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Political Parties: What They Are, and Why They Matter

W. David Griggs

Adjunct Professor at UNT Dallas College of Law

ISSUE 15

SPRING 2024

ELECTION LAW

During an election year, the media constantly bombards us with the latest breaking news from the campaign trail.  Sometimes that news is hard to comprehend, especially if we don’t fully know the context of the issue being discussed, or if we have not been paying close attention.  Often, the news is colored by “spin,” or propaganda, from political parties or their surrogates who may have generated the news in the first place to promote their cause. If you are new to politics, or if you are just trying to stay informed, you may wonder why there is so much emphasis on political parties. 


The reason is that we have a two-party system of government in the United States and generally always have.¹ “Control” of a legislative body, meaning a majority of members elected from a specific political party, determines leadership, and, therefore, defines the agenda.  Maintaining that “control” by winning elections is vital for the effectiveness and longevity of the party leadership in the majority. In the federal government at the presidential level, the political party of the winning candidate has enormous influence on the administration’s philosophy by influencing the appointment of executive officials, guiding administrative rule making, and in implementing public policy. Judicial appointments are also heavily influenced at all levels by political philosophy. Therefore, all three branches of government at the state and national levels are heavily dependent on the power and influence of our political parties. 


How did the present-day Democratic and Republican parties develop and become so entrenched in our political system? Why are there only two major parties? How does party structure and participation make these particular parties so dominant?  And why does it all matter? Let’s first turn back the clock to learn about how the political phenomenon of parties began and how it developed.


I. What are political parties, and how did they form in the United States?

Political parties are coalitions of like-minded people who organize to elect candidates and attempt to win control of the government in order to implement their policies. Basically, they are organizations of people who work to win elections.²


Ironically, the U.S. Constitution does not refer to political parties.³ Given all the controversy and political dissent over the years about party factions, the nation’s supreme law does not even mention them. The reason is likely that the founding fathers did not trust factions, another name for political parties. In fact, factions were seen as a threat to the new democratic government in James Madison’s Federalist Papers, No. 10, where he warned of “the violence of faction” and called it a “dangerous vice.” The causes of a faction were thought to be “sown in the nature of man.”


A common thought among Federalists who pushed for ratification was that government by the masses was unstable due to factions, or conflicts among rival parties, and that the only way to deal with the causes of faction was to control their effects. Thus, Madison and others called for ratification of the new democratic government as set forth by the Constitutional Convention in the form of a “republic,” or representative democracy, where factions of a small minority could be defeated in an election by the diverse interests of a larger population. President George Washington warned at the end of his second term in his farewell address that Americans should avoid partisan politics due to the dangers of people who intensely advocate for their own interests over those of the majority. Washington was a talented and greatly respected leader who was the first and probably last president to be able to circumvent the latent partisan divide. The factions were there then as they are now, and they could not be ignored for long.


II. How did our political parties develop?

Despite the warnings from two of our early presidents, political parties formed almost from the beginning, and the first two parties emerged during the first test of the Republic—the ratification of the Constitution. The Federalists favored a strong national government and the Anti-Federalists (later known as the Jeffersonian-Republicans) favored a weaker national government, with more power reserved to the states.¹⁰ Federalists were backed by New England merchants who supported tariffs to protect domestic production, while the Jeffersonian-Republicans favored free trade and the continued practice of slavery by the southern states.¹¹ 


The Federalist Party began to wane with the election of Jeffersonian-Republicans in the early 1800s.¹² By 1828 with the election of Andrew Jackson, the Jeffersonian-Republicans evolved into the Democratic Party¹³, known as the party that fought for the rights of common working people. Shortly thereafter, groups opposing Jackson’s party formed the Whig Party as the Democrats’ opposition.¹⁴ The Whigs had some of the same support the Federalists had and were generally seen as their successors.¹⁵ 


The contentious issue of slavery continued to haunt the country throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and beyond. The issue delayed the Republic of Texas, formed in 1836 after independence from Mexico, from coming in as the 28th state until 1845.¹⁶ Conflicts over slavery caused deep divisions in both rival parties until the 1850s when the Whig party dissolved. The Republican Party was formed in 1854 in Wisconsin as the next rival to the Democrats by a group of civic and community leaders who opposed slavery.¹⁷ The newly formed Republican Party chose Abraham Lincoln of Illinois in 1860 as its first presidential nominee.¹⁸ The Republicans won the election that year, and the Civil War began soon after.¹⁹ 


The currently named political parties emerged out of the Civil War, but the parties have had significant changes in policy positions and membership over the past 160 years. The Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson was the conservative party of that era—still supporting states’ rights and agrarian policies of the South. The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln championed liberal voting rights for the freed slaves during and after Reconstruction and developed its base in the northern states.²⁰


Throughout the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until the Great Depression, the philosophical divide and voting alignment by the members of the two parties on issues remained relatively unchanged. However, Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s offered a new twist on issues for party affiliation, and Democrats began to attract minorities, labor, and liberals from the Republican base who saw the expanded federal government’s role in the New Deal politically attractive.²¹ Progress on civil rights and voting rights reform in the 1960s continued the shift in party affiliation as the Democrats championed these liberal issues. The remaining conservatives and moderates, once the backbone of the Democratic Party, began their slow migration to the Republican Party, especially in the South.²² With the presidency of Barack Obama, the exodus of moderates from the Democratic Party accelerated, and after the influences of the Tea Party and the Trump presidency, the transformation of the political realignment of conservatives, especially social conservatives, to the Republican Party was complete. 


III.  Why are there only two major parties today?  Why not a third?

There have been many third-party experiments throughout our history. None have survived viability. In the nineteenth century, we had brief appearances by National Republicans, Prohibitionists, and Populists. We also had the Anti-Masonic, Liberty, Free Soil, and Greenback labor parties offer candidates. In the twentieth century, we had the most significant impact of a third party to date at the presidential level: Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Bull Moose party garnered more than 27% of the popular vote in 1912, good enough for second place, and 88 electoral votes.²³ We also had third party efforts from the Progressive Party, the Socialist Party (again), the States’ Rights (Dixiecrats) Party, George Wallace’s American Independent Party, Ross Perot’s United We Stand and Reform Parties, the Green Party, and the Libertarian Party.²⁴ Third parties have occasionally won electoral votes, but none have ever come close to garnering enough electoral votes to win the presidency. 


So why only two?  In our system of general election voting, the candidate who receives the highest number of votes wins regardless of whether they received a majority.²⁵ This is not the case in some primary election contests, such as in Texas, where the state mandates a primary runoff to determine who gets a majority of the votes to be the party’s representative in the general election.²⁶ In the United States, where a plurality of the votes wins the fall general election, studies have shown that this supports a stable two-party system.²⁷ In contrast, parliamentary systems, popular in Europe, are generally based on a proportional representation model in multimember districts that allows each political party representation in proportion to its percentage of the total vote.²⁸ Proportional systems often result in multiple parties being represented.²⁹


In the 1950’s, French political scientist Maurice Duverger developed “Duverger’s Law,” which concluded that “systems in which office is awarded to a candidate who received the most votes in a single-ballot election will produce a two-party system, rather than a multi-party one.”³⁰ This is based on a rational-choice model that assumes that voters do not want to waste their votes on candidates who stand little chance of winning. Rather than voting for a third-party candidate who might be their first choice, a voter in a “plurality, winner take all system,” like in general elections in the United States, will more likely vote for a candidate from one of the two major parties who has a realistic chance to win.³¹ Thus, voters do not vote sincerely, but strategically.³² This concept is still relevant today; it helps explain why Americans are so devoted to their political camps (parties) and why the two-party system perpetuates itself.


IV. Why are the two parties so entrenched as the only real political choices?

In recent years, the political divide in the country has become more pronounced. Social issues have become front and center in the debate, and various media outlets have taken opposing positions according to the values of their perceived audiences. We have become a polarized nation with two sides on almost every issue. One of the largest factors stirring the pot on this is the influence of cable television news, and, to some extent, social media. People who have strong opinions prefer to hear cable television commentators and politicians who feed those biases. The same goes for social media posts from those who espouse their views. This constant desire for electronic media to throw “red meat” to their viewers and subscribers has exacerbated a “tribe-like” obsession with the “news” outlets that cater to the philosophy of the voters. Candidates who buy in to this phenomenon only perpetuate the effect, and, unfortunately, add some credence to the propaganda by often appearing to speak for their political party. This often leads to false narratives and misinformed voters. However, the loyalty factor remains, regardless of the truth. That leads to even more entrenched political viewpoints on both sides.


An institutional reason why the two-party system is so entrenched is because legislators have chosen to make it that way. In Texas, only the Democratic and Republican parties have qualified to hold primaries in which the voters choose their nominees. The Texas Election Code dictates that only parties whose “nominee for governor in the most recent gubernatorial general election received 20% or more of the total number of votes received by all candidates for governor in the election” must be nominated by primary election.³³ Texas election law also allows for the candidates of smaller parties whose nominee for governor received at least 2%, but less than 20%, of the most recent vote for governor, may be nominated by primary election. However, holding a statewide primary in 254 Texas counties is a daunting and expensive process, and a challenging endeavor. Smaller parties, often strapped for resources, opt to select their nominees by convention.³⁴ Thus, little attention is paid to their nominating efforts, while all the TV ads, media coverage, and general voter interest is on the “two” major party primaries. 


Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has generally been supportive of states that attempt to use reasonable means to limit access to the ballot by independent and third parties. In 1971, in Jenness v. Fortson, the Court upheld a Georgia law that required independent candidates to obtain signatures from electors equal to 5% of the number of registered voters in the district.³⁵ In Munro v. Socialist Workers Party, the Court in 1986 upheld a Washington state law that required independent candidates to receive at least 1% of the vote in an open primary as a precondition to general election ballot access.³⁶ The Court made it clear that states could “condition ballot access by minor-party and independent candidates upon a showing of a modicum of support among the potential voters for the office.”³⁷


V.  How does party structure and participation perpetuate party dominance?

Party structure and participation provide a powerful mechanism to keep the two major parties in control of the political process and in fierce competition with each other. Their rules allow for the mobilization of thousands of volunteers in party conventions and grassroots activism who help motivate the party faithful and turn out the vote.


The two national parties are governed by their national committees: the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC). Each coordinates party activities at the national level, plans for the national conventions, and adopts the national party platform. They also provide support for candidates, especially federal candidates, and coordinate with state committees. Each committee has a chair who presides at the meetings and at the national convention and serves as national spokesperson. DNC and RNC members are mostly elected by delegates at various state party conventions.³⁸


In Texas, the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) and the Texas Democratic Party (TDP) are governed by their state committees: the State Republican Executive Committee (SREC)³⁹ and the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC).⁴⁰ Those committee representatives are elected at their respective state party conventions every two years. The state convention also elects a state chair for each party who leads the conventions, presides over the state committees, and runs the party business, including fundraising and hiring the state party staff.⁴¹ The state conventions also adopt the respective party platforms of the RPT⁴² and the TDP.⁴³


State and national parties recruit candidates to run for office, help them raise money to get elected, and work to get out the vote (GOTV) for their respective races. They also provide grassroots leadership opportunities for thousands of party volunteers eager to help their parties gain and maintain power. Opportunities for elective or appointive party service include, inter alia⁴⁴, precinct, county and state chairs, national and state committee members, and delegates to precinct, county, district, state and national conventions.⁴⁵ These volunteer party officials, together with thousands of campaign staff and volunteers, create an army of activists knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending texts and social media posts, all designed to motivate voters to participate in the election and vote for their party’s candidates.


VI. Why do political parties matter?

Political parties matter because without them, representative democracy as envisioned in the Constitution, would be hard to achieve. Parties provide for the voice of the people in electoral politics. What was once thought of by our founding fathers as a “dangerous vice”⁴⁶ quickly became an essential element of our governance. Today, party politics pervades all branches of government at all levels and provides a way for citizens to get involved in government and make a difference. 


Participation in government and attempts to influence the making of public policy, however, should require both an engaged public and attentive and knowledgeable representatives. That was a goal of a “republic.” As Ben Franklin once said to the press at the end of the Constitutional Convention—you have “a republic, if you can keep it.”⁴⁷ Have we achieved this goal after more than 235 years of experimentation? Does our representative democracy still work? Have we overcome the dangerous vice of factions that Madison and Washinton warned us about? Has the growing, divisive nature of party politics and the polarization of our two “sides,” or “factions,” made this goal harder to reach?


Stay tuned, for this journey is not complete. Political parties, however, like them or not, appear to be here to stay.

 

Suggested Citation: W. David Griggs, Political Parties: What They Are, and Why They Matter, ACCESSIBLE LAW, Spring 2024, at 1.


Political Parties, What They Are, and Why They Matter
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Sources:

[1] The United States has generally always had two active parties during most of our history with the exception of a short period of about 20 years in the early 1800s after 1812 when the Federalist Party dissolved. This left the Jeffersonian-Democrats, who later evolved into the Democratic Party in 1828, as the primary political party prior to the formation of its new competition, the Whig Party, in the 1830s. See Benjamin Ginsberg, Theodore J. Lowi, Margaret Weir, Caroline J. Tolbert, Andrea L. Campbell, Megan Ming Francis & Robert J. Spitzer, We the People 227–232 (W.W. Norton & Co., 14th ed. 2022).

[2] See id.

[3] Richard L. Hasen, Examples & Explanations for Legislation, Statutory Interpretation, and Election Law 251 (Aspen Publishing, 2nd ed. 2019).

[4] Daniel Hays Lowenstein, Richard L. Hasan, Daniel P. Tokaji & Nicholas Stephanopoulos, Election Law: Cases and Materials 4­–7 (Carolina Acad. Press, 7th ed. 2022).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 6.

[7] Id. at 5-6.

[8] Ginsberg et al., supra note 1, at 226; see also Samuel Issacharoff, Pamela S. Karlan, Richard H. Pildes, Nathaniel Persily & Franita Tolson, The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process 372–374 (Found. Press, 6th ed. 2022).

[9] Creating the United States, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/formation-of-political-parties.html (last visited Mar. 21, 2024).

[10] Id.

[11] Ginsberg et al., supra note 1, at pg. 228.

[12] The Federalist and the Republican Party, PBS American Experience, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/duel-federalist-and-republican-party/ (last visited Mar. 21, 2024).

[13] Alison Eldridge, United States presidential election of 1828, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1828 (last updated Feb. 20, 2024).

[14] Whig Party, History, https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/whig-party (last updated July 29, 2022).

[15] Ginsberg et al., supra note 1, at 228–229.

[16] Anthony Champagne, Edward J. Harpham, Jason P. Casellas and Jennifer Hayes Clark, Governing Texas 48–49 (W.W. Norton & Co., 6th ed. 2023).

[17] Republican Party founded, History, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/republican-party-founded  (last updated Mar. 14, 2024).

[18] See id. 

[19] See Champagne et al., supra note 16, at 229–230.

[20] Republican Party, History, https://www.history.com/topics/us-government-and-politics/republican-party (last updated Feb. 1, 2021).

[21] The New Deal Realignment, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/pages/instructors/setups/notes/new-deal.html (last visited Mar. 21, 2024).

[22] Democratic Party, History, https://www.history.com/topics/us-government-and-politics/democratic-party (last updated Jan. 20, 2021).

[23] The Presidential Election of 1912, Teaching American History, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/resource/election-of-1912?/ (last visited Mar. 21, 2024).

[24] See Champagne et al., supra note 16, at 229–230.

[25] Roger Gibbons, Heinz Eulau, Paul David Webb, Plurality and majority systems, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/election-political-science/Plurality-and-majority-systems (last updated Mar. 28, 2024).

[26] The Texas Election Code mandates that a majority vote is required for the winners of primary elections.  Therefore, a runoff primary is required if no candidate receives a majority in the general primary election. Tex. Elec. Code Ann. §§ 172.003, 172.004.

[27] Sarah Pruitt, Why Does the US have a Two-Party System, History (Jan. 12, 2024), https://www.history.com/news/two-party-system-american-politics.

[28] Plurality and majority systems, supra note 25.

[29] Ginsberg et al., supra note 1, at 227.

[30] Issacharoff et al., supra note 8, at 372–374.

[31] Id. at 373.

[32] Id.

[33] Tex. Elec. Code Ann.. § 172.001.

[34] Furthermore, the Code states that “[i]f any nominee of a party is nominated by primary election, none of that party’s nominees may be nominated that year by convention.” Tex. Elec. Code Ann. § 172.002(b). This makes it hard for smaller parties to find candidates ahead of primary filing dates to qualify for the March primary ballot.  Thus, for smaller parties to have a chance to file as many candidates as possible, the smaller parties generally have conventions scheduled just in time to get their nominees on the fall general election ballot.

[35] Jenness v. Fortson, 403 U.S. 431, 442 (1971).

[36] Munro v. Socialist Workers Party, 479 U.S. 189, 196–97 (1986). 

[37] Id. at 193.

[38] See Call of the 2024 Republican National Convention, The Republican National Committee, 4–5 (2023), https://www.gop.com/rules-and-resolutions/; see generally Who We Are, Democratic National Committee, https://democrats.org/who-we-are/ (last visited Mar. 21, 2024).

[39]General Rules for All Conventions and Meetings, The Republican Party of Texas, https://texasgop.org/rules/ (last visited Mar. 20, 2024).

[40] Texas Democratic Party Rules, Texas Democrats, https://www.texasdemocrats.org/party-rules (last updated Feb. 15, 2024).

[41] See id.; see General Rules for All Conventions and Meetings, supra note 39.

[42] Platform and Resolutions as Amended and Adopted by the 2022 State Convention of the Republican Party of Texas, The Republican Party of Texas, https://texasgop.org/platform/ (last visited Mar. 20, 2024).

[43] Texas Democratic Party 2022–2024 Platform, Texas Democrats (Aug. 6, 2022), https://www.texasdemocrats.org/platform.

[44] Inter alia means “among other things.” Inter alia, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

[45] Champagne et al., supra note 16, at 48–49.

[46] Lowenstein et al., supra note 4, at 4.

[47] September 17, 1787: A Republic, If You Can Keep It, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/constitutionalconvention-september17.htm (last visited Mar. 20, 2024).

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