|Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns|
This chapter investigates America's two-party system and its role in American politics. It traces the historical development of political parties in the United States, examining the role of minor parties and the reasons for the emergence and persistence of the two-party system. The chapter also discussed the effects of this system on policy and coalition formulation. These are the main ideas of this chapter:
Political parties serve to link the public with its elected leaders and to organize political conflict. In the United States, this linkage is provided by a two-party system; only the Republican and Democratic parties have any chance of winning control of government. The first political parties (Hamilton and Jefferson) evolved through Jackson's grassroots framework to the emergence of Lincoln's Republican party in 1860. Since that time, the Republicans and Democrats have monopolized the system, alternating through victory and defeat.
Many other democracies, such as France and Great Britain, have a multiparty system. The fact that the United States has only two major parties is explained by several factors: an electoral system--characterized by single-member districts--that makes it difficult for third parties to compete for power; each party's willingness to accept political leaders of differing views; and a political culture that stresses compromise and negotiation rather than ideological rigidity. America's two major parties are also maintained by laws and customs that support their domination of elections. Minor political parties (there have been more than a thousand in the nation's history) have mainly been short lived, although they have been responsible for raising issues that have been neglected by the major parties. Minor parties can be classified as single-issue (Prohibition party), ideological (Libertarian), and factional (Roosevelt's Bull Moose party in 1912).
A realignment occurs when new and powerful issues emerge and disrupt the normal pattern of party politics. Realigning elections offer voters the opportunity to have a large and lasting impact on national policy. In responding to these issues and then by endorsing the action of the party that takes power, the electorate helps to establish a new governing philosophy and its associated policies. A realignment is maintained in part through the development of loyalties among first-time voters to the new governing party and its policies. Realignments have occurred around the time of the Civil War, during the 1890s, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s (FDR and the New Deal). Some argued that the GOP sweep of Congress and many state governorships in the 1994 midterm elections represented a new realignment, yet the Republicans suffered a setback in the 1996 election. It may be that recent elections are best explained by dealignment, the weakening of partisan loyalties coupled with the extreme volatility of the electorate.
Because the United States has only two major parties, each of which seeks to gain majority support, they normally tend to avoid controversial or extreme political positions. The parties typically pursue moderate and somewhat overlapping policies. Their appeals are designed to win the support of a diverse electorate with moderate opinions. This form of party competition is reflected in the Republican and Democratic coalitions. Although the two parties' coalitions are not identical, they do overlap significantly; each party includes large numbers of individuals who represent nearly every significant interest in the society. (Democrats are identified with the "underdogs" of society while the GOP is usually linked to wealthier citizens and big business.) Nonetheless, the Democratic and Republican parties sometimes do offer sharply contrasting policy alternatives, particularly in times of political unrest. In recent years differences have revolved around the degree of governmental involvement in policy, i.e., "big government and spending" vs. power being decentralized back to the states. It is at such times that the public has its best opportunity to make a decisive difference through its vote.
The ability of America's party organizations to control nominations, campaigns, and platforms has declined substantially. Although the parties continue to play an important role, elections are now controlled largely by the candidates, each of whom is relatively free to go his or her own way.
U.S. party organizations are decentralized and fragmented. The national organization is a loose collection of state organizations, which in turn are loose associations of autonomous local organizations. This feature of U.S. parties can be traced to federalism and the nation's diversity, which have made it difficult for the parties to act as instruments of national power.
Party organizations have recently made a "comeback" by adapting to the money and media demands of modern campaigns. However, their new relationship with candidates is more of a service relationship than a power relationship.
Candidate-centered campaigns are based on the media and the skills of professional consultants. Money, strategy, and television advertising are key components of the modern campaign.
America's party organizations are flexible enough to allow diverse interests to coexist within them; they can also accommodate new ideas and leadership, since they are neither rigid nor closed. Sometimes, ideological or group fissures occur within each party, such as racial polarization among Democrats or religious fundamentalism within the GOP. Although American parties do not represent class-oriented differences as many European parties do, they still represent the public's best protection against an unresponsive government.Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following: