Partisan politics in the United States

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Partisan politics in the United States has several unique characteristics. Many of America's Founding Fathers hated the thought of political parties. They were sure quarreling factions would be more interested in contending with each other than in working for the common good. They wanted individual citizens to vote for individual candidates, without the interference of organized groups — but this was not to be.

Contents

Origins

By the 1790s, different views of the new country's proper course had already developed, and those who held these opposing views tried to win support for their cause by banding together. The followers of Alexander Hamilton, the Hamiltonian faction, took up the name "Federalist"; they favored a strong central government that would support the interests of commerce and industry. The followers of Thomas Jefferson, the Jeffersonians and then the "Anti-Federalists," took up the name "Republican Party" (referred to as the "Democratic-Republicans" by historians to distinguish it from the modern Republican party); they preferred a decentralized agrarian republic in which the federal government had limited power. By 1828, the Federalists had disappeared as an organization, replaced by the Whigs, brought to life in opposition to the election that year of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson's presidency split the Republican party: Jacksonians became the "Democratic-Republicans" and those following the leadership of John Quincy Adams became the "National Republicans." The Democratic-Republicans quickly shortened their name to the Democratic Party, and the system two-party dominance, still in existence today, was born. The United States thus has exceptionally old political parties.

In the 1850s, the issue of slavery took center stage, with disagreement in particular over the question of whether or not slavery should be permitted in the country's new territories in the West. The Whig Party straddled the issue and sank to its death; it was replaced in 1854 by the Republican Party, whose primary policy was that slavery be excluded from all the territories and any new states. Just six years later, this new party captured the presidency when Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860. By then, parties were well established as the country's dominant political organizations, and party allegiance had become an important part of most people's consciousness. Party loyalty was passed from fathers to sons, and party activities — including spectacular campaign events, complete with uniformed marching groups and torchlight parades — were a part of the social life of many communities.

By the 1920s, however, this boisterous folksiness had diminished. Municipal reforms, civil service reform, corrupt practices acts, and presidential primaries to replace the power of politicians at national conventions had all helped to clean up politics — and make it quite a bit more serious minded.

Two-party system development

America has historically had many minor or third political parties. They tend to serve a means to advocate polices that eventually are adopted by the two major political parties, i.e. the abolishment of slavery, and child labor laws. Some of these third political parties such as the Socialist Party, the Farmer Labor Party and the Populist Party developed an impressive degree of support, although limited electoral success.

Most officials in America are elected from single-member districts and win office by beating out their opponents in a system for determining winners called first-past-the-post — the one who gets the popularity wins, (which is not the same thing as actually getting a majority of votes). While some cities and the state of Illinois did experiment with proportional representation, the United States Congress banned the usage of that alternative voting method for federal legislative elections in 1967. This, too, encourages the two-party system.

Another critical factor has been ballot access law. Originally voters went to the polls and publicly stated which candidate they supported, later on this developed into a process whereby each political party would create its own ballot and thus the voter would put the party's ballot into the voting box. In the late nineteenth century, states became to adopt the Australian Secret Ballot Method and it eventually became the national standard. The secret ballot method ensured that the privacy of voters would be protected (hence government jobs could no longer be awarded to loyal voters) and each state would be responsible for creating one official ballot. The fact that states legislators were dominated by Democrats and Republicans provided an opportunity to possible discriminatory laws against minor political parties, yet such laws did not start to arise until the first so-called "Red Scare" that hit the United States after World War I. State legislators became to enact tough laws that made it harder for minor political parties to run candidates for office by requiring a high number of petition signatures from citizens and decreasing the length of time that such a petition could legally be circulated.

The duopoly

The election laws encourage the creation of a duopoly: one party in power, the other out. If those who are "out" band together, they have a better chance of beating those who are "in." Occasionally a third party does come along and receive a considerable share of the vote, although usually not for very long. The most successful third parties in recent years have been H. Ross Perot's Reform Party, which won 8% of the vote in the presidential election of 1996 (Perot himself won 19% of the vote in 1992, but the Reform Party did not yet exist) and the Libertarian Party, which has more than 400 members in elected office. Jesse Ventura became the only Reform Party candidate to win statewide office when he was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998.

Most third parties have a hard time surviving, though, because one or both of the major parties often adopt their most popular issues, and thus their voters. Also, voters who might otherwise favor a third party often hesitate to give them their votes because they are perceived as not having any realistic chance of winning, or because they fear their support for a third party will the divide the vote and cause the victory of the major party candidate least favorable to them.

It should also be noted that while the overwhelming majority of elected officials do identify with a political party, the political parties of the United States are much more individualistic than in other political systems (i.e. in a parliamentary system). More often than not, party members will "toe the line" and support their party's policies, but it is important to note that they are free to vote against their own party and vote with the opposition ("cross the aisle") if a particular policy is counter to the priorities and interests of their constituents.

"In America the same political labels — Democratic and Republican — cover virtually all public officeholders, and therefore most voters are everywhere mobilized in the name of these two parties," says Nelson W. Polsby, professor of political science, in the book New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution. "Yet Democrats and Republicans are not everywhere the same. Variations — sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant — in the 50 political cultures of the states yield considerable differences overall in what it means to be, or to vote, Democratic or Republican. These differences suggest that one may be justified in referring to the American two-party system as masking something more like a hundred-party system."

Political spectrum of the two major parties

The political philosophy of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party underwent a dramatic shift from their earlier philosophies during the second half of the twentieth century. From the 1860s to 1932 the Republican Party was considered to be the more left-wing of the two major parties and the Democratic Party the more right-wing of the two.

During the mid-1940s and the early 1960s both parties essentially expressed a more centrist approach to politics on the national level and had their liberal, moderate, and conservative wings equally influential within both parties.

After the 1964 presidential election, the conservative wing became more dominant in the Republican Party, and the liberal wing became more dominant in the Democratic Party.

After this, the liberal and conservative wings within the Democratic Party were competitive until 1972, when George McGovern's candidacy marked the triumph of the liberal wing. This similarly happened in the Republican Party with the candidacy and later landslide election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which marked the triumph of the conservative wing.

With the political realignment being mostly complete after the 1980 election, each major party has largely become identified by its dominant political orientation.

Liberals within the Republican Party and the remaining conservatives within the Democratic Party have typically fulfilled the roles of so-called political mavericks, radical centrists, or brokers of compromise between the two major parties. They have also helped their respective parties gain in certain regions that might not ordinarily elect a member of that party, the Republican Party has especially used this approach with liberal Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, Richard Riordan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Organization of the parties

Unlike in some countries, American political parties are very loosely organized. The two major parties, in particular, have no formal organization at the national level that controls membership, activities, or policy positions, though some state affiliates do. Thus, for an American to say that he or she is a member of the Democratic or Republican party, is quite different from a Briton's stating that he or she is a member of the Labour party. In the United States, one can often become a "member" of a party, merely by stating that fact. In some U.S. states, a voter can register as a member of one or another party or vote in the primary election for one or another party, but such participation does not restrict one's choices in any way; nor does it give a person any particular rights or obligations with respect to the party. A person may choose to attend meetings of one local party committee one day and another party committee the next day. The sole factor that brings one "closer to the action" is the quantity and quality of participation in party activities and the ability to persuade others in attendance to give one responsibility.

Party identification becomes somewhat formalized when a person runs for partisan office. In most states, this means declaring oneself a candidate for the nomination of a particular party and intent to enter that party's primary election for an office. A party committee may choose to endorse one or another of those who is seeking the nomination, but in the end the choice is up to those who choose to vote in the primary, and it is often difficult to tell who is going to do the voting.

The result is that American political parties have weak central organizations and little central ideology, except by consensus. A party really cannot prevent a person who disagrees with the majority of positions of the party or actively works against the party's aims from claiming party membership, so long as the voters who choose to vote in the primary elections elect that person.

At the federal level, each of the two major parties has a national committee that acts as the hub for much fund-raising and campaign activities, particularly in presidential campaigns. The exact composition of these committees is different for each party, but they are made up primarily of representatives from state parties, affiliated organizations, and other individuals important to the party. However, the national committees do not have the power to direct the activities of individual members of the party.

Thus, although each party has a chairman, that chairman cannot truly be considered the party's "leader" and it is often difficult to define party leadership with respect to American political parties. The parties' leaders generally are those who persuade other members to follow their leads. Often the party leaders are de facto those members of the party who hold high office, such as the presidency, or leadership in the House of Representatives or the Senate. However, such leadership only functions to the extent that other party members are willing to go along. As a formal matter, an incumbent president is considered to be the ex officio head of his party, who selects its national committee chair, as is the presidential nominee of the opposing party in an election year (though the nominee's power to oust an incumbent chair is not absolute, and has not been tested in recent years).

Both parties also have separate campaign committees which work to elect candidates at a specific level. The most significant of these are the Hill committees, which work to elect candidates to each house of Congress.

State parties exist in all fifty states, though their structures differ according to state law, as well as party rules at both the national and the state level.

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