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



Topic Overview Unit 12

Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Understand the nature of American political parties.

  • Describe how political parties connect citizens to political decision making.

  • Describe the major functions of political parties.

  • Illustrate the differences between the parties.

This unit explores the nature and roles of political parties in American politics. Despite a widespread belief that parties are irrelevant, the unit demonstrates that they are major contributors to the democratic process. The unit will illustrate the activities that parties engage in-activities that, if not performed by parties, would still need to be performed by some organization. Unit 12 also demonstrates that in terms of policy, parties matter.

Political parties are loose coalitions of citizens sharing political goals and organizing to achieve those goals by electing candidates to public office. The primary function of political parties is to enable fellow partisans to win political office. By examining three dimensions of political parties-parties in the electorate, party organizations, and parties in the government-we can gain a better understanding of the unique role of political parties in the American republic.

All citizens who identify with a particular party and label themselves as party members make up the party in the electorate. Approximately two-thirds of the U.S. electorate identify with the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. But the number of strong party identifiers has diminished since the 1960s and more people consider themselves independents or identify with a minor political party-such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, or the Reform Party-than ever before.

Party organizations at the national, state, and local levels recruit candidates for partisan elective offices and provide a variety of services including training and financial support. Party organizations elect national, state, and local chairmen and chairwomen, and hold elections among the party faithful for various other paid and volunteer positions. Parties also support their candidates and issues by recruiting armies of volunteers to help their candidates reach out to potential voters, to register new voters, and to encourage their party members to vote on election day. Major and minor party organizations also develop party platforms that outline the policy positions and general governing philosophy of each party.

Office-holders at the national, state, and local levels who run under the banner of a political party make up the party in the government. The president is considered the head of his party in government, while legislatures at the national and state level elect their own leaders and organize themselves into party caucuses that attempt to enact the party's agenda. Typically, the party that holds a majority in national and state legislatures gets to choose the legislature's committee and subcommittee chairs, and often gets a greater share of legislative offices and staff budgets.

In developing policy positions, parties attempt to build large coalitions of people of widely diverse views by controlling and moderating conflict among and between different groups in society. As such, parties can be a force for stability in a fragmented political system that is subject to great cleavages between economic classes, geographical regions, and groups with widely divergent ethnic, religious, and ideological identities. Because the Constitution's framers designed a complex political system that purposefully divides power and ensures regular conflict among national and state political institutions, parties have tried to provide incentives for politicians and institutions to coordinate their efforts to enact policies of mutual interest.


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