposition might indicate the same things, as might the collaboration of legislative factions in presidential regimes.)

Assuming the possibility of reasonably precise assessment, the concept of party-system integration holds great promise. It can help to determine accurately the number and relative strengths of truly competitive units in a party system; for example, whether a single nominal unit, like the Malayan Alliance, should be counted as several real units, or whether several nominal units form a single real one, like the Italian communists and Nenni Socialists before 1956 and the two main Austrian parties, which contest elections but usually collaborate in government through the proporz system. More important, the concept can be used to make crucial distinctions between party systems consisting of similar numbers of units. As an example, contrast a two-party system like the British, in which the distance between the parties is slight, with one like the Italian (assuming it qualifies as a two-party system), in which the distance could hardly be greater. Such systems must surely result from different conditions and have different consequences. Furthermore, it might well be found that the conditions and consequences of party-system integration or lack of integration are everywhere the same, regardless of the number or strengths of units that are involved. Beyond all this, the concept gets summarily at many aspects of party competition and could provide answers for important questions about the impacts of party systems on the larger political system.

Party-system salience

The dimensions discussed so far—the number, relative strengths, and integration of party units—treat party systems entirely without reference to their contexts (with the exception of one of the subdimensions of party-system integration, social composition, which inherently requires reference to something beyond the systems themselves). But party systems have contextual no less than immanent characteristics. Not only are they conditioned by (and in turn condition) the larger political and social systems and some of their other subsystems, but they also participate with other structures in various political processes. The ways in which they do so are part and parcel of their structural characteristics and may, like their integration, be placed on a single, but divisible, dimension: “salience.”

In general, party-system salience refers to the functional significance of party systems in political processes, in other words, to the extent that they are in a position to contribute to, or undermine, the operation of political systems or their parts. This involves at least two closely related considerations: the significance of party systems relative to other structures in over-all processes of political competition (including the extent to which other structures are subsumed to the units of party systems) and the range of the political (and social) functions the party systems actually perform.

Political competition has one or more of three objects: to recruit decision makers, to influence the making of decisions, and to affect the specific ways in which decisions are applied and values are allocated. In regard to each of these, party competition may range from being all-important to being immaterial relative to other sorts of competitive processes. A familiar example is the difference in party-system salience between spoils systems and those in which the appointive and allocative powers of elected officeholders are highly circumscribed. In this case it is largely formal-legal rules that define the salience of party systems, but many other factors may have similar effects. No rules, for example, underlie the presently growing relative significance of pressure groups in most Western countries; rather this tendency reflects, among other factors, the expansion of governmental activities; the increase in comprehensive memberships and effective organization of the groups; the fossilization of many parties (Lowi 1963); and the great consensus on the broad, aggregative policy alternatives that electoral competition usually defines. Nor do rules underlie the relative lack of salience in leadership recruitment in the case of fragmented party systems that do not yield clear electoral results and where the recruitment function is largely performed jointly by parliamentary groups and individuals, who may operate without close reference to party lines; Italy in the age of trasformismo and France during most of the modern era are cases in point. On the other hand, constitutional rules greatly contributed to the relative insignificance of the party system in Imperial Germany, where the executive was not a creature of parliament and was accountable to it only in very restricted ways, although Bismarck’s skill in manipulating the party system was certainly a factor in his personal success.

The salience of party systems relative to other structures of political competition reflects, but is not quite the same thing as, the range of political functions to which party systems contribute. It is not the same thing because party systems contributing to a great variety of functions may not contribute to them very much; yet the range of functions is itself a partial measure of their salience. Perhaps the main distinctions to be made on this subdimension are between party systems that restrict activity to the more manifest functions of such systems (recruitment and the aggregation of preferences), those that emphasize more latent functions (such as the creation of a sense of national identity, the awakening of participant attitudes toward the political system, and the provision of political education and training), and those that combine both types of functions. The last category undoubtedly is much the largest. However, the earliest Western parties, those of the age of representative oligarchy, Duverger argues, belonged uniformly to the first group, while the broader party systems formed in response to democratization or in anticipation of suffrage expansion at first fell mainly into the second group, as do many contemporary non-Western parties.

Party-system salience is an important dimension not just for purposes of description but also because variations in salience may be expected to have important consequences for theories about the determinants and functional impacts of party systems. The more salient party systems are bound to have more considerable functional repercussions than the less salient ones, and such systems are also likely to be more sensitive to external conditioning factors. They may be expected to be the crucial nerve centers, buttresses, or impediments of representative government. But if party systems matter little compared to other structures, and this is realized, the tendency of social forces will be to work upon the other structures. Hence any generalization about the other dimensions of party systems will be vulnerable to the extent that the weight of such systems in political processes is ignored.

Party-system dynamics

Up to this point only static variables have been discussed—that is to say, variables that can be applied at any point in time as well as to describe persistent patterns over time. Undoubtedly these variables are best applied to highly persistent patterns, since very transient structures resist rigorous analysis. But patterns that cover long durations can rarely be discussed adequately in static terms alone. They are always likely to change, to develop; some party systems, indeed, are so unstable that a classification of them at any moment in time will be virtually useless. While changes in party systems can largely be described by characterizing them statically at successive points in time, inherently dynamic categories that describe general, frequently occurring characteristics of the process of change itself are also useful.

A distinction should be made at the outset between dynamics within party systems and the dynamics of party systems. For the first, Duverger has developed a very useful typology that deals with “success patterns” and “displacement patterns” within party systems that change in content but not in form. Duverger distinguishes four basic types of intrasystem dynamics. One is alternation—the regular movement from office to opposition and opposition to office which one finds in some, but not all, two-party systems, and which may matter to the construction of generalizations about such systems quite as much as system integration. The second he calls stable distribution—the absence of serious variations in party strength over a long period (as in Holland, Switzerland, and Belgium between the wars). The third is leftism—the gradual disappearance of parties on the right and the birth of parties on the left, or the gradual weakening of the right and increasing strength of the left, or the displacement of moderate leftist by more radical leftist parties, without any change in the formal characteristics of the system. Finally, there is domination—either the continuous dominance of a party (like that of the Radicals in the French Third Republic) or alternation in which the swing of the pendulum in one direction is consistently much longer than in the other. Additionally, Duverger distinguishes between “normal evolution” and “sudden mutations” within a party system, the latter referring to very abrupt shifts in the political balance, as in the rapid rise of Nazism in Germany after 1930 and of Rexism in Belgium in 1936.

The basic distinction to be made in characterizing the dynamics of party systems is of course between stable and mutable systems—those that, despite intrasystem developments, maintain their formal characteristics over time and those that do not. The latter category, however, obviously requires some subcategories. For example, continuous and rather prolonged tendencies (like the gradual fragmentation and weakening of the dominant parties in India and in Pakistan before 1958) should be distinguished from sudden discontinuities, like those that result from coups and revolutions (for example, the rapid destruction of the old German and Italian party systems by the Nazis and Fascists and their subsequent reappearance in radically altered form). One must also distinguish fluidity in party systems from patterned trends. Fluidity involves seemingly random, or at any rate highly ephemeral and often contradictory, movements in party life—the constant appearance and disappearance of parties, the continuous ebb and flow of consolidation and fragmentation, that characterized the limited, oligarchic representative systems of nineteenth-century Europe, with their parties of notables and caucuses, and that seems equally typical of some new and transitional nations today, especially those in which personalism is the characteristic form of party leadership. In contradistinction are patterned trends toward consolidation or fragmentation (decreases or increases in the number of competitive units) or toward the increased integration or disintegration of party competition.

The origins of party systems are also an aspect of party-system dynamics, for origins are always a part of developmental patterns. For example, party systems that originate in the followings of aristocrats or other political notables in oligarchic representative systems may be contrasted with those that begin with mass organizations. Similar distinctions can be made along many other lines. One can contrast the party systems of new states like the Philippines, where the colonial power fostered parties before independence, with those in which the beginnings of independence and party life coincide; and one can contrast party systems that originate in the followings of dynamic personal leaders, in a broad but unmaintained nationalist or revolutionary consensus, in ethnic or other “communities,” or in interest-group formations that turn from semi-political to fully political activity. In making such contrasts, however, we are no longer merely characterizing party systems, we begin to deal with the determinants of their varieties; for the origins of party systems, while an aspect of their dynamics, are of interest primarily because they may condition subsequent development.

Determinants of party systems

To account for the characteristics of party systems, three broad aspects of their contexts can be explored. One is the general political system or certain of its substructures: party systems might be treated mainly as responsive to larger or other aspects of politics. The second is social structure and culture: party systems might be treated primarily as structures that politically crystallize sociocultural forces. The third is their own histories: party systems with a past might be conditioned largely by that past, that is, might be self-propelling along predictable paths once set in motion, or even self-maintaining, regardless of external forces. Each of these approaches obviously comprehends many possibilities that must be disentangled, and while in some respects they may be mutually exclusive, in others they can be treated as complementary and combined.

Political systems

Among the hypotheses that link party systems to other aspects of political structure, indeed among all existing hypotheses about party-system determinants, one looms much larger than the rest, in terms of both the frequency and rigor with which it has been argued. This is the theory that party systems are essentially products of electoral arrangements, of the formal rules governing their competitions.

The most compelling reasons for the prevalence of this theory are that the manifest objective of party competition is to maximize a group’s representation and influence in government and that different electoral systems, like different rules of games, require varying strategies in pursuit of that objective. Above all, the formal mechanics of electoral systems seem to have a bearing on combination strategies—on deciding whether groups with similar interests and opinions can maximize their influence by operating independently in elections, or through different kinds of alliances, or by permanently subsuming themselves to larger aggregative groups. Election rules thus influence the number, sizes, and integration of units and dynamic tendencies in party systems. Hypotheses about the effects of electoral systems are also popular because they involve formal-legal political structure, long the special concern of political scientists, and because they are particularly suitable to studies that have a remedial intent. Electoral systems, after all, are easy to identify and manipulate, while social and historical forces are more elusive since they are generally givens and thus defy control. [SeeElections, article onelectoral systems.]

Despite their frequency and surface plausibility, however, theories about the relations between electoral rules and party systems, closely examined, leave one with some feelings of unease. Invariably, they have more logical than empirical content. Moreover, in the course of their development, they have become constantly more complex (reversing the usual course of scientific inquiry) and increasingly qualified by other factors, both tendencies resulting from attempts to neutralize cogent criticisms without yielding fundamental ground. These points, which at least make one wonder, are illustrated by the three most comprehensive works so far written on the subject.

The first systematic exposition of the relations between electoral and party systems was that of Hermens (1941). The argument of that work, somewhat simplified, was that proportional representation undermines democracy by the effect it has on party systems: it tends to fragment such systems into large numbers of independent units and, in the sense we have used the term here, to disintegrate them; in contrast, the majority system of elections consolidates and integrates the parties and thus promotes effective government. The case for this theory was in the first instance made logically, and that part of it carried much conviction. Then empirical materials were produced to support the logic; at this point, however, the argument became much less compelling, since the data were clearly selected to fit the case and contradictory cases could easily be found. These cases in fact soon became the basis of a large anti-Hermens literature.

Duverger’s Political Parties (1951) was the next major work on the subject (see also Duverger 1950). It resembles Hermens’ work both in its basic arguments and the force of its logic but differs from it in several respects. In the first place, Duverger’s argument is more complex because it concerns three general types of electoral arrangements, not two: proportional representation, the simple-majority single-ballot system, and the majority system with two ballots (as used in France during most of the Third Republic). To the last Duverger attributes results similar in many respects to those of proportional representation. The basic implication is obvious: a major modification of the majority system can produce results different from those that Hermens attributed to it. More important, Duverger conscientiously adduces empirical exceptions to his arguments, sometimes indeed as many exceptions as cases in point; for example, the hypothesis that the simple-majority single-ballot system leads to a two-party system with alternation in power (which, according to Duverger, comes as close as it is possible to come to a sociological “law”) is illustrated by Britain, Uruguay, the United States, and Turkey (since 1950), but is contradicted by the “exceptions” of Belgium before 1894, Sweden before 1911, Denmark before 1920, and contemporary Canada. The deviant cases are then explained away by various “special conditions,” implying, again in opposition to Hermens, that there is more than electoral logic to the conditioning of party systems, even if electoral logic retains pride of place. However, to call the other relevant factors “special conditions” and the cases they govern “deviant cases” is to assume that the rule “electoral systems determine party systems” has already been established; but Duverger nowhere shows just how this has been done. His manifest object is to complicate the Hermens thesis somewhat in order to accommodate the more obvious contradictory cases and to disarm empirical criticisms of the more complicated theory itself by invoking saving conditions wherever it seems endangered by less obvious cases.

Unkelbach’s work (1956), which also contains many of the same basic arguments, is a distinct advance over Duverger at least in one respect: many deviations from the general rules are themselves due, in Unkelbach’s argument, to variations in electoral systems, not to “special” conditions. The book shows, with mathematical logic, how even minor changes in an electoral system can dictate important adaptations in party strategy and thus in party systems. Hence, Unkelbach does not deal with only three types of electoral rules. Instead he adduces separate arguments for a huge number of them, even when they seem to have much in common. For example, within the general category of “majority systems” he distinguishes the effects of the relative majority system (Britain), the absolute majority system (Imperial Germany), the New York City variant of the relative majority system, the majority system with ballotage (Third Republic), the majority system with the alternative vote (Australia), the “two-step” relative majority system (Uruguay), and the various kinds of majority systems in multimember constituencies. But this procedure, while making it less necessary to introduce nonelectoral factors into the analysis and while being logically more convincing in its very nature, creates an important difficulty of its own. It ends up making a separate case for almost every electoral system in every country and thus makes it virtually impossible to test the logical arguments by empirical generalization. And even so, Unkelbach is compelled to make his findings fit the data by systematically invoking three additional determinants: other aspects of political structure, underlying social forces (a large category indeed), and the “free” actions of decisive personalities. These, moreover, are not treated as merely minor influences that can to some extent modify the tendencies emanating from electoral systems: they can reverse them and must therefore be, in some instances at least, the fundamental determinants of party systems.

The whole literature linking electoral and party systems thus confronts one with a paradox: it has great logical force and has acquired increasingly greater, if not simpler, force of logic over the years, but it often lacks empirical fit, no matter how complicated the logic has been made. The explanation for this discrepancy between logic and experience is that the conditions assumed in logical arguments are not always satisfied, perhaps even rarely satisfied, in actual cases. These assumed conditions are very much like those posited in economic theories: that parties try to maximize their influence and that they are infinitely malleable institutions that can readily adjust their behavior to changes in the conditions of competition. But both are doubtful assumptions when indiscriminately applied, particularly the latter. Because of this, theories like Duverger’s and Unkelbach’s may be more useful as models against which to gauge the actual rationality, power drive, and malleability of units in party systems than as theories that account for variations between such systems.

To illustrate, take a case that would seem highly deviant to all the electoral-systems theories: a country that uses the British electoral system but has nothing like a two-party system with alternation in power, namely, India. The Indian party system is somewhat ambiguously poised between the oneparty dominant and polyparty categories. There is one very large aggregative party, Congress, and a great number of very small, unaggregative, communal, and ideological parties, like Jan Sangh, Mahasabha, Ram Rajya Parishad, and the Communists. Congress may resemble the kinds of parties we normally find in two-party systems but the rest certainly do not, and the system as a whole lacks integration; nor has there been any tendency toward party consolidation and integration in the opposition—if anything, the reverse.

Weiner’s study of the Indian party system (1957) mentions four factors that help explain this situation. First, Indian parties typically are not just electoral organizations but loci of their members’ social life, “total organizations” that are often substitutes for family, caste, village, status group— even job. Such organizations, frequently found in non-Western nations and not unknown in the West itself, clearly mean too much to their adherents to be very malleable in the light of coldly rational electoral calculations. Second, the Indian parties lack power drive, since the general Indian culture particularly undervalues the political realm. Third, many opposition parties fail to make calculations that would improve their electoral chances simply because they are not committed to working within the parliamentary system (something also familiar in the West and, even more, in other areas). Finally, there is a general lack of interest organizations. This seems to militate against party consolidation and integration because a group submerged in a larger organization for electoral purposes does not have available alternative channels—pressure-group politics—for pursuing its special interests, at least not to the extent it would in many Western nations where the value sacrifices involved in electoral consolidation are correspondingly much lower.

These and other observations we have made suggest a generalization about the relations between electoral rules and party systems. Electoral rules govern the forms of party systems along the lines of maximizing models only under specifiable conditions, the absence of which may lead to results very different from, and even contradictory to, those predicted by the models. These conditions are (1) that the logic of the rules be understood by the actors; (2) that there be commitment by the actors to representative rule; (3) that they have a strong appetite for power as an end and that significant power positions be attainable through electoral competition; (4) that the actors’ political intensity be low (that is, their political style be pragmatic, not doctrinaire); (5) that the units through which they act be relatively specific, not highly diffuse, in social purpose; and (6) that there be available in the political system useful alternative channels for pursuing interests.

Three points follow from these conditions. Since the requirements for unfettered maximizing actions in party competition are numerous, such actions are likely to be rare, and hypotheses confined to the relations of electoral rules and party systems are likely to be weak. Second, one must pay at least as much attention to other aspects of the political contexts in which party systems operate as to electoral rules; these include other kinds of formal rules and, above all, aspects of political culture and the wider structure of political competition in a society. [SeePolitical culture.] And third, since the latter are ineluctably tied to sociocultural forces, only exceptional party systems may be explicable within a framework of purely political considerations—which raises the possibility that social and cultural conditions may themselves suffice to account for their characteristics.

Sociocultural forces

It has been argued (by Downs 1957) that party systems may be conceived of simply as showing the distribution of politically relevant preferences in society; for example, the more modal preferences there are, the larger the number of parties. This position may be useful as a premise for abstract model-building, but it is not even a tenable truism. Parties, after all, may, and often do, “aggregate” to such an extent that they comprehend internally various modal preferences—think of the Christian Democrats in Italy, Congress in India, or either American party. Also, modal preference groups have available many channels other than parties through which to act politically, particularly pressure groups and revolutionary organizations; for that reason alone “modal preference” need not equal “party,” although it may in special cases.

Party systems are obviously susceptible to the conditioning of social structure and culture. Tribally fragmented societies are not likely to produce consolidated or integrated party systems and have rarely done so, although party itself might sometimes be an antidote to social fragmentation. The doctrinaire and schismatic tradition of Islam seemed to make the preservation of an aggregative dominant party far more difficult in Pakistan than was the case in India (Almond & Coleman 1960, p. 196). Sometimes, indeed, the salient divisions of social structure are virtually mirrored in those of the party system, as in the Belgian party split between Catholics and freethinkers, a division corresponding to the overriding national split between those who speak Flemish and the Walloons who speak French (Neumann 1956), or in the division in South Africa between English- and Afrikaansspeaking people, or in the ethnic bases of the Nigerian parties.

Many such cases can be cited, but the relations between party systems, social structure, and culture are far from simple or readily apparent. One difficulty is to determine which among the many aspects of social structure and culture most impinge upon party systems, for such systems, on the evidence, may or may not reflect almost any aspect of social life. In one case, Scandinavia, the most relevant factor, if there is one, would seem to be the long past division of society into estates; in Belgium, coinciding religious and linguistic divisions; in America, regional divisions; in Italy, perhaps a split between the sexes, as much as anything else; and in many of the new nations, demographic factors and generational conflict.

More important is the fact that even the pro-foundest sociocultural cleavages often are not reflected, or are only imperfectly reflected, in party systems, no matter what they are. Some sociocultural splits never enter the political realm at all. Even if they do, they may find political outlets other than parties. They may have to find such alternative outlets if parties are, as they well may be, unresponsive to sociocultural divisions or changes in such divisions, particularly since it is not easy to found new competitive units where the old are well entrenched. And, just as many sociocultural conflicts are integrated in the units of party systems, so there are party splits that simply do not correspond to sociocultural ones. Party itself may be the main thing that divides some societies, especially where the appetite for office and spoils is great; to what sociocultural divisions, after all, did the party and factional divisions of transformist Italy correspond?

All this means that, like electoral exigencies, sociocultural conditions give only a very partial account of party systems, in that they account only for limited numbers of cases and/or account only for some aspects of the cases. A combination of the two approaches would clearly yield better results than either alone, for electoral strategy is clearly one factor that bears upon how parties reflect sociocultural forces, while sociocultural forces in turn can obviously distort and limit a purely maximizing approach to elections.

The past of party systems

There is, however, yet a third way to account for the characteristics of party systems, which seems to work well in numerous cases. Party systems, at any point in time except their origin, are largely creatures of their own histories; once in being, they become self-moving, even in the sense of self-perpetuating. The argument implies that party systems are highly responsive to external conditioning only at their formation, that subsequently they either retain their essential characteristics or change only very slowly, unless totally destroyed in political upheavals. In other words, their development is largely inherent in their original shape. Party systems may simply become incorporated into the habit background of society (for example, acquire extensive followings of nonfloating voters). Like so many organizations, parties, especially modern, bureaucratized, mass parties, may spawn groups with strong vested interests in keeping the systems substantially as they are. Or the party system may itself create strategic imperatives that condition its development: for example, if a consolidated system emerges early, it may in all cases be more politic for small groups to seek to work within it rather than independently.

One of the most conspicuous cases illustrating this theory is the remarkable similarity between the party systems of Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic, despite a change in the electoral system, and the great change in German party life that followed the destruction of the old organizations during the Nazi period. Even electoral-systems theorists implicitly provide cases in point. An example is the now common argument that while proportional representation, contrary to earlier beliefs, might not fragment or disintegrate party systems, it cannot lead to their consolidation and integration—which may only be an instance of the inability of electoral systems to affect party systems at all.

Party origins are used particularly often to account for one-party dominant systems—systems that for obvious reasons have never been related by anyone to electoral machinery. The most common hypothesis is that one-party dominance comes into being where party systems are formed in struggles for national independence, since such struggles channel political activity toward a single, widely shared, intensely held objective and reduce domestic conflict by focusing political Gegnerschaft on the clash with the external forces (Hodgkin 1962, pp. 22-23). Such dominance may then persist through the very machinery, symbols, and habits it creates, even where the political system remains in some sense competitive. It may even persist when unity begins to disintegrate, since the process of disintegration may give rise only to many small, uncompetitive opposition fragments. This familiar process may be related to extreme ethnic, regional, religious, or ideological divisions; it could, however, also result from the fact that the very strength of the dominant party makes the consolidation of opposition useless (under any electoral system) and thus provides no benefits to balance against the unavoidable costs of factional combination.

Origins may also play a significant role in shaping other kinds of party systems. It has been argued, for example, that fragmented party systems tend to come into being (and then to persist) where the beginnings of wide political participation coincide with the simultaneous existence of deeply divisive conflicts over fundamental issues, such as issues of national identity, constitutional order, and basic internal and international policy. Contrasts are often drawn in this connection between Britain—where issues were settled in the following sequence: national identity, religious policy, constitutional order, basic socioeconomic policy, and the question of Britain’s international function—and France and Germany, where all such issues arose at once, just when the party systems were being formed. Contrasts have also been drawn between party systems that originate in competitive and noncompetitive systems, as full-fledged participants or nonparticipants within competitive systems, within or outside of parliaments, in “preparty” formations or directly as party formations. To mention some examples: Parties that originate as clandestine groups in noncompetitive systems seem generally to retain a highly uncompromising style and highly disciplined organization, becoming either instruments of noncompetitive rule (in the manner of the Moroccan Istiqlal or the Tunisian Neo-Destour) or disintegrated units in genuine party systems. Parties that do not early in their histories play a fully participant role in government—like the German Imperial or prewar Japanese parties, which contested elections but had no chance to run affairs—seem to develop highly doctrinal, “irresponsible,” and oppositional styles that lead to disintegrated party systems. Parties that originate in parliamentary combinations, like the old British caucus parties, seem to put much more emphasis on electoral struggle than other goals and ties and thus to respond more to the exigencies of electoral systems than parties formed outside of parliaments. And parties originating, like so many contemporary African parties, in other associations—trades and farmers’ unions, youth associations, literary societies, study circles, tribal associations, religious sects, etc.—also seem highly resistant to electoral logic, tending to be “total organizations” in one-party dominant or disintegrated party systems.

In theories of party systems, the idea of inertia must play a serious role. Yet changes in party systems do occur, and not only after great political upheavals or always in ways that seem immanent in earlier stages. This, coupled with previous arguments, implies that just as party systems cannot be characterized on a single dimension, so their characteristics cannot be accounted for by one set of determinants. Numerous conditions manifestly are involved.

The present task of study is, however, not merely to add up determinants to yield plausible accounts of specific cases—nothing is easier—but to discover the general circumstances under which each of the conditions discussed above may be of special significance. For example, it may well be, as already suggested, that sociocultural factors are of particular significance during the genesis and youth of party systems—much as environmental stimuli most affect human personalities early in life; that thereafter party systems become constantly less sensitive to such forces and more selfdetermining; but that, under conditions earlier specified, they will replace the pulls and pushes of broad social forces with responsiveness to electoral rules. It may also be that through such a process, party systems become gradually less salient in political competition compared to structures more sensitive to social forces and, in some cases perhaps, become a positive hindrance to effective representative rule, regardless of the degree of consolidation, distribution of strength, or amount of integration in the systems (cf. Lowi 1963, pp. 573-575).

The functional impacts of party systems

The last sentence touches upon the third set of problems that arise in the study of party systems, namely, problems about their functional impacts. By this is meant broadly how party systems affect the contexts that affect the systems: how party systems contribute to the viability and effective working of other structures, including political systems as a whole, and to the achievement of specific goals. Questions concerning the functional impacts of party systems are inseparable from questions about their salience. But since it can be assumed that generally only high salience can give party systems great functional significance, study can be concentrated on the other characteristics of the systems, or salience can be treated as itself a general aspect of the functions as well as the forms of party systems.

In a field generally in infancy, the study of functional impacts is at present much the least developed. We lack not merely tested theories but any theories at all, or even explicitly stated problems about which to theorize. Possible party and party-system functions are usually just inventoried, and even that only partially, without attention to the kinds of party systems that perform them adequately or the conditions under which they do so (Lowi 1963, pp. 571-573).

Thus far, the functional impacts of party systems have been studied mainly in connection with one problem that arose naturally in the therapeutic literature on the subject: What kinds of party systems support or undermine stable and effective representative rule? The answer most often advanced has, equally naturally, been couched in terms of the classical typology of party systems: two-party systems supposedly make democracies stable and effective, multiparty systems do not. In view of what has been said here, the terminology used in this proposition itself casts doubt upon it. But even if one ignores that point, the hypothesis still leaves much to be desired both in logic and empirical fit. Logically, one can construct a situation in which a polarization of the party system might have devastating consequences—for example, a polarization of moderate and extremist forces that would make electoral competition tantamount to civil war and concentrate all the energies of the moderates on the process of keeping rather than using power. Where political conflict has great potential for violence a wide dispersion of political forces might be much preferable, even if not ideally desirable. In addition, a highly consolidated party system unsupplemented by alternative channels of political competition—a hyperaggregative system—could lead to massive alienation from representative government. It would be equally easy to construct logical models of working multiparty systems, not least because such systems have actually existed and now exist—in Norway, in Denmark, in Iceland, in prewar Czechoslovakia, and in postwar Holland. All this quite apart from the question of what sort of party system optimizes the quite separate values of representing opinions and supporting authority, while performing well the more manifest party-system functions discussed at the outset.

In the functional assessment of party systems, it is precisely such balances between different functional impacts that must be struck, for party systems impinge upon much more than the stability of parliamentary institutions. Indeed, in many contemporary societies other functional questions, as yet unstudied, even unformulated, loom much larger. For instance: What types of party systems, under what conditions, conduce to or hinder the formation of new political identities, especially broad national identities? What systems, under what circumstances, help create feelings of political community, that is, ties within as well as ties to new political structures? What party systems are suitable to political mobilization, that is, to engendering participant attitudes and behavior among political “parochials”? What party systems tend to adapt well to new political demands and forces? Do any party-system characteristics particularly help or hinder the rapid “modernization” of societies, in politics or in a wider sense? What party systems, under what conditions, encourage the proliferation and salience of other structures of political competition, and with what general effects on politics and society? What party systems produce what sorts of special political skills, help overcome personal disorientation and insecurity in periods of rapid social change, and bring out, accentuate, or effectively sublimate destructive conflicts?

We know little or nothing about such questions; they can only be proposed as items on a large agenda. But the questions themselves indicate some of the most poignant difficulties, even dilemmas, of representative rule, as well as the centrality of party systems to such rule. Party systems operate at the most sensitive points of representative government, where special interests, aggregated conflicts, national authority, and national purpose conjoin. Hence their great multifunctionality. But can any party system satisfy equally the various functions to which it may be crucial? It seems unlikely. Even the basic ends of representing opinions and supporting authority may be contradictory, not just separate; similarly, party systems that activate politically large masses may be precisely those that accentuate conflict rather than cohesion, segmental loyalties rather than national identity. Equally serious, party systems appropriate to certain ends may be least likely to exist where they are most urgently needed. For instance, where national identity and community must be created, party systems are likely to be most fragmented and unintegrated precisely because of the lack of larger social ties; where broad political mobilization is still merely a goal, party systems are most likely to consist of units based on restricted elites; where social transformation is an overriding end, party systems may tend to become foci of social recalcitrance.

Few problems of comparative politics, then, are more crucial than those of discovering what kinds of party systems optimize satisfaction of the various ends that they may have to serve and how, and to what extent the development of such systems may be promoted. Before these problems can be coped with, however, the whole universe of party systems must be better charted, and the forces that bear upon them, and which they in turn exert, must be better understood. My object here, given a subject conspicuously understudied, has been to provide an indication of how these ends might be reached.

Harry Eckstein

[See alsoElections, article onElectoral Systems; Government; Political Sociology; Politics, Comparative; Representation, article onRepresentational Systems; Systems Analysis, article OnPolitical Systems.]


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Blanksten, George I. 1959 Political Groups in Latin America. American Political Science Review 53:106-127.

Downs, Anthony 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

Duverger, Maurice 1950 L’influence des systemes electoraux sur la vie politique. Paris: Colin.

Duverger, Maurice (1951) 1962 Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. 2d English ed., rev. New York: Wiley; London: Methuen. → First published in French.

Engelmann, Frederick C. 1957 A Critique of Recent Writings on Political Parties. Journal of Politics 19: 423-440.

Hermens, Ferdinand A. 1941 Democracy or Anarchy? A Study of Proportional Representation. Univ. of Notre Dame Press.

Hodgkin, Thomas 1962 African Political Parties: An Introductory Guide. Harmondsworth (England): Penguin.

Key, Valdimer O. (1942) 1964 Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. 5th ed. New York: Crowell.

Key, Valdimer O. 1949 Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Random House.

Lavau, Georges 1953 Partis politiques et réalités sociales: Contribution a une etude realiste des partis politiques. Paris: Colin.

Leiserson, Avery 1958 Parties and Politics: An Institutional and Behavioral Approach. New York: Knopf.

Lewis, W. Arthur 1965 Beyond African Dictatorships: The Crisis of the One-party State. Encounter 25, no. 2:3-18.

Lowi, Theodore 1963 Toward Functionalism in Political Science: The Case of Innovation in Party Systems. American Political Science Review 57:570-583.

Mcdonald, Neil A. 1955 The Study of Political Parties. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Neumann, Sigmund 1954 Toward a Theory of Political Parties. World Politics 6:549-563.

Neumann, Sigmund (editor) 1956 Modern Political Parties: Approaches to Comparative Politics. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Ostrogorskii, Moisei I. 1902 Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. 2 vols. London and New York: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1964 by Quadrangle Books.

Schachter, Ruth 1961 Single-party Systems in West Africa. American Political Science Review 55:294-307.

Stokes, Donald E. 1963 Spatial Models of Party Competition. American Political Science Review 57:368-377.

Unkelbach, Helmut 1956 Grundlagen der Wahlsystematik: Stabilitdtsbedingungen der parlamentarischen Demokratie. Gottingen (Germany): Vandenhoeck.

Weiner, Myron 1957 Party Politics in India: The Development of a Multi-party System. Princeton Univ. Press.

Political Parties

views updated May 14 2018

Political Parties






Political parties are organizations subscribing to an ideology or formed around a special interest, with the aim of attaining power within government. They participate in elections, select candidates for public office, mobilize voters, raise funds, articulate political positions, coordinate policy making, develop campaign strategies, and generate symbols of party identification and loyalty. Parties are rooted in political, religious, sectional, ethnic, racial, and/or economic class interests. Parties are frequently coalitions of groups espousing disparate interests. Persons who support a partys candidates, espouse its policies, and work to advance its political objectives are partisans. An opposition party does not challenge the legitimacy of the government, but only its policies.


European political parties formed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to advise the monarchy. The model of a political party can be traced to Great Britain as the Tory and Whig parties fought for control of Parliament. Alexander Hamilton (17551804) founded the first U.S. political party, the Federalists, in 1792 to support his fiscal and political policies.

Although a competitive party system is considered to be an essential prerequisite for political freedom today, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American thinkers were wary of political parties, faulting them for serving special interests rather than the public good. Parties often were associated with treason and conspiracy. George Washington (17321799), the first president of the United States, in his Farewell Address deplored the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party (Washington 1796, p. 226). John Adams (17341826), the second president, held that a division of the republic into two great parties is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution (Adams 1851, p. 508). Political leaders who serve only the interests of their parties rather than the common good were condemned as corrupt. The Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans did not regard each other as legitimate opposition parties, but as threats to the republic that should be eliminated. When the Federalist Party collapsed in 1814, the political consensus that ensuedthe Era of Good Feelingwas cited as evidence that the U.S. system had succeeded.

Others wrote more sympathetically and prophetically about the positive role that parties played in political life. Edmund Burke (17291797) saw party competition as a necessary good. Famously defining a party as a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon particular principle in which they are all agreed, Burke declared that [p]arty divisions whether operating for good or evil are things inseparable from free government (Burke 1925, p. 229). One of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison (17511836), following the English philosopher David Hume (17111776), held in Federalist Paper number 10 that parties, or factions, could not be removed because they are rooted in mans natural propensity to differ. The mischief of factions that cause, though, could be curbed by fostering a multiplicity of factions and parties that would render unlikely that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of citizens. If they do, sufficient impediments, such as bad roads and poor communications, would make it difficult for them to act in unison (Madison 1787, pp. 5561).

Although there is no mention of political parties in the U.S. Constitution, political parties are a logical outcome of the constitutional system. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, both necessary conditions for the emergence of voluntary political organizations. The Constitutions delegation of legislative power to elected representatives encouraged the formation of political parties. Parties, in turn, transformed and democratized the constitutional system. Thomas Jefferson (17431826) is credited with having created the first popular political partythe Democratic-Republicans later known as the Democratic Party. For his election to the presidency in 1828, Andrew Jackson (17671845) transformed this party into the first national, massed-based party.


Because power is shared between the central government and the individual states, the U.S. federal system of government impedes the development of the type of unified, cohesive parties found in, for example, the European parliamentary systems. A parliamentary system demands greater party discipline because the majority party in Parliament forms the government. Except when the Democrat and Republican parties gather every four years at their national conventions to nominate candidates for the offices of president and vice president and to write their platforms, they are not in any meaningful way national parties. Rather, each is really a coalition of state parties that are themselves confederations of semiautonomous local governmental parties. Even presidents or candidates for the presidency have only feeble control over state and local party members and elected officials. Under the U.S system, a divided government is possible, when one or both houses of Congress and the presidency are held by different parties.

The ideological spectrum of political parties typically runs from left to right. Right-wing political parties espouse conservative or reactionary views, whereas left-wing parties are associated with progressive or radical policies. The Conservative Party of Canada and the United Kingdom and the Republican Party of the United States are right-wing parties, and the Labour Party of the United Kingdom, the Liberal Party of Canada, and the Democratic Party of the United States are generally considered to be left-wing parties. The British National Front Party and the Front National of France are examples of far right-wing parties, and the Green, Communist, and Socialist parties are all on the extreme left.

Political party systems vary across the world. Nonparty states, such as Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have no political parties at all. Single-party states, such as the Peoples Republic of China, North Korea, and Cuba, allow only one-party rule. The constitution of the former Soviet Union officially established the primacy of the Communist Party. The prohibition against the formation of opposition parties is evidence of the absence of liberty. In contrast, dominant-party states do allow other parties, but one party, such as the Peoples Action Party of Singapore and African National Congress Party of South Africa, typically wins most if not all elections. In the U.S. South until the 1970s, the Democratic Party won nearly all the general elections.

Two-party states, such as the United States, have two dominant national parties that vie for power. The system for electing the president in the United States entails an indirect election in which the electorate votes for a slate of electors who cast their votes for the president and vice president in an electoral college. This system impedes the formation of third parties: Because the slate of electors for the electoral college are elected in winner-take-all state elections, minor party candidates rarely win sufficient electoral college votes to have an impact on a national election. The election of legislative representatives in winner-take-all district elections further discourages the development of third parties. The principle that the single-member district plurality voting system results in a two-party system has been called Durvergers law, after the French sociologist, Maurice Duverger (b. 1917), who formulated it. The two parties tend to resemble each other because each party gravitates toward the middle in an effort to capture the independent vote.

Multiparty states, such as the United Kingdom, Israel, and Canada, have a number of parties that compete for power. A multiparty system commonly exists in states with a parliamentary form of government. If no party wins a majority of seats in a parliamentary election, a coalition government is formed between two or more parties. The majority of the members of Parliament vote for a leader who serves as the head of the government. Proportional Representation, a scheme of voting used in several European states, encourages further proliferation of parties. Under this system, legislative seats are allocated according to the percentage of popular votes that the party received in the most recent election.


Modern political scientists regard political parties as beneficial avenues through which political interests and opinions can be channeled. Democracy, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider (18921971) concluded, is unthinkable save in terms of parties (Schattschneider 1942, p. 124).

Other thinkers, though, were more cautious in their assessment of the democratic influence of political parties on government. Most significantly, the Italian anarcho-syndicalist sociologist Robert Michels (18761936) proposed the iron law of oligarchy which stipulated that no matter how democratic an organization may be initially, it will eventually develop into an oligarchy. All large organizations, to attain greater efficiency and decision-making coordination, tend to concentrate power into the hands of a few. As parties grow in size and complexity, they become more hierarchically organized. True democracy, given the premises of Michelss argument, is practically and theoretically impossible.

The noted American sociologist C. Wright Mills (19161962) observed that the top of the American political system was becoming more unified and powerful. He described in his most famous book, The Power Elite (1956), the interconnecting relationship between corporate, military, and government leaders. His controversial argument was that there was a growing power gap between a class of people Mills called the power elite and the increasingly manipulated and controlled masses.

Not all theorists agreed with the pessimistic implications of these arguments. The popular definition of democracy as government by the people, Schattschneider contended, exaggerates the power of the public. Rather, a more realistic definition that emphasizes organization and leadership rather than spontaneous grass-roots politics is needed. Democracy is a competitive political system, he observed, in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process (Schattschneider 1960, p. 141).


Some of the factors that weaken the power and influence of political parties include declining patronage, the direct primary, the role of the media, the proliferation of nonpartisan political action committees, and the growing importance of the Internet as a tool for raising campaign funds and disseminating information about candidates and issues. The direct primary diminishes the ability of party leaders to select preferred candidates to run for political office. Patronage induces voters to support the partys candidates by handing out jobs, contracts, or promotions for political reasons rather than merit. As easily accessible information about candidates and issues becomes available to voters through the mass media and the Internet, voters become less dependent on parties. Better informed voters tend to be less deferential to parties and more likely to split their votes among candidates from two or more parties.

Many analysts of the U.S. political party system detect a continuing trend toward party dealignment. A growing number of voters are declining to affiliate with any political party, preferring instead to identify themselves as independents. Since 1988 the plurality of independent voters has steadily increased. In 2004 39 percent of the American voters identified themselves as independents. Polls suggest that a large portion of the American public is allergic to partisan politics. They want candidates who promise to rise above partisan bickering and party loyalty to work on enacting legislation that will effectively solve the nations most pressing social and economic problems.

The most important function of the national political parties today is to raise funds for candidates and wage get-out-the vote campaigns.

SEE ALSO Burke, Edmund; Campaigning; Centrism; Cleavages; Constitutions; Dahl, Robert Alan; Dealignment; Democracy; Elections; Electoral Systems; Federalism; Hamilton, Alexander; Hume, David; Ideology; Interest Groups and Interests; Left and Right; Left Wing; Madison, James; Michels, Robert; Mills, C. Wright; Oligarchy, Iron Law of; One-Party States; Pluralism; Political Science; Politics; Power Elite; Representation; Right Wing; Schattschneider, E. E.; State, The; Washington, George


Adams, John. 18501856. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 1, ed. Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Little, Brown.

Aldrich, John H. 1995. Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burke, Edmund. 1925. Works, ed. C. F. Adams. London: Oxford University Press.

Duverger, Maurice. 1964. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. Trans. Barbara and Robert North. New York: Wiley and Sons.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1969. The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. 1941. The Federalist, ed. Edward Mead Earle. New York: Modern Library Press. (Orig. pub. 17871788).

Michels, Robert. [1911] 1915. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies. Trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Patterson, Kelly D. 1996. Political Parties and the Maintenance of Liberal Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. 1942. Party Government. New York: Holt. Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realists View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Washington, George. 19311941. The Writings of George Washington. Vol. 35. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

White, John Kenneth, and Daniel M. Shea. 2004. New Party Politics: From Jefferson and Hamilton to the Information Age. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

W. Wesley McDonald

Political Parties

views updated May 21 2018


The so-called Gilded Age, which extended from roughly 1876 to 1896, saw two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, dominate the political landscape. Also, during this era big businesses increased their wealth, social power, and political influence, which encouraged the two major parties to become more professional, conservative, and corrupt. As a result, some liberal reformers attempted to institute idealistic programs from within the major parties, while other citizens formed third parties to make their needs known. Many authors of realistic and naturalistic fiction wrote about political issues and were themselves politically active. In fact, this era was named after the 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain (a pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910) and Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900). It satirically contrasts America's political ideals with its political realities and presents political corruption as so common that every spring Congress must arraign dozens of its members "for taking bribes to vote for this and that and the other bill [the previous] winter" (p. 465).


Immediately following the Civil War, the Republican Party dominated the national political landscape. The young party's symbol was Abraham Lincoln; its legacy was preserving the Union and liberating the South's black slaves. The Republicans considered themselves the guardians of America's morality and social responsibility. The Democratic Party had lost national prominence because it had initiated secession in the South and continued to advocate political authority from the state and local level even after the war. Many northerners disliked the reform-minded Republicans and supported the Democrats' policies during and after the war, but in national elections they voted Republican to avoid being labeled unpatriotic "Copperheads"—a term used to refer to persons from the North who opposed the Civil War.

In the 1870s, a group known as the Radical Republicans determined the party's policies. They, and the authors who supported them, often "waved the bloody shirt," which meant they used the legacy of the war to promote their policies and proclaim the North to be financially, intellectually, and morally superior to the South. They used patriotic rhetoric to maintain political power and pass liberal social reforms in southern states. The war had devastated the South, and the Republicans' Reconstruction programs allowed northern businesspeople and politicians to exploit their advantage for profit and power. This caused deep resentment in the former Confederate states, and many people directed their anger toward Republicans, northerners, and freed blacks.

Writers of this time were interested in politics and active in political parties. William Dean Howells (1837–1920), a Republican before he became a Christian Socialist in the 1880s, supported President Ulysses S. Grant and his Reconstruction policies. Howells promoted the Republicans' war legacy while he was editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the 1870s, and in 1876 he wrote a favorable biography of the Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who was his wife's cousin. Furthermore, in Howells's A Modern Instance (1882), the amoral anti-hero, Bartley Hubbard, supports the 1876 Democratic candidate, Samuel Jones Tilden, while his honest, honorable foil, Ben Halleck, supports Hayes.

Mark Twain also supported the Radical Republicans' militant Reconstruction policies, which meant modernizing and industrializing the South as well as attempting to change the attitudes of racist and sectionalist whites. Twain equates Republican values with human values in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1885). Huck ultimately rejects the Democrats' attitude that blacks are naturally inferior and that whites have a responsibility to return fugitive slaves. Huck, ignoring Democratic political propaganda, bases his convictions on his innate sense of morality and his experiences with Jim, whom Huck saw as a human being and a friend.

While some writers used their talents to influence politics, others used their political contacts for personal favors. For example, Twain asked Howells to instruct President Hayes to block the consular appointment of fellow author Bret Harte (1836–1902). Twain felt that Harte had insulted him by not repaying a loan. "To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much," Twain wrote (Letters, p. 114), and he also called Harte a liar and a thief. In Mark Twain in Eruption, Twain criticizes Harte for refusing to vote in the 1876 election after securing promises for a consularship from both candidates. Twain remarks that Harte's maneuvering "was a curious satire upon our political system" (p. 288). However, Howells ignored Twain's protests and secretly advised Hayes to appoint Harte, who gained a consulship to Prussia in 1878.

At a time when blacks were asserting their citizenship and humanity, many southern whites used the political system to deny black men their newly acquired right to vote. Southern Democrats, with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan, limited blacks' civil and political rights. They intimidated or killed those who supported Republican candidates or black suffrage. Poll taxes and citizenship exams, from which whites often were exempt, also limited black voting and political change. W. E. B Du Bois (1868–1963) writes in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903) that "not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under any conditions, to the polls" (p. 23). Although a few blacks were elected to state and national offices, Du Bois writes that many whites told blacks to "be content to be servants, and nothing more; what need of higher culture for half-men? Away with the black man's ballot, by force or fraud" (p. 6). The white voters of the "Solid South" continued to elect Democrats to local and federal positions, which put social pressure on southern blacks to remain second-class citizens and political pressure on Republicans to abandon Reconstruction.

Black writers supported the Radical Republicans' reforms by describing the hardships slaves endured and emphasizing the humanity, intelligence, and value of black people. These writers appealed to white citizens and white politicians for protection of their rights and their lives. Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) addressed Congress directly, asking that black suffrage be protected. The Equal Rights Party nominated Douglass for vice president in 1872, but he refused the nomination and campaigned for Grant's reelection instead. Douglass was criticized by some black writers for accepting several presidential appointments after the Republicans abandoned their protection of blacks' rights in the South to appease southern white voters. Douglass was U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia (1877–1881), recorder of deeds for Washington, D.C. (1881–1886), and consul general to Haiti (1889–1891).

The Marrow of Tradition (1901) by Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932) directly critiques the racism in American politics. The novel is based on the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot in which white citizens, enraged that a suspected black rapist was found innocent, took over the city government and lynched black citizens at random. This came about after a committee of Democrats, the "Secret Nine," removed the Republican government and urged local whites to attack blacks on the city's streets (Roe, p. 233). In the novel, it is the "Big Three" who spark a racial massacre after deposing the Republican city government that had passed unpopular social-reform laws (Chesnutt, p. 242). In the novel, the Republicans could not stop the coup or the violence. In America at that time, the Republicans could not or would not stop intimidation at the polls, Jim Crow legislation, and lynch mobs.

In addition to their political control of the Solid South, the Democratic Party controlled many northern cities with their political "machines." These corrupt local organizations bribed, coerced, and intimidated voters so that party candidates were elected, graft continued unchecked, and civil service jobs were given to party supporters. The Democratic machine in New York City was known as Tammany Hall. William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, who represented the first generation of professional politicians, took control of Tammany and, in the words of John G. Sproat in "The Best Men": Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age, "plundered and ruled the first city of the land from 1866 to 1871" (p. 46). A few decades later, George Washington Plunkitt held tremendous power as a state senator in New York and a Tammany man. In interviews with William Riordon, which were published in 1905 as Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Plunkitt defends himself and his party. He differentiates dishonest and honest graft, explaining that buying cheap land that the city intends to use for a new park and selling it to the city at a large profit is successfully playing the game of politics. He brags, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em" (Riordon, p. 3). Plunkitt argues that "politics is as much a regular business as the grocery" (p. 19) and that intellectuals, orators, and reformers ultimately fail because they are not trained to play the political game.

Several authors criticize Tammany politicians in their work, including Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) in his novel Sister Carrie (1900) and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) in "Aunt Chloe's Politics" (1872). Harper's poem objects to the corrupt politicians' "mighty ugly tricks," naming "Boss" Tweed as one of the worst culprits. Harper writes that everyone must stand up to them, arguing,

this buying up each other
Is something worse than mean,
Though I thinks a heap of voting,
I go for voting clean.

(P. 1980)

In the 1870s the Radical Republicans resisted the Republicans who wanted more economically and socially conservative policies, but the party was beginning to fracture. A group known as the Liberal Republicans was formed, which served as a precursor to the Mugwumps of the 1880s. The Liberal Republicans defected from the party in 1872 and created a short-lived movement that criticized the Grant administration's political corruption and inefficiency, its Reconstruction policies, its practice of giving civil service jobs to party patrons, and its institution of unfairly high tariff rates. Politicians could no longer build coalitions among voters and within the party by "waving the bloody shirt." Realistic conceptions of American life and politics replaced the romantic image of the North's moral superiority. This change is evident in works by Howells, Frank Norris (1870–1902), Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane (1871–1900).

As voters shifted their focus from the nation's past to their own present and future, the Republican Party abandoned its Reconstruction and civil rights programs to gain support during the 1876 elections. Hayes won the White House, in part, because the party's more conservative policies attracted more voters. However, many Americans felt unhappy with the party's new priorities, and they sought new representation. New political movements gathered supporters from these disenfranchised citizens and put pressure on both the Republicans and Democrats.


In the 1870s and 1880s almost half of the nation's voters lived on farms, and many of them felt they had no political representation. Liberal reformers within the two major parties stood for many of the same policies that were supported by farmers and laborers, in particular, the elimination of political corruption, protective tariffs, and paper currency. However, the reformers defended the rights of property owners and called discontented farmers and laborers the "dangerous classes" (Sproat, p. 205). Therefore, many western farmers united to form the Granger movement and successfully lobbied to pass "Granger Laws," which limited railroad freight and grain elevator rates. Several state supreme courts declared these laws unconstitutional, but the reforms were soon federalized with the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. Eager to join political parties that directly represented them, many farmers turned to the Greenback Party in the 1880s and the Populist Party in the 1890s.

After the Civil War, the two major parties allowed the dollar ("greenbacks") to lose value and supported big business during the financial crisis known as the panic of 1873, which destroyed desperate farmers. The Greenback Party (1874–1884) was formed to institute currency expansion, and after uniting farmers with urban labor and winning fourteen seats in Congress in 1878, the Greenbacks broadened their platform to endorse woman suffrage and a graduated income tax. By 1884 farmers in the western United States were more prosperous, causing the party to lose support and dissolve.

Third party interest revived in the 1890s. Again, economically desperate farmers and laborers criticized Republicans and Democrats for supporting urban, corporate interests and ignoring their needs. Some of the leaders of the Greenback Party reorganized in 1892, and the Populist, or "People's," Party was born. Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), whose stories dramatize the bitterly hard life farmers had, advocated political reform that would protect farmers from greedy bankers and unfair railroad prices. Garland made political speeches, advising farmers to unite. In his novel A Spoil of Office (1892), young Grangers idealize the Populist Party. They claim that if they elect a Populist congressman, he will "fight [for] the interests of the farmer" (p. 10). Their prediction comes true because Garland's fictional Populist, unlike the typical politician, is selfless, altruistic, and responsive to his constituents.


Following the Civil War, the two major parties suppressed third party development in eastern cities. Their political control was challenged when the Mugwumps, a group of Republicans who left their party in 1884 to become independents, threw their support behind the Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in that year's election. The Mugwumps rejected the patronage system and refused to compromise their beliefs in order to belong to one party. In 1898 Twain criticized the Republicans' imperialism, but he refused to vote for the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. He called himself a Mugwump because instead of blindly voting for a party, he analyzed every candidate and issue individually.

Because fewer people were blindly accepting the policies and activities of the two major parties, Populist Party membership increased in eastern cities, especially among the working class. Howells publicly asserted that Edward Bellamy (1850–1898) founded and legitimized the populist movement with his book Looking Backward 2000–1888 (1888) and his speeches in the 1890s. In his novel, Bellamy advocates economic and social reforms in order to change America's social and economic ideology from competition and prejudice to cooperation, equality, and reciprocity. In his speeches, Bellamy praised the Populist Party's nationalist agenda and its interest in the rights of poor farmers, poor workers, and women. He stated that it was the only American organization that could justify calling itself a national party.

The Democratic Party appropriated populist themes and nominated populist leader William Jennings Bryan as their candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908. These elections undermined the agrarian insurgency, and the Populist Party dissolved, but popular interest in a third party did not die. Many writers joined the Socialist Party and criticized the government for allowing businesses to exploit their workers. Unlike European Socialists, American Socialists were more populist than Marxist, but the Socialist Party survived longer than other third parties because the Republicans and Democrats resisted appropriating its ideology to boost their memberships.

The Socialist Party's fight against worker exploitation is depicted in The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). Jurgis, a poor immigrant, becomes cynical after working for both of the major parties and seeing the corruption that occurred. Jurgis states that "at the last election the Republicans had paid four dollars a vote to the Democrats' three" (p. 308), which encourages him to vote "half a dozen times himself " (p. 315). Jurgis is disillusioned by politics and the politicians' unwillingness to help those truly in need. However, he regains his self-respect, his hope, and his faith in humanity after hearing a Socialist speech and joining the Socialist Party. Sinclair's novel directly influenced politics by encouraging voters to question the practices of the meatpacking industry and support the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was passed in 1906.

Frustrated that American society was based on self-interest, injustice, and the accumulation of personal wealth, Howells became a Christian Socialist in the 1880s and advocated a society based on brotherhood, equality, and freedom. His politics changed because of events like the unjust trial and execution of four anarchists associated with the 1886 Haymarket riot. Although Howells "disliked the anti-individualist implications of unionism" (Sproat, p. 218), he decided that his novels must encourage workers to organize and fight for their rights. In The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), the protagonist succeeds financially by being selfish, greedy, and competitive, but when he recognizes America's corrupt socioeconomic foundation, he acts morally and accepts financial and social ruin. In Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), a businessman's son rejects his father's competitive commercialism and joins a group of striking workers. The son agrees with a worker who argues that the Socialists should run the country because they guarantee that every man "haf voark, and that he haf foodt. All the roadts and mills and mines and landts shall be the beople's and be ron by the beople for the beople. There shall be no rich and no boor; and there shall not be war any more" (p. 310). In an 1890 book review, Hamlin Garland praises A Hazard of New Fortunes for dealing "with the most vital of all questions . . . the persistence of poverty, vice and crime," and for being "a magnificent study of the reform spirit of today" (Pizer, p. 409).

Jack London (1876–1916), concerned with economic and social injustices committed against the poor, converted to socialism in 1896. He wrote two pro-socialist books: the nonfiction title People of the Abyss (1903) and the novel The Iron Heel (1908). Also, he gave impromptu speeches to large Oakland, California, crowds in 1896, he campaigned as a Socialist mayoral candidate in 1901 and 1905, and he formed the Intercollegiate Socialist Society with Upton Sinclair in 1905. After years of frustration over the Socialists' lack of "fire and fight," London quit the party and supported Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party candidacy in 1916.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, many Americans were calling for direct democracy to replace the political machines. In 1912 a group of Republicans rejected William Howard Taft's conservative administration and asked former president Theodore Roosevelt to run against Taft as a candidate of the Progressive, or "Bull Moose," Party. The Progressives wanted to end political corruption and fought for liberal reforms, such as increased political rights for blacks and women. By splitting the Republican vote, Roosevelt's candidacy enabled the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to defeat Taft. Wilson subsequently adopted several of the Progressive Party's policies, and the third party dissolved.

Although the two major parties tried to maintain their power by excluding third party participation, reformism did have an effect on local and national policy. For example, the prohibitionists and the women's movement forced Congress to pass significant legislation between 1900 and 1920. Although temperance organizations existed throughout the nineteenth century and the Prohibition Party was founded in 1869, it was not until the first decade of the 1900s that the antialcohol crusade became a powerful political force. Twain, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, humorously shows Huck negotiating between an escape to the western frontier and obeying his aunt's small town temperance and becoming civilized. The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James (1843–1916) satirizes the busybody, meddlesome nature of reformism, including temperance preaching, in the character of Miss Birdseye. The Prohibition Party also supported woman suffrage, free public education, and prison reform. In 1919 the party found success when the Eighteenth Amendment passed and alcohol was prohibited by law.

Although the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the vote, was not passed until 1920, American female writers and activists demanded their political rights during the Gilded Age and into the twentieth century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), a suffragist and a Socialist, argued that women should be educated about politics and be allowed to vote for those whose laws directly affect women. In a 1910 essay in the Forerunner, a journal she wrote and published, she asserts that many women are, and more can be, knowledgeable and passionate about politics. Gilman sees a new political consciousness emerging in America and feels that everyone should be allowed to participate. "The day of the masculine monarchy is passing," she writes, "and the day of the human democracy is coming in" (p. 18).

see alsoThe Education of Henry Adams; Oratory; Reform; Temperance; Women's Suffrage


Primary Works

Chesnutt, Charles Waddell. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Dover, 1994.

Garland, Hamlin. A Spoil of Office. 1892. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1969.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Our Androcentric Culture; or, The Man-Made World." Forerunner 1, no. 10 (1910): 17–20.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. "Aunt Chloe's Politics." In The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2nd ed., edited by Paul Lauter et al. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1994.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. 1890. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Riordon, William. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. 1905. New York: Dutton, 1963.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages about Men and Events. New York: Harper, 1940.

Twain, Mark. Selected Mark Twain-Howells Letters, 1872–1910. Edited by Fredrick Anderson, William M. Gibson, and Henry Nash Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

Twain, Mark, and Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age. 1873. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Secondary Works

Gibson, William M. "Mark Twain and Howells: Anti-Imperialists." New England Quarterly 20, no. 4 (1947): 435–468.

Murphy, Francis. "The End of a Friendship: Two Unpublished Letters from Twain to Howells about Bret Harte." New England Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1985): 87–91.

Pizer, Donald. "Hamlin Garland in the Standard." American Literature 26, no. 3 (November 1954): 401–415.

Roe, Jae H. "Keeping an 'Old Wound' Alive: The Marrow of Tradition and the Legacy of Wilmington." African American Review 33, no. 2 (1999): 231–243.

Sadler, Elizabeth. "One Book's Influence: Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward." New England Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1944): 530–555.

Sproat, John G. "The Best Men": Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Matthew Teorey

Political Parties

views updated Jun 27 2018


By 1820 American politics had entered "The Era of Good Feelings," a time when divisive party politics seemed a thing of the past. From 1808 to 1824 the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe swept aside the Federalist Party of George Washington and John Adams in a series of lopsided electoral triumphs, concluding with Monroe's 231-1 victory in the electoral college in 1820. Such harmony soon ended. In the election of 1824 four Democratic-Republican candidates received electoral votes, with none achieving the constitutionally required majority. The contest was thrown into the House of Representatives, which elected John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) despite the fact that he finished second to Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) in the electoral college. The era of good feelings was over and a long period of party division and realignment had begun. Between 1820 and 1870 four different parties held the White House; a major second party (the Whigs) was born, matured, and died; several short-lived minority parties were formed; and the Republican Party was founded and developed into the chief rival of the Democrats. The era ended with the now-familiar two-party system firmly in place, shaping American politics and elections for the century ahead.

Most antebellum American authors grew up in a period of political disarray that made party affiliations fleeting and party labels imprecise indicators of actual ideology. These years were among the most politically unstable in America's history, with party alignments shifting rapidly, old parties splitting into competing factions, new parties arising almost overnight, and other parties coming to great power only to crumble in the next election or two. Local politics often trumped national issues, further complicating the picture in such rapidly changing states as New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, and Illinois. Westward expansion, European immigration, and a rapidly expanding franchise created an electorate with unpredictable values and desires. Between 1824 and 1828 the popular vote for president more than tripled; it doubled again by 1840. Only 350,000 people voted for president in 1824; almost 6.5 million voted in 1872. This was, as many historians have noted, the "golden age" of democracy, when forces came into play that empowered individuals politically as never before. Mass demonstrations, torchlight parades, and party platforms, slogans, and symbols all developed during this period, creating the trappings of the modern American political campaign. At the same time, however, many Americans opposed the rising tide of democracy and formed parties designed to restrict voting rights and keep political power from the masses, particularly women, African Americans, recent immigrants, and Roman Catholics. As debate over the extension of slavery into the western territories increased, parties fractured along sectional lines that in 1860 led to a second presidential election with four candidates winning electoral votes. It took the Civil War to consolidate the

U.S. presidencies/vice presidencies and party affiliations, 1817–1877
Year(s)President/Vice PresidentPolitical party
1817–1825James Monroe/Daniel TompkinsDemocratic-Republican
1825–1829John Quincy Adams/John C. CalhounDemocratic Republican
1829–1837Andrew Jackson/John C. Calhoun and Martin Van BurenDemocrat
1837–1841Martin Van Buren/Richard JohnsonDemocrat
1841William H. Harrison/John TylerWhig
1841–1845John TylerWhig
1845–1849James K. Polk/George DallasDemocrat
1849–1850Zachary Taylor/Millard FillmoreWhig
1850–1853Millard FillmoreWhig
1853–1857Franklin Pierce/William KingDemocrat
1857–1861James Buchanan/John BreckinridgeDemocrat
1861–1865Abraham Lincoln/Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew JohnsonRepublican
1865–1869Andrew JohnsonDemocrat
1869–1877Ulysses S. Grant/Schuyler ColfaxRepublican

country into the largely Republican Northeast and Midwest and the Democratic "Solid South," a regional divide that lasted until 1964.


Historians have identified four major parties during this period: Democrats, Whigs, Americans (or "Know-Nothings"), and Republicans. In addition, a number of minor parties fielded presidential candidates: the National Republican Party of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay from 1828 to 1836, the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832 and 1836, the Liberty Party from 1840 to 1848, and the Free-Soil Party from 1848 to 1856. Most minor parties originated in a faction within a previous party, but some were cobbled together from various patriotic associations and local political groups. The basic issues that divided them were the extent of federal power over the states, the extension of slavery into new states and territories, and ethno-cultural issues such as immigration and the rise of Roman Catholic political power. The major parties contained members with divergent views on these issues, making the parties highly unstable coalitions of competing interests. The minor parties, however, represented narrow ideological or sectional interests that limited their appeal and led either to their demise, as with the National Republicans, or their absorption into one of the major parties. As they disintegrated, the Anti-Masons gravitated toward the Know-Nothings and Whigs, while the antislavery Liberty and Free-Soil Parties coalesced into the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party grew out of the 1824 election that split the Democratic-Republican Party into the Adams and Jackson wings. After the House of Representatives elected Adams, he formed the National Republicans to counter Jackson's Democrats. In 1828 Jackson soundly defeated Adams, ushering in an era when Democrats won six of the next eight presidential elections and controlled nearly every congressional session until 1859. As the self-styled "party of the common man," the Democratic Party exercised great strength in the South, on the frontier, and among working-class citizens in cities. As the latter group became increasingly immigrant, Irish, and Roman Catholic, Democrats found themselves representing constituencies that helped them in the populous Northeast but alienated them from the Protestant South. The party remained unified around the slavery issue, however, for both northern workers and southern farmers felt threatened by the prospect of free African American labor. This coalition held until the annexation of Texas as a slave state (1845), the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), and the Wilmot Proviso (1846) to exclude slavery from territories acquired in the war split the party into the antislavery Barnburners and the proslavery Hunkers. Many Barnburners supported the Free-Soil ticket of Martin Van Buren in 1848, which received 10 percent of the popular vote. By the 1850s a rising tide of antislavery sentiment fueled by the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the Dred Scott decision (1856) combined with anti-Catholic sentiment to drive many former Democrats out of the party, either toward Free-Soilers or Know-Nothings. By 1860 the Democratic coalition was as shattered as it had been in 1824, and when it fielded two presidential candidates—Stephen A. Douglas from the North and John C. Breckinridge from the South—it virtually assured the election of Abraham Lincoln.

The Whig Party arose from the ashes of Adams's National Republican party in the late 1820s and adopted its official name in 1834. For the next twenty years it constituted the primary opposition to the Jacksonian Democrats. It was a major national party and from 1836 on fielded presidential candidates who rivaled the Democrats for broad support. Whigs won narrow victories in the presidential elections of 1840 and 1848 with the war heroes William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) and Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) and also won short-lived majorities in the Senate. They defined themselves largely by their opposition to Jackson and his policy of a strong executive but had difficulty maintaining party cohesion. John Tyler (1790–1862), Harrison's vice president, assumed the presidency when the old general died after one month in office and was read out of the party when, like a Jacksonian Democrat, he vetoed bills to establish a national bank. Fundamentally conservative, Whigs included an unholy coalition of states' righters, New England Congregationalists, wealthy merchants, small businessmen, high-tariff protectionists, western frontiersman, and temperance advocates. Despite their two presidential victories, the Whigs enjoyed only one congressional majority (1841–1843) and, like the Democrats, split over slavery. Many "Conscience Whigs" defected to Van Buren's Free-Soil ticket in 1848, whereas proslavery "Cotton Whigs" supported Taylor. Senator Daniel Webster (1782–1852) of Massachusetts, along with Senator Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky, repeatedly compromised with the "slave power" in order to maintain the Union. But when they supported the Compromise of 1850 that forced northerners to return fugitive slaves to their masters, Whigs lost their last shred of antislavery support. They nominated another war hero, Winfield Scott (1786–1866), for president in 1852, but he lost badly in the electoral college to the Democrat Franklin Pierce (1804–1869), and the party disappeared from the national scene by 1855.

The American Party was popularly known as the "Know-Nothings" because their members, when asked about their party affiliation, were supposed to say "I know nothing." This response reveals the party's origins in a mix of secret, nativist, Protestant societies during the 1830s, including the Anti-Masonic Party of the early 1830s and the American Republican Party that allied with the Whigs in 1844. In the late 1840s these movements united under the American Party banner and advocated severe restrictions on Catholics and immigrants, such as a twenty-one-year naturalization period. As the Whigs disintegrated during the 1850s the Know-Nothings gained strength among southern Whigs, poorer classes who felt threatened by immigration, and Protestants fearful of Roman Catholic political power. From 1855 to 1859 the party elected several U.S. senators, and in 1854 it won 347 out of 350 seats in the Massachusetts legislature. In 1856 Millard Fillmore ran for president on the American Party ticket and won eight electoral votes and over 20 percent of the popular vote. Like the Whigs and the Democrats, the Know-Nothings split over slavery, primarily the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that allowed voters in the territories to determine whether to legalize slavery. Although they did not last long on the political scene, the Know-Nothings offered a home for several strongly held and often reactionary minority positions, won numerous local and state elections, delayed the formation of the Republican Party, and helped bring about the dissolution of the Whigs.

The Republican Party developed from the growing opposition to slavery evident in the major parties and the unwillingness of Democrats or Whigs to take a firm stand on controversial issues. In 1856, spurred by the fighting over slavery in "Bleeding Kansas," a coalition of Free-Soilers, Conscience Whigs, Barnburner Democrats, and northern Know-Nothings nominated John C. Frémont (1813–1890) for president on the Republican ticket. He won an astonishing 114 electoral votes to Democrat James Buchanan's (1791–1868) 174, demonstrating that a major party had arisen to challenge Democratic hegemony. The vacillations of Pierce and Buchanan on the slavery issue and the rising crisis of sectionalism split the Democrats in the 1860 election and paved the way for Lincoln, who won a four-way race for president with 40 percent of the popular vote but a clear majority in the electoral college. With a series of overwhelming victories in the House and Senate as well as the Executive Office, Republicans consolidated their power during and after the Civil War to become the majority party for the next fifty years.


The rapid shifts of party and doctrine during this period make it difficult to align American writers consistently with any single party. Few major writers could be called "party men," and in many cases their party allegiances can only be surmised. Some, like James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), managed to alienate politicians of all stripes while others, like Washington Irving (1783–1859), ingratiated themselves with several parties. Under the prevailing "spoils system"—"to the victor belong the spoils"—parties who won power typically fired the appointees of the previous administration and replaced them with loyalists from their own party. Authors with friends in high places could win a coveted political appointment that allowed free time for writing, foreign travel, and sometimes significant remuneration. Because it was difficult to make a living on authorship alone, writers eagerly sought these appointments. Irving, for example, was a man of fundamentally conservative temper, an old-line Federalist by birth who remained unsympathetic to Jacksonian democracy. But he proved adept at negotiating the ideological shifts of his era and served as a secretary to the British legation under Jackson and as minister to Spain under Tyler, a position he resigned when the Democrats resumed power in 1845. Cooper, less politically agile than Irving, enjoyed a nonsalaried position as U.S. consul to Lyons, France, under the Adams administration. When he returned to America in 1833, he wrote such scathing political critiques of his bumptious, democratic countrymen that he antagonized both Whigs and Democrats and never served in government again.

Among the period's leading writers Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was one of the more politically successful. He remained a Democratic loyalist his entire life, and although it paid off in government appointments, it eventually damaged his reputation. He worked in the Boston Custom House from 1839 to 1841 during Van Buren's administration and in the Salem Custom House from 1846 to 1849 during James K. Polk's (1795–1849) presidency. When the Whig Millard Fillmore (1800–1874) succeeded Polk, Hawthorne was summarily dismissed. He recounts this experience memorably in his "The Custom-House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850), offering an insider's view of the ups and downs of the spoils system. In 1852 Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography for the proslavery Democrat Franklin Pierce, and when Pierce won he appointed his old college chum to a consulship in Liverpool, a position that paid especially well. After seven years abroad Hawthorne returned to Massachusetts, finally financially secure. In 1863, during the Union's darkest days, Hawthorne dedicated his last published work, Our Old Home, to his patron Pierce. For Hawthorne it was a simple act of personal friendship. But many northerners, among them some of Hawthorne's greatest admirers, considered "Copperhead Democrats" like Pierce—Democrats who advocated compromise with the South—little more than traitors. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) removed the dedication from his copy, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) could hardly believe Hawthorne had written it. This incident, along with an unflattering essay on Lincoln that Hawthorne had published a year earlier in the Atlantic Monthly, revealed his low opinion of the Republican Party and his refusal to commit to any extreme position, in this case abolition. For Hawthorne the parties changed faster than the man and left him isolated with an outmoded and discredited political ideology.

Herman Melville (1819–1891) was also an ardent Jacksonian Democrat, but unlike his friend Hawthorne he managed to keep his one political appointment for nineteen years. He tried several times to win a consul-ship, but he lacked the party credentials to succeed. His first and only government appointment came in 1866, when the pro-Union Democrat Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) was president and the highly partisan "Radical Republicans" dominated Congress. Melville became a deputy customs inspector in the New York Custom House, a modest, low-paying job he maintained through five Republican presidents and the first year of one Democratic president. He retired, relatively unscarred by public office, in December 1885.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), whose enthusiasm for democracy knew no bounds, embraced politics as eagerly as he did America itself. As a journalist and newspaper editor, his early prose writings supported the Mexican-American War and other mainstream Democratic issues. With the ascent of the Free-Soil Party, however, he found a more hospitable home for his increasingly strong antislavery views, and by the time of the Civil War he was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and the Republican Party. In 1865 he was appointed to a clerkship in the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the considerable salary of $1,200 a year, certainly more than he ever made from his poetry. Unfortunately, the new secretary of the interior found an annotated copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass in Whitman's desk and fired the poet for writing indecent literature. With the support of his friends, Whitman managed to stay on the federal payroll until 1873, when ill health, not party politics, led him to retire.

Many lesser-known writers engaged in party politics with varying degrees of success. When the Maryland novelist John Pendleton Kennedy (1795–1870), a friend of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), found that the Democrats had become too populist under Jackson, he joined the Whigs and served several terms in Congress. Millard Fillmore appointed him interim secretary of the navy in 1852. Kennedy's friend William Wirt (1772–1834), a Maryland lawyer and noted essayist, served twelve years as U.S. attorney general (1817–1829) and ran for president on the Anti-Masonic ticket in 1832. Edward Zane Carroll Judson (1823–1886), best known as the dime novelist Ned Buntline, was an early activist in the American Party and even served time in jail for his rowdy political activities. In contrast, many well-known writers stayed aloof from party affairs, even when they had strong political principles of their own. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) felt strongly about the Mexican-American War, slavery, and American cultural nationalism but seldom identified with any one party. Poe repeatedly satirized Andrew Jackson and condemned the "mob," a popular term for the working class, yet focused his attention on poetry, criticism, editing, and fiction. In the turbulent world of antebellum America, political parties remained unstable and often short-lived. Yet out of this period emerged a strong two-party system that has exercised a generally moderating influence over the electorate and given the United States a political stability many once thought it would never attain.

See alsoDemocracy


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat; or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America. With an introduction by H. L. Mencken, and an introductory note by Robert E. Spiller. New York: Vintage, 1956.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Novels. New York: Library of America, 1983. Particularly relevant are "The Custom-House, Introductory to 'The Scarlet Letter,'" pp. 121–157; The House of the Seven Gables, pp. 347–627; and The Blithedale Romance, pp. 629–848.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982. Particularly relevant is Democratic Vistas, pp. 929–994.

Secondary Works

Bernhard, Winfred E. A., ed. Political Parties in American History. New York: Putnam, 1973–1974.

Holt, Michael F. Political Parties and American PoliticalDevelopment from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Maisel, L. Sandy, ed. Political Parties & Elections in the United States: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1991.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Polakoff, Keith Ian. Political Parties in American History. New York: Wiley, 1981.

Roberts, Robert North, and Scott John Hammond. Encyclopedia of Presidential Campaigns, Slogans, Issues, and Platforms. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. History of U.S. Political Parties. New York: Chelsea House, 1973.

Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938.

Dennis Berthold

Political Parties

views updated May 29 2018


The United States Constitution is virtually silent on politics. It touches upon elections, but even here the subject is treated in a most gingerly fashion by delegating the power to set the "Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives" to the legislature of each state. Even the qualification for voting in national elections was left to the states, by the provision that whoever was qualified to vote for members of the "most numerous branch of the State Legislature" could also vote for members of the house of representatives.

The Founders saw peril in politics. The Constitution was an effort to provide a solution to politics. To james madison in the federalist #10, one of the greatest virtues of the Constitution was that it provided an antidote to the "mischiefs of faction." Because attempting to prevent the emergence of faction would be a cure worse than the disease, the only alternative was to provide a system of federalism on a continental scale so that no faction or conspiracy among factions could reach majority size, thereby becoming a party. Representative government centered in a legislature became the superior form of government because the "temporary or partial considerations" of factions would be regulated by "passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom … will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.…" george washington in his Farewell Address (the drafting of which was shared by Madison and alexander hamilton) warned of "the danger of parties in the State [founded on] geographical discriminations [and] against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally."

The Constitution was designed also to solve the political problems inherent in the presidency. In effect, Article II provided for a two-tiered presidential selection: nomination by the electors and election by the House of Representatives. Under the original Article II the process began with selection of electors in a manner provided by each state legislature. In the first election under the Constitution, in 1788–1789, the electors were chosen by legislature in seven states and by voters in six. Next, electors were to meet in their state capitals, never nationally. There is no electoral college; that term is nowhere to be found in the Constitution or in The Federalist. At the prescribed meeting at the state capital each elector had the right and obligation to cast ballots for two persons—not two votes, but separate votes for two different people, one not from the same state as the elector. If a candidate received an absolute majority of all electoral votes, he was declared the President; the candidate with the second largest vote became vice-president. If no candidate received an absolute majority, the House of Representatives would choose from the top five names, with each state having one vote, regardless of the population of the state. If two candidates received an absolute majority in a tie vote (as happened between thomas jefferson and aaron burr in 1800), the House would choose between the top two.

This system was virtually designed to produce a parliamentary government—a strong executive elected by the lower house of the legislature. During the first two decades of the Republic, the primary functions of the national government were to implement the scheme of government contemplated by the Constitution, and that required one-time-only policies, such as the establishment of the major departments, the establishment of the judiciary, and the exercise of sovereignty as a nation-state among nation-states, manifest in various kinds of treaties. Policies had to be adopted to assume all the debts previously incurred by the continental congress and the national government under the articles of confederation; laws were also adopted to assume all the debts incurred during the war by the thirteen states. All these policies and many others emanated from the executive branch. Congress looked to President Washington for leadership and accepted Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton as Washington's representative. Although consensus around Washington was replaced with polarization, even before john adams became President, the Federalists carried the necessary majorities through legislative meetings (caucuses) led mainly by Hamilton. But at the same time, all the power to enact the policies—all the power "expressly delegated" to the national government by Article I, section 8—was lodged in Congress. Inevitably, politics came out as a modified parliamentarism, with a strong executive elected by the lower house.

These arrangements seem to have been intentional on the part of the Framers of the Constitution. Without a national meeting, and with each elector having to cast ballots for two separate persons, it was to be expected that several candidates for President would be identified. The concept of the "favorite son" actually goes back to George Washington himself, and the expectation that there would be a large number of favorite sons is strongly implied by the provision that in the event of no absolute majority the top five names would be submitted to the House. Surely this means that more than five meaningful candidates would normally be produced and that final election in the House would be the norm also. With this modified parliamentary system, the Constitution and politics became synonymous. The politics of the two to three decades of the founding period followed the lines prescribed by the Constitution—or, to put it another way, flowed fairly strictly within channels established by the Constitution.

This original system was transformed within a generation following the founding. At some point during the Jefferson administration, the regime of the founding was replaced by a regime of ordinary government. One-time-only policies were replaced by routine and repeatable policies, such as internal improvements, land grants, personal claims, tariffs, patents, surveys, and other services. This type of national government is precisely what was intended by Article I, section 8. The tenth amendment (1791) merely made more explicit what was already unmistakably clear in Article I, that the important powers of governing were to be reserved to the states. What was not intended, however, was that the political solution prevailing during the first generation would come unstuck. Political parties had already emerged despite Washington's warnings, and the discipline of their members virtually destroyed the so-called Electoral College by requiring that each elector be pledged to a presidential candidate "nominated" prior to their selection as electors. Political parties captured the nominating phase of presidential selection. For twenty years thereafter the method of nomination was by legislative caucus—derisively called King Caucus. As the two major parties spread their influence to districts where they had voters but no members of Congress, the party leaders had to work out a method of nomination more representative than King Caucus. That solution, the presidential nominating convention, was adopted in 1832 and remained the institution of party government until 1952.

The national party system was by this time no longer working within prescribed constitutional channels but had created some new channels for itself. More significantly, the party system in the 1820s and 1830s created a realm of politics independent of the Constitution.

In another sense, however, the Constitution was having the last word. First, Congress had become the central power of the national government. There was no longer any development toward parliamentary government but clearly toward congressional government, as woodrow wilson put it in his important text later in the nineteenth century. Second, the nominating convention, in providing the President with a popular base independent of Congress, produced the separation of powers that many feel the Constitution had intended—a system of coequal branches each with its own separate constituency.

Third, and most important, the functions of the national government had come more into proportion with the intent of Article I, section 8. That is to say, a politics independent of the Constitution came only at the expense of the kinds of functions the national government had been required to perform during the founding decades. In fact, the relationship ought to be put the other way around. The change of functions from the one-time-only policies of the founding to the ordinary policies of the rest of the nineteenth century had been responsible for the political changes, thus confirming a fundamental and well-nigh universal pattern: every regime tends to create a politics consonant with itself. Thus, when the regime (the Constitution and its government) of the founding shifted to a regime of policies arising literally under the provisions of Article I, section 8, politics changed accordingly. For more than a century after 1832 the national government was congressional government; the national politics during that epoch was a function of party government; and together, government and politics were consistent with, and reinforced, a strictly federal Constitution in which the national government had a highly limited and specialized role in the life of the country.

A third regime emerged out of the new deal, not from the increased size of the national government but from the addition to that government of significant new functions. The significant departure from tradition arose out of the enactment of a large number of policies that can be understood only as regulatory and redistributive policies. In effect, the national government acquired its own police powers and added its own regulatory and redistributive policies to those of the states. These additions—which were validated by the Supreme Court—brought on a third regime.

Congress did more than enact the new policies that gave the national government its new functions and its directly coercive relationship to citizens. Congress also literally created a new form of government by delegating powers to the executive branch. Each of the new regulatory policies adopted by Congress identified broadly the contours of a problem and then delegated to the executive virtually all the discretion necessary to formulate the actual rules to be imposed on citizens. Technically, this is called the delegation of power, and the rationalization was that Congress had indeed passed the law and left to administrative agencies the power only to "fill in the details." But in fact the executive branch filled in more than details. Just as Woodrow Wilson called the national government of the nineteenth century congressional government, we can with no greater distortion entitle the regime following the New Deal as presidential government.

National politics began to change accordingly. Signs of the weakening of party democracy were already fairly clear during the New Deal. President franklin d. roosevelt had tried to rebuild the Democratic party into a programmatic kind of presidential party. The most dramatic moment in that effort was the "purge of 1938," an unprecedented effort by a President to defeat or demote the opposition within his own party in order to make it into a modern instrument of program development and enactment. History records that Roosevelt failed, but the meaning of that failure was not lost on the Democrats or Republicans: the President can no longer depend on locally organized opportunistic parties and must develop his own, independent base of popular support. If this support could no longer be found through political parties, the President would have to do it directly, through the media of mass communication. The President's constituency became the public en masse.

The presidential conventions of 1952 were the last of the traditional conventions, where parties still controlled the nominations through the control that state party leaders had over the delegates. And if andrew jackson can be considered the revolutionary who gave birth to the national conventions, dwight d. eisenhower was a revolutionary who turned them into vestigial organs. As the 1952 Republican Convention approached, the Eisenhower forces had to confront the fact that robert a. taft was ahead. Their only available strategy was to question the credentials of several state delegations whose members, pledged to Taft, had been selected by the traditional method of virtual appointment by state leaders and were pledged to vote slavishly for the candidate designated by the state leadership. Failing to convince the credentials committee, the Eisenhower leaders took their objections to the convention floor in the form of a "fair play" motion. The debate took place over national television—despite Taft's objections—and the Eisenhower motion swayed enough neutral delegations to gain the majority vote and the momentum sufficient to win the nomination. More important than the immediate victory was the long-range result, which was to weaken the foundations of the traditional party system itself. Progressively from that time, delegates came to be treated as factors in their own right, as individuals to be courted rather than as pawns within a state delegation controlled by state party leaders.

Once the delegates became meaningful individuals, the process of selection had to be democratized. Just as the nominating convention once was a means of democratizing the legislative caucus, the primaries became the means of democratizing conventions. But the primaries are as much a reflection as a cause of the decline of party government, including the decline of party control of the presidential selection process. Party government was already seriously undermined before the spread of selection of pledged delegates by primary elections. The transformed convention was, then, a reflection of the broader process of the decline of state and national political parties. The presidential nomination was becoming an open process by which presidential candidates amassed individual delegates, who had little in common with each other or with the candidate to whom they were pledged. The popular base of the presidency became a mass base. It was no longer the outcome of a process by which state party leaders and their delegations formed coalitions around the candidate most likely to win the nomination and election for President.

Serious students of American political parties have been arguing for more than a decade over the political reforms of the 1960s and 1970s associated with the loosening of the national parties and the virtual displacement of the national conventions. Some argue that the decline of political parties and of the convention as the institution of party government was unintentionally caused by the reforms. Others argue that parties had already declined and that the decline of conventions as the real decision-making body was already happening; therefore, the reforms were more a reflection of the decline than a cause of it. Most significant, however, is the emergence of the new regime: a new form of politics consonant with the regime of regulation and redistribution, with its presidential government.

Many of the current disagreements continue because we are still in the midst of the transformation and the ultimate form has not yet fully emerged. Two distinct scenarios or models can be drawn from the prevailing political analyses. One is "dealignment," tending toward mass democracy—that is, a direct relationship between the President and the masses of people unmediated by any representative institution at all, whether party or legislature. The second scenario is an alignment or realignment model anticipating the restoration of the two major parties. Such a development could require the abolition of some reforms instituted in the 1960s and 1970s that radically unhinged certain features of the traditional party system, and adoption of new measures aimed at restoring the power of party bosses in the presidential nominating process.

The resolution is likely to be a fusion of the two models. The entire functioning of the national government has come to rest upon the President; the expectations of all Americans focus there, and the relationship between the President and the people will continue to be direct. This is the essence of mass politics. At the same time, however, there is strong evidence of a resurgence in the headquarters of the national political parties. Yet there is no place for these parties in the direct line of communication between the President and his mass base. Thus, if these parties are to survive and prosper at the national level they will have to find functions other than the traditional ones of intervening between the masses and the President by controlling the nominating process and political campaigns. The creation of such new functions would require the national leadership to organize from the bottom up, district by district, but in fact the national headquarters are organizing from the top down. They are developing their base in the electorate by collecting data for the computerized analysis of categories of voters. These techniques permit efficient mass mailings to solicit voters and, more important, sponsors who will make millions of donations in units of less than $50 apiece. These are not electoral parties in the traditional sense. Nor are they European-style "mass parties" or social democratic parties. They are what, for lack of an established word, can be called "taxation parties," whose main function is to defray the tremendous cost of the capital necessary to maintain the computers, collect the data, analyze the data, write the letters and stuff the envelopes, and design and communicate the spot announcements and other commercial messages on extremely expensive network television.

American national politics has been in a state of transition for a long time. Professional students of elections, polling, and political parties have all been expecting some kind of "realignment" at least since 1964. Major reforms of the parties and of elections have followed each presidential election since that time; their main result has been to prevent forever the outcome of the previous convention and election. Although the Democrats have been the major reformers, mainly because they have been the major losers in national elections, the Republicans have followed them in these reforms almost immediately. The national political process has not yet adjusted effectively to the regime of regulation and redistribution. In other words, although politics ultimately takes some form consonant with the regime, there is no guaranteeing that the adjustments will be successful and stable.

This fact points to the most important contrast between the present regime and the two previous ones: National politics is flowing through channels increasingly independent of the Constitution; that is, efforts to restore party government have been oblivious to the historic relationship between the Constitution and politics.

This is not to suggest that politics is operating unconstitutionally or outside the spirit of Supreme Court decisions. It means only that efforts to restore the parties, and to reform nominations and elections accordingly, have concentrated on the flow itself rather than on the constitutional structure that ultimately determines the flow. Having recognized the many problems with American politics since the New Deal, reformers have attempted to change the politics. They have persisted in this approach even while recognizing two grievous perils in it. First, because some interests inevitably gain or lose from any political reform, there is always a suspicion that these gains were known and sought in advance. The legitimacy of the system can be badly hurt by the more generalized suspicion that the established electoral process is being manipulated. Second, some reform efforts have come close to violating the first amendment, and in fact the Supreme Court declared such a violation in buckley v. valeo (1976), striking down a law attempting to set limits on the amounts individuals could spend in campaigns. That case is definitely not the end of litigation involving First Amendment rights involved in political reforms. (See political parties and the supreme court.)

Politics can be understood as the never-ending process of adjusting to a given structure of government, or regime, by seeking sufficient power and consensus to change the structure or influence its direction. If a change in the conduct of politics is sought, the appropriate route is the exercise of the historic right to change the Constitution and the structure of government. The forms of politics would change accordingly. We have constitutional rights to change our government. As Madison argued in The Federalist #10, the attempt to regulate politics is a cure worse than the disease. If there are problems with American national politics—and there appears to be wide agreement on this proposition throughout the political spectrum—then the time may have come to reexamine the structure of government, including the Constitution itself. An extensive revision of the Constitution is neither necessary nor appropriate. The last major constitutional change was triggered by the New Deal, without a single constitutional amendment. Once we recognize that politics is most stable and most respected when it is consonant with constitutional forms, reformers might be convinced to focus at least some of their energies away from political reform and toward constitutional reform.

Theodore J. Lowi


Agar, Herbert 1966 The Price of Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Binckley, Wilfred 1947 President and Congress. New York: Knopf.

Burnham, Walter Dean 1970 Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. New York: Norton.

Charles, Joseph 1961 The Origins of the American Party System. New York: Harper & Row.

Ginsber, Benjamin 1982 The Consequences of Consent. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Lowi, Theodore J. (1967) 1975 Party, Policy and Constitution in America. In William N. Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham, eds., The American Party System—Stages of Political Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polsby, Nelson 1983 Consequences of Party Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shefter, Martin 1978 Party Bureaucracy and Political Change. In Louis Maisel and Joseph Cooper, eds., Political Parties: Development and Decay. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Political Parties

views updated May 14 2018

Political Parties

The emergence of political parties in the United States in the 1790s was anything but preordained. The nation had risen from a colonial structure fearful and mistrustful of formal institutions of political power. James Madison's famous Federalist No. 10 (1787) was an indictment of political parties, or "factions," and his sentiment was shared by all major political figures of the day, regardless of ideological predisposition, from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington and John Adams, and even to Alexander Hamilton. The common belief was that parties produced political divisiveness and a general distrust in government, elements that had no place in a free society, especially a nascent one struggling to survive in a world of Great Powers.

At the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, these early American leaders believed that the source of good government lay in the creation of sound formal institutions. Specifically, a national Constitution, with explicit powers being granted to legislative, executive, and judicial authorities, along with clear checks and balances, was key. Hard lessons had been learned under the Articles of Confederation, with the national government given little meaningful authority over state governments, a scenario that hindered the collection of taxes, the payment of the postwar debt, and the stability of the nation's defenses, all of which threatened the viability of the great experiment in American democracy. The founders believed that the new federal system, with its allocation of greater authority to the national government, would be sufficient to generate sound and stable policy and produce the sort of good government that was preferred by all.

instability in the first congress

Unfortunately, this optimistic view was not to be realized. Upon the convening of the First Congress under the new Constitution in 1789, it became clear that legislative policymaking was anything but stable. Decision making was extremely difficult, as legislative initiatives waxed and waned because of significant instability in voting. Put simply, the nature of policy proposals could be altered easily by the inclusion of amendments, which would change either narrowly or broadly the general thrust of the legislation. This substantive alteration of proposals would then reshape the respective coalitions in support or opposition. Thus, a bill might appear close to passage at one moment; however, after its provisions were altered with an amendment, it would then be defeated. Moreover, decisions themselves were reversible; that is, some bills were in fact passed but were subsequently revisited, altered, and then defeated. Thus, instability reigned in the legislative process. The only way that stable policies were produced was via "vote trades," whereby coalitions would trade support (and votes) across policy areas and agree that eventual decisions were in fact final (and thus not to be revisited). One such case was the famous Jefferson dinner party of 1790, to which Jefferson invited Madison and Hamilton to discuss and finalize a vote trade on the location of the nation's capital and a federal assumption of state debts incurred during and after the Revolution. Yet vote trades were a highly inefficient way of conducting legislative business, since a significant amount of time and effort was needed to negotiate deals on a case-by-case basis.

Underlying the instability in the First Congress was a growing ideological rift on the primary issue dimension that had structured legislative debate and voting, namely the preferred size and scope of the new federal government. While most major political leaders in the early 1790s had been Federalists in the prior decade, supporting stronger national institutions than those under the Articles, differences in perspective existed, and these differences grew over time. Two coalitions subsequently formed, one around the views of Madison and Jefferson and the other around the views of Hamilton and Adams. The Madison-Jefferson coalition held that the apportionment of authority between the federal and state governments under the Constitution struck the right balance, believing that the increase in centralization was necessary but also that the rights and authority of individual states should remain predominant. The Hamilton-Adams coalition felt the Constitution did not go far enough in centralizing power at the national level, believing that an activist federal government was necessary to build and protect a burgeoning nation. The Hamilton-Adams coalition possessed a majority in the First Congress, but it was unable to realize its policy goals. Whenever a pro-federal majority was close to passing a legislative proposal, members of the Madison-Jefferson coalition tacked on an amendment, adding a local or regional dimension, that upset the fragile majority coalition. Assumption of state debt, which eventually became part of the "dinner party" vote trade, was one such case where the Hamilton-Adams coalition was thwarted. This pattern played itself out across the first session of the First Congress, generating constant instability and frustrating the will of the profederal majority.

the first party system

Eventually, Hamilton devised a plan to overcome the antifederal resistance. His strategy was to adopt a set of informal mechanisms that together would eventually form the structural basis of a political party. At the time, however, Hamilton had no grand scheme of party development in mind; rather, he acted pragmatically in hopes of achieving the more modest goal of organizing the profederal majority into a consistent voting bloc. If this could be accomplished, Hamilton believed, a consistent stream of legislative victories would follow. His strategy took two forms. First, he set up an informal caucus system so that members of the profederal group could come together, discuss strategies, and learn the benefits of coordinating their behavior. The caucus message was that if they organized and acted collectively, they would win more often. Second, Hamilton established floor leaders in both chambers of Congress to further institutionalize the organization. Their role was to prevent the opposition from introducing sectionally based amendments to split his profederal majority, as well as to serve as protowhips, keeping members of the coalition informed as to goals and strategies and assuring that they would act in concert. By the second session of the First Congress, his plan was in full swing, and by the third session, the benefits were clear. Specifically, Hamilton pushed through a set of financial measures—a system of taxation, a mint, and a national bank—that expanded the federal system. The first two measures were adopted rather easily, but the bank bill encountered significant opposition. Nevertheless, Hamilton's profederal majority hung together, staved off amendments, and passed the bill. Organization had led to stability, and stability had yielded legislative victories.

The success of Hamilton's coalition became abundantly clear to Madison and Jefferson, and by the Second Congress (1791–1793) they had begun to organize an opposition. Moreover, clear labels began to be used to define the individual coalitions, with Hamilton's group adopting the "Federalist" label and Madison and Jefferson's group taking on the "Republican" (or "Democratic Republican") label. Madison, who had once eschewed political parties, now framed them as democratic devices, egalitarian in nature, that could be used for achieving a greater good. More clearly, he framed his Republicans as the "people's alternative" to the more aristocratic Federalists. Parties, to Madison, were now an essential part of the American experience, crucial to giving diverse groups an equal voice in the political process.

Thus, by the Third Congress (1793–1795), a political party system was in full bloom, specifically an institutional party system. That is, a party-in-Congress had developed, with other national features such as a mechanism for presidential nominations (through congressional party caucuses). The other aspects of a modern party system—a party-in-elections, with clear partisan campaigns and mass party identification and linkages, and a party-in-government, with organized and integrated party-based units at the local, state, and national levels—were still decades from developing fully. Still, by the mid-1790s, the beginnings of such aspects were present, such as the emergence of party press organs, the use of party labels in electoral politics, and the rise of party organizations at the national level (like the New York–Virginia alliance).

For the remainder of the 1790s, the partisan schism between the Federalists and Republicans increased steadily. Events such as Jay's Treaty (1794), the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), and the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (1798) continued to firm up partisan voting blocs in the Fourth (1795–1797), Fifth (1797–1799), and Sixth (1799–1801) Congresses. In terms of majority control, the Federalists reigned supreme for the first dozen years of the federal system, except for losing the House of Representatives briefly to the Republicans in the Fourth Congress. This Federalist domination changed in 1800 and 1801 as Jefferson was elected president (after an electoral stalemate and a thirty-six-ballot election in the lame-duck Sixth House) and the Republicans swept the elections to the Seventh Congress. The Federalists would continue to vie with the Republicans throughout the first decade of the nineteenth century, but their influence would wane substantially. The Federalists' electoral strength was in the Northeast, a section that became less influential politically as the nation's population grew and shifted toward the West and South, which were heavily Republican areas. The reapportionment after the 1800 census captured these population trends as the size of the House increased by nearly one-third, with the seat additions occurring almost entirely outside of the Northeast. Nevertheless, the Federalists maintained their organization and continued to serve as the major opposition party to the Republicans through the mid-1810s.

The ending of the Federalist-Republican system, or the First Party System, can be traced to events surrounding the War of 1812 (1812–1815). This second war with Britain was initiated by the War Hawks, a new group of nationalistic Republicans from the West led by House Speaker Henry Clay. The Federalists, on the other hand, with their historic ties to the British, operated as the antiwar party during this period. As such, they actually saw their numbers in Congress and state legislatures increase substantially, thanks to the growing antiwar sentiment in the nation and an uncertain political-economic environment. In December 1814 and January 1815, the Federalists met in Hartford, Connecticut, and denounced the Madison administration and the war with Great Britain. Unfortunately, the Hartford Convention was ill timed, as General Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, turning the tide of public sentiment toward the war. Very quickly, the Federalist Party was framed as the anti-American Party, as stories of near-treasonous events at Hartford, such as (unfounded) claims of secession proceedings, were reported in the Republican press. The Federalist organization, which had been relatively weak for more than a decade, could not overcome these accusations and slowly disappeared as a viable national party.

an unstable one-party era

Shortly after his election to the presidency in 1816, James Monroe predicted that the country was entering a new period, an Era of Good Feeling. His belief was that political battles would cease and that cooperation and concession would be the rule, since the Republicans would be operating as the sole national party. Monroe's prediction proved to be inaccurate, however, as this period of one-party rule was anything but amicable. With the Federalists no longer operating as a serious national party, the Republicans lacked a clear foil against which to organize and coordinate. As a result, regional and sectional issues were placed above national issues, leading to rifts within the Republican coalition. In particular, younger Republicans from the West, many of the War Hawk mentality, championed expansionism and a more activist national government (ironically echoing sentiments expressed by the Federalists), putting them at odds with older Republicans from the South, who supported the traditional party positions of states' rights and limited federal power. Congressional voting during this period was highly unstable, stemming from the lack of party discipline, the constant influx of sectional issues, and the general fluidity of members' policy positions. Indeed, the years between 1816 and 1824 have been called the most unstable period in congressional history, with voting patterns often bordering on chaotic.

In time, groups of these Republicans began coalescing around individuals who would become candidates for the presidency in 1824: John Quincy Adams, the secretary of state; William Crawford, the secretary of the Treasury; Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House; and Andrew Jackson, the war hero and U.S. senator from Tennessee. While Crawford would eventually receive the presidential nomination of the congressional caucus in 1823, this mattered little by that time. That is, the caucus nomination had been criticized as undemocratic for more than a decade, leading the other three potential candidates to reject it as politically definitive. Rather, they turned to "the people" for their nominations, as the Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson, the Kentucky legislature nominated Clay, and various groups in New England nominated Adams. As a result, the lead-up to the presidential election of 1824 was significant in opening up the political process, establishing fresh connections between citizens and candidates, and encouraging new and greater participation throughout the nation.

In the end, the presidential election of 1824 was thrown into the House of Representatives, as no candidate received a majority of electoral college votes. The House ballot was held in February 1825, and John Quincy Adams won a bare majority on the first ballot. Adams's winning coalition combined states loyal to him with states loyal to Henry Clay (who had finished fourth in the popular canvas and thus was excluded from the House ballot). In short order, charges of a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay were reported in the press, made all the more compelling when Adams tapped Clay as his secretary of state. In reality, Adams and Clay were quite close ideologically, leading to a natural (and rational) joining of forces. Moreover, most of the conspiracy charges were manufactured and distributed by Jackson's cronies, with an eye toward the presidential election of 1828. Between 1824 and 1828, the Republican Party would split into Adams and Jackson wings, as Jackson's coalition began building the nation's first mass party organization. Jackson would go on to win the presidential election of 1828, and the Adams-Clay wing of the party would lead the anti-Jackson opposition for the next decade. By the late 1830s, the large group of nominal Republicans would finally split into two mass parties, the Democrats (the former Jackson wing) and the Whigs (the former Adams-Clay wing), and form the Second Party System.

See alsoArticles of Confederation; Congress; Constitutional Convention; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Election of 1824; Election of 1828; Era of Good Feeling; Federalist Party; Hartford Convention; Madison, James; Monroe, James .


Aldrich, John H. Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Party Politics in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Dangerfield, George. The Era of Good Feelings. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.

Dunn, Susan. Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hoadley, John F. Origins of American Political Parties, 1789–1803. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Jenkins, Jeffery A., and Brian R. Sala. "The Spatial Theory of Voting and the Presidential Election of 1824." American Journal of Political Science 42 (1998): 1157–1179.

Livermore, Shaw. The Twilight of Federalism: The Disintegration of the Federalist Party, 1815–1830. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Martis, Kenneth C. The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789–1989. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Poole, Keith T., and Howard Rosenthal. Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting. N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jeffery A. Jenkins

Political Parties

views updated May 18 2018

Political Parties

Political parties are key institutions in contemporary democracies. As E. E. Schattschneider famously asserted more than half a century ago, "Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties" (Schattschneider 1941). With etymological origins dating back to the Latin pars (meaning "part"), parties naturally represent only part of the general interest. Because they unite people on the basis of different ideological principles and opposing interests, parties were initially viewed with suspicion because they were perceived as a threat to the rights of other citizens and the aggregate interest of the community.

The United States in particular has a long-standing tradition of distrust of parties, but antiparty sentiments also existed in Europe. Essentially, political parties when they first emerged were seen as incompatible with the liberal democratic tradition rooted in the political philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704) and the radical democratic tradition inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Both traditions are difficult to marry with partisan institutions, which by nature transcend individual interests and refute the existence of a general will.

The introduction of universal suffrage and the advent of mass democracy made direct links between the state and individual citizens increasingly unrealistic and thus served to legitimize the existence of parties as intermediary institutions. After World War II (1939–1945), beginning with the restoration of democracy in Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany, parties were increasingly given a formal place in liberal democratic constitutions as key institutions for democracy. Despite the recent challenges of declining party memberships and weakening levels of party identification, parties of the twenty-first century are firmly rooted in the established democracies and have also rapidly acquired relevance in the more recently established democracies in Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere in the world. In most contemporary democracies, policies are decided within parties, legislative decisions are made by elected party officials, and these officials are recruited and held accountable through parties. Political parties have put such a strong mark on twentieth-century politics and democracy that it can be best described as party democracy.

party functions and goals

Political parties perform a number of functions essential to a healthy performance of democracy. On the one hand, these functions are procedural or institutional in nature. One of their key functions is recruitment, which means that parties are responsible for the selection and nomination of potential candidates for public office. Their electoral function consists of proposing their candidates to the public, providing citizens with a choice between alternatives and thereby structuring the electoral process, and campaigning for popular support. Another crucial institutional function is that of the organization of government and parliament and of democracy as whole. Parties furthermore formulate and implement public policy and act as a channel of communication between politicians and the public. Parties also perform a number of representative functions. They are vehicles of interest representation and channels of interest articulation and aggregation (i.e., they articulate popular demands into the decision-making arena and aggregate these demands into more or less coherent policy packages). Parties also serve to integrate citizens into the political system and to mobilize political awareness and popular support. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the representative functions of parties declined substantially, whereas their procedural role is still intact and might even have been enhanced.

Parties may pursue a variety of objectives. One common approach suggests that their principal goal is one of the three following: office-seeking, policy-seeking, or vote-seeking. That is, they are ultimately mainly interested in the spoils of office and government power, in implementing their preferred policies, or in acquiring as many votes (and seats) as possible. In practice, they may pursue multiple goals and a combination of these three primary objectives.

party families

A commonly used approach in the comparative study of political parties is based on the notion of party families. Following common classifications, key examples of major party families can be said to include liberal parties, conservative parties, socialist and social democratic workers' or labor parties, Christian democratic parties, communist parties, agrarian parties, regional parties, right-wing extremist parties, and green parties. Parties belonging to the same family often carry the same party label. Parties may be members of the same family because of their shared origins, having first emerged and mobilized in similar historical circumstances with the intention of representing similar interests. Furthermore, parties belonging to one family tend to pursue similar policies and may profess similar ideologies. Finally, the members of a particular family can be identified on the basis of their international links, as they join together in organizations such as the Liberal International or the Socialist International. The cooperation between like-minded political parties in the European Parliament has stimulated the institutionalization of transnational party federations and "Europarties."

Social democratic parties are the strongest and most enduring of Western Europe's political families. The majority of social democratic parties first entered electoral politics in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They were initially mobilized to represent the interests of the working class, and it was largely as a result of their intervention that most West European welfare states were expanded during the 1950s and 1960s. Although they were created as a challenge to the existing political and economic order, their radical impulse waned with time as they came to settle for a political role based on managing a mixed economy. Their drift toward moderation has become more accentuated from the 1990s onward, as social democratic parties throughout Europe have had to come to terms with the constraints of state intervention determined by the process of European integration and increased globalization. Despite their increasingly neo-liberal course, the policy emphasis of most social democratic parties maintains a commitment to welfarism and egalitarianism.

Most communist parties emerged as the result of a split in the socialist movement after the Russian Revolution (1917–1919). They established themselves as radical alternatives to the parliamentarism of social democracy, advocating Marxist-Leninist principles and favoring a revolutionary road to socialism. Because of their alliance with the Soviet Communist Party and their evident radicalism, communist parties were typically regarded as antisystem oppositions and mere transmission belts of Moscow. In part as a response to their electoral stagnation and decline and in part as an attempt to end their political isolation, many Western European communist parties began to elaborate a distinctively non-Soviet strategy during the postwar period. This shift caused the emergence of so-called Eurocommunism in the 1970s, which was especially strong in southern Europe. After the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe communist parties effectively disappeared as independent political forces or engaged in a process of programmatic reform and dropped their ideological labels.

Liberal parties were the first to organize in Western European party systems, emerging in the nineteenth century. Historically, liberal parties have been associated with the promotion of individual rights, the impulse to extend the franchise, and the resistance to clerical influences on political life. Two basic strands of European liberalism can be distinguished. In the more right-wing strand, the emphasis on the individual has led to opposition to all but minimal state intervention in the economy. The more centrist, if not left-leaning, strand reflects a position in which a concern for individual rights and progressive politics has created an emphasis on social justice and egalitarianism.

Christian democracy has a basis in almost all established Western European democracies, although an ongoing process of secularization continues to erode its electoral support. The largest group within the Christian democratic family is Roman Catholic in origin. A second group comprises parties that draw cross-denominational support from both Catholics and Protestants, such as in post–World War II Germany and the Netherlands. The third and much smaller group is primarily Protestant and is typically found in the Scandinavian countries. The heritage of Christian democracy dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when Catholic mobilization took place in response to the secularizing tendencies of conservatives and liberals. This crystallized in an enduring conflict between the Church and the state over the question of the ultimate authority over policies of public morality and, above all, education. With regard to socioeconomic policy, Christian democratic parties have traditionally shared common ground with social democratic parties in their opposition to neo-liberal, and individualistic policies.

Conservative parties generally emerged in opposition to political changes proposed by the early nineteenth-century liberals such as the extensions of the franchise. They emerged largely to protect the interests of those who had a stake in the existing economic and political order, such as the landowners and the clergy. The policies of conservative parties typically are consistent with their long-standing opposition to general social change. They tend to underline the need to support private business, encourage fiscal austerity, emphasize government efficiency, as well as issues related to law and order. In many countries, conservative parties stress the importance of traditional national values, the family, and moral values. They can also be quite ambiguous in their attitude toward European integration.

Extreme right-wing parties have increased their electoral support considerably in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. At the core, there are

two principal appeals that characterize the extreme right. First, almost without exception, they mobilize against immigration and against those policies that are seen to promote multiculturalism. Right-wing extremist parties are often highly xenophobic (fearful of strangers and foreigners) and are sometimes extremely nationalist or racist. Second, as outsider and anti-establishment parties, they mobilize a populist appeal against what they see as the self-serving or corrupt character of the political class.

Green or environmental parties first emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s. Their policy emphasis is primarily on the need to protect the environment, which involves promoting policies that curb economic growth and require substantial regulation of industrial and commercial activity. Green parties also emphasize the need for international peace and disarmament and advocate an increase in the level of development aid. They often also call attention to social justice and the persisting political inequalities of women and ethnic minorities. Green parties also stress participation and democracy and sometimes attempt to structure their own organizations in such as way as to encourage maximum grassroots involvement. Typically "green" issues now rank high on the political agenda of all the parties, especially of the left.

party organization

The first parties to emerge were conservative and liberal parties, which appeared before the introduction of universal suffrage. These elite parties were primarily followings of the aristocracy or parties of notables, existing as federations of closed and relatively autonomous caucuses in which entrance tended to occur only through invitation or formal nomination. Until the extension of the franchise compelled them to create more permanent party structures, they were active only during periods of election and did not exist as organized associations between localities. Party cohesion existed only at the level of the parliamentary delegates.

In stark contrast with these cadre parties, mass parties are based on tightly organized and permanent party structures with dense and extensive networks of local branches and high levels of membership mobilization. Mass parties display a high level of vertical articulation, with a strong connection of the different organizational levels through the bottom–up representation of lower strata on the higher echelons. Their emphasis on internal cohesion has prompted concerns over their internal oligarchic structures and the lack of internal party democracy. Mass parties emerged on the eve of the franchise extension in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and usually represented the economically and politically underprivileged working class.

Traditionally, the classic mass party is the typical model of organization for social democratic and socialist workers' parties and communist parties, as well as some religious (especially Catholic) parties. They are characteristically parties of civil society, pursuing strategies of mass mobilization and relying on large numbers of members and supporters. In contrast with the earlier elite parties, which sought to pursue the common or national interest, mass parties were the first parties that explicitly claimed to represent the interests of only one specific and relatively clearly circumscribed segment of society.

In the era following World War II, the ideological differences among parties started to diminish, and parties began to broaden their appeal to the electorate at large. Parties transformed themselves into catch-all parties, for which the moral and intellectual encapsulation into the party organization of the masses was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Parties drastically reduced their ideological baggage and adopted offensive electoral strategies, attempting to appeal to a wider audience and aiming at more immediate electoral success. Parties strengthened the power of the top leadership groups and downgraded the role of the individual party member. From late 1960s and early 1970s, politics was seen to become increasingly about electoral competition among professional party elites rather than the mobilization and representation of socially distinct groups. Elections came to revolve primarily around the choice of leaders rather than the choice of policies or programs.

The late twentieth century saw the emergence of the cartel party, in which colluding parties become entrenched within the state and employ resources of the state (such as public funding and state-regulated media access) to facilitate their own survival. Parties have moved away from their traditionally strong linkages with society toward an intensification of their relation with the state, to the point that they have effectively become incorporated within the institutionalized structures of the state and have become agents of the state rather than the instruments of civil society. In the era of the cartel party, the goal of politics has become more self-referential, with politics itself having become a skilled profession. Electoral competition takes place on rival claims to efficient and effective management rather than representative capacity or policy effectiveness.

party systems

The study of party systems is concerned with the patterns of interactions between parties and relates to the processes of electoral competition and government formation. Two-party systems such as the United Kingdom's feature competition between two parties more or less equal in size and tend to offer the prospect of single-party cabinets and complete alteration in government. Two-party systems are often seen to encourage center-seeking electoral strategies with the two parties converging toward one another in the center of the ideological spectrum.

In multiparty systems, government formation usually requires a coalition of parties, and a wholesale alternation in government is not always possible. Two varieties of multiparty systems can be distinguished based on the ideological distance between parties as well as the number of relevant parties. The relatively stable systems of moderate pluralism show a limited degree of party fragmentation, feature a relatively small ideological distance between parties, and are characterized by moderate centripetal competition. The more unstable systems of polarized pluralism are highly fragmented and ideologically polarized, with anti-system parties located at the extreme ends of the political spectrum contributing to centrifugal patterns of electoral competition. In systems of polarized pluralism, the lack of prospect of government office encourages irresponsible opposition parties to engage in a politics of outbidding or overpromising. Typical examples of polarized pluralism include the Italian First Republic (1946–1992) and the French Fourth Republic (1946–1958).

See also: Political Party Systems.


Biezen, Ingrid van. Political Parties in New Democracies: Party Organization in Southern and East-Central Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Dalton, Russell J., and Martin P. Wattenberg, eds. Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gallagher, Michael, Michael Laver, and Peter Mair. Representative Government in Modern Europe: Institutions, Parties and Governments. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Hix, Simon, and Christopher Lord. Political Parties in the European Union. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1997.

Katz, Richard S., and Peter Mair. "Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party." Party Politics 1, no. 1(1995):5–28.

Mair, Peter. Party System Change: Approaches and Interpretations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Müller, Wolfgang C., and Kaare Strøm. Policy, Office, or Votes? How Political Parties in Western Europe make Hard Decisions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1999.

Schattschneider, E. E. Party Government. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1942.

Ware, Alan. Political Parties and Party Systems. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ingrid van Biezen

Political Parties

views updated Jun 11 2018


POLITICAL PARTIES, along with other political organizations (such as Political Action Committees, or PACs) have the ability to increase the political effectiveness of individuals by bringing them into an aggregate. The importance and distinctiveness of parties as political

organizations spring from their domination of electoral politics. Candidates are identified solely by party affiliation on the ballots and, although many candidates in the United States now use television advertisements that omit this information, the party label is still the principal cue for the voter at the polls.

The relationship of the parties to mass electoral politics is apparent in their evolution. Originally, political parties were legislative caucuses and elite nominating organizations. They assumed their modern form with the expansion of the male suffrage in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the parties first gained broad support in the electorate and a network of constituency-based local parties. Thus, they became instruments for organizing and representing the expanding electorates. By the latter half of the century, in fact, they had become instruments by which the new masses of voters wrested control of cities from old patrician and economic elites.

Origin and Development of American Political Parties

The origin and development of the American political parties stand entirely apart from the U.S. Constitution. Nowhere in it are they mentioned or even anticipated. Throughout American history they have been instruments of the democratization of the Constitution as well as a result of that process. The parties and their system of loyalty transformed the electoral college and the entire process of electing an American president into something approaching a majoritarian decision.

Scholars have identified five party systems that arose out of what political scientist V. O. Key called "critical elections," or periods of political realignment. Political participation rose suddenly, after a decline, and key components of a national coalition rearranged themselves. For example, the realignment of 1896 ushered in a generation of Republican dominance of politics in all areas except the South. Newly arrived immigrants affiliated for the first time with the GOP ("Grand Old Party," as the Republican Party is known), because the Republicans addressed themselves to the interests of urban workers by sponsoring protectionism. The Democrats, under William Jennings Bryan, addressed themselves to agrarian issues at the expense of urban interests.

The first party system, of Federalists and Democratic Republicans, took on the character of a mass-based party system after the election of 1800 which featured a dramatic rise in turnout that eventually included the majority of adult white males in most states. This "Revolution of 1800," as well as the first party system collapsed in the 1820s; the Jacksonian, or second party system, followed the critical election of 1828, with two parties that were competitive in every state of the Union, the Whigs and the Democrats. The third party system followed the 1860 election and continued for a generation after the Civil War. In this period, Democrats and Republicans achieved the highest rates of turnout ever recorded in American elections. This party system was driven by deep sectional, religious, ethnic, and racial antagonism. The election of 1896 promoted Republican dominance of American politics until 1932. With the exception of the Wilson years in the White House (1913–1921), the Democrats spent most of this time deeply divided between the agrarian and the urban wings of the party. The fifth party system, following the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, was the model by which Key developed his notion of critical elections. Republicans and Democrats, while retaining some of their sectional and religious differences, primarily appealed to different voters on the basis of their socioeconomic classes rather than their regional or religious backgrounds. Thus for the first time, African Americans, who had always voted for the party of Lincoln, now found their economic interests better addressed by the New Deal Democrats and they altered their party loyalties accordingly. The fifth party system endured until the 1960s, when the Democratic coalition, forged in the New Deal, of labor, immigrants, small farmers, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and white southerners began to break down. In the chaotic politics of the 1960s, southern whites, Catholics, and labor felt increasingly alienated from what they saw as the "cultural" politics of the 1970s: inclusive politics emphasizing the interests of women, African Americans, and Latinos. During this period, these groups became a swing coalition altering their partisan preferences from election to election, becoming Democrats for Nixon, Democrats for Carter, Reagan Democrats, and Clinton Democrats. The result of this large swing component in the electorate has been what some political scientists call "de-alignment," or the detachment of voter identification from consistent party loyalty.

American parties are also marked by a distinctive, three-part character that sets them apart from other political organizations. They are composed of an identifiable set of committees and activists (the party organization), a group of public officeholders and would-be officeholders (the party in the government), and a large contingent of loyalists who consider themselves to be members of the party (the party in the electorate). Ordinary usage recognizes any of the three sectors as the party, and, as in parties elsewhere, American party organizations and parties in government have contested for supremacy in the party and for control of its symbols and decisions. It is peculiar to the American party system that party organizations have rarely subjected the party's officeholders to even the mildest forms of direction or sanctions.

Special Characteristics of American Parties

While the development of American parties was similar to that of parties in other Western democracies and for most of the same reasons, the American party system has always had special characteristics. In form it has long been marked by considerable decentralization, by nonbureaucratic, skeletal organizations, and by the persistence of only two competitive parties. That is to say, the American parties have always been loose confederations of state and

local party organizations. Never have they developed the strong national executives or committees that parties elsewhere have. Nor have they developed the membership organizations common in the twentieth century in other countries. Largely without formal memberships or career bureaucracies, they have been staffed at most levels—except perhaps within the classic urban machine—by only a few party functionaries investing only limited time and energy in the business of the party. Along with the British parties and few others, the American parties have remained two in number. The parliamentary systems in English-speaking democracies have opted for a first-past the-post system of elections, except in Ireland. This kind of system creates strong incentives for a two-party system to maximize the vote.

Related to these formal organizational characteristics has been the parties' chief functional trait: the pragmatic, almost issueless majoritarianism through which they piece together electoral majorities through strategies of compromise and accommodation. They have been much less involved in the business of doctrine or ideology than similar parties elsewhere. Platforms have revealed only modest differences between the two parties. Periodically one finds movements and candidates within the parties who have been intensely programmatic, but, until the presidency of Ronald Reagan, their records of success, even when they have captured their party's presidential nominations, have not been good.

The American parties have found their major role as nominators and electors of candidates for public office. They waxed in the nineteenth century in their ability to confer the party label on candidates, first in party caucuses and then in the more widely consultative conventions that Jacksonian Democracy favored. Especially during the prevailing one-partyism of so much of American politics at the end of the nineteenth century, the excesses of party power in those nominations led to the advent of the direct primary in the years between 1900 and World War I. By the 1970s, party control of nominations was limited to some degree by primary laws in every state. In several states, to be sure, the primary law left some nominations to party conventions; in others in which it did not, the parties devised ways (especially in preprimary endorsements) of affecting the primary-election outcomes. The quadrennial national conventions at which the parties choose their presidential candidates remain an important but increasingly vestigial remnant of the party's once unchallenged control of nominations.

Control of nominations has shifted away from the party organization to the party in government; the same is true of the control of election campaigns. The vigorous political organizations of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century controlled, even monopolized, the major election resources. Its army of workers publicized the candidates, raised their own campaign funds, and recruited their own workers. And they have been able to find sources of campaign experience other than the party organization—the opinion pollsters, the political public relations firms, the mass media. Just as the primary ended the party organization's monopoly of nominations, the rise of the new campaign expertise threatens its control of the election campaign.

Nonetheless, most American officeholders reach office on the ticket of one of the major American parties. American presidents and governors are party leaders, and in the early part of the twentieth century all state legislatures (except the nonpartisan legislature of Nebraska) were organized along party lines. Beginning in the 1990s, moreover, Congress and, to a lesser extent, the state legislatures began to adopt a more assertive form of partisanship. Beginning with the Republican Party's Contract with America in the 1990s, the House and Senate leadership put into effect an ideologically oriented public policy. In the Contract with America, in budget negotiations with the White House, and with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, "party votes" roll calls—in which the majority of one party opposed a majority of the other—began to increase, after a decline that had lasted for almost all of the twentieth century.

American presidents, on the other hand, have found it necessary to be less partisan than their congressional colleagues. Building majority support for a president's program, to be successful, has in recent years required votes from the opposition party. Ronald Reagan achieved his legislative successes with the help of the Boll Weevils, the conservative Democrats from the Deep South and Texas who supported his tax-cutting policy. Bill Clinton relied on moderate Republicans not only for assistance in getting his budget bills passed, but also for his very survival in the Senate trial after his impeachment. Despite the president's less partisan approach, it is the president's record that most reflects on the party. The power of the political party has been joined to the power of the presidency. As coalitions led by the executive, American parties find their governing role conditioned above all by the American separation of powers. That role contrasts sharply with the role of the cohesive parties that support cabinets in the parliaments of most other Western democracies.


Broder, David. The Party's Over: The Failure of Politics in America. New York: Harper, 1972.

Chambers, William Nisbet, and Walter Dean Burnham. American Party Systems: Stages of Political Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Formisano, Ronald P. The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827–1861. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Key, V.O. Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. 5th ed. New York: Crowell, 1965.

Ladd, Everett Carl. American Political Parties: Social Change and Political Response. New York: Norton, 1970.

Sorauf, Frank J. Political Parties in the American System. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

Shafer, Byron E. The End of Realignment?: Interpreting American Electoral Eras. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Andrew W.Robertson

See alsoCaucus ; Convention of 1800 ; Conventions, Party Nominating ; Primary, Direct ; Platform, Party ; Two-Party System .

Political Parties

views updated May 21 2018


Political parties played an important role in nineteenth-century America and ultimately had an impact on the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War (1861–1865). The Democratic Party emerged under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson, who proclaimed himself a man of the people. Opposition to him arose in the form of the Whig Party, which formed in the 1830s and lasted until the 1850s. Whigs resisted the growth of presidential power, promoted internal improvements and the creation of a national bank, and opposed territorial expansion. But neither party held to a rigid set of policies.

Civil War-era Americans viewed political parties as devices to protect and preserve the freedoms promised in America's founding documents. The failure of the existing parties to address perceived threats to these values in the 1850s led to a partisan realignment. The ensuing Civil War and Reconstruction shaped the identities of Republicans and Democrats for decades to come.

the coming of war

In 1852, the national conventions of the Whig and Democratic parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850 as the final solution to the divisive question of slavery in the United States. Neither party addressed the tremendous increase in foreign immigration, which in half a dozen years had added significantly to the Roman Catholic portion of a hitherto overwhelmingly Protestant country. In the minds of many Americans, the existing parties were avoiding important issues. The result was factionalism within the existing parties and attempts to found new parties. Anti-immigrant nativists formed the American Party. Responding to the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, which overturned the Missouri Compromise on slavery, antislavery extensionists formed the Republican Party. As a result of the formation of the new parties, the Whig Party ceased to function, and although the Democratic Party continued it divided into factions, its southern wing increasing in strength and its northern wing losing many native-born Protestant voters.

In the late 1850s, the Republican Party broadened its appeal beyond the slavery issue. It gradually edged out the American Party as an opponent to the Democrats in the North but remained sectional. This alarmed some Southerners, who saw secession as the best way to combat the Republican threat. President James Buchanan, however, insisted that the Democrats' policies of strict construction of the Constitution and limited government could preserve the Union. In 1860, Southern and Northern Democrats failed to agree on the protection of slavery and ran separate candidates for the presidency. Some former Whigs and American Party members created a Constitutional Union Party to contest both the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republicans' concentrated strength in Northern states that had many electoral votes enabled Abraham Lincoln to win the presidency with only 39 percent of the popular vote, precipitating the secession of seven Southern states. Four other states joined the Confederacy following the April 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter in and Lincoln's call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion.

the civil war and political parties

At first, most people in the North and South greeted the war as the type of calamity that required mutual support and cooperation, not partisanship, within communities. In the first Northern elections after the war started, partisans in many states worked together to forge Union slates to fill local or state offices. The Republicans were still claiming the name Union Party during Lincoln's reelection campaign in 1864. Most Democrats had long since become disillusioned, however. A faction of radical Republicans believed that the government needed to maximize its power to prosecute the war efficiently and resolve sectional differences permanently. They favored emancipation of slaves, confiscation of rebel property, the conscription of soldiers, and modernizing the North's banks, manufacturing, and railroads—positions that were anathema to most Democrats. Moderate Republicans preferred crafting policy in ways that answered Democrats' charges that Republicans intended to elevate African Americans and cared nothing for the wartime suffering of white Northerners—protecting the slave property of loyal individuals, for example, or reviewing draft quotas and procedures.

Democrats, too, factionalized. Peace Democrats (called Copperheads by Republicans) believed the Confederates were unbeatable on the field of battle but would return to the Union of their own accord if the Union faithfully protected constitutional rights. This strategy was well-suited to rebuilding the Democratic Party in the South after the war. Other Democrats believed that advocating peace smacked of defeatism and might destroy the party's legitimacy in the eyes of Northern voters. They supported the war but sharply criticized the Lincoln administration's conduct of it. The Democrats thus articulated popular wartime discontents, compelling Republicans to justify and sometimes moderate their policies. United at the beginning of the war, Northerners dissolved into hostile political factions because of the war.

Partisan activity no longer occurred only at election time. Some Republicans formed Union Leagues to help the war effort (and hector Democrats) year round; some Democrats joined the Order of American Knights to oppose the Union Leagues. Partisanship led to charges of disloyalty. Rumors of Copperhead plots to liberate Confederate prisoners of war circulated among Republicans in the Midwest. Churches, schools, and businesses, never politicized before, became in some communities places of political confrontation between supporters and opponents of the war. Off-duty soldiers sometimes attacked Democratic newspaper offices that published what the soldiers considered disloyal articles. Women took more interest in politics than they had previously and showed increasing sophistication in their arguments on political topics. Turnout in elections was high. Some states allowed soldiers to cast absentee ballots; commanders furloughed others home to vote. Soldiers favored the Republicans by a much larger proportion than did the civilian population, reflecting in many cases deep and abiding anger against the Peace Democrats. Negative views of the opposing party helped cement party identification for a generation to come.

The Confederacy, unlike the Union, had no acknowledged political parties. Like Lincoln, however, President Jefferson Davis sought to centralize the conduct of the war and resorted to measures like impressment of property, conscription, and heavy taxation to carry on the war. Professing support for the Southern cause but insisting that such measures threatened individual and states' rights, critics, including his own vice president, lambasted Davis on a daily basis. Without parties, the choices at election time lacked clarity and turnout was low. Those tired of the war responded as best they could, sometimes by avoiding military service and secreting property.

the legacy of war

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination in 1865, had been a lifelong Democrat who hoped to base reunification on the creation of a National Union Party embracing political moderates North and South. Republicans feared that the president's desire to accommodate white Southerners would undermine the freedom of the former slaves and set the stage for renewed sectional clashes. Republicans waved what was referred to as the bloody shirt of Civil War remembrance to reinforce the existing parties. Although the enactment of black suffrage in Southern states introduced the Republican Party there, with African-American voters flocking to the party that had freed them, many white southerners refused to accept the party's legitimacy. A long campaign of violence and intimidation brought conservative Democrats to power in every Southern state by 1877. These redeemers, as they were called, limited African-American voting and set the stage for what would later become a solidly Democratic South.

The legacy of the Civil War would thus shape the political identity of the political parties for the next hundred years. Memories of the war known as the Lost Cause sustained the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, which strongly supported states' rights and Jim Crow segregation laws. The Republican Party, on the other hand, identified itself as the Party of Lincoln, which had ended the institution of slavery. These identities, forged in the Civil War, would be recast by the Great Depression (1929–1941) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal (1933–1944).


Altschuler, Glenn C., and Blumin, Stuart M. Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Frank, Joseph Allan. With Ballot and Bayonet: The Political Socialization of American Civil War Soldiers. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

McKitrick, Eric. "Party Politics and the Union and Confederate War Efforts." In The American Party Systems: Stages of Political Development, edited by William N. Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Rable, George C. The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Silbey, Joel H. The American Political Nation, 1838–1893. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Smith, Adam I. P. "Beyond Politics: Patriotism and Partisanship on the Northern Home Front." In An Uncommon Time: The Civil War and the Northern Home Front, edited by Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002.

Phyllis F. Field

See also:Elections, Presidential: The Civil War; Lincoln, Abraham; Reconstruction.

political parties

views updated Jun 27 2018

political parties Formal organizations for representing the aims and interests of different socio-economic forces in the political sphere–although not all societies have a party-political system of government. Political parties are the organizational means by which candidates for office are recruited and ideologies are propagated. Parties seek to organize and dominate the organs of government and to provide national leadership.

Party systems also take a variety of different forms, from the multi-party system at one extreme, to the one-party monopolistic state at the other. Multi-party systems (often with two principal parties) are strong in liberal democratic societies like Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, while the dominance of one political party is especially evident in African countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe. It has been suggested that the type of party system is linked to the stage of development of a society, but local historical and political factors are probably more important in influencing the type of system that emerges.

Political sociologists have focused on political parties as organizations and studied their organizational dynamics. Issues of interest include the socio-economic background of leaders, activists, and supporters; the socio-political ideologies espoused by parties; the distribution of power between the different collectivities embraced by the party organization; and the techniques for mobilizing support. A major pioneering study of political parties was conducted by the German sociologist Robert Michels. In his study of organizational power, he noted the oligarchical tendencies of party leaders and officials who come to dominate the party, as it becomes increasingly bureaucratic. Their beliefs and attitudes, directed towards their own personal goals, are invariably less radical than those of rank-and-file members. Furthermore, where organizational procedures are used to stifle popular aspirations, radical objectives are inhibited. However, evidence from research elsewhere suggests that the oligarchical tendencies of party leaders should not be overstated, especially in accounts of the institutionalization of political parties.

Political scientists have also explored the role of parties in the political process and the extent to which different political regimes may be described as open or closed. The liberal view is that political parties, along with pressure groups and other interest groups, engage in competition for power as the representatives of different socio-economic groups in society. As a result of open competition, power in pluralist political systems is non-cumulative and shared. This benign view of the role of political parties in liberal democracies has been the subject of much criticism. It has been argued that certain groups dominate the political decision-making process–most obviously those who dominate in the economic realm. Furthermore, while observable party politics is worthy of study, the more subtle forms of power (such as agenda-setting) should not be ignored. Thus, while liberals emphasize the important role of political parties in representative democracies, neo-Marxists play down their significance. In capitalist societies, it is argued, since the dominant economic power is also the ruling class, parliamentary politics is illusory, and simply an ideological strategy which diverts attention away from the real sources of political power.

Many have argued that this Marxist view of political parties and power is at least as unsophisticated as the liberal alternative. True, power may be concentrated, but it is possible for the views of ordinary people to influence political outcomes. In this respect, political parties are not inconsequential, and play an important role in the political sphere of advanced capitalist societies.

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