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Political Parties

Last Updated: 2006

For most of American history, political parties have been shaped by the decentralized nature of the American political system. Unlike political parties in unitary systems, American parties have traditionally been weak organizations on the national level, reflecting the relatively weak state of the national government for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Political parties grew in stature on the national level as the federal system changed to reflect national power and administration. Yet the party system has always been rooted in the localized polity of American political history.


Political parties in the United States did not develop easily. The Constitution was a reflection of James Madison’s understanding of factionalism in The Federalist No. 10. Madison understood factions to be “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens,” and laid out a series of steps to protect the early republic from the threat of factions. The end result was the Constitution’s system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, all of which made it difficult for strong parties to form and operate. Unitary and nationalized systems of government tend to also be “party” governments: whichever party wins a majority in the legislature, or whichever parties can form a coalition, elects the government. Political parties as collective organizations are paramount in a parliamentary structure. Because the framers of the American constitution created a system that was hallmarked by federalism and the separation of powers, there were multiple centers of power in the United States and numerous institutional barriers to strong party organizations. Political parties would struggle for supremacy and would often fall short. Still, the very spirit that animated Madison’s theories would serve as the springboard for the early party system.

The Republican Party, the early and direct ancestor of the modern Democratic Party, organized around opposition to the administration of President George Washington and its perceived pro-British tilt, symbolized in the Jay Treaty, and the economic policies of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a firm believer in a nationalized polity and strove to create a commercial republic in the United States. The Republican Party challenged Hamilton’s plans, and the 1796 presidential election saw this new organization—spearheaded by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Philip Freneau—coordinate their efforts to defeat party members who supported the Jay Treaty. The Federalist Party, based largely in New England, defended Hamilton’s nationalist policies. The beginnings of a two-party system were thus created.

Thomas Jefferson used the organizational capacity of the Republican Party to enact key pieces of his legislative agenda in the aftermath of his election in 1800. Jefferson used the “spoils system,” or staffing public offices with political supporters, and party discipline to support and punish party members to achieve a degree of party unity in Congress on behalf of his vision of a more decentralized polity. Despite his organizational efforts to create a political party, Jefferson’s party was meant to achieve a degree of national unity, not a lasting-party system. Still influenced by Madison’s fears of factions, Jefferson strove for a degree of national unity and viewed his party organization as a means to such unity. The lack of meaningful party opposition in the 1820’s seemed to achieve Jefferson’s goals. As the Federalist Party receded in strength after the election of 1800, Jefferson’s Republican Party was virtually unchallenged.

This lack of party competition did not prevent the growth of regional differences over issues such as internal improvements, the tariff, the War of 1812, and slavery. The growth of such differences cast a pall over the ideal of American nationhood and set the stage for the divisive elections of 1824 and 1828.


Andrew Jackson had become a leading voice for democratizing American politics. His defeat in the 1824 election led to his victory four years later as the head of a formal party organization, the Democratic Party (the new name for Jefferson’s Republicans), the brainchild of New York Senator Martin Van Buren. Van Buren masterfully tied the political popularity of Jackson to the organizational apparatus of the Democratic Party and created the first national party convention in 1832 to tie the presidential nominee to a political coalition. This first experiment in national party politics was nothing more than an assembly of state party leaders. Party conventions would serve to bring together state and local leaders to choose party nominees and create a party platform. Every four years, the “national party” would gather to fulfill these obligations and then disband.

In part because of their federal nature, American parties were neither “small” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s description (meaning that there were no substantial differences) nor ordinarily “great” parties of profound differences. Yet in times of crisis, one or more parties grow in importance to lead the nation through a surrogate constitutional revolution. Such parties realign the nation’s politics through a critical election such as that of 1832, when the Democrats recalled the early Republican spirit of limited government and a decentralized polity. The 1832 election ushered in the first truly competitive party system by witnessing a clash of ideas between Jackson’s Democrats and the opposition Whig Party. Partisan techniques of rallies, party newspapers, and electioneering became staples of American politics.

Though they were now national organizations, political parties existed only as a series of state and local organizations. Reflecting the division of electoral votes by state, the two parties were forces for a decentralized polity. National leaders became dependent on the esteem of local party leaders, who thrived on the federal patronage dispensed by presidents and their supporters.

The very nature of parties that are not “great” in Tocqueville’s analysis prevented the Democrats or Whigs from properly dealing with the issue of slavery. The bipartisan consensus on fundamental issues created an untenable political situation as the ability to compromise on the issue of slavery decreased due to mounting regional pressures that served to overwhelm party loyalty. When Van Buren was defeated for the 1844 Democratic nomination due to the Democratic Party’s two-thirds rule (an internal party rule that required two-thirds of convention delegates to support a candidate for nomination), the chance for the Democratic Party to rally around the antislavery issue passed. The Whigs likewise forfeited the opportunity to attack slavery. Thus was a new party born that would pave the way for a constitutional revolution and challenge the federal system that preserved localism, at least for a moment.

The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln was created in 1856 and was made up of disaffected Whigs and Democrats and those opposed to the expansion of slavery in general and the passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act in particular. This act allowed for the expansion of slavery into the new territories. The Republican Party was distinct from the old Jeffersonian Republicans in its support of a Hamiltonian plan of economic and social nationalism. Under Lincoln, the Republicans supported and enacted legislation to develop western lands, create agricultural colleges, and provide capital for internal improvements and industrial investment. In opposition, the Democrats recalled the Jeffersonian legacy of a decentralized nation and states’ rights. The success of the Union in the Civil War briefly gave the national government a degree of strength and power it previously lacked. In addition, the political coalition of the Republican Party of the late nineteenth century was made up of business interests and dominant northern religious denominations, all Protestant. The Democrats as the party of the former Confederate states expanded to become the party of all major northeastern cities and the immigrant and Catholic citizens. The identification of these coalition groups remained remarkably durable for nearly 100 years.

The increased activity of the federal government increased the role of local and state party leaders. The local and state party organizations thrived on federal patronage and were provided material support in exchange for votes. Party organizations in urban areas filled their coffers with kickbacks from those companies that successfully received city contracts. This system encouraged party loyalty and discipline but could also frequently erupt in internecine battles. It also served to reorient the federal system away from nationalized, administrative power to a rebirth of a system dominated by state and local interests and party organizations, all of whom had grown more powerful as federal patronage increased.


Both major parties at the turn of the twentieth century were essentially conservative, emphasizing to varying degrees Jeffersonian theories of limited government. The Populist and later the Progressive movements broke out of that mold and created a new, modern liberal tradition that would pave the way for the New Deal coalition.

Both political parties avoid outright statements on federalism but offer subtle reminders of where they stand. Such statements reveal that the modern Democratic Party, reflecting its history from Franklin Roosevelt onward, is much more supportive of national administrative power. The modern Republican Party, reflecting its conservative heritage best articulated by Ronald Reagan, is much more circumspect in its approach. For example, on the issue of education, in its 2000 Party Platform the Democrats contend that in “states that do not make progress in improving student performance, the federal government should redirect money from state bureaucrats and transfer it directly to schools that need it. States that do succeed in raising student success should receive bonuses—and schools that are making a positive difference should receive bonuses, as well. In addition, teachers who earn a National Board Certification should be especially rewarded.” According to the Democrats, “[W]e must, finally, live up to the Federal government’s promise to communities to help them defray the expenses of educating children with special needs” ( Republican Platform of 2000 was far more cautious, stating that “we recognize that under the American constitutional system, education is a state, local, and family responsibility, not a federal obligation. . . .The Republican Congress rightly opposed attempts by the Department of Education to establish federal testing that would set the stage for a national curriculum. We believe it’s time to test the Department, and each of its programs, instead. . . . For dramatic and swift improvement, we endorse Governor Bush’s principles of local control, with accountability, parental choice, and meaningful student achievement as essential to education reform” (

The Republican Party won the critical 1896 election on the basis of its support of sound money and protectionism. But the party faced a severe internal split, with the followers of President William McKinley often clashing with the progressive elements of the party, led by McKinley’s vice president, Theodore Roosevelt. Progressives sought to break the back of the two-party system by favoring strict regulations over party politics and favoring efforts to dismantle urban political machines.

In their efforts to dismantle the traditions of party politics, Progressive reforms included civil service protection to disrupt patronage, primary elections, and nonpartisan local elections. Primary elections in particular became decisive in giving rise to a candidate-centered polity where party organizations and loyalties mattered less in electoral competition. Progressive reforms also paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s reconceptualization of party politics in the critical election of 1932.

As the head of the Democratic Party, Franklin Roosevelt created a majority coalition of conservative Southerners, northern liberals, union workers, and African Americans in his 1932 presidential election. Like the critical election of 1860, the Democrats in 1932 led a surrogate constitutional revolution on the meaning of rights with the desire of recasting the rights in the Declaration of Independence to strengthen the ties between democracy and liberty. Roosevelt used his popularity to encourage the Democratic Party to rid itself of the two-thirds rule that had prevented Van Buren’s nomination in 1844. This set in motion a series of events that would draw conservative Southerners out of the Democratic Party and begin to free the party and its presidential nominees from the grips of state and local leaders.

Like Jefferson, Roosevelt conceived of the new Democratic Party as a party to end parties. His creation of the administrative state, with the creation of programs such as Social Security in 1935 that were administered not by patronage hires but by a professional civil service, was designed to replace traditional party politics and the urban machines that sustained it.

Roosevelt’s efforts to destroy party politics were only somewhat successful as the two-party system endured, with Republicans exploiting the post–World War II weakness of the Democrats to win eight presidential elections. Republicans forged a winning strategy behind retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 but only after accepting key elements of the New Deal, particularly Social Security, and the attendant rise of national administrative power.

Part of the explanation of Republican electoral success in the later half of the twentieth century was the rise of suburbs and the sunbelt states of the South and Southwest, both of which favored Republican candidates. Republican gains came largely through the disarray of the Democratic Party over issues such as civil rights and the war in Vietnam. The 1968 Democratic Convention burst the fissures in the Democratic Party between the antiwar and conservative elements of the party into the open. When the convention failed to support a nominee who had contested party primaries in favor of Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the party created a reform commission headed by Senator George McGovern to change its delegate selection rules.

The Democratic Party changed its rules to reflect greater democracy by opening up the process to primary elections, preventing state and local leaders from exerting the same level of influence in the nomination process. This was a key victory for the long hopes of Progressive reformers.

The rise of television as a campaign medium put an emphasis on style and removed the party organization as an intermediary between the citizenry and the candidate. Candidate-centered politics, symbolized by Richard Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) in 1972, removed the party organization as a force in presidential elections. Subsequent campaign finance reforms and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) made it impossible to exert controls on television advertising and the amount of money candidates could spend in electoral contests. The Republicans were able to use the rise in crime and welfare dependency against the Democrats in power in the 1960’s. Ronald Reagan forced the Republican party to reexamine its traditional support of Keynesian economics in favor of deficit control coupled with large tax and spending cuts. Reagan’s tax cuts, though responsible for massive budget deficits, proved politically popular for the Republican Party.

Democrats in the post-Reagan era were led by Bill Clinton, who took his party to task for not changing and moderating its image. He successfully expropriated Republican issues on deficits, crime, and welfare and became the first Democrat since Roosevelt to win reelection.

Though the Democrats were rejuvenated under the leadership of Bill Clinton and both parties competed for control of Congress, parties remained as weak organizations due to the impact of media, money, and the demise of traditionally strong state and party organizations. Still, control of the institutions of government remains closely divided with likely control determined by certain key values-based issues.

Despite their general statements to the contrary, the modern Democratic and Republican Parties often support or oppose the concept of federalism out of convenience. For example, during the 1994 congressional elections, the Republican Party advocated the destruction of the federal Department of Education due, in part, to its intrusion into a policy realm that rightly belonged to states and localities. But in 2002, after a negative public reaction to the efforts of the previous Republican Congresses, Republican President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act that significantly increases the federal role in the nation’s schools. Likewise, the Democratic Party had long resisted attempts to dismantle the nation’s welfare system. As a legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Democrats defended the federal role in providing unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) from the efforts of conservatives to give greater control over these policy areas to the states. Nevertheless, in the face of a Republican takeover of Congress and public opinion polls favoring change, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform bill that abolished AFDC and gave states greater flexibility in shaping welfare policy.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Midwest became the key battleground for national victories, with its sharp divide between the parties. Issues of morality and liberty such as abortion, homosexuality, and gun control have led to a rancorous debate in American politics. Despite their ability to compromise on other issues, the two parties have been unable to brook compromise on these issues. The growing importance of moral issues coupled with a regionalism in American politics that continues to be a by-product of its federal form, and members of Congress elected from single-member districts, produce elected officials who are more polarized than the electorate. Women are significantly more likely to vote Democratic than men. Married women tend to support Republicans and single women are more likely to support Democrats than voters as a whole. Americans who consider themselves religious are more likely to vote Republican, forcing the Democrats to attempt to shed their image as a secular party.

The party system created by Martin Van Buren has been remarkably stable but has been changed in three important ways. First, party leaders no longer exercise much influence or control in the selection of nominees. Second, parties are no longer made up mostly of state and local party organizations. Though they are much more national in scope, parties tend to be tools for raising money and supporting presidential candidates. Finally, parties were conceived as a tool for overcoming sectionalism, and the growing sectionalism in American politics poses a threat to American unity and party strength. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, Republican George W. Bush won every state in the South.

SEE ALSO: Elections


Sidney M. Milkis, Political Parties and Constitutional Government: Remaking American Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); A. James Reichley, The Life of the Parties (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); James L. Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1983); and John Kenneth White and Daniel Shea, New Party Politics: From Jefferson and Hamilton to the Information Age (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000).