Political Parties



Parties are less powerful than in the UK because of the size of them- democrats in Alabama are very different to democrats in California- lack of unity. Also, the parties arent solely in charge of fundraising, communication and form policies because of the significant role pressure groups, PACs and the media play in US politics. 

The parties are orgnaised by National Committees- The RNC and DNC agree rules for state based presidential candidate selection (primaries & caucuses). Current chairs: Reince Priebus GOP ( pre trump's winning) and Donna Brazile for democrats since the email scandal during which Debbie Wasserman Shultz had to resign. 

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Liberal= seek change, see government as an enabling force, favour taxation, regulation for businesses to protect workers rights & interested in protecting the weakest members of society.

Conservative= small government with little regulation and low taxes, more religious. 

Social (either conservative or liberal)= abortions, prayer in school, guns etc.

Fiscal (either conservative or liberal) = economy, busniess regulation etc. 

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Factions in the Democrat party

NOTE: It is possible to fit into more than one of these factions, they're not exclusive. (Hillary Clinton can be seen to fit into most of them)

Progressives- Generally regarded as progressive on social issues and on economic issues, promote keynesian or mixed economic system. Key policy areas are keystone pipeline, gun control, LGBT issues, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Federal minumum wage etc. Obama, Hillary Clintom, Barbara Lee and Alan Grayson are all progressives. There is also a congressional progressive caucus. 

Liberals- Used to call themselves progressive but they have slightly different aims. They aim to fight corruption, waste and big trusts. They were also famously anti- communist during the war. Their key policy areas are women's rights, anti- racism, immigration, gun control, capital punishment, consumer rights etc. Roosevelt and Nancy Pelosi are examples of liberal democrats. 

Centrists- Emerged after the victory of George H.W Bush in the 80's. Economically liberal, pro business & pro growth. Key policy areas are free trade, reduced government welfare and were very involved with the Iraq war. Martin O'Malley, Al Gore and Bill Clinton are centrists. 

Blue Dogs- More conservative members of the Democrat party- vary greatly in terms of ideology & are mostly southern democrats. They tend to be pro- 2nd amendment, more anti- welfare and weren't too happy with Obamacare. Jim Costa is a good example of a blue dog. 

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Factions in the Republican party

Fiscal- A political position calling for low levels of public spending, lower taxes & low government debt. Key policy areas are low taxation, immigration, balanced budget amendment, free trade etc. Ted Cruz and Raegan are examples of fiscal conservatives. 

Social- A faction focused on the christian, conservatice, traditionalist alt. right. They hold traditional family values in high regard. Key policy areas are gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action, the 2nd amendment, prayer in school etc. Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin and Mike Pence are social republicans. 

RINOS- "Republicans In Name Only" members of the republican party who are less conservative. (A bit like the equivalent of blue dogs in the democrat party). They tend to be more relaxed on immigration, socially moderate, but fiscally conservative still ( balanced budget, low taxes, free trade, deregulation etc). Susan Collins and Marco Rubio can be considered to be moderates/ RINO's. 

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Ideological changes within the parties

New Deal 1930's- Big government helping the poor, Democrats became the party of big government and the Republicans had to follow or be left behind. 

Civil Rights & Affirmative Action 1960's- Democrats lost support in the south from the white working class who had lost faith in big government solutions. Republicans shifted away from the idea of big government/ government interferance. 

New Federalism 1980's/ Raegan- Movement towards smaller government via states rights. 

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Shades of Purple


The whole red vs. blue concept is too simplistic and not entirely accurate. 


States that had voted for George Bush voted for Obama in the next election, namely Indiana which Bush had won by 21% just 4 years earlier.

West Virginia is a republican state but both senators, 2/3 house representatives, govenor and both houses of state legislature are democrat. Similarly, Maine is a Democrat state with Republican senators. 

Partisan bills do pass through congress EG The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 was introuduced by Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Richard Durbin together. 

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Differences within the parties.

Differences within GOP:

Social vs Fiscal

Exporting Democracy vs. 'Realist approach'- in regards to Iraq.

Differences within Democrats:

New Deal Democrats (unions, blue collar worker etc) vs Blue Dogs ( more socially and fiscally conserative) -> evident in OBAMACARE when blue dogs threatened to abstain from voting if changes weren't made. 

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Evidence of a Two Party System

-In the last 11 elections, Dems and GOP have accounted for over 80% of the vote.

-in 7/11 last elections, 2 major parties account for over 95% of vote share. 

-Exluding rogue electors, 1968 was the only time in history that the two major parties didnt account for every single one of the ECV's.

-Only 2 independent congressmen (Sanders and King) -both in the senate and both caucus with the Democrats- Bernie had to join the Democrats in order to have a "realistic" chance when running for president.

-Every president since 1853 has been either democrat or republican.

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Reasons for the 2 party system

FPTP- Third parties may have widespread support but unless it is geographically concentrated (as it was for Wallace) it is impossible to win ECVs. Under the winner takes all system, you either win all of the votes or none of them and so third parties percentage of the vote share isnt represebted in the electoral college. In reality, third parties votes only really reduce the percentage of votes needed by a major party to have the most votes and thus win the ECVs. 

Ideological bredth of the parties- Parties are often seen as big tent parties, there is little ideological room for third parties to have origional/ strong stances and if they do, they are often stolen by major parties (cough cough Contract With America with Ross Perot's United We Stand). The Dems and GOP are all embracing. 

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Reasons to question the 2 party system

Ideoloically indisticnt: Mark Shields said in 1997 that the US had 'two republican parties, divided by the issue of abortion'. Clinton said 'the era of big government is over and Bush increased federal spending- ideological distinctions are perhaps more in theory than in practice. Critics claim the parties are like tweedle dee and tweedle dum- identical but arguing about apparent differences. 

50 state system: Parties are undisciplined and central national parties are weak- there is only strong national policy stance every 4 years during the presidential election, the rest of the time the parties are state based and vary all over the country (it is important to consider the geographical and cultural size of America- New York democrats and Alabama democrats will not be the same)

Third parties: Third parties may not always be succesful but they do exist and are on the political spectrum. The Reform Party, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party were all on the ballot in 2000.

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Third parties

Different types: national, regional or state based, permament or temporary and idoelogical or issue based. Third party difficulties include: 

FPTP (Perot 1992 won 19% of votes but no ECVs)

Matching funds- third parties nedd 5% of vote share in last election but this is really difficult to get (has only happened 3 times) and some parties are temporary and only run in one election (Anderson 1980)

Ballot restrictions- Tennesse only need 25 signatures but in some states, such as California where you need 1% of the electorate's support, it can be tough to even get on the ballot. 

Lack of media coverage- tough to get on the debates (only Bush and Gore appeared in the 2000 debates, Nader was excluded despite playing a significant role in the election) and hard to find funding for ads

Lack of well known and well qualified running mates. 

Major parties tend to present third parties as extremists- Republicans ran an ad in the 60's that said 'if you like hitler, you'll love Wallace' 

Major parties can adopt the policies of smaller third parties EG the southern stradegy to woo wallace voters and Perot's federal defecit flagship policy- Contract With America mirroring United We Stand. 

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Are third parties relevant?

YES:  Can affect the policy direction of major parties EG Clinton's federal budget policy was essentially stolen from Perot and by 2000, there was a financial surplus.

Can affect nature/direction of parties- without George Wallace's 1986 campaign, the Southern Strategy may never have happened. 

Can impact the results of the election without winning it, Nader's win of 2.74% of votes in 2000 is said by many to be the reason for Gore's loss. 

They provide an outlet for voters who aren't satisfied by either of the two parties. 

NO:All third parties combined often poll below 1%

No third party has ever won an election

Difficult to get on the ballots

GOP/ Dems are big tent/ catch-all parties

Primaries limit the need for 'protest voting'

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Renewal of parties

  • Theories of party decline are sometimes said to be exaggerated as they first came out following the Watergate scandal.
  • Two major parties still control virtually all of the political system.
  • 'Super delegates'- in 2000, nearly 20% of the delegates were super delegates-> it is arguable that Bush won his candidacy due to his unanimous support from the party.
  • Party infrastructure has been modernised- with permament headquaters communicationa and discipline has improved.
  • 'soft money'- "party building" and "getting-out-the-vote" spending remains unregulated.
  • Use of national campaigns (Contract With America, Democrats six for '06) have made parties more National, cohesive and unified. 
  • Increased partisanship within congress. 
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Decline of Parties

  • Since the late 60s, parties no longer choose the presidential candidates. 
  • The media have made the parties role as 'communicator' far less significant/ important.
  • Voting is more candidate/ issue orientated rather than party focused.
  • Rise of split ticket voting highlights demise of party loyalty.
  • National party structure is very weak
  • Removal of party bosses
  • Presidents straying away from party lines- Clinton's fiscalness and Bush's increase in Government departments & spending.
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