Participating in Political Parties
The origins of political parties in the United States of American can be traced to the debates about the ratification of the Constitution. The Federalists, who supported ratification, and the Antifederalists, who opposed ratification, became the first two major political parties in the United States. The two major parties at the national level in the United States today are the Democratic and Republican Parties.
What Do Political Parties Do?
One of the most common--and practical--definitions of a political party is "a team of political office seekers." Securing elective office for its members is, in fact, one of the most important objectives of a political party. Toward this end, political parties actively recruit candidates to run for office, organize volunteers, hold party conventions and other meetings and raise and spend money to support the party and its candidates.
Parties also represent the broad values or goals stated in their party platforms. While not all of the members of a party adhere to every "plank" in their party's platform, people who affiliate with a political party usually support most of the party's positions--at least more than they support the positions of the other party.
While taking stands on controversial issues such as abortion, prayer in school and affirmative action, the major political parties also make concerted efforts to be inclusive. The bigger the party's "tent," the greater the number of voters that support the party and the greater the number of party members that will win on election day.
While voters do not officially "join" a political party, many states require voters to indicate a party preference when registering to vote. Whether they are required to declare a party affiliation or not, a large majority of voters rely on their party preferences to guide their vote choices, especially when they know little or nothing about the candidates running for office. In fact, party identification is the single-most significant predictor of voting in the United States. As the table below indicates, voters who identify with a political party overwhelmingly vote for candidates of that party. In 2004, voters who identified themselves as "Democrats" voted for the Democratic Congressional Candidate 86% of the time while Republicans voted for the Republican candidate 82% of the time. Voters who called themselves "Independents" were more evenly split.
Vote for Congress by Party Identification 2004
VOTE FOR CONGRESS
Data from the American National Election Study
After the Votes are Counted
The work of parties does not end on election day. In fact, arguably the most important work of a political party begins the day its members take office. Members of the same party in the Congress and in the White House are more likely to work with each other than they are with members of the opposing party. The political party that secures a majority of the seats in the Congress has the opportunity to translate the voters' preferences, as expressed on election day, into public policies, through the legislative process.
Consequently, political party affiliation influences almost everything an elected leader does in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols across the nation. Party members sit on opposite sides of the middle aisle in the Congress and in most state house and senate chambers. Presidents and governors tend to work more quickly and closely with the leaders of their own parties in the Congress and state legislatures. And party members will often raise money for other party members and support them in their reelection bids.
The American Two-Party System
The American political system has, with a few brief exceptions, always had two major political parties. Third parties, such as the Reform Party today, arise from time to time and win a few votes. Sometimes a third party member is even elected to a significant political office, such as Jesse Ventura, who was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998. But the American system of elections tends to work against third parties. Because votes are cast for members of Congress in single-member districts on a winner-take-all basis, third party candidates are almost never elected to the House or Senate.
Before a third party can be considered a legitimate party, it must at least "contest" elections at every level, meaning it must field candidates for every office from President to city council (or at least Congress). More importantly, its candidates must win a handful of these elections. While it is not impossible for a third party to transform the political party system through its own electoral success, history is not on its side. More often than not, third parties that experience some initial success end up fading after one (or both) of the two major parties "steals" its issues.
Terms & Concepts
- party platform An official statement and proclamation of the beliefs, values and policy positions of a political party. Specific statements or positions in a platform are sometimes called "planks," e.g. the "abortion plank" of a party's platform.
- political party A team of office seekers and their supporters, generally unified by a common ideology, philosophy, set of values and political beliefs. To be considered a legitimate party, it must also regularly field candidates at all levels (not just in the presidential race).
Think About It
- Why are there only two political parties in America?
- Are political parties good or bad for American politics?
Learn More About Political Parties
Political Party Sources on the Web