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Democracy in America

Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents

Examine the role political parties play in connecting the public and the institutions of American government.


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.

Using the Video: Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • What was George Washington’s view of political parties? Why?
  • What was it that made Tocqueville consider some parties to be great?
  • What would political life be without political parties? Would it be more democratic or less democratic?
  • Are the major American political parties alike or do they represent different views?

Using the Video: Watch the Video and Discuss

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes)

The video includes three segments:

1. Cindy Montañez, Democrat

A major purpose of political parties is to recruit potential candidates who share their political agendas and can promote those agendas in elective office. Cindy Montañez, a former City Council member and mayor of San Fernando who won election to the California Assembly in November 2002, is widely considered a “rising star” in the California Democratic party. This story profiles the rise of Cindy Montañez from her humble roots in a Mexican American immigrant family to her successful run for the California State Assembly.

Discussion Questions

  • What role did the political party have in enabling Ms. Montañez to run for office?
  • How does Ms. Montañez’s career demonstrate an opportunity ladder provided by the political party?

2. Significant Difference Wins the Race: Dinkins Versus Giuliani

Critics of America’s two-party system often contend there are no tangible differences between Republicans and Democrats. But what seem like small differences between the two parties’ platforms can become significant when the candidates square off in an election. The 1993 race for mayor of New York quickly became this type of election when Democrat incumbent David Dinkins faced the same Republican challenger he had narrowly defeated four years earlier, Rudolph Giuliani.

Discussion Questions

  • Does the New York City election demonstrate that parties matter?
  • Were the differences between the candidates merely personal differences or were the candidates representing long-standing differences between the two major parties?
  • Were the differences between the parties in the mayor’s race atypical of the partisan clashes in other elections?

3. Political Party Earthquake: Jeffords’s Switch

Americans often criticize the political parties for their contentious and often confrontational behavior. But political parties provide the essential structure for organizing the executive and legislative branches of government. This can be clearly seen when there is a dramatic shift in party control, particularly at the national level.

In May of 2001, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords caused a seismic shift in American politics by leaving the Republican Party. Although Jeffords declared himself an Independent and not a Democrat, his decision tipped the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats, who after six years in the minority regained the power to choose committee chairs, set agendas, and claim a greater share of congressional staff and operating budgets.

Agenda changes in the Senate soon followed. For example, while the Governmental Affairs Committee under Republican Chairman Thompson in 1997 investigated the financing of Bill Clinton’s second presidential campaign, the same committee under new Democratic Chairman Lieberman in 2002 turned its attention to possible ties between the Bush White House and the failed energy giant, Enron. Over the next year, the Governmental Affairs Committee investigated any possible policy influence between Enron, a heavy donor to political campaigns, including George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and subsequent decisions from the Bush White House or other executive branch regulators that were favorable to Enron. Similar agenda shifts took place on various committees dealing with judicial nominations, budgets, and the environment. The Senate’s staffers, both Democratic and Republican, also experienced vast changes as a result of Jeffords’s switch, including the size of their offices and office staff, and various other perks including choice parking spaces.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Senator Jeffords’s switch from Republican to Independent impact the U.S. Senate?
  • Who benefited from his shift and why?
  • What were some of the consequences of Senator Jeffords’s switch?

Using the Video: Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (20 minutes)

1. Founding Your Own Third Party (20 minutes)

Using basic information from this unit, and Web sites listed in the Web-based Resource section of this site, create your own third party based on issues and positions that are most important to you. What is the name of the party? What are the party’s main goals or purposes? What are the party’s main goals or purposes? What are the party’s main positions? What kinds of voters would the party try to attract?

Using the Video: Homework

Read the following Readings from Unit 13 to prepare for next week’s session.

  • Introduction-Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “How the Principle of Equality Naturally Divides Americans Into a Multitude of Small Private Circles”
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Jefferson, Notes on the State of VirginiaReview:
  • Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave from Unit 5’s Readings

Read next week’s Topic Overview.

Using the Video: Classroom Applications

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: Party Platforms: How Useful Are They for Voters and Politicians? and Founding Your Own Third Party. They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.


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

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 a 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 a 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.

Web-based Resources more about the current and past political parties through Politics1.Com. Web site materials include descriptions and links to the two major political parties, and to many third or minor parties.