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Election Process and Political Parties, Political Parties
century political parties, legislative branches, proportional representation, primary elections, electoral system
Political parties are the most representative, inclusive organizations in the United States. They are made up of citizens who may differ in race, religion, age, and economic and social background, but who share certain perspectives on public issues and leaders. Parties are the engines that drive the machinery of elections: They recruit candidates for office, organize primary elections so that party members can select their candidates for the general election, and support their candidates who reach the general election. Parties also write platforms, which state the direction that party members want the government to take. Parties have traditionally played a crucial role in educating Americans about issues and in getting out the vote.
For most of America’s history, a competitive two-party system has prevailed, and third parties have been the exception. This is a result of the U.S. electoral system in which the winner takes all. Since there is no proportional representation, losers get nothing. Thus a vote for a third party is usually a lost vote.
Originally the Founders opposed political parties, believing them to be factions intent on manipulating the independent will of voters. But by the early 19th century political parties had become the most important political organizations in the United States. They made certain that their members got to the polls. They also organized members of Congress into stable voting blocs based on party affiliation. These blocs united the legislators and helped the president create a party alliance between the executive and legislative branches. Since the mid-1850s, when the Republican Party was formed, the two major parties in the United States have been the Republican and the Democratic parties. The Democratic Party traces its beginnings to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.
In the 19th century, political parties were powerful enough that they could often motivate voting turnouts of over 80 percent. Today, parties are less important. Slightly more than one-third of all Americans call themselves independents with no party affiliation, and voting in presidential contests—which traditionally have the highest turnout—has declined to 50 percent. At the same time, the platforms of the two major parties have shifted towards vague, moderate positions in order to appeal to the largest number of voters. As a result, the major parties may appear so similar that many voters lose interest.
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