Virtually synonymous with functional (or for the more cynical among us, dysfunctional) democracies, political parties are frequently the launching pad for policy ideas, ideologies, voting coalitions, and the careers of countless elected officials. The goal of a political party is to implement and influence government policy by running candidates for political office who share said party’s views and working to get those candidates seated. Parties will generally have a platform, which will express a vision or rationale for the party, and a list of goals. In order to win elected office, parties often have to develop and maintain coalitions which are often comprised of different demographic blocs and interests.
As with most organizations, political parties have a clearly defined chain of command. At the top of the hierarchy is the party leader who is the most powerful member of the party and is often (but not always) the prominent member as well, and may act as its spokesperson. Next down the line are the various executive positions in the party. These positions may include secretaries (they manage party records and coordinate current work), treasurers (who oversee membership dues), and chairs (charged with presiding over party meetings and implementing strategies to recruit and retain new members). Doing most of the groundwork are the party organizers (also known as party workers or activists) who may be either volunteers or paid employees. Party conferences are held on a regular basis and are the events at which party officials are selected and the party goals and values are affirmed by members.
In addition to being a national presence, parties will also have local and regional committees. This arrangement is useful in seeking out candidates to run for office in local and regional elections. It is also common for parties to have “wings” or caucuses comprised of specific types of members. These wings can be based on either identity (wings for young people, women, racial and ethnic minorities) or based on position or occupation (professionals, students, potential candidates, mayors, governors). Party outreach is the primary reason for the existence of these wings, but they can sometimes serve as facilitators for training and employment.
The United States has effectively had a two-party system in place since the very birth of the republic. This arrangement is largely the result of the plurality voting system that American elections are decided by. Plurality voting (also known as winner-take-all, first-past-the-post, or just simple plurality) is a system in which elections have a single winner who receives the most votes; there is no requirement that a candidate needs to obtain an absolute vote majority. As a consequence of plurality voting, the U.S. is dominated by two parties; the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party in its current form began as the Democratic-Republican Party in the late 1790’s. The party’s supporters were galvanized by an opposition to the Federalist Party and the fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton. After the dissolution of the Federalists, many of the adherents to old Jeffersonian values (states’ rights, strict interpretation of the Constitution) formed the Democratic Party, and in 1828, elected its first president, Andrew Jackson. The 1860’s saw the beginnings of an intra-party fissure along regional lines, as Northern and Southern Democrats clashed over the party’s 1860 presidential nominee, creating a tension that would ebb and flow for a century until the party’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960’s led many Southern Democrats to bolt for the Republican party in subsequent elections. The Democratic Party of today is generally considered a center-left party which is comprised of liberals, progressives and centrists. The party’s platform espouses more liberal views on economics and social justice, and supports abortion, marriage equality, and universal healthcare.
The Republican Party, or GOP (Grand Old Party), began in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin as a collection of anti-slavery activists and former Whig and Free Soil party members. The GOP had its first major electoral success with the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. As the decades went on, the Republicans became closely aligned with business interests and supported high tariffs. The GOP’s drift towards conservatism began to emerge during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, with numerous conservative politicians decrying the Second New Deal as socialism and class warfare. The modern day Republican Party platform is one that expresses support for supply-side economics, strong military, strict interpretation of the Constitution, enforcement of the gun laws already on the books, deregulation, the right to life, free markets, and traditional marriage.