American Political Parties
There is a great deal of controversy concerning the state of today’s American political parties, with some analysts suggesting that in spite of the enormous amount of resources directed to them, political parties have lost their direction and ability to fulfill their responsibilities to their membership in a meaningful fashion. Others, though, suggest that modern political parties in the United States have been recently reinvigorated and have become more important to the political process compared to recent years. Clearly, both of these perspectives cannot be entirely accurate so in order to determine which assertion is most accurate, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning current the state of modern American political parties, as well as their relevance and impact on the political process, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
On the hand, there are political scientists, pundits and casual observers all lining up to sound the death knell of American political parties today. For example, Hart (2010) recently observed that, “American political parties, as we have known them for two centuries, are disintegrating. They are being replaced by shifting coalitions that are forming and reforming constantly. This transition is leaving an awful lot of Americans adrift” (2). On the other hand, and assuming that this assertion is accurate, this current dismal state of affairs is in sharp contrast to the influence of American political parties before the end of World War II. For example, Hart adds that, “Well before the twentieth century the two major parties had come to exert hierarchical control over virtually all political processes, including the nomination of candidates for office, at the national and state levels. They were the conduits for campaign financing, access to the media, dissemination of political information, the structuring of ideas and policies, and the exercise of political discipline” (2010:3). Following the end of World War II, though, things began to change for political parties in the United States in ways that appear to be irreversible. In this regard, Hart notes that, “In recent years, the [political] parties’ entire role and therefore their power has been collapsing. If a candidate is clever enough and has something to say, he or she can get direct access to the media. As political entrepreneurs, most candidates now raise their own financing and depend on money from the parties less and less” (2010:4).
While party bosses may have been the powerbrokers and movers-and-shakers of the early 20th century, this is no longer the case and today’s political aspirants have a much wider range of choices available to them in terms of where they seek support. For example, Hart suggests that the role played by political parties in the United States in the past has been replaced by media-savvy candidates and interest groups who are able to develop support in ways that were not possible a few decades ago. In this regard, Hart (2010) concludes that, “Candidates form their own policy groups or court the flourishing idea forums that span the political spectrum. Self-confident and ambitious candidates put themselves forward for any office they desire, up to and including the presidency, without seeking the approval of party officials. Individual office-seekers form their own coalitions by shopping for support among the smorgasbord of interest groups” (5-6).
While political parties emerged in the United States early on as a framework in which like-minded citizens and interests group could collaborate, strategize and promote candidates of their choice, political parties are not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, political parties have played a formative role and have wielded varying degrees of influence on the American political process virtually since its inception. According to Black’s Law Dictionary (1991), a political party is “an associated of individuals whose primary purposes are to promote or accomplish elections or appointments to public offices, positions or jobs” (1158). As White (2010) points out, though, “Embedded within any definition of a political party are several normative assumptions about what parties are and are not-and, even more frequently, what they should be” (2). As examples, White asks whether American political parties are best viewed as mediating institutions that bridge the gap between the country’s political leadership and the electorate, and if so, what tasks should they be performing to fulfill these responsibilities? In their analysis of American political parties, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) suggest that the mediating institution role best describes the function and purpose of political parties in the United States today: “Conventional conceptions of political parties view them as multidimensional linkage institutions between the mass electorate and elected officials in the government. Parties exist as organizations, with some degree of structure, varying divisions of labor, and some number of full-time employees and, in the government, with officials (actual and potential) standing for election under party labels” (347). Indeed, a truly democratic republic demands some type of intermediary institution in its political process in order to function efficiently. In this regard, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) suggest that political parties today continue to fulfill this vital function: “Political parties are a central type of linkage structure in the modern American political system. As intermediary organizations, they help produce positive action and effective decisions in the face of fragmentation, conflict, and mass involvement. These structures are groups that engage in activities and organize initiatives that make cooperative behavior possible” (348).
Notwithstanding these observations concerning the viability and importance of modern political parties, other authorities are quick to point to various changes in American society and global affairs that have diluted the importance of role of political parties play today. For instance, Lawson and Poguntke (2004) report that, “Political scientists have debated for some 20 years whether parties are in decline, losing their social anchorage, their hold on the electorate, their capacity to influence policy. Empirical evidence is manifold, pointing at, among other factors, declining party membership across modern democracies, increasing volatility and questionable policy impact” (1). These assertions concerning the diminishing influence of political parties are balanced by others that point to the manner in which political parties have responded to these changes in the American political landscape. Although political parties have declined in influence at the national level, this is not a wholesale indictment of the system from the perspective of Lawson and Poguntke who note that, “Others have maintained that even though parties’ erosion of social anchorage is hardly questionable, this does not amount to party decline across the board because, by and large, parties have been able to compensate for this loss by turning to the state” (1).
Yet other analysts suggest that both of these arguments concerning the decline of the American political party system ignore the reality of the resurgence of American political parties at all levels. For instance, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) emphasize that, “Following the epitaphs written for American political parties, a resurgence of sorts has occurred. The political parties have long shown themselves to be adaptable in an uncertain political environment, making and remaking themselves as conditions permit or demand. They have, in a sense, seen opportunities and taken advantage of them” (347). This assertion suggests that it may be too soon to sound the death knell for American political parties, but the fact remains that things have changed for Americans in the 21st century in ways that have challenged politicians and the parties that support them.
The nature of the challenges that have confronted political parties in recent decades include the dramatically increased social complexity of a modern America and innovations in telecommunications that have provided the opportunity for politically minded Americans to hold their elected officials more accountable for their actions. In this regard, Curtis (2006) reports that, “In an era of communication, people are becoming more aware of what legislative bodies are doing, and they’re looking for accountability. People want to see what their legislator is doing to resolve issues that are important to them” (20). This point is also made by Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) who note, “The emphasis on grassroots politics that once was the bread and butter of the local political parties gave way in the 1980s to technocentric parties that seemed to have forgotten the party-in-the-electorate. Political scientists were quick to ascribe all manner of political pathologies to the decline of political mobilization by entities such as parties, and there was something to the argument. By the late 1990s, however, evidence pointed to the rediscovery of the mass base of political decision making. Grassroots mobilization efforts, by all accounts, were making a comeback. The virtually unfettered ability of individuals and organizations to disseminate information and facilitate mobilization efforts in the first few years of the twenty-first century was but one indicator of the trend” (348).
Other trends since the end of World War II suggest that like civil liberties, the influence of political parties in the United States tends to swing back and forth between two extremes. In this regard, Oskamp and Schultz (2004) point out that, “Class-based differences in voting declined continually during the 1950s and 1960s, then held steady through the 1970s and 1980s, and reached their lowest levels in the Clinton elections of the 1990s. However, class-based differences in party identification remained prominent and actually grew stronger in the 1970s and 1980s, with upper-class and middle-class individuals identifying more strongly with the Republican Party” (309). Likewise, Pomerantz (1999) notes that, “While people change their party identity only rarely, the significance of that affiliation waxes and wanes over time” (37). Citing the research conducted by Wattenberg based on data collected in the National Election Studies (NES), which were initiated in 1952 and have been conducted in every subsequent presidential campaign since that time. To determine voter affiliation with a given political party, Wattenberg developed a gauge to determine the degree of indifference or neutrality regarding American political parties. The respondents to the NES are queried, among other things, concerning what aspects they like and dislike about each political party. According to Pomerantz, “Some people have nothing to say, good or ill, about either party” (37). In reality, it is not all that surprising that some voters in America have little or nothing to say about the Democratic or Republican parties because they may not know what these parties stand on issues that are relevant to them. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that many average American voters would have problems defining a “Republican” or a “Democrat.” The percentage of those with little or nothing to say about either political party, though, has changed significantly in the last half century, but more American voters appear to have learned more about what the various political parties stand for and which agendas their candidates will likely pursue. For instance, Pomerantz reports that, “In 1952, only 10% were in that group, and most of them were apolitical — they knew little about the candidates and very few voted. In the 1980s, about 33% of the respondents had nothing to say about the parties, even though this group identified differences between them, had likes and dislikes about the candidates, and voted about as frequently as other respondents” (37). This is an interesting finding since it suggests that the media is playing an increasingly important role in communicating what political parties are doing and where they stand on various issues.
While the media is clearly playing an increasingly important role in the American political system, there are other forces at work that are reshaping American political parties in ways that directly affect their traditional roles. For instance, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) emphasize that, “In the wake of political and legal changes to elections in the last half of the twentieth century, many of the services traditionally provided to by political parties were co-opted by the more amorphous concept of the election campaign” (348). These authors suggest that this co-opting of the traditional services provided by American political parties has served to diminish their influence; for example, they add that, “It has been argued, for example, that political parties declined in their importance to American elections, replaced by candidate-centered elections that are perceived as being dominated by an even more amorphous group: political consultants” (Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer 2008:348). This point is also made by Wattenberg (2004) who emphasizes, “The post-1980 era of American politics thus appears to be a more advanced stage of candidate-centered politics. Presidential candidates have now become such dominant figures on the political scene that the political party is seen by the public in the framework of the leader” (143). Here again, the media has been responsible for some of these changes in the role played by political parties in the United States. In this regard, following the 1988 presidential election, Senator Bob Graham observed that, “The United States is going through the process of the McDonaldization of American politics. People are increasingly forming their partisan identifications by what they see on television. What they see on television is a national party dominated by its presidential candidates or that individual fortunate enough to be elected president” (quoted in Wattenberg 2004 at 143). From this perspective, American political parties have become little more than “. . . fast food franchises, in which it is the presidential candidate who flips the burgers and decides how to garnish them. A somewhat different garnishing by a new candidate will change the party’s image, such as when George W. Bush offered ‘compassionate conservatism’ in an attempt to soften the public’s view of the Republican Party (Wattenberg 144).
The shift towards candidate-centered politics in U.S. presidential elections has not taken place overnight, but has rather evolved over the past several decades in two specific stages, with the first involving situations wherein political leaders formulated an identity that was intended to be distinct from their party with the outcome being increasing dissension within the party concerning its role and direction. For example, Wattenberg (2004) observes that, “In the early years of American candidate-centered politics, leaders such as Goldwater, McGovern, and Carter carved out such niches for themselves” (144). Today, though, Wattenberg suggests that an increasing number of American voters are looking to the candidate to determine where the political party stands on various issues. Accoriding to Wattenberg, “More recently, American candidate-centered politics has moved into a second stage in which nominees have become such dominant figures on the political scene that the political party is often seen by the public through the prism of its leader. These leaders have attained this position not by the strength of their personalities, but rather through their dominance of the issue agenda” (144). Assuming this assertion is accurate — and the Obama presidential campaign suggests that it is to some degree — this does not mean that the political parties are down for the count, but are rather being forced to reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant and viable in the 21st century. In fact, some of the arguments in support of the “political parties in decline” perspective simply ignore constitutional reality in favor of rhetoric that contributes to the perception of the untimely demise of the American political party. For example, according to Ashbee (2004), “The weakness of the American political parties has added to the obstacles that reformers face, even when they have the backing of public opinion. Although there were significant shifts during the 1990s, the parties can only play a limited role in coordinating the work of Congress and easing the tension between Congress and the White House” (47). Given that political parties have no constitutional role, the fact that American political parties are able to play even a “limited role” in the American political process is proof positive that they remain an influential force that must be reckoned with by policymakers at all levels. In this regard, Oskamp and Schultz (2004) suggest that typical American voters possess certain beliefs, values, and ideas about some aspects of public affairs that are highly influenced by political parties, but are not as neatly packaged along party lines as some would believe. These authors emphasize the “the importance of political parties and other reference groups as central elements around which many average citizens organize a consistent set of political attitudes” (Oskamp and Schultz 2004:158).
While some authorities suggest that the Republican and Democratic parties continue to field presidential candidates that are merely “two heads of the same dragon,” some political scientists suggest that American political parties have become increasingly distinct and differentiated from each other, particularly during the past 2 decades or so. For instance, Oskamp and Schultz (2004) report that, “Authors have challenged the thesis that the emergence of a large group of independent voters has made American politics less partisan. In rebuttal, they have pointed to a steady increase in partisan polarization of political views among the American electorate, starting in the 1980s, and a parallel increase in voters’ ideological (liberal-conservative) orientation and voting” (341). There are some regional differences involved in how these trends have played out in recent years as well in terms of their effect on political party differentiation. For instance, Oskamp and Schultz add that, “A major result, especially as Southern voters moved more to the Republican Party, has been that the two parties have become more ideological and more dissimilar in their congressional legislative programs. This is especially true of the Republican Party, which has become more homogeneously conservative in its policies and candidates” (341). The net result of this differentiation has been to highlight the respective platforms offered by each political party in ways that can help American voters discern the choices available to them. According to Pomerantz, “The public has no difficulty finding differences between the parties; paradoxically, the trend here moves opposite the trend toward neutrality. What has changed is the perception that one party will do better than the other at handling what people see as the most significant problems of the day” (37). Clearly, one of the most significant problems of the day is the war on terrorism. The threats from at home and abroad in the post-September 11, 2001 United States have affected the political process and the political parties that supports it in fundamental ways. As Cox (2004) points out, the war on terrorism has overwhelmed the political process in American for the past 8-1/2 years: “The politics of global fear and the narratives of international menace are likely to prove politically decisive” (4). What remains to be done, then, is for each political party to advance a platform that most effectively addresses these problems in ways that American voters can identity with to the point where they become supporters. Nevertheless, the combination of powerful media interests and lobbyists as well as rampant campaign financing by special interest groups have all operated to change American voters’ perception of which candidate is best aligned with their views and interests from political parties to the candidates themselves. As Pomerantz emphasizes:
Budget deficits, which had long been thought a problem that Republicans were best suited to solve, are still on the list of problems, but no longer is one party seen as better equipped than the other to handle them. No, it’s not so much the national issues but the changes in our political structure — the rise of entrepreneurial candidates for president and for Congress facilitated by changes in media coverage and new forms of campaign financing — that best explain why the electorate now links issues with candidates, not parties. (Pomerantz 37)
As noted above, the media is frequently cited as one of the more influential forces at work in reshaping the role played by political parties in America, and with good reason. According to White (2010), “In the Information Age, many scholars argue that political parties are not what they used to be. At once, the Internet has leveled the playing field, as information becomes instantaneously available to party producers and consumers. Parties are no longer the primary filter of political information. Instead, they are just one provider-among many-of several different types of information that are available on the World Wide Web” (5). In the past, undecided voters may have turned to organizations such as the League of Women Voters for timely and relevant information concerning where candidates stood on issues of interest to them, but this need has been increasingly fulfilled by online resources. Moreover, politicians are using these telecommunications resources in innovative ways that are reshaping the political landscape. According to White (2010), political parties in the U.S. are currently in a state of flux: “As parties adapt to these new conditions, new definitions-replete with new assumptions about their functions-are likely to shape the ongoing debate about their roles and functions in the 21st century” (5). Likewise, John McCain and Barack Obama were certainly not reluctant to use the Internet for fund-raising purposes and promotion of their respective ideologies during their presidential campaigns (pers. obs.), and it is likely that political parties will be compelled to adapt to this dynamic in order to remain viable in the future. As White points out, “The 2004 elections provide some interesting clues to future party developments. During the Democratic presidential primaries, former Vermont governor Howard Dean pioneered the use of the Internet as a fund-raising and organizational tool. Dean raised millions of dollars over the Internet, most of it in small, individual dollar amounts” (2010:5).
While the purpose and viability of modern political parties in the United States continues to be debated, the fact remains that Americans are increasingly seeking alternatives to the “two-headed dragon” of the political machine they perceive as being unresponsive to their needs and interests. It was not too long ago that many American citizens became lifelong Democrats or Republicans because this was the party affiliation of their parents, and nothing could sway them from this choice of political parties. Today, though, crossing party lines to vote for the candidate that best meets a voter’s needs and who is most closely aligned with their interests and way of thinking is becoming increasingly commonplace, and third-party presidential candidates are making an impact at the national level. These changes and trends, though, affirm rather than refute the current healthy state of American political parties because it is within this framework that voters continue to pursue their own interests, even if it means changing party affiliation or crossing party lines on election day. The research clearly showed that the influence of political parties in the United States has waxed and waned over the past 2 centuries. In the final analysis, the current state of American political parties is one of rapid change that will demand rethinking traditional roles and identifying new opportunities for participation in the political process in support of ideologies and candidates that reflect party lnes. Although political parties are currently facing a number of challenges and obstacles that are unprecedented in American history, it is reasonable to conclude that political parties are sufficiently well entrenched in the political landscape that voters in the 22nd century will likely be selecting their candidates from a two-party political system.
Ashbee, Edward. U.S. Politics Today. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2004.
Black’s Law Dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1991.
Cox, Michael. 2004, January, “United States Presidential Election: It’s Foreign Policy, Stupid.”
The World Today 60(1): 4-5.
Curtis, Greg. 2006, July-August, “A View from the Top: State Legislatures Gathered a Group of Leaders to Talk about the Challenges That the Global Economy and Immigration Pose
against a Backdrop of Federal Mandates, the Loss of Institutional Memory, and a Decline
in Decorum and Ethics. Here’s What They Had to Say.” State Legislatures 32(7): 20-21.
Hart, Gary. 2010, February 4. “The Parties are Over.” Huffington Post. [Online]. Available:
Oskamp, Stuart and P. Wesley Schultz. Attitudes and Opinions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 2004.
Panagopoulos, Costas and Peter W. Wielhouwer. 2008, “The Ground War 2000-2004: Strategic
Targeting in Grassroots Campaigns.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 38(2): 347-348.
Lawson, Kay and Thomas Poguntke. How Political Parties Respond: Interest Aggregation
Revisited. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Pomerantz, David. 1999. “The Decline of the American Parties: 1952-1988.” Washington
Wattenberg, Martin P. 2004, “Elections: Personal Popularity in U.S. Presidential Elections,”
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White, John K. 2010. “Political Parties.” American Political Science Association. [Online].
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