American Government and Politics

In Chapters 9 in American Government and Politics.

List and explain the key functions of parties as those functions developed since the original formation of parties. Please note, I am not asking you to tell me the history of the parties, but how their functions developed, how they have been used over time.

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Chapter 9

OBJECTIVES After reading this chapter, you should be able to: • Define political parties. • Explain the historical development of the American party system. • Discuss the meaning and impact of party identification. • Analyze the various forms of party organization. • Evaluate the role of parties in government. • Appraise different arguments about virtues and defects of the party system


Strong partisanship—a firm adherence to one party over another—can be healthy for deliberation and citizenship. Political parties, wrote a Democratic newspaper in 1841, “are

the schools of political science, and no principle can be safely incorporated into the fabric

of national law until it has been digested, limited, and defined by the earnest discussions

of contending parties.”1

At all levels of American life, party competition can foster debate

on serious issues. When people think that the public good is at stake in a choice between

parties, they are more likely to take part in public affairs;2

yet partisan divides can arguably

become unhealthy, resulting in policies that benefit partisan self-interest at the expense of

the public interest. In recent years, many observers have warned of partisan polarization,

the movement of parties away from each other and toward more extreme issue positions.

The issues separating the parties have evolved, and the partisan split has widened and

narrowed accordingly, and at any given time, the parties in government might be closer or

farther apart than the parties in the electorate. Over the years, the makeup of the parties has

changed. As Figure 9-1 shows, and as we shall explain later, the parties’ geographic bases of

support have reversed almost completely since 1896.

Differences cannot give rise to deliberation unless the conflicting parties talk to each

other. If people regard partisan conflict as trivial bickering instead of reasoned debate, public life becomes much less attractive. To understand today’s partisan divide, as well as its

impact on deliberation and ultimately political outcomes, we must first learn about what

parties are, how they function, and how they have evolved. This chapter will examine the

function, structure, organization, and membership of political parties in the United States,

paying close attention to the impact of polarization. It asks how well the parties represent

the interests of their membership and the interests of the country over all.



• What are political parties, and how do they function?

In the 2008 presidential election, 89% of Democrats voted for Barack Obama, while 90% of

Republicans voted for John McCain.3

Similar percentages voted for their party’s nominees

for the House. Nearly all members of Congress win office under a party label, as do most

state legislators,4

and among presidents, only George Washington did not have a party affiliation. Obviously, parties matter in American politics.

The Meaning of Party

What is a political party? Like an interest group, it consists of a set of people who try to

influence what government does. Political parties differ from interest groups in that they

focus on elections, with the intent to put their own members into office under the party

label. A party has three levels.

• The party in the electorate consists of the voters who tend to support it.

• The party organization includes the formal structure of party officers and workers

who try to influence elections.

• The party in government comprises those who win office under the party label.

The three levels overlap. The party in the electorate helps pick the party in government

through primary elections. Members of the party organization recruit candidates, and officeholders have a great deal of say in staffing party organizations. Although anyone can

identify with a political party, lawmakers and organizational leaders can set the terms under

which voters take part in primary elections and other party activities. We shall examine these three levels in this chapter in a section dedicated to each one.

The Functions of Party

The framers conspicuously left the word party out of the Constitution. Many of them distrusted parties, believing that they would only serve narrow factional interests instead of the

broad public interest. James Madison wrote of “the pestilential influence of party animosities.”5

In his Farewell Address, Washington warned that the spirit of party “kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Washington

acknowledged the argument that parties can serve as a check on the government. “This

within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism

may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the

popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged.”6

The Constitution did not solve the problem of connecting citizens to the government of

a far-flung democratic republic. Ordinary Americans needed some way of making sense of

the issues and personalities of their state and federal governments. Political leaders needed

some way of joining together and reaching voters. There was an obvious answer. Political

scientist Zachary Courser said succinctly, “Because of the challenges of citizenship in a

democracy, some means is necessary to organize, inform, and—at election time—mobilize

citizens into action; political parties perform these functions admirably.”7

James Madison himself was one of the first American national leaders to reach this conclusion. By the 1790s, he worried less about party animosities than what he saw as the dangerous

trend toward a powerful central government. He worked with Thomas Jefferson to organize one

of the first national parties, the Republicans. We today call them the Democratic-Republicans

to distinguish them from the Republican Party that formed in the 1850s. On the other side

were the Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Whereas the Republicans

favored strong state governments, a farm economy, and good relations with France, the Federalists favored a stronger federal government, an industrial economy, and good relations with

Britain. (During this period, Britain and France were in conflict.) Early on, adherents of each

side published newspapers to inform citizens about their views.8

These newspapers included

harsh personal attacks, but they also offered arguments on the merits of public policy, thus

supplying some of the raw material for debate and deliberation.

Democratic-Republican societies held public meetings and published addresses criticizing the Washington administration. In this way, they provided further information

to citizens and gave them an organized way to participate in politics. The societies corresponded with one another and with national leaders, creating an embryonic party network. In some places, Democratic-Republican politicians worked systematically to identify

sympathetic voters and get them to the polls.9

Washington and his Federalist supporters

openly questioned the legitimacy of party activity, but it was going to be a lasting feature of

American political life.

While partisanship would endure, the identities of the parties would change over the

course of history. Some changes would be gradual and marginal, while others would be

abrupt and fundamental.



• How did the two-party system evolve?

At any given time, certain regions, interests, or social groups tend to line up with one party

or the other. This pattern is the partisan alignment of the era, and it generally coincides

with the party with the most political power for that time period, the party most in control

of government. Over time, the lines move as voters switch sides or new groups join the

electorate. New parties may crop up and existing parties may grow, shrink, or disappear.

Sudden realignments, or abrupt shifts in the lines, occurred with the Civil War and the Depression, but such events have been rare.10

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Republicans and Democratic parties

have been hardy survivors. They have remained as the nation’s two major parties, even

though their size and makeup have shifted. Third parties have sometimes won a hefty share

of the popular vote for an election or two. For reasons that we shall discuss later, none

has sustained a challenge to the two-party system since the Republicans emerged as the

Democrats’ main rival in the 1850s. Other minor parties linger on the ballot without ever

“graduating” to major party status. For that reason, the story of party alignments is mainly

the story of two-party politics.

Early Party Era: The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans

Writing to Madison in 1793, Jefferson applied a partisan spin in describing each side’s base

of support. On the Federalist side, he said, were the “fashionable circles” of major cities,

merchants “trading on British capital,” and those who had sided with the Crown during the

Revolution. On his own Democratic-Republican side, Jefferson wrote, were “[t]radesmen,

mechanics, farmers, and every other possible description of our citizens.”11 At first, the Federalists’ superior economic resources gave them the upper hand. But they had weaknesses.

They were not as adept at voter mobilization as the Democratic-Republicans, and during

the Adams administration, congressional Federalists enacted the Sedition Act, which outlawed “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government. Seeing a threat to

legitimate dissent, Americans turned against the Federalists.

Jefferson defeated Adams in the presidential contest of 1800, which Jefferson later

called “the Revolution of 1800.”12 This race brought the world’s first transfer of party power

as a result of a national election. Although Adams and the Federalists harbored hard feelings, they accepted the outcome. In his 1801 Inaugural Address, Jefferson sought to be conciliatory by saying that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have

called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all

Federalists.”13 The election also launched a shift in the party system. In the early n ineteenth

century, the Federalists crumbled. Their pro-British sentiments became increasingly unpopular as the nation came into conflict with Britain. During the “Era of Good Feeling”

(roughly 1815–1825), there was little partisan polarization. The Democratic-Republicans

made up the only true national party, though it did have internal divisions.

They picked their presidential candidates through a closed-door conference, or caucus,

of their members of Congress. As all of the party’s candidates won, “King Caucus” gained

power. Congressional caucuses—not the electorate at large—effectively chose the president,

a practice that the framers had opposed. In 1824, in a four-way race among candidates from

party factions, caucus nominee William Crawford failed to win a majority in the Electoral

College. Under the Twelfth Amendment, the House chose from among the three candidates

with the most electoral votes: Crawford, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson, who

had won a plurality of the popular vote. The fourth candidate, Henry Clay, threw his support to Adams, enabling him to win in the House. Adams’s subsequent selection of Clay

as secretary of state led to charges of a “corrupt bargain,” though there was no proof of an

explicit deal. In any case, the choice was controversial. It helped lead to Adams’s 1828 reelection loss to Jackson.

Democrats and Whigs

As a hero of the War of 1812 and self-styled foe of the elite (though he was a rich slaveholder), Jackson was popular with the “common man.” Once in office, Jackson, a Democrat, gained more power through political patronage, the granting of government jobs and

favors to supporters. In this effort, he took advice from Martin Van Buren, who served as

his secretary of state and later as vice president. “We must always have party distinctions,”

wrote Van Buren, who stressed that the Democrats should fight for farmers and working

people.14 Patronage created armies of campaign workers, ready to win votes in order to

keep their jobs. Party workers may have been acting on selfish desires, yet they did engage

their fellow citizens in public life. The political organizations encouraged other community

activities. “A political association draws a lot of people at the same time out of their own

circle,” wrote Tocqueville. “Once they have met, they always know how to meet again.”15

The Jackson years saw the development of the national party convention. In September

1831, members of the Anti-Masonic Party, a fringe group believing that the fraternal order

of Masons was an evil conspiracy, met in Baltimore to nominate a presidential candidate. In

December of that year, the “National Republicans,” the anti-Jackson group that had backed

Adams in 1828, also met in Baltimore.

After Jackson’s reelection in 1832, the National Republicans folded and new opposition

arose. Accusing Jackson and then Van Buren of seeking monarchy, their foes started calling

themselves “Whigs,” after the seventeenth-century English party that favored Parliament

over the Crown. The new party called for federal financing of canals and other “internal

improvements.” By the 1840s, the nation had a true two-party system, with each side representing a broad array of interests in every region. The Whigs drew more support from

wealthier groups, while the Democrats did better among less affluent people and new immigrants, particularly Catholics.

Party names were still informal, with many on the Jackson–Van Buren side calling

themselves “Republicans” or “Democrats” interchangeably. They came to prefer the latter

term, dubbing the record of their 1840 meeting Proceedings of the National Democratic Convention.16 Eight years later, the Democrats advanced party organization with the creation of

the Democratic National Committee.

Republicans Rising

By the late 1840s, slavery was polarizing American political debate. Former president Van

Buren ran against Lewis Cass (Democrat) and Zachary Taylor (Whig) in 1848 as the candidate of the “Free Soil Party,” which opposed the extension of slavery into the new western

territories. He scored 10% of the popular vote. Although the Free Soilers would then decline, this showing foreshadowed more turmoil. The Whigs groaned with conflict between

pro- and anti-slavery factions. National party leaders had tried compromise and evasion,

but these tactics no longer worked. Immigration added to the party’s woes. The arrival of

Catholics from Germany and Ireland led to a backlash among longer-established groups,

who sought to close the borders and limit the immigrants’ civil rights. When Lincoln and

other Whig leaders fought this sentiment, some Whigs broke off to form the American

Party. History remembers this group as the “Know-Nothings” because members reportedly promised to tell outsiders nothing about the party that they knew.17

In 1854, a new party arose with the goal of curbing slavery.18 Organizers chose the name “Republican” because it alluded to Jefferson’s ideas about

equality.19 In 1856, they nominated explorer John C.

Fremont, who ran second to Democrat James

Buchanan, with third place going to former president Millard Fillmore, candidate of both the Whig

and American Parties. The Whigs then disintegrated,

with pro-slavery members joining the Democrats

and antislavery members joining the Republicans.

The American Party soon collapsed as well. It could

not settle internal divisions over slavery, and antiimmigrant passions cooled as immigration plunged.

With an anti-slavery party on the rise, party

differences grew clear, even violent. In May 1856,

Republican senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made a floor speech about slavery in Kansas.

He used harsh personal terms to attack colleagues

Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of

South Carolina.20 Two days later, Representative

Preston Brooks, Butler’s cousin and a pro-slavery

Democrat from South Carolina, entered the Senate chamber. Using his cane, he beat Sumner so badly that it took years for him to recover.

In 1860, the slavery issue split the Democrats into three factions, each of which ran its

own candidate. The Republican nominee was Abraham Lincoln. Although Lincoln gained

just under 40% of the popular tally, he won a majority in the Electoral College, while the

other three split the rest. The election was the most polarizing in American history. The

leaders of 11 southern states saw Lincoln’s views as so hostile to their interests in slaveholding that they seceded from the Union, seven doing so before he even took office.

In a normal American election, the losers accept the outcome because they still have

some common ground with the winners. In 1800, John Adams seethed at Thomas Jefferson

but shared the principles of the Declaration and Constitution.21 By the 1860 election, however, supporters of slavery had renounced the Declaration, and could not abide the election

of Abraham Lincoln. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said that

“the assumption of the equality of the races” had guided Thomas Jefferson. “This was an error,” he added. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea . . . that the

negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is

his natural and normal condition.”22

The Civil War launched a new alignment. During Reconstruction, Republicans had

strong support from voters in the Northeast and Midwest, along with the newly enfranchised black voters of the South. (Three southern states—Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia—

did not gain readmission to the Union until 1870.) In a deal to settle the disputed 1876

election, Democrats conceded to Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in return for

pulling federal troops from the South, thereby ending Reconstruction. White Democrats

then found ways to keep blacks from voting, and the region became a Democratic stronghold that offset Republican advantages elsewhere. Between 1876 and 1892, the parties enjoyed nearly equal strength nationwide. Control of Congress seesawed, and no president

came to office with more than half of the popular vote.23 (And now that the Republican

Party appeared to be a permanent fixture of American politics, newspapers started calling

it by the nickname it retains today: Grand Old Party, or GOP.)

The war shaped party attachments for generations, especially in the South. Blaming Republicans for death and destruction, most southern voters (now almost all white) shunned

the party until the mid-twentieth century. On many issues, though, party lines tended to

blur. In 1888, British observer James Bryce listed a set of policy questions and wrote that

neither party has “anything definite to say on these issues.” Their interests consisted “of getting or keeping the patronage of the government.”24

The emphasis on patronage was timely. The term “political machine” was becoming

common, referring to a party organization that ran a state or local government by using

patronage, constituent service, and in many cases, election fraud. (As the box shows, party

organizations today tend to airbrush such things from their official histories.) Political machines most often took hold in big cities, and machine politics spread as the nation became

more urban. In 1850, only six American cities had 100,000 people or more, but by 1900,

38 topped that level.25 And while later political machines would be mostly Democratic, the

second half of the nineteenth century saw Republican machines in Philadelphia and other

major cities.

Populists and Progressives

While urban America was growing, rural America was floundering. Crop and livestock

prices generally went down, while the railroads were charging high rates for shipping these

commodities. Thinking that both major parties were ignoring them, farmers rallied to the

new Populist Party in 1892. The Populists supported nationalization of the railroads as

well as the deliberate inflation of the currency. Inflation would have artificially raised their

income, making it easier for them to pay their debts (which were not adjusted for inflation). In the 1892 presidential race, Populists won 8.5% of the popular vote. Four years

later, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan ran on a pro-inflation platform, allying himself with the Populists. The Republicans stood against inflation and also held to

their support for a high tariff on imported goods, which most people thought would help

American industry.

Bryan’s 1896 defeat helped tip the party balance toward the Republicans. Inflation may

have sounded good to debt-ridden farmers, but it scared wage earners, shopkeepers, pensioners, savers, and investors. The Democrats held the South and made some gains in the

still sparsely populated western and Plains states. The GOP grew stronger in the rest of the

country, including big cities. Bryan’s platform also alarmed big business, making it easier

for Republican leaders to collect campaign contributions. Not until 1932 would a Democratic presidential nominee gain a popular majority. Democrat Woodrow Wilson did win

in 1912 and 1916, but with less than 50%.

Wilson prevailed in 1912 because of a split between William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, and former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, the candidate of

the Progressive Party. This short-lived party was an outgrowth of the larger Progressive

movement, which fought the political machines. Progressives won the adoption of new

procedures, including primary elections in which voters could choose party candidates. By

1920, most states had primary elections for at least some offices, though primaries would

not dominate presidential nomination politics until the 1970s.29

Party organizations suffered from the political reforms of the late nineteenth and early

twentieth centuries. Their leaders lost control of party nominations because of primaries,

and they lost patronage power as states and localities adopted civil service reforms that

distributed jobs on the basis of merit. The reforms may have led to greater efficiency and

less corruption, but they also made political activity less attractive. “This civil service law is

the biggest fraud of the age,” said George Washington Plunkitt, a New York City machine

politician. “It is the curse of the nation. There can’t be no real patriotism while it lasts. How

are you goin’ to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them

when they work for their party?”30

Before the 1890s, state governments did not print election ballots, so voters would use

party ballots, each listing only its own candidates. Party workers often followed voters to

the ballot box, which was in the open, to make sure they deposited the “right” ballot. This

system encouraged party-line voting. In the 1890s, states adopted the “Australian ballot

system” (named for the country that developed it), in which people entered private booths to mark government-printed ballots listing all candidates. This system made it easier for split-ticket voting—that is, for

voters to vote for different parties’ candidates for different offices. It also

discouraged voter intimidation, further weakening party organizations.

Meanwhile, social trends were seeding change in the party system.

One was immigration. Between 1900 and 1925, more than 17 million people came to the United States, mostly from Eastern, Central, and Southern

Europe. Although Congress restricted immigration in 1924, America had

already changed. The census of 1930 showed that 15% of Americans were

foreign-born, and 36% had at least one foreign-born parent, the highest

such figures ever.31 Immigration coincided with urbanization. With the

census of 1920, for the first time in American history, urban areas had

more people than rural areas. By 1930, 12.2% of Americans lived in cities of more than a million people—a level not exceeded before or since.32

New Deal

In the early decades of the twentieth century, party principles seemed

to be in flux. Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow

Wilson both pushed for active government. Wilson’s 1916 Republican

opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, had the endorsement of the Progressive Party. In 1924, the Democrats nominated John W. Davis, a corporate

lawyer who would later go on to defend segregation in the case of Brown v.

Board of Education. In 1928, the Republican candidate for president was

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Although many remember him

as a foe of active government, his reputation at the time was that of a

pro-government progressive. Democrats nominated Governor Alfred E.

Smith of New York. As a New York City politician, foe of Prohibition, and

the first Roman Catholic to win a major party nomination, Smith alienated the rural South. He fell to Hoover, losing several former Confederate

states that Democrats had carried since Reconstruction. In the shadow of

his defeat, however, grew the seeds of a Democratic comeback. Smith ran

strongly in major cities and did well among recent immigrants, many of

whom were fellow Catholics.

In 1929, the stock market crash marked the start of the Great

Depression, which Americans blamed on the GOP. In 1932, they gave a

landslide to the Democratic nominee, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, and

increased Democratic majorities in Congress. Roosevelt called his legislative program “the

New Deal,” so we apply the term New Deal Coalition to the diverse groups that joined

under the Democratic banner—southerners, Jews, Catholics, African Americans, people

with roots in Southern and Eastern Europe, union members, poor people, intellectuals, and

artists. These groups overlapped: for instance, many southerners and African Americans

were poor, many union members and Southern Europeans were Catholic, many Jews had

roots in Eastern Europe, and so on. If one thing united them, it was the belief that they had

been outsiders in a country whose elite consisted of northern and midwestern Protestants

with roots in England and Northern Europe.

New Deal policies appealed to them. Economic programs such as the National Recovery Administration reached the whole range of disadvantaged groups. FDR also appealed

to elements of his coalition in more specific ways.

• The South came back to the party after straying in 1928. As a Protestant and frequent

visitor to Georgia (where he received polio therapy at Warm Springs), Roosevelt was

more acceptable to southerners than Smith. Once in office, he solidified this support

by backing such programs as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity

to much of the region.

• African Americans had voted Republican since the Civil War, but switched to the

Democrats during the Depression.33 Many were poor. Although the need for southern

white support kept Roosevelt from endorsing civil rights laws, his New Deal economic

programs did help African Americans.

• Immigration had increased the ranks of Jewish voters, who were political liberals.

Many had voted Republican in previous decades, but the New Deal convinced them

that the Democratic Party was their political home.34

• Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration encouraged labor union organization.

In 1935, he signed the National Labor Relations Act, which protected the rights of

union workers. Union membership increased and grateful union members supported

the Democrats.

• Although Roosevelt did not have “Catholic-specific” policies, the New Deal was consistent with emerging Catholic social teaching.35 He also reached out to Catholics through

appointments. Whereas only four Catholics had served in the Cabinet since 1798,

Roosevelt’s first cabinet choices included two.36 In 1932, famous radio priest Charles

Coughlin fervently preached Roosevelt’s cause in national broadcasts. (He later denounced Roosevelt as a tool of Wall Street.)

• Artists and intellectuals were few in number, but their works had influence on public

opinion. FDR won them for the Democrats, too. He enlisted economists and other experts in his administration, and his Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed

writers and painters.

Roosevelt built early alliances with urban political leaders, whose constituents included many of the recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In the long run,

however, the New Deal had the effect of further weakening the machines. Programs such as

Social Security and organizations such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dealt

directly with citizens, without political machines serving as


The New Deal coalition outlived Roosevelt, who died in

1945. Democrats won seven of the nine presidential elections

between 1932 and 1964, losing in 1952 and 1956 mainly because of Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s popularity as leader

of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. Meanwhile,

they lost Congress only twice, and then regained House and

Senate majorities two years later. With the important exception of the debate over domestic Communism, the period

saw relatively little party polarization. Eisenhower tempered

but never tried to undo the New Deal, and many Republicans

backed liberal domestic initiatives. The main opposition to

civil rights legislation came from southern Democrats. Most

of their black constituents could not yet vote, and most of

their white constituents supported segregation.

Scholars believed that the party system failed to present

clear alternatives to the voters.38 They did not think that the

parties had to be radically different, but they did argue for

more coherent policies that could prompt public debate and

deliberation. At the same time, conservative Republicans and

liberal Democrats wanted their parties to stake out bolder

positions.39 Scholars and activists both favored giving ordinary citizens more chance to take part in party affairs. To a

large extent, these wishes would later come true.


In the 1964 presidential election, Democratic incumbent

Lyndon Johnson won a record 61% of the popular vote,

and his party padded its majorities in the House and

Senate. Yet just as Hoover’s 1928 victory was the peak of a Republican era, Johnson’s

landslide was the beginning of the end of the New Deal coalition. Time was eroding

some of its key elements. Large northern and midwestern cities had supplied many votes

to Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, but now many were shrinking. Between 1950 and

1990, Detroit lost 44% of its population. Suburbs were growing, and they were more

likely to vote Republican; organized labor started losing members, in part because of

changes in employment patterns.

Perhaps most important, the South stopped being a Democratic fortress. Although

Lyndon Johnson was the first president from a former Confederate state since the Civil

War, he lost several southern states to Republican Barry Goldwater.40 In part, this outcome reflected southern white opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Johnson had

pushed. Although most Republican lawmakers had voted for it, Senator Goldwater had

voted against it on what he considered strictly constitutional grounds. Even apart from civil

rights, the South was ready to go Republican. The Civil War had faded from living memory,

so southerners stopped linking the party with the burning of Atlanta. Many Republican

northerners had moved south. As the regional economy grew, affluent southerners began

to question Democratic social programs.41

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon campaigned heavily in the South. His rhetoric suggested a “go slow” approach to civil rights, though his actual policies proved to be different.

In 1972, his campaign accused Democratic opponent George McGovern of weakness on

national defense. The issue was potent in the South, with its many military installations.

A peculiar polarization was taking place. Although Republicans said that the Democratic presidential candidate was too liberal, their own policies were far from conservative. Nixon imposed peacetime wage-price controls, proposed a guaranteed annual income,

and signed bold new environmental laws—all liberal actions. And though he widened

the Vietnam War, he eventually withdrew combat troops. He also opened relations with

China and pursued arms control with the Soviet Union. Party conservatives opposed these

moves. One of these conservatives was Ronald Reagan, governor of California from 1967

to 1975. In 1976, Reagan nearly defeated Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, in the race for

the Republican nomination. Four years later, Reagan won the nomination and went on to

defeat incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Reagan’s positions helped build a new coalition. His support for a defense buildup

and an assertive stance against the Soviet Union won him support from anti-Communist

Democrats, especially those with roots in Eastern Europe. Conservative positions on social

issues such as abortion appealed to traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants, especially in the South. His policy of cutting taxes shored up support among business people

and those earning high wages. With this coalition, Reagan won a landslide reelection in

1984. George H. W. Bush, his vice president, won a convincing victory in 1988 by promising

to continue Reagan policies.

For a long time, however, Republicans fell short in congressional elections. After regaining the House in the 1954 election, Democrats kept it for 40 years. They also held a

Senate majority for 34 of those years, and many regarded the six years of Republican control

(1981–1987) as a fluke. Some held that Democrats ran more skillful candidates whose positions were more appealing to local electorates.42 Gerrymandered districts and the power of

incumbency also slowed Republican gains in the House. (See the chapter on elections and

campaigns.) The result was divided government, where one party holds the presidency

while the other party controls at least one chamber of Congress. Republicans seemed to be

the “natural” presidential party, whereas Democrats seemed to be the “natural” congressional party.

Things changed in the 1990s. President George H. W. Bush’s poor showing in 1992 (just

37% of the popular vote) cast doubt on a Republican “lock” on the White House. Two years

later, the Democrats suddenly lost their “lock” on Capitol Hill. Southern voters shifted Republican in congressional elections, helping the GOP win House and Senate. The parties

now seemed to be in an even balance.43 Between 1992 and 2000, no presidential candidate

won a majority of the popular vote. After an initial surge in 1994, Republicans held only a

slim lead over Democrats in the nationwide vote for the House of Representatives.

In 2004, for the first time in 52 years, Republicans won both control of Congress and a

majority of the popular vote for president. Two years later, though, amid an unpopular war

in Iraq and corruption scandals in Washington, Democrats retook control of the House and

Senate. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency by a substantial margin, and

his fellow Democrats increased their congressional majorities. Democrats hoped that the

trend would continue because of increasing numbers of pro-Democratic voting groups.44

But the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 suggested that Democratic hopes were

premature at best.

Sources of Party Change

A single sentence cannot explain more than 200 years of change in the American party

system, but it is possible to identify some of the forces at work. For example, ideas matter.

In the twentieth century, Roosevelt and Reagan articulated ideas about government that

moved millions of American voters. Granted, both presidents and their party successors

made many compromises and sometimes strayed from their own principles. Nevertheless,

one can see the sweep of party history as a grand deliberation involving party leaders and

the general public. At certain times, one side wins the argument, as the New Deal Democrats did from the 1930s through the 1950s. At other times, events can change the terms

of debate and thus the balance of power. On rare occasions, the event is so profound as to

cause a sudden and radical shift. The Civil War and the Great Depression both transformed

American society in fundamental ways and, accordingly, reconfigured the party system.

Other changes are more gradual, such as the economic and demographic developments that

helped move the South into the Republican column.

In the longer run, a cycle is in motion. Elections bring about changes in policy,

which in turn change the party system. Although economic historians disagree on the

point, Democrats say that the policies of the 1930s and 1940s led America to economic

greatness—with ironic results. Tip O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat who served

as Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987, said, “We in the Democratic party raised

millions out of poverty into the middle class and made them so comfortable they could

afford to become Republicans.”45

As the makeup of the citizenry evolves, so does the makeup of the parties. In the twentieth century, neither party could depend only on the farm vote, since the rural population was shrinking fast. Immigration provided Franklin Roosevelt with millions of recruits,

though many of their grandchildren would sign up with Ronald Reagan.46 The process continues. In the 1960s and 1980s, changes in immigration law opened the way for a massive

influx from Asia and, more important, the Americas. Many of these new citizens are joining

the electorate and voting Democratic.

Party change thus involves voters, election campaigns, and officeholders. Understanding their relationship requires a closer look at party in the electorate, party organization,

and party in government.



• What is the composition of the major parties?

Party identification is a key concept in understanding party in the electorate. It differs

from party registration, a formal affiliation that lets a voter take part in the party’s primary

elections where the law requires. Rather, party identification is a sense of attachment that

leads a voter to favor one party’s candidates over another’s.47 Public opinion polls measure

it through such questions as “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a

Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?” Polls also measure the intensity of

party identification. If the person

identifies with a party, the pollster

may ask, “Would you call yourself

a strong (Republican/Democrat)

or a not very strong (Republican/

Democrat)?” If the respondent

identifies as an independent, the

pollster may try to find a partisan

leaning by asking, “Do you think

of yourself as closer to the Republican or Democratic party”

Party Identification

As Figure 9-2 shows, Democrats

led through the 1940s. Their advantage grew in the late 1950s and

early 1960s, ebbed in the mid1960s, and rose again in the late

1970s. In the latter period, the

Watergate scandal helped Democrats. During the 1980s and 1990s,

Democratic identification dropped

while the Republicans made gains.

Democrats then built a lead that

culminated in President Obama’s

election in 2008, only to lose some

of their support in the years after. Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans called themselves independents, though many still leaned toward one party or the other.

For a while, the growing ranks of independents led some observers to question the

importance of parties, but as we have already seen, there have been signs of party polarization. Rather than a massive shift, where people stand on the issues, there has been a “sorting

out” of the parties, with fewer and fewer liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats.48

Republican identifiers are now more uniformly conservative than before, and Democratic

identifiers are more liberal. Party identification also makes more of a difference in how

people see various issues (see Table 9-1).

This “sorting out” reflects the behavior of political leaders in Washington, DC. The

Republican leaders are conservative, and their Democratic counterparts are liberal. Republicans have supported tax cuts that Democrats have opposed. Conversely, Democrats have sought to expand the federal role in health insurance, while Republicans

have said that these plans would go too far. Democrats have been more willing to accept

same-sex marriage, and Republicans have been more likely to support further limits

on abortion. Republicans have supported an assertive foreign policy while Democrats

have been more internationalist. (For more detail, see Chapter 8 on public opinion and


Voters on both sides are responding to the positions and cues coming from the White

House and Capitol Hill. Many of these voters have not moved as far to the left or right as

the party leaders. As political scientist Morris Fiorina writes, “Voters will be less enthusiastic about their choices and about election outcomes than previously, but given a choice

between two extremes, they can only elect an extremist.”49 Although the two “poles” have

roughly equal strength nationwide, the picture is different in the states. Following the color

graphics that the television networks use, commentators have divided the country into red

(Republican) states or blue (Democratic) states. The South and Plains states are red, while

the Northeast and West Coast are blue. Parts of the industrial Midwest have emerged as a


Demography also plays a part in party identification.

Why was there a generational difference? One reason may lie in social issues such as samesex marriage, on which younger people tended to be more liberal than their elders. Whatever

the reason, the big question for the future is whether an “age effect” or a “generation effect” is at

work. An “age effect” means that people’s attitudes reflect their stage in life and that their views

will change as they get older. A “generation effect,” by contrast, means that early views and affiliations tend to stick. Democrats hope that a generation effect will strengthen their party as

Millennials and Gen Xers mature into greater political activity and start voting at higher rates.

Republicans hope that an age effect will convert today’s young Democrats into tomorrow’s

middle-aged Republicans as they pay taxes and encounter other effects of big government.


Between the New Deal and the end of the twentieth century, pollsters found that the more

money an individual made, the more likely he or she was to identify as a Republican.51 This

pattern reflected broad differences in party policies, with Republican leaders tending to

favor lower taxes and Democratic leaders tending to favor policies to redistribute income. It

bears repeating, though, that Republican officials often supported increases in social spending just as Democrats often supported tax cuts. It is also worth noting that the GOP lost

some ground with affluent voters during the 2008 campaign.


Higher levels of education mean higher income, so it makes sense that college graduates are

more likely to be Republican than high school dropouts. There is a key exception to the pattern, however: people with postgraduate education are less likely to identify with the GOP

than those whose schooling stopped with a bachelor’s degree.52 Many people with graduate

degrees belong to professions (e.g., education) that have a direct tie to the activist government programs that Democrats favor.53


In the 1950s, between 50% and 60% of black voters identified as Democrats. When Democratic president Lyndon Johnson and Republican nominee Barry Goldwater took opposing

stands on federal civil rights legislation, that figure shot upward and stayed there. Since the

1960s, it has varied between 74% and 94%.54 Hispanics also identify with the Democrats, increasingly so since the entry of new Hispanic voters in the 1990s. Like African Americans,

many are poor and support more generous social programs. Cuban Americans are an exception to this pattern. Because of their intense opposition to the Castro regime, they vote

for Republicans, whom they believe take a harder line on Communism.


Since the late nineteenth century, the Republicans have drawn substantial support from white

mainline Protestants: Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists.55 (This support has scarcely been unanimous: Democrats have won a fair number of

mainline Protestant votes.) During the last decades of the twentieth century, the party gained

additional strength from an influx of white evangelical Protestants, who once sided with the

Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans also did better among non-Hispanic Catholics. The

movement within both groups reflected their attraction to the conservative stands of Republican leaders on social and cultural issues. In a 2011 poll, 62% of very religious whites identified

with or leaned toward the GOP, more than twice the share who identified or leaned Democratic. Nonreligious whites, by contrast, were 17% more likely to side with the Democrats.56

Jewish voters have also maintained their long-standing allegiance with the Democrats.57


Republicans tend to do better among men than among women. Unmarried women are

especially likely to be Democrats, while the gap between married men and married women

is much smaller. Scholars have offered many explanations for the gender gap, including

differences in economic status and divergent views on social welfare issues.58 Among other

things, single women tend to be poorer and more reliant on social programs.

Geography and demography work together, because groups cluster in certain locales,

whose voting patterns reflect their presence. Many cities have large African-American

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neighborhoods, which overwhelmingly vote Democratic. The presence of many white

evangelical Protestants helped tip the South to the Republicans.

There is more to the politics of a place than the census characteristics of its residents.

History, tradition, and the physical environment may also shape partisan attachments.59 For

instance, Democrats do well in coastal areas, which include union members who work in

ports and high-income professionals who favor strong environmental policies.

The combination of geography and demographic composition has given rise to “landslide counties,” where one party gets at least 60% of the two-party presidential vote. In the

1976 election, only 27% of American voters lived in landslide counties.60 In both 2004 and

2008, that figure was up to 48%. Such results may not favor grassroots deliberation and citizenship. When people in a locale overwhelmingly stand on one side of the partisan divide,

those in the minority feel social pressure to stay quiet or scale back their political activity.

One Democrat in a heavily Republican area told reporter Bill Bishop, “Discussions are cut

short because people don’t want to disagree or be disagreeable. So you don’t have any real

lively dialogue.” A Republican in a Democratic area recounted similar experiences, saying,

“We spend too much time in sealed environments where we can’t find a nice way to say,

‘I don’t agree.’” Arguing that close party competition leads to better discussion and participation, political scientist James Gimpel told Bishop, “If you wanted to raise your kid to be

a good citizen, you would want to raise them in a place that was fairly evenly divided.”61

Party Registration and Primaries

In 29 states and the District of Columbia, voters register by party.62 Usually, but not always,

party declaration coincides with party identification. In states that require advance party

registration, people may gradually change their sense of attachment without bothering to

switch their formal affiliation. Some registered Republicans may think of themselves as

Democrats, and vice versa.

In a strictly closed primary, only voters who register with the political party may vote

in its primary. In a semiclosed primary, party members can only vote in their primary, but

unaffiliated voters can vote in either party’s primary. At the polls in some of these states, unaffiliated voters must choose one party’s ballot or declare party preference in another way.

In an open primary, any voter can take part in any party’s primary. In a top-two primary,

all candidates for all offices appear on the same ballot. All voters may take part, and the two

candidates who get the most votes proceed to the general election regardless of party. In

some cases, top-two primaries may result in general elections pitting two Republicans or

two Democrats against each other.

Primaries demand more of citizens than partisan general elections. In the latter, voters can simply support the candidate of a particular party. In most primaries, they have to

choose among candidates of the same party. (In top-two primaries, ballots may show the

candidates’ party affiliation, but there may be multiple candidates from the same party.)

Candidates of the same party will generally have smaller issue differences than candidates

of opposing parties. Moreover, voters are likely to have less information about candidates in

primaries than in general elections.63



• What role do party organizations play in choosing candidates?

American party organization is a product of federalism, with 50 Republican and 50 Democratic state committees. Reflecting the diversity of local government structures, parties may

have committees in villages, towns, cities, or counties. They may also have periodic conventions at the statewide level, as well as in legislative districts.

State and Local Parties

Whatever their structure, state and local party organizations are not as strong

as they once were. As mentioned previously, the increased use of primary elections largely deprived them of their ability to choose candidates. In some states,

however, committees or conventions can make it much easier for their preferred candidates to get onto the primary ballot.

Despite civil service reform, old-fashioned patronage did linger in some

places. Late into the twentieth century, Chicago city workers knew that their

chances for advancement hinged on their ability to round up Democratic votes.

In a series of cases, however, the Supreme Court has curbed the ability of government officials to give jobs or contracts on the basis of political affiliation.64

Shorn of patronage and the ability to pick candidates, state and local party

organizations have turned to providing assistance to campaigns. Most state

party committees now have permanent headquarters (usually in the state capital) and professional staffs. They help candidates with polling and get-out-thevote operations, and they provide the public with general information about the

party.65 The most important aid is financial. In most states, party organizations

work under looser campaign finance laws than at the national level. Accordingly, they usually have more leeway in giving direct and indirect funding to

state and local candidates. In supporting federal candidates, these organizations

must abide by federal limits. But in a 1996 case, the Supreme Court ruled that

state party organizations may spend unlimited sums in federal races, provided

that they do not coordinate that spending with the candidates.66

National Party Committees

The Democratic and Republican National Committees both have large memberships, including dignitaries from every state. The committee members

themselves seldom make key decisions, except to choose national party chairs

when their side does not hold the White House. (By tradition, sitting presidents recommend the name of the national chair to their committee.) When

we speak of national committees, we are actually speaking of party chairs and

their staffs.67 For most of the committees’ history, dating back to the middle

of the nineteenth century, that role was minor. Beginning in the 1960s, these

organizations assumed a higher profile by raising money, providing technical

assistance to state parties, and training candidates and campaign operatives.

In addition to the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have

their own separate campaign organizations. These committees aim at gaining

or holding party majorities. They answer not to the president or the national

party chair, but to the party’s members in the relevant chamber.68 Generally,

they cooperate with national committees of the same party, but because the

separation of powers sometimes pits a president against fellow party members

in Congress, their interests may clash. During the 1990 tax debate, President

George H.W. Bush agreed to a tax increase and the Republican National Committee urged GOP lawmakers to support the president. The National Republican Congressional Committee told members and candidates that they should

not hesitate to oppose him.69 “We admire the president, we support the president,” said one

House Republican, “but we don’t work for the president.”70

All of the party committees at the national level have become collectors and suppliers

of money. Campaign expenditures by national party committees take three different forms:

• Direct contributions, in which the committee gives campaign funds to candidates

for federal office. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, party committees may

provide each candidate up to $5,000 per election. Because the primary and general

National Party Conventions

Since the 1830s, American political parties have held national conventions to nominate

their candidates for president and vice president, adopt a party platform, and conduct other

party business. These gatherings take place in the summer of presidential election years and

comprise thousands of delegates from every state as well as U.S. territories and the District

of Columbia. Until the 1960s, state party organizations and their leaders controlled the

selection of most delegates.72

After the 1968 election, the Democrats changed party rules so that ordinary citizens

would have a hand in choosing most delegates, and Republicans followed suit. Since then,

two methods of delegate selection have prevailed. In a presidential primary, party members

(either those who have enrolled or those who have chosen the party’s ballot on that day)

vote for presidential candidates. As a result of that vote, delegates supporting that candidate

go to the convention. In caucuses (which are different from congressional caucuses), people

meet in public places to pick delegates to other meetings that in turn will choose delegates

to the national convention.

The following chapter on elections and campaigns has more detail on primaries and

caucuses. For now, our focus is on the convention. When party organizations ran the


Total funds raised by national party organizations in the 2010 election cycle.

Democratic Party $814,988,123

Republican Party $586,594,377

Democratic National Committee $229,592,109

Republican National Committee $198,791,545

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $163,896,053

National Republican Congressional Committee $133,779,119

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee $129,543,443

National Republican Senatorial Committee $ 84,513,719

SOURCE: Center for Responsive Politics, “Political Parties Overview, Election Cycle 2010,” May 20, 2011,, accessed June 14, 2012.

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selection process, delegates often arrived without commitments to any candidate. They

would bargain and deliberate among themselves, and they would often have to vote a number of times before a winner emerged. Critics of the old system said that it shut out the people, giving all the power to political bosses meeting in “a smoke-filled room.” The phrase,

suggesting political intrigue, dates back to the 1920 Republican Convention, where party

leaders met privately. Smoking cigars and cigarettes, they settled on Warren G. Harding of

Ohio.73 Although most ratings put Harding among the worst presidents, the “smoke-filled

rooms” could also encourage serious deliberation about a candidate’s ability to campaign

and govern. Two of our greatest presidents—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt—

were also products of convention bargaining.

In the 1980s, Democrats tried to restore an element of deliberation and “peer review”:

they provided for “superdelegates,” an informal term for delegates whose selection does

not depend on primaries or caucuses. Superdelegates may vote for any candidate for the

nomination. Most superdelegates gain their status automatically, as current or former party

leaders and elected officials. Superdelegates account for about one-fifth of the total number

of delegates. Republicans also have unpledged delegates, though they usually do not use the

term “superdelegate.” The GOP gives its state delegates much more leeway in the number

and selection of unpledged delegates.

In today’s system of primaries and caucuses, candidates can usually win enough delegates to secure the nomination before summer. Between 1980 and 2012, no national party

convention started with serious doubt about the nominee, so the gatherings largely served

to ratify the results of primaries. In the close 2008 Democratic contest between Senators

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, there was speculation that the superdelegates would

wait until the convention to make their choice, but most bowed to public opinion and sided

with Obama.

Conventions still do other business, such as the adoption of party platforms, which are

statements of party issue positions. The staffs of the candidates and the party organizations

put great effort into drafting platforms, which are subject to change by the delegates. The

outcome can offer clues about a party’s direction. Still, no member of the party in government must follow the national party platform, and most ignore it. In fact, the presidential

nominees themselves give scant attention to these documents, preferring to spell out their

own beliefs. “I’m not bound by the platform,” said 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole.

“I probably agree with most everything in it, but I haven’t read it.”74

So if conventions merely formalize the results of the primaries, and if platforms are not

binding, what is the point of meeting? Media coverage is one answer. Yet even this function

is losing importance as the television networks scale back convention coverage to an hour

or so per night. Accordingly, the parties schedule their most broadly appealing speakers for

those three hours.

In the old system, political leaders deliberated on the merits of would-be presidents.

The leaders were practical politicians who worried about the candidates’ chances of winning. Practicality forced them to think about the public good, because “electability” depended in part on the candidates’ qualifications and ability to do a good job as president.

Journalist Theodore H. White summed up the questions that Democratic delegates pondered in 1960 before they chose John F. Kennedy: “What manner of man should be selected

to lead the country? What kind of opportunity might best straddle the past and turn to face

the future?”75 “Now,” says scholar William Galston, “we have a system of presidential selection in which the element of deliberation is almost completely absent.”76

Voters do deliberate during nomination battles, particularly when they meet and argue

in party caucuses. Just as important, the new system provides greater opportunities for

citizen activity. The old smoke-filled rooms involved very few people, whereas thousands

volunteer in primary and caucus campaigns. Moreover, there is indeed an element of “peer

review” in the preconvention phase, as candidates seek support from elected officials and

other party leaders. Barack Obama won a majority of superdelegates not just because he did

well in the polls but also because he had been calling them since March 2007.77 Mitt Romney

lost the Republican nomination in 2008, but never really stopped running. He campaigned

vigorously for John McCain in the 2008 general election and for many Republicans in the

Superdelegate—an informal term for

a Democratic National Convention

delegate who is not chosen in a

primary or caucus, and who may vote

for any candidate for the nomination.

Most superdelegates automatically

gain their status by being current

or former party leaders and elected


Party platform—statement of party

issue positions.

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2010 midterm. He spent a great deal of time building goodwill among Republican leaders,

and by the start of the 2012 nomination process, he had largely cornered the market on

endorsements.78 After he won enough delegates to secure the nomination, the Republican

National Committee prepared to support him in the general election campaign . (See “the

Impact of Social Media.”)



• What is the relationship between party in the electorate and party in government?

The ultimate aim of any political party is to influence the government’s composition and

policies. Chapters on Congress and the presidency deal with the party in government, but a

few additional details deserve attention here.

Federalism and Parties

Within each party, public officials take many different approaches to public issues. Federalism is one reason for this diversity. State and local officials deal with different sets of problems and institutional rules than do their national counterparts. In the last decades of the

twentieth century, national policymakers in both parties lived with deficits, often proposing

tax cuts or spending increases that would have enlarged them. Governors and state legislators lacked the same flexibility, for most states have constitutional requirements for balanced budgets. Consequently, state Republican officials sometimes supported tax increases

and Democratic officials backed spending cuts, putting themselves at odds with their party elections count separately, this limit effectively means up to $10,000 per candidate.

philosophical direction. In 2009, for instance, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

became a pariah among Republican activists when he agreed to a tax increase as part of a

plan to close the state’s enormous budget deficit.

Furthermore, state and local officials often work on issues that often have a more immediate impact on voters, so they often stray from party ideology. Republican governors

have sponsored increases in education spending while Democratic mayors of big cities have

carried out tough, conservative policies on crime control.

States vary in their economic, social, and political makeup. Politicians must respond

to these circumstances, so parties in government may favor different positions in different

parts of the country. In 2008, 38% of the nation’s governors served states that voted for the

opposite party in the presidential election. In these states, Republican governors tended

to be more liberal than their party’s norm, and Democratic governors tended to be more


Leadership and Unity

A brief comparison with parliamentary systems (see the International Perspectives feature) will deepen our understanding of American parties in government. As we have

seen, divided government has often occurred in U.S. national politics since the 1950s,

and a similar pattern has emerged in many states.83 In most parliamentary systems, by

contrast, divided government is impossible, because the head of the ruling party in

Parliament automatically becomes the head of government. Cabinet posts go to other

members of Parliament from that party, or from parties that agree to form a coalition

with it. (One exception is France, which has both a popularly elected president and a

Parliament with a prime minister at its head. Occasionally, the French have experienced

Under certain circumstances, if the governing party

loses a vote on the floor of Parliament, the government

“falls” and new elections take place. Therefore, party

leaders have a strong incentive to discipline their members through punishments and rewards. Those who vote

with the party may eventually gain cabinet positions,

while defectors may lose their chance for advancement

and even renomination. (Primaries are largely unknown

in parliamentary systems, where party leaders usually

pick candidates in the general election.)

In the United States, such discipline is harder to

impose. Elected officials serve fixed terms, so while a

setback on a legislative vote may be embarrassing, it

will not force new elections. Because of the local basis

of American elections, national and state party leaders

usually cannot deny renomination to straying lawmakers. In some states, legislative party discipline is stronger

than in other states or in Congress. Even in the “strong

party” states, however, legislative leaders sometimes

clash with governors of their own party. More often,

legislative and executive leaders recognize that party

discipline can backfire. When lawmakers have to vote

with their party against their constituents’ interests or

opinions, they may lose their seats in the next election, potentially depriving the party of a


Nevertheless, recent congressional votes have shown high partisanship. Congressional

Quarterly defines a party unity vote as one in which a majority of one party votes against a

majority of the other. During the 1970s, annual party unity scores for both parties in both

chambers averaged around 60% to 70%. In 2011, House Democrats averaged 87% to the

Republicans’ 91%. Senate Democrats averaged 92%, their highest ever, while Senate Republicans lagged a bit, with 86%.89

In the House, some of the change may reflect the majority party’s ability to control the

agenda and the minority’s resentment of that control. Furthermore, many House members

represent districts that are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic. Senators generally

represent larger and more diverse constituencies, yet as with House members, the nomination process may still tug them in a partisan direction. If a Republican moves too far to

the left or a Democrat moves too far to the right, party activists may react by mounting a

challenge in the primary. During the general election, voters in the middle may thus face a

choice between a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat.90 Even if they

prefer centrists, they might not have one to choose.91

Rancor has accompanied the polarization of the parties in government. Political leaders sometimes insult each other, even suggesting that people in the other party resemble

Nazis.92 Some scholars and political leaders worry that the effects of rancor go beyond hurt

feelings. “As a condition for promoting deliberation, civility remains crucial,” says political

scientist Burdett Loomis, noting that the need for civility is especially necessary when legislative procedures require broad consensus.93

After his defeat in a 2012 primary, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) said that it had become difficult to achieve that consensus:

Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have

worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold

independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails

in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we

have witnessed during the last several years.94

Party unity—the percentage of rollcall voters in which a House member

or senator voted “yea” or “nay” in

agreement with a majority of his or

her party and against a majority of

the other party.

Party unity

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks in the House of Commons

during Question time.

PA Wire URN:9682523 (Press Association via AP Images)

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Another viewpoint comes from conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg:

Many of our greatest heroes were men and women who were willing to rock the

boat. If consensus is such a high political value, then the abolitionists, suffragettes and civil rights marchers are all villains. Unity is not only overrated, it’s often

undemocratic. Decrying the “polarization” may be something decent people are

supposed to do, like recycling or paying more for organic breakfast cereal that

tastes like kitty litter. But the alternative is no great shakes. . . . When you hear that

rhetoric, consider this as a translation: “Those who disagree with me should shut

up and get on board the progress train.”95

Party Caucuses and Conferences

Because of various laws and rules, dating mainly from recent decades, most formal meetings of legislative bodies are open to the public. These “sunshine in government” reforms

have enabled citizens to observe the workings of their government, especially when the

meetings air on cable television or the Internet. Yet while making government more accountable, openness may have made it less deliberative. Under the eyes of voters, lobbyists, and researchers for their political opponents, lawmakers hesitate to voice unpopular

beliefs or admit shortcomings in their own proposals. Instead, they feel pressure to “play

to the galleries” with rhetoric that wins applause without contributing to substantive


Parties in government supply a partial solution to this problem. In both houses of Congress and in most state legislative chambers, lawmakers from each party meet in a separate

caucus or conference to choose leaders and discuss policy. In some statehouses, these meetings are open to the public, but in most cases they are closed to everyone except lawmakers

and aides. In the privacy of closed-door sessions, lawmakers are better able to reason on the

merits of public policy without fear that their enemies will turn their words against them.

In Congress, parties also have “policy committees,” which enable members to discuss issues

in smaller, more intimate settings. Such an exchange of views, said one lawmaker, “causes

some members to start talking it over with their own associates and colleagues. It’s part of

the educational process, I think, and part of the formulative process sometimes.”96

Some say, however, that these meetings, with only one party present, include only a

limited range of views, and their internal discussions sometimes serve to deepen partisan

tensions instead of easing them.



• What roles have third parties played in American history?

The Democrats and Republicans have dominated this chapter, but there have been other

parties in our political history. Some have had a major impact for an election or two, and

then they faded. In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt ran as the candidate of

the Progressive Party and outpolled Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, though

both lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Despite this showing, the Progressive Party failed

to gain ground in elections for other offices and soon fell apart. In 1992, H. Ross Perot

ran under various labels in different states and won 18.9% of the popular vote, the largest

third-party share since 1912. Four years later, running as the Reform Party candidate, he

won only 8.4%.

Other third parties remain on the ballot election after election, without soaring as high

as the short-lived parties.97 The Libertarian Party opposes social welfare programs, drug

laws, and any defense expenditures beyond what is necessary to safeguard American borders from invasion.98 Since its founding in 1971, the party has occasionally won a significant


Does partisan polarization foster

deliberation by clarifying differences, or hinder it by impeding


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share of the vote in House races and has elected a handful of officials to minor offices, but

has never won more than 1.1% of the vote in a presidential election.

Members of the Green Party have won hundreds of races, but mostly in nonpartisan

elections in small constituencies.99 The Green Party takes strongly liberal positions on many

issues, though it also endorses decentralization of economic and political power. Its 2010

platform expressed three core values:

• Participatory Democracy, rooted in community

practice at the grassroots level and informing

every level, from the local to the international.

• Social Justice and Equal Opportunity emphasizing

personal and social responsibility, accountability,

and an informing ethic of Nonviolence.

• Ecological and Economic Sustainability, balancing the interests of a regulated market economy

and community-based economics with effective

care for the Great Economy in which we are embedded: the ecosystems of the Earth.100

Both the Libertarians and the Greens grapple

with the “spoiler” effect, which is both the greatest strength and biggest weakness of third parties.

A spoiler is a minor candidate who draws votes

from one major candidate, thereby helping another.

Greens tend to siphon from Democrats, as Libertarians do from Republicans. The prospect of a spoiler

effect may lead major party candidates to move in

the minor party’s direction. But when a spoiler does

change an election, the result may displease those

who voted for the spoiler.

In 2000, Green presidential candidate Ralph

Nader won 2.7% of the popular vote, mostly from

those who thought Democrat Al Gore was not liberal enough. In Florida, Nader split off enough votes

from Gore to tip the state to Republican George W.

Bush, thereby allowing Bush to win the presidency.

From then on, Democrats used the 2000 election to

discourage liberals from backing Green candidates.

A vote for the Greens, they said, would only help

Republicans. The Libertarians may have played a

similar role in a 2006 race. Incumbent Republican

senator Conrad Burns lost a tight reelection contest in Montana, where the Libertarian vote was

much bigger than his margin of defeat. His loss was

enough to shift control of the Senate from Republicans to Democrats. In 2008, a candidate from the

very conservative Constitution Party probably took

enough votes from incumbent Republican senator

Gordon Smith to shift the race to Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley.

Spoilers or not, third parties may foster public deliberation by drawing attention to issues and

policy alternatives that the major parties ignore. In

the early part of the century, Roosevelt’s Progressive

Party and the less successful Socialist Party both

supported the minimum wage and other initiatives

that later became accepted public policy. Perot’s

the Green and Libertarian Parties have some things in common. Both attract

a small but passionate following, and both have managed to elect public

officials. they oppose the extension of american military power overseas and

are deeply suspicious of domestic security measures that could jeopardize

civil liberties. they also agree on certain issues involving personal conduct:

both parties would ease drug laws. On other issues, however, their views

diverge. Greens favor a far more expansive welfare state, while Libertarians

would slash existing social programs. Greens want to raise more government

revenue, particularly from the wealthiest americans, while Libertarians would

repeal the income tax. Greens favor aggressive government action against

pollution, while Libertarians think that the solution lies in free markets and

property rights.

Copyright © Jeff Greenberg/Photo Edit Photo courtesy of James Harrison

Spoiler effect—a phenomenon where

a minor party draws its votes mainly

from one major party, thereby tipping

elections to the other major party.

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1992 candidacy refocused the campaign on the issue of the national debt, and thereby encouraged Congress and the presidency to take stronger action.

Barriers to Third-Party Success

Why do third parties either flame out or fail to catch fire in the first place? When a minor

party either gains a significant share of the vote or threatens to do so, one or both of the

major parties may adopt its positions. Woodrow Wilson’s domestic policy agenda deflated

the Progressive Party, just as Bill Clinton’s deficit reduction took away much of the rationale

for the Perot movement.

A number of other obstacles hinder third parties:

• The single-member-constituency-plurality system. In most American elections, candidates vie for an individual office, which goes to the one with the most votes. In a proportional representation system, by contrast, parties win seats according to their share

of the total vote. So whereas a party winning 25% of the national vote gets about 25%

of the parliamentary seats in a proportional representation system, it might not win

any congressional seats.101

• The presidency and the Electoral College. The White House is the greatest prize in American

politics, but the Electoral College system tends to keep third parties from influencing

the choice of its occupant. Third-party presidential candidates do poorly in the Electoral College unless they enjoy concentrated support in certain states. Despite winning

nearly a fifth of the popular vote in 1992, Perot did not get a single electoral vote. This

inability to “get on the scoreboard” discourages third-party candidates, contributors,

and voters.

• Ballot access. The 50 states and the District of Columbia have different rules about how

parties can get on the ballot. Generally, third parties have to collect signatures, pay

fees, or get individuals to register as party members. These steps can be costly, and in

many places third parties have to repeat them for each election unless they win a set

percentage of the vote.102

• Campaign finance. Few individuals and even fewer interest groups will contribute

to parties that seem to have little chance of winning. What is more, federal election

law favors the major parties. Any party winning more than 25% of the popular vote

(since 1912, only the Republicans and Democrats) gets a partial subsidy for its next

national convention and full public funding for its next general election campaign.

A “minor” party, winning between 5% and 25% of the vote, is entitled to much less.103

Because the Reform Party won 8.4% of the vote in 1996, it qualified for $12.6 million

in federal funds four years later. The Democratic and Republican parties each received

$67.6 million.

• Press and polls. Reporters give these parties little coverage, which means that they draw

little support, which reporters, in turn, cite as justification for slighting them. And

when polls show a third party with a small share of the electorate, it loses support from

people who do not want to waste their vote—and this loss of support further depresses

their poll numbers.

• Candidates. Because of these obstacles, attractive candidates tend not to run on

third-party tickets. And, in turn, the dearth of attractive candidates further hurts the

prospects of third parties. In 2012, a bipartisan group of activists got considerable financial support for a third-party effort called Americans Elect. Even though it secured ballot

access in more than half the states, the effort foundered when no candidate got enough

support in its online selection progress. The group “took a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach:

if you build it—a virtual nominating convention—they will come,” said Will Marshall,

president of the Progressive Policy Institute. “But political movements are built around

compelling personalities or causes, not technology. Neither materialized in 2012.”104

Would it be desirable to lower barriers to third parties? There is reason for doubt.

First, some of them have strong justification apart from their impact on the party system.

Single-member districts allow for a relationship between voters and lawmakers, who

Single-member district—district

that elects only one member to a

legislative body.

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have to take local views and conditions into account.105 Second, it is hard to see how

basic institutions would work if third parties regularly captured large numbers of votes

and seats. If a third party won enough electoral votes to deadlock the Electoral College,

the election would go to the House. But if the third party also had enough House seats,

the chamber might not be able to choose a president. Finally, a two-party system theoretically requires each side to build a broad coalition that encourages conciliation and


In practice, however, the two parties have become highly polarized. The effect of this

polarization is a major topic of current debate and discussion.


In 2009, Senator Arlen Specter, a liberal from Pennsylvania, switched parties to join

the Democrats. He said that the GOP had become too conservative. Some Republican

senators regretted their party’s loss of a seat, but Jim DeMint of South Carolina actually

welcomed it: “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in

principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t

have a set of beliefs.”106

Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential liberal blog the Daily Kos, also welcomes polarization: “We need to be down and dirty and absolutely tear them apart.”107

During his 2008 campaign, President Obama voiced a different view, promising to pursue

liberal policies while quieting partisan rancor. His administration presented a decidedly

mixed picture. Although he did name Republicans to some important posts, the two parties kept up their political sniping. Republicans continued harsh attacks on Democratic

leaders, and Democrats attacked Republicans—with some of the fire coming from the

White House itself.

On both sides, voices were arguing that parties ought to be “big tents,” covering a range

of different and even conflicting viewpoints. “Big tent” parties, they say, serve the cause of

deliberative democracy by adding a layer of intraparty deliberation to the debate between

the parties. Furthermore, the argument goes, such parties foster compromise and civility

in place of the harsh partisanship that can break out when the parties are polar opposites.

Finally, broad-based party coalitions ensure that no

one is totally “in the cold” when one party or the

other is in power.

As the Civil War demonstrated, extreme polarization can reach a point that threatens the nation itself. As one scholar put it: “[If] citizens differ among

themselves on questions concerning the very basis

of society, they cannot, in a moral sense, be fellowcitizens. Without agreement on fundamentals there

can be no trust, and without trust there is no basis

for citizenship.”108

How does polarization affect deliberation?

On the one hand, it tends to clarify policy alternatives, and need not end in gridlock. Even the most

heated political conflicts can result in substantial policy change, as we saw during the first two

years of the Republican Congress under President

Clinton. Despite the harshness of the rhetoric on

both sides, they balanced the budget and reached

agreement on fundamental welfare reform. On

the other hand, polarization can erode the mutual

trust necessary for deliberation. Just when President

Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich had

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) speaks to the 39th Conservative Political action

Committee February 9, 2012.


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quietly made progress on reforming Social Security and Medicare, the impeachment controversy wrecked any chance for serious congressional deliberation on these issues.109

A system with three or more major parties might enable voters to register their views

more precisely. By giving voters a chance to back an alternative they like, instead of forcing

them to choose “the lesser of two evils,” a multiparty system might encourage participation

and active citizenship. At the same time, however, it might aggravate the fragmentation of

American life. An analogy with communications technology is appropriate. During the age

of “mass media,” network broadcasts and large-circulation periodicals provided Americans

with common points of reference: ideas and trends that they all knew about and could

discuss. In an age of “niche media”—hundreds of cable channels and millions of blogs—

Americans are gaining more chances to enter the fray while losing common ground with

fellow citizens. Similarly, the major parties have served to provide a common political home

for diverse individuals and interests. Might their breakup further alienate Americans from

one another?

Such a breakup seems very unlikely. Recent years have seen renewed strength for the

major parties in government and in the electorate. Party organizations have also gained in

importance, but their role has changed. In the nineteenth century, local party organizations depended on armies of volunteers who worked year-round. Scholar Michael Schudson pictures their impact: “[T]here is much more bustle around the polling place. The area

is crowded with the banners of rival parties. Election day is not a convivial oasis, set off

from other days, but the culmination of a campaign of several months and many barbecues,

torchlight processions, and ‘monster meetings.’ If you were not active in the campaign, you

may be roused on election day by a party worker to escort you on foot or by carriage.”110 As

Tocqueville suggested, these efforts drew citizens out of their tight circles and taught them

the art of association.

Today’s party structures are professional operations that raise and disburse large sums

of money, and mount elaborate national communication efforts. Their Web sites supply

a good deal of information about policy issues. At ground level, however, voter contact

depends less on the personal relationships of party workers than on computerized lists.

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