Political parties are often thought of with a modicum of cynicism in the United States. The very notion of parties leads most to see the potential for partisan politics. Still, political parties are an integral part of any democratic system, mobilizing and centralizing various political ideologies and philosophies. This paper will take an in-depth look at the nature of political parties, as well as the two-party system that has evolved in the United States since the nation gained independence in 1776. During the course of this analysis, the reader may glean the usefulness of political parties as well as the controversy they create within American society.
Keywords Gridlock; Independent Voters; Major Party; Partisanship; Plurality; Polarization
Sociology of Politics
At the dawn of U.S. history, the nation’s founders naturally fell into differing schools of thought as to how the new country would take shape. Federalists and Anti-Federalists formed political parties, each seeking control over the destiny of the new nation that was emerging from the Revolution. While Thomas Jefferson viewed these organized political groups as natural by-products of political development (and in fact a necessary system for striking accords between differing ideologies), he also saw no reason to become an adherent to one or the other. In a letter to contemporary Francis Hopkinson, he wrote, "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself." He added, "Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all" (Jefferson, cited in Coates, 1999).
Indeed, political parties are often thought of with a modicum of cynicism in the United States. The very notion of parties leads the casual observer to see the potential for partisan politics. Still, as Jefferson saw it, political parties are an integral part of any democratic system, mobilizing and centralizing various political ideologies and philosophies.
This paper will take an in-depth look at the nature of political parties, as well as the two-party system that has evolved in the United States since its creation in 1776. During the course of this analysis, the reader may glean the usefulness of political parties as well as the controversy they create within American society.
A Brief History of Political Parties
In the fourth century BCE, the Greek city-state of Athens was mired in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Future icons of political philosophy, such as Socrates and Plato, worked feverishly to introduce ideals under the declining Athenian institution. When Socrates was put to death for impiety, his contemporary, Plato, became disillusioned with government and the establishment of political order. In his seminal political work, The Republic, he made an important assertion that government and politics exist for the purpose of creating justice for the betterment of society. However, justice (and ultimately peace), according to Plato, would not come through the victory of one faction over another. Rather, it comes from the reconciliation of the issues that exist between the myriad of social groups and classes (Korab-Karpowicz, 2006). In other words, he was acknowledging that, in light of the diversity of Greek society, it is important that the precursors to modern political parties work together for the betterment of mankind.
Political parties, which are in essence coalitions of politically active citizens who come together for the purposes of advancing a political agenda, have long existed in systems and nations that rely on the input of the citizens in order for government to operate in a socially responsive manner. Some parties form around an issue, such as taxation or civil rights. Others are created to advance a social group, such as women or minorities. If two or more parties form, there are usually two outcomes for the system in question. First, they might form coalitions in order to show greater numbers on mutually relevant issues. Second, they may compete with each other to either defeat the other's agenda, vie for control over government institutions, or both.
As plurality (two or more parties) increases, the parties must coexist. Often, they must adjust their platforms and tactics to account for similar adjustments by other groups. Studies indicate that this dynamism is not limited to polar opposites, either. In many cases, platform shifts coincide with changes by parties of similar ideological composition: left-leaning groups respond particularly to the changes of other leftist parties and right-leaning parties to other right-wing groups (Adams & Somer, 2006).
The American System
It was not long into the foundation of the United States of America that the protection of the people (in essence, that to which Plato was referring) became a divergent issue among the country's first political parties. Federalists and Anti-Federalists clashed over how best to represent the needs of American citizens in the one document that would become the highest law in the nation — the Constitution. The issue of particular controversy was a component that has since become the centerpiece of protecting the interests of the people: the Bill of Rights.
When debate on the development of the Constitution began in earnest in 1789, several factions supported the inclusion of a provision protecting the rights of the people. Led by the Anti-Federalist faction, proponents asserted that if no such amendments were included in the Constitution, the federal government could assert tyrannical rule over the people. Their position was not unfounded, for Anti-Federalists had experienced pronounced repression from the British Empire and elsewhere.
Federalists, on the other hand saw no reason for such a listing of protections. The United States, after all, had detached itself from such tyranny to form a democratic republic that respected the rights of the people. In the view of the Federalists, a list of the rights on which the government could not impinge was unnecessary and would be subject to constant updating (Liu, 2007). However, as a concession to the Anti-Federalists, Congress agreed to name the first ten amendments to the Constitution the Bill of Rights.
Throughout American history, just as it has been elsewhere, political parties have been created with the people's interest in mind. Many are created to address social issues, others to generate safety and security in greater numbers. With so many interests and environmental conditions conducive to the formation of political parties, it would seem logical that there would be countless such organizations in the United States. However, as this paper will next discuss, only two major parties have emerged at the forefront of American politics.
Two Parties in a Diverse Nation
While other democracies, such as India, Russia, and Sweden, have numerous active political parties, in the United States there are but two major parties taking part in national elections—the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. This two-party system represents an interesting point about the constitutions of these parties. After all, the fundamental conduit that connects the private citizenry with the political process is the political party, which formulates issue platforms, issues policy responses, and fields candidates representative of their interests based on the input of the electorate. Yet, with one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse populations on the planet, the United States stands among the relative few democracies with a simple two-party system.
The fact that these two parties are the only major players in either Congress or the White House means that they must moderate the message they deliver to the electorate. The parties must tailor their information to attract a much broader audience than they would if their issue orientation was more directed at a concentrated interest group.
The parties must also be more flexible in their interactions with voters. A 2004 study gauged voter choices based not on the party stance, but on the ideological leanings of the voter himself or herself. If a voter is an ardent, committed member of the party, he or she will likely demonstrate ideological views that are more true to the platform (and therefore less tempered) and vote for candidates that adhere to that platform....
Students in the Department of Political Science at Western Michigan University will want to review these sample research topics when selecting their own research topic.
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