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Party Systems

I.  One Party Systems

        A.  Types of Dominant One Party
                1.  Totalitarian One Party Dictatorship
                        a.  Communist Totalitarian Parties
                        b.  Nazi and Fascist Totalitarian Parties
                2.  Authoritarian One Party Dictatorships
                3.  De Facto One Party Systems
                        a.  Congress Party of India
                        b.  Institutionalized Revolutionary Party of Mexico (PRI)
                        c.  Democratic Party in most Southern States until 1960s

            B.  Opposition Groups in One Party Systems
                1.  Co-opted Parties
                2.  Tolerated Minor Parties
                3.  Illegal Opposition Movements
                4.  Subversive Opposition Groups using Violent Means
                5.  Revolution and Civil War

II.   Two Party Systems

            A.  Two Dominant Parties
                    1.  United States:  Democrats and Republicans
                    2.  United Kingdom:  Labour and Conservatives
                    3.  Germany:  Social Democrats and Christian Democrats

                B.  Third Parties

                C.  Minor Parties

III.  Multiparty Systems

                A.  Three or More Major Parties

                    B.  Need for Coalition Governments within a Parliamentary System

                    C.  Two Stage Elections in Presidential Systems

                    D.  Weaknesses and Difficulties in Governing

Characteristics of the American Political Party System

I.  Two-Party System on the National Level

II.  Relatively Decentralized Organizational Structures

III.  Relatively Non-Ideological

Historical Party Systems


Revolutionary Period

        Patriots                     Royalists-Loyalists


Constitutional Period

         Federalists                Anti-Federalists


Early Republic

        Federalists                   Democratic-Republicans


Jacksonian Realignment

        Whigs                            Democrats


Civil War Realignment

        Republicans                    Democrats

Party Realignments Within the Current American Two-Party System

Since the Civil War, the Republicans and the Democrats have been the two main political parties within the American Political Party System.  The Democratic Party is the older of the two dating back to President Andrew Jackson, and even before him to President Thomas Jefferson.  The Republican Party ran its first Presidential Candidate in 1856.  He was John C. Fremont of Deer Slayer fame.  Its second candidate was Abraham Lincoln, whose election triggered the secession of the South and the American Civil War.  During the course of the war, Lincoln was able to issue the Emancipation Declaration and to free the slaves in the South after the war.

While still the same two political parties, distinct periods, where the Republicans or the Democrats were dominant, can be identified.


1860 - 1876  Radical Republicans are dominant


1876 - 1896  Two Party Competition


1896 - 1932  Republican Dominance


1932 - 1968  Democratic Dominance


1968 - 2012 Period of Divided Government


Third Parties and Minor Parties

Within our overall two-party system, there have always been Third Parties and Minor Parties.  Minor parties are often ideological fringe groups or single issue parties which rarely get more than one percent of the vote altogether.  Third parties are often splinter groups off one of the major parties let by popular, charismatic leaders who did not win the major party nomination, like Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  They may also be popular movements expressing dissatisfaction with the major parties.  As such they serve as a safety valve for our political system.  As these third parties become more popular, one of the major parties will usually steal some of the ideals and promises of the movement.  

 Third Parties
                    1.  Bull Moose Progressive Party, 1912--Theodore Roosevelt
                    2.  Progressive Party, 1924--Robert La Follette
                    3.  Dixicrat States Rights Party, 1948--Strom Thurmond
                    4.  Progressive Party, 1948--Henry Wallace
                    5.  American Independent Party, 1968--George Wallace
                    6.  Reform Party, 1992--Ross Perot
                    7.  Green Party, 2000--Ralph Nader

     Minor Parties
                     1.  Socialist Labor Party, 1877
                     2.  Socialist Party, 1901
                     3.  Communist Party, 1919
                     4.  Socialist Workers Party, 1938
                     5.  Libertarian Party, 1972

Images of the American Parties

Political Parties are organizations which seek to win elections and become the government.  They want to be the government; they want to rule.  As such political parties differ profoundly from interest groups.  Interest groups seek to gain a benefit for themselves.  They are not interested in the big picture, in the entire society.  They are selfishly seeking their group's benefit.  They want a piece of the pie; they don't want to be responsible for maintaining the pie.

Political Parties are voluntary organizations.  They have their rank and file membership base.  In the U.S., to be a member of a political party requires that you register as a Democrat or Republican and vote in their party primaries.  We do not have dues paying membership.   But, obviously, a Republican or Democrat who contributes financially to his or her party is more committed than someone who merely votes usually for one or the other.

All organizations divide between leaders and followers.  There can be a big split between leaders and followers.  Leaders are usually more ideological and committed to the causes of their party.

Image 1:  Political Parties as mass organizations.  During the 1990s, bout 40% of the American voters identified themselves as Democrats and 30% as Republicans.  About 30% call themselves independents.  The figures for independents have been increasing while party identification has been declining.

Image 2:  Political Parties can be viewed as mutual benefit societies for the election of candidates.  There are more than 10,000 elective positions in America.  Most are local councilmen, mayors, school board members, state legislators, and Congressmen.  It should be noted that Congressmen represent about 690,000 American each.  That is the population of many American counties in urban areas.

Image 3.  Political Parties are decentralized.  Their greatest organizational strength is at the local and county level.  There are about 3000 counties in America.  Most of these counties are a county chairman heading the Republican or Democratic party organization.  Some of these county chairmen exercise considerable influence over their party.  Some have risen to the level of boss.  The two parties can be viewed as a collection of county organizations headed by their county/chairmen/bosses.

Image 4.  Political Parties are relatively non-ideological. But both parties do have platforms and attract distinct groups of followers.  The Republican Party is clearly the more conservative and appeals to the general business community. The Democratic Party is more liberal and appeals to labor groups, trail lawyers, the entertainment industry, and minority groups.  One can look at the political parties as alliances of interest group organizations.

    The main voting groups for the Republicans are the Christian Right, the Business Community (including Wall Street, Banking Industry, Oil Industry, Pharmaceutical Industry, Military-Industrial Complex, Insurance Industry, and the Agribusiness Lobby), and, historically, most of small town, rural America. The Christian Right, that is politically active Evangelical and Born Again Christians, have identified themselves solidly with the Republican Party.  These voters represent about 16% of the electorate.  Social or moral issues are their primary concern and they vehemently oppose abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research.

Party Organization

As has been said many times, the United States has a Federal system of government with many levels of government.  Our political parties are highly decentralized to match our decentralized political system.  They operate on the local, county, state, and national levels.



National Committee
        Members.  National Committee Man and Woman from each State and State Committee chairperson.  About 150 members.

Senatorial Campaign Committee

Congressional Campaign Committee

National Conventions
            1.  Approves the Credentials of the Delegates through its Credentials Committee.
         2.  Writes the Party Platform through the Platform Committee.  The Platform states the program of the party, which it promises to implement if elected. 
            3.  Formally select the Presidential nominee of the party.  These days, the convention merely ratifies what has already been decided through the presidential preference primaries in the States.
            4.  Formally select the Vice Presidential nominee of the party.  Actually, the nominee is selected by the presidential nominee.  These days, the name of the vice presidential nominee is announced prior to the Convention.
         5.  Formally selects the Chairman of the Convention and the National Committee.  In fact that person also is picked by the Presidential candidate.  Officially the National Committee Chairman is in charge of running the campaign for the presidential candidate. 



State Committee
        Members.  State Committee Man and Woman from each county and the County Committee chairperson.  Numbers vary.

State Conventions

State Primary Elections



                    County Committee

                    County Committee Chairman.  He is often quite powerful
                            and in the past was often a boss.  Patronage.  Raising money.



                       Township or Municipal Committee

                        Ward and Precinct Committee Man and Woman


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Updated January 3, 2011
Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016