Why the Republican and Democratic Parties are Mainstays of American Politics
Just about everybody who pays even a modicum of attention to politics knows the words “Republican” and “Democrat.” Some people may not know the exact meaning behind them, who is running for them, who is in charge or winning, or even really care about any of those things. Yet chances are they know that Republicans and Democrats have some major importance in American politics simply by how much they are focused on daily.
American politics hasn’t always been a struggle between these two parties. In fact, only one of them was there at the beginning of party formation in America. The Democratic Party traces its origins back to the Democratic-Republican Party (also known by other names, such as the Jeffersonian Democrats and, for a time, Anti-Federalists) formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to oppose Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. The Federalist Party, for various reasons, would wither away and lead to a one-party system for a brief period of time.
The Democrats (also known at the time as Jacksonian Democrats because of President Andrew Jackson) would run the show on its own until the emergence of the Whig Party in the 1830s. The Whig Party had rather shaky foundations due to the fact that is pulled support from multiple regions of the country, and sectional interests (i.e. North, South, and West) were a critical component to American politics of the day. Related to that — but more important — the extremely heated topic of slavery was an impossible division for the Whigs to overcome as many of them favored it while others opposed it. As the Whig Party would be torn apart, however, a new player had been entering the fold: the Republican Party. Many former Whigs would find a new home with the Republicans — including President Abraham Lincoln.
That Republican Party is the same one of today. Since roughly the late 1850s, American politics has been characterized by the never-ending duels between the Republican and Democratic Parties. The platforms and coalitions of the parties, however, have changed significantly over more than one-and-a-half centuries and have done so multiple times. Yet despite all the monumental reshapings of the two parties, they have remained an indelible part of American political life.
It is a bit striking that it has been the same two parties, whatever transformations they have undergone, going at it for all this time when the previous major parties of the Federalists and Whigs ceased to exist relatively quickly. It may also seem a bit curious that, despite the rise of independents who are not affiliated with either party and immense negative sentiment towards both parties, they still are the only metaphorical games in town.
So what makes the parties so powerful, and why do parties even form in the first place?
Theories of Why Parties Form
There are many explanations for why parties form, and they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive either. The Founding Fathers had not planned on the establishment of a party system, yet most readily (and sometimes eagerly) accepted their existence when it became clear that they would be necessary. The biggest reason for their necessity is seen in Federalist №10 written by James Madison. The basic premise of the essay is that, due to the sheer amount of interests spread out across a large republic, no one faction could grow to become the majority and tread on the rights of minority factions. While no single faction could grow to be a routinely dominant force, it also largely prevented groups from seeing their interests realized.
There have been built-in incentives for parties to form in order to achieve their political goals for virtually all of United States history under the U.S. Constitution framework. This reality has led political scholars to come at this from multiple angles to emphasize certain aspects of party formation, sometimes using different timeframes and contexts to make their cases. There is no single “correct” theory where the others are wrong. They all are useful for studying the subject, although not all of them will be listed here.
In his book Why Parties? A Second Look, John Aldrich discusses several previous theories on why parties form as well as one he was partly responsible for himself. The first come from famed political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., who talked about parties as diverse coalitions that combined demographic groups with roughly similar values together into an aggregate, which defined its version of “the American Creed.” Sharp “partisan cleavages” led to two major parties, although within each there was still great diversity.¹
The second theory that Aldrich talks about is the “Responsible Party Thesis.” The idea is that the two parties should be “responsible” by providing two clear, contrasting choices; that not differentiating themselves from each other meant that voters didn’t truly have a choice since they were mostly voting for the same thing. This thesis was first prominently pushed in the 1950s by the American Political Science Association, who lamented the lack of differentiation between the two parties at the time. Much of this was due to the fact that the two parties both had major divisions, particularly the Democrats between the North and South.¹ ²
The third theory Aldrich discusses is fairly straightforward: parties form for the singular purpose of winning elections. Names associated with this include Arthur Schlesinger and economist Anthony Downs. Aldrich and John Griffin use this rational choice theory basis (discussed in last week’s post, it is simply the idea that people will do whatever is in their best interest) but expand on it for their own theory. While winning elections is certainly important, it is not the only goal. Parties and politicians are also motivated by achieving policy goals, power, and prestige, ends to which winning elections are the means.¹
Factors Contributing to Political Parties’ Strength
Now that we have discussed why parties form, what are some reasons for how and why the two major parties of today maintain their strength? There are many reasons for it — too many to list and expound upon. Here are some examples.
Social Identity and the Pull of the Partisan Label
For many voters, being Republican or Democrat is just being a good “team player” — it’s a core part of their identity. Their perception of who they are in large part incorporates their partisan label. The more they care about their party identification, the more likely they are to be involved with politics in ways other than voting. They may do voter registration drives or volunteer on campaigns, as a couple of examples. The establishment of a strong sense of loyalty is hard to break.
Voting Behavior of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents
In only my third post on this website, I discussed some of the many difficulties facing independent candidates for office. Here, I will highlight the general difference in rates of turnout between voters of one of the major parties and independents. Independents tend to vote at far lower rates than Republicans or Democrats. The ardent partisans for each party are even more likely to turn out than their less partisan, “weaker” counterparts.
Extensive Party Organization Networks
The parties have sprawling networks through which they operate. There are the national level parties, which have related organizations working in tandem with them (e.g. National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC). Then each state has its own party affiliate. Below that, every single county in the country has its own Republican and Democratic Party. Each level won’t always collaborate with each other on elections, but in many cases they do.
Party Unity in Office
Party unity — i.e., how much members of a party vote in unison on legislation — has been on the rise, and it is quite common to see members of Congress vote with their party at least 95% of the time. VoteView, a tool we discussed a couple weeks ago, has how often a legislator votes with their party readily available along with more in-depth statistics.
General Views of Independent/Third-Party Candidates
Oftentimes, independent and third-party candidates just aren’t taken seriously (regardless of which ones should or shouldn’t be). Many voters, when making their decision, fear “wasting their vote” if they give it to a non-major party candidate, even if they dislike or hate the candidates that the Republican or Democratic Parties have put up.
What Does All of This Mean for Today?
The two parties have been stalwarts of politics for many reasons, some of which have been just discussed. At least for the foreseeable future, the two parties are going to continue their dominance. There are so many built-in institutional factors and incentives that make it incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for a true third-party to break in such as those seen in some other countries. Theoretical and observed evidence overwhelmingly back this up. Of course, this doesn’t mean that candidates from outside the two major parties can’t win, as we have seen independent and third-party candidates win office before. In some cases, it is actually more beneficial for a candidate to run as an independent, even if they don’t win an election.
But in the grand scheme of things, there are too many factors holding the two-party system together. The coalitions making them up can certainly change, as they already have through the history of the Democratic and Republican Parties multiple times. We sometimes see short-term changes that eventually revert back, but significant and more durable changes have also occurred (such as those in critical realigning elections, a topic that will be covered in a future post). But the two parties themselves aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
- John Aldrich. 2011. Why Parties? A Second Look. Chapter 1.
- American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties. 1950. “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Report of the Committee on Political Parties.” American Political Science Review 44 (3).