A political party is a group organized to nominate candidates, win political power through elections, organize government, and promote public policies.
The founders of the American republic railed against political factions; however, political groupings within the U.S. Congress immediately emerged to debate the appropriate role of the national government. These early parties were legislative caucuses, with little organization or public participation. In order to win elections, the parties increasingly reached out to state and local leaders; however, an elite group of well-known national leaders continued to dominate party politics.
The expansion of voting rights, the popular election of the Electoral College, and the fractionalization of the parties on slavery gradually changed the nature of party politics. These changes paved the way for the two-party system we have today—Democrats and Republicans—and highlighted the need for a strong party organization and public participation in party politics.
American parties reached their golden age by the late 1800s. Party organizations existed in all U.S. states, ran campaigns, controlled access to government jobs, and served as an important source of information for the electorate. Yet, the golden age of parties came to an abrupt end with Progressive Movement reforms aimed at weakening the party organization including the secret ballot, primary elections, and civil service reform.
The parties languished for much of the 20th century, but the resurgence and dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties over the last fifty years stems from the parties’ creation of new sources of power: expansion of their fundraising capacity, provision of services to candidates, and control over various election rules including ballot access, federal financing, and redistricting. Moreover, the major parties continue to benefit from an electoral system in which only two parties have a realistic chance of winning any given election.
Beth Miller Vonnahme is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She will be a panelist at our October 16, 2017, event, “The Elephant & Donkey in the Room: The Future of American Political Parties.”
*Header cartoon: “Awaiting the ‘Third Party'” (1908, Puck Magazine). Via the Library of Congress.