Study Guide

Political Parties

Political Parties Introduction

  • Founding Fathers did not desire or plan for the existence of political parties when they designed the Constitution
  • In practice, however, parties have played a critical role in the American political system since the 1790s
  • The United States has a two-party political system

The Founding Fathers strongly opposed the formation of political parties and did not account for political parties' existence at all when they framed the Constitution of the United States. But within a decade of the Constitution's ratification, political parties had emerged. In the two centuries since, parties have become critical parts of America's political and governing processes; they select candidates, mobilize voters, organize the legislative process, and serve as watchdogs against one another.

For most of our history, only two parties have filled these critical roles at any given time—that is, ours has been a two-party system. Minor or third parties also exist; although they rarely achieve great electoral success, they still contribute in important ways to the vitality of our political discourse. In addition, while only two parties have dominated American politics during any particular period, the philosophies and the composition of the dominant parties have changed. Every thirty or forty years, it seems, new parties replace old or the political coalitions within the parties change.

Today, some believe that political parties are becoming less essential to our political system and, during the twenty-first century, political parties will either diminish or disappear altogether from our political arena.

What is Political Parties About and Why Should I Care?

For 200 years, political parties have been an integral part of America's democracy. Donkeys and elephants, wild summer conventions, Congress divided into two rival camps—parties have become synonymous with our system of government.

But a few political observers believe that political parties may soon go the way of "The OC" and Backstreet Boys. In the past, parties were needed to reach voters and raise campaign funds. But today, anyone with a fat wallet can access the public through the television, and the internet has introduced even more direct ways of contacting voters and raising cash. Perhaps the era of the large, centralized political party as a dominant institution of American politics is nearing its end.

Of course, not everyone believes that the parties are doomed to extinction. In fact, many believe that Barack Obama's recent election to the presidency signaled a new era of Democratic Party domination. But are they right, or are Democrats just fooling themselves?

What is the future of the political party?

Do we still really need them?

And if they do disappear, will it be a bad thing?

What exactly do they contribute to our political system?

How did we end up with Republicans and Democrats at the top of the political food chain?

And if the parties do survive, what will they look like during your lifetime?

Political Parties Trivia

Delegates to the 2004 Republican National Convention celebrated the nomination of George W. Bush by dropping 100,000 balloons.

Most historians credit Thomas Nast, political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, with pinning the symbols of a donkey and an elephant to the Democratic and Republican Parties. But some argue that the donkey was used earlier, in the 1830s, to ridicule the policies of the Democratic presidential "jackass" Andrew Jackson.

In 1948, the Vegetarian Party ran English-born John Maxwell for the presidency. Apparently, no red-blooded, meat-eating American was interested in the party's nomination.

The leisure suit almost destroyed a political tradition. The polyester lady-killer, popular in the 1970s, was so hard to pierce with a pin that Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter initially decided not to waste any money on campaign buttons.

Political Parties Resources

Books

John Judis and Ruy Teixiera, The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002)
Written in 2002, Judis and Teixiera predicted a Democratic victory in 2008 as social and economic changes converged to produce a new Democratic majority. The book provides interesting context for analyzing Barack Obama's historic election, and a provocative answer to those arguing that the Democratic victory was fueled only by the economic crisis.

Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone, Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence (2005)
There are more readable biographies of Ross Perot, but this book provides a compelling and authoritative analysis of Perot's campaign within the context of the history of minor parties in American politics.

Sandy Maisel, American Political Parties and Election: A Very Short Introduction (2007)
As the title suggests, this book provides a brief introduction to the history and role of political parties in American politics. Written by a scholar, it is a good place to start for the student or general reader.

Images

Federalist Attack Ad
This Federalist Party poster portrayed Republican Thomas Jefferson kneeling for the altar of French radicalism as the American eagle (no doubt a Federalist bird) saved the Constitution. The letter to Mazzei referenced Jefferson's blasphemous comments to the Frenchman about President George Washington.

The Log Cabin Campaign of 1840
The popularity of Democrat Andrew Jackson among common people inspired even the Democrats' Whig opponents to emphasize their common backgrounds.

Lincoln's Nomination
This etching of the1860 Republican Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln first appeared in Harper's Magazine.

Nomination-Winning Speech
William Jennings Bryan delivers his famous "cross of gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention. Three days later, he received the party nomination.

Pro-business Republican
William McKinley's 1896 campaign for the presidency cast the Republicans as the party of monetary responsibility and business-based prosperity.

Building the New Deal Coalition
Franklin Roosevelt campaigns for the presidency in 1932. During this campaign, he began to build the "New Deal Coalition" that would elect him to four terms in office.

Religion and Politics
President Ronald Reagan and evangelical leader Billy Graham. Religious conservatives were an important element within the Republican base forged by Reagan in the 1980s.

An Unconventional Politician
Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot

Presidential Candidate?
Ross Perot's style and methods were easily caricatured, but after winning nineteen percent of the vote, they were widely imitated.

A New Democratic Coalition?
President Barack Obama campaigning in 2008

Movies & TV

Chicago 1968 (1996)
This episode in the award-winning PBS series, American Experience, explores the dramatic events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention. Protestors, politicians, and historians offer analysis while newsreel footage allows viewers to relive the powerful events that proved catastrophic for the Democratic Party.

The War Room (1993)
A behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign for the presidency. The film focuses, in particular, on campaign managers James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as they plot the grand strategy and obsess over the petty details through the primaries, national convention, and November election.

The 30-Second President (1984)
This segment of the Bill Moyers series, A Walk through the Twentieth Century, explores the role of television advertising on presidential campaigns. Campaign ads from Eisenhower through Reagan illustrate the methods that have transformed American politics and, according to some, threatened the place of the political party in the electoral process.

Websites

Pick a Party
Among the resources provided at Project Vote Smart is a list of all current American political parties and their contact information.

Follow the Money
OpenSecret.Org, a nonpartisan political watchdog group, tracks the money flowing to American candidates and parties. To facilitate your analysis, donations to specific recipients are sorted by region, industry, and individual name.

Electoral Maps
This useful site hosts an extensive collection of electoral maps illustrating election results, spending and endorsement patterns, and even types of electoral equipment. There are also historical electoral maps charting elections to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Video & Audio

Acceptance Speeches
Within the audio-video archive of the American Presidency Project are recordings of the acceptance speeches made by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and Bush (II) at their nominating conventions.

Obama Victory Speech
President-elect Barack Obama celebrating his historic victory at Grant Park, Chicago, 4 November 2008.

The First Political Infomercial
An excerpt from Ross Perot's famous 1992 infomercial.

Primary Sources

Party Documents
The University of California at Santa Barbara's online American Presidency Project has posted numerous documents related to the study of political parties, including party platforms dating to 1840 and convention speeches dating to 1880.