We usually think of a “party” as a social gathering where we celebrate important events with friends and family or spend time together doing shared activities, like dancing or playing board games. During these gatherings, we may discuss our goals and desires with each other and even make plans for the future. It's fun but also functional: while hanging out, we tighten the bonds we've formed and share hopes, dreams, and other ideas.
In politics, a party is something similar. It usually involves people joining together for a common purpose. Much like families and friends, these people are united by shared values, and often a vision for the future.
A political party can be defined as an organized group of people sharing beliefs or a common ideology seeking to gain and exercise power in government. This generally involves getting certain candidates elected and advocating for a specific policy agenda, also known as the party’s platform.
Political parties are not part of the Constitution. In fact, George Washington was strongly against the establishment of a party system in American politics. In his farewell address to the nation in 1796, he warned of the dangers of political “factions.” He believed these groups could become more invested in their own interests than in the public good, and that disagreements between parties could lead to division and ultimately weaken the government. Thus, he said, the public must “discourage and restrain” the party spirit from invading American politics.
Despite Washington’s warnings, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists -- sometimes known as Democratic-Republicans -- quickly battled for power after he left office. In the mid-1800s, a new party system developed, where loyalties were split between the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. Not long after, the Whig Party collapsed and the Republican Party emerged. Contrary to what we now know to be true, the Democratic Party was originally politically conservative while the Republican Party was more liberal. By the 1930s and the passage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, the Democratic Party had begun to move left on the political spectrum while the Republican Party had slowly shifted right. This resulted in the party system we know today.
Nowadays, Democrats, often represented by the color blue and the symbol of a donkey, usually have a more liberal ideology. The Democratic platform typically advocates for a stronger central government to ensure protections for socially marginalized groups and a strong welfare system. Republicans, often represented by the color red and the symbol of an elephant, usually have a more conservative ideology. The Republican platform typically advocates for states’ rights and lower taxes, to encourage individual freedom and unrestricted free-market principles.
How They Work
Political parties have many roles in the American government. One main function is supporting candidates for office. Political parties are responsible for coordinating primary elections in every state. Once a candidate is chosen to represent the party, they generally help raise money for the campaign and connect the candidate to other organizational resources. While this creates a streamlined process for electing people to public office, it can also make it difficult for those uninvolved in a dominant political party to get into politics.
Since parties seek to get their candidates elected, they play a critical role in informing and mobilizing the public. They coordinate advertising and outreach strategies that make information about candidates and policies more accessible. This material helps to promote expanded public understanding of government, although it’s often biased in favor of the party’s platform and can involve attacking the other party’s candidates or ideas.
In addition to supporting candidates and informing citizens, a party also seeks to influence policy by organizing and guiding its elected representatives, including members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Usually, elected officials work together with others in their party to coordinate voting on policy issues that advance their platform. This can promote unity and voting cohesion at the cost of discouraging dissenting opinions that clash with the party goals.
As you may have noticed, each era in American party politics has generally been dominated by only two factions. The congressional voting system helps perpetuate this tendency toward a two-party system. Since each district elects a single representative, the losing party gets no representation at all, making it challenging for more than two parties to gain traction.
You may be thinking, “This is all well and good, but I’m a free thinker. I don’t want to pick one party and stick with it!” This is the mindset of many independent voters, or voters who don’t affiliate themselves with either party. However, even if you don’t want to join and support a political party, they still have immense influence over our political system. Often, there will only be Democratic or Republican candidates listed on a given ballot. Therefore, it’s important to know what each party represents so that when it’s your turn in the voting booth, you know what you’re voting for - or against!