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12. Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents, Readings
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources






Readings Unit 12

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 12 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 12 Readings, Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents

  • Introduction—Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “Parties in the United States"

  • Washington, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson”

  • Roosevelt, “Bull Moose Speech”

  • Piroth, “Selecting Presidential Nominees: The Evolution of the Current System and Prospects for Reform”


  1. What was it that made Tocqueville consider some parties to be great? What distinguished the minor parties?

  2. What did Roosevelt believe was the immediate impetus to his attempted assassination?

  3. What did Roosevelt assert were the goals of the progressives?

  4. What did Washington believe was useful to plant in a wheat field in the years before wheat was planted? What does his attention to the management of land suggest about the importance of self-government in work as well as politics?

  5. What was President Washington’s opinion of parties?

Introduction—Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents

Political parties have provided people with a wide range of services—support, education, employment, and identification, in particular—in addition to their use in maintaining government. While contemporary commentators may not agree with Tocqueville’s claim that, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered.” Everyone can agree that, regardless of how happy or moral political parties have made Americans, parties have performed an important list of functions.

The Democratic Party and Republican Party are the two most important parties in the United States. There are, however, many other parties, such as the American Independent Party, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Communist Party. Support and funding of candidates for political office are some of the most important and powerful functions of political parties. The most important aspect of support for candidates that parties provide is their nomination parties. Support also includes money to conduct political campaigns. Even when the money does not come directly from the party, parties are important sources of information and organization that makes funding possible. They also organize funding, distributing it across the nation and across states. Parties also provide workers for the candidate, and monitor the opposition party for any election irregularities, helping their candidate to be confident of a fair election.

In their role as political educators, political parties inform voters of issues about which they may be concerned, they mobilize candidates, and they get out the vote. The party must inform candidates of their possibilities for election. Furthermore, parties provide information for voters concerning the stand of the party and the candidates on issues. Parties also remind voters, their members, that they have to get to the polls and vote. Getting out the vote is a very important and powerful role of parties—if members do not make it to the polls on voting day, then their candidates lose. Parties also educate through classes for members—particularly English-language classes for recent immigrants. Historically, the American Communist Party, for example, also routinely supported classes for people who may not have otherwise been able to receive much education.

American political parties have performed very important employment services. They have provided, obviously, or hoped to provide, employment opportunities for their candidates and, by employing their candidates, they also employed a wide range of political appointees. The number of appointees that the winner in any election gets to appoint or participate in their appointment varies considerably. City council members may only appoint their own staffs directly but even they will participate in filling many of the political positions within city government. The president of the United States has an abundance of positions to fill, though even here there are important limitations—many of the most significant positions are confirmed by Congress. The assassination of President Garfield by a spurned party member who wanted a political appointment, however, led to significant strengthening of the non-partisan professional government bureaucracy. But the employment roles of parties extend beyond these measures. Parties, particularly in the early twentieth century, would often secure jobs for recent immigrants in order to ensure their party loyalty. While this role faded in the last half of the twentieth century, it does reveal some of the elements in familiar allegiance to political parties.

When most politically interested individuals speak of parties, they are also referring to a group of citizens (typically within a nation-state) who are united in vague agreement concerning basic rules and behaviors of social governance. Membership in a party usually speaks to abstract opinions as well as specific concerns—members generally identify with their fellow members even if their fellows are interested in different specific issues, as long as those specific issues are oriented in a generally agreed-upon ideological way. In this manner, parties provide a location for national identification.

“Parties are a necessary evil in free government,” explained Tocqueville, “but they have not at all time the same character and the same propensities.” Not having the same propensities, it should be said that they are also a probable good—if not exactly a moral good—in free government. Generally an organization of voters, officeholders, and candidates for office who act in general agreement concerning the aims and purposes of government, modern political parties probably date from the growth of popular governments in the eighteenth-century in England, France, and the United States. The American system of winner-take-all has constrained to some degrees the numbers of parties—two consistently dominate—but those parties tend to have quite broad propensities and characteristics.


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