Political parties in the United States

Political parties in the United States
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This article presents the historical development and role of political parties in United States politics, and outlines more extensively the significant modern political parties. Throughout most of its history, American politics have been dominated by a two-party system. However, the United States Constitution has always been silent on the issue of political parties; at the time it was signed in 1787, there were no parties in the nation. Nevertheless, parties soon emerged to help mobilize supporters.

Political scientists and historians have divided the development of America's two-party system into five eras. The modern two-party system consists of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. In general, the Democratic Party currently positions itself left-of-center in American politics while the Republican Party positions itself as right-of-center.

Several third parties also operate in the United States, and from time to time achieve relatively minor representation at the national and state levels.



The United States Constitution has never formally addressed the issue of political parties. The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first President of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation.[1] Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers, including Hamilton and Madison.

First Party System

The First Party System of The United States featured the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. The Federalist Party grew from Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong united central government. The Democratic-Republican Party was founded by James Madison and by Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who strongly opposed Hamilton's agenda.

The Era of Good Feelings (1816–1824), marked the end of the First Party System. Political consequences of Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 as well as other factors, first reduced the Federalist Party to merely local significance, and ultimately to total disappearance. The Era of Good Feelings thus marked a brief period in which only one party, the Democratic-Republican party, was significant at the Federal level.

Second Party System

In 1828, The Second Party System saw a split of the Democratic-Republican Party into the Jacksonian Democrats, who grew into the modern Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party, led by Henry Clay. The Democrats supported the primacy of the Presidency over the other branches of government, and opposed the Bank of the United States as well as modernizing programs that they felt would build up industry at the expense of the taxpayer. The Whigs, on the other hand, advocated the primacy of Congress over the executive branch as well as policies of modernization and economic protectionism. Central political battles of this era were the Bank War and the Spoils system of federal patronage.

The 1850s saw the collapse of the Whig party, largely as a result of deaths in its leadership and a major intra-party split over slavery as a result of the Compromise of 1850. In addition, the fading of old economic issues removed many of the unifying forces holding the party together.

Third Party System

The Third Party System stretched from 1854 to the mid 1890s, and was characterized by the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican Party, which adopted many of the economic policies of the Whigs, such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges.

Fourth Party System

The Fourth Party System, 1896 to 1932, retained the same primary parties as the Third Party System, but saw major shifts in the central issues of debate. This period also corresponded to the Progressive Era, and was dominated by the Republican Party.

Fifth Party System

The Fifth Party System emerged with the New Deal Coalition beginning in 1933.

Modern U.S. political party system

The modern political party system in the United States is a two-party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every United States presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress since at least 1856. Several other third parties from time to time achieve relatively minor representation at the national and state levels.

Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is one of two major political parties in the United States. It is the oldest political party in the United States and among the oldest in the world.[2][3][4]

The Democratic Party, since the division of the Republican Party in the election of 1912, has consistently positioned itself to the left of the Republican Party in economic as well as social matters. The economically left-leaning philosophy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has strongly influenced American liberalism, has shaped much of the party's economic agenda since 1932. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition usually controlled the national government until the 1970s.

In 2004, it was the largest political party, with 72 million voters (42.6% of 169 million registered) claiming affiliation.[5] The president of the United States, Barack Obama, is the 15th Democrat to hold the office, and since the 2006 midterm elections, the Democratic Party is the majority party for the United States Senate.

Republican Party

The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States of America. It is often referred to as the Grand Old Party, GOP, and "Gallant Old Party". Founded in 1854 by anti-slavery expansion activists and modernizers, the Republican Party rose to prominence with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. The party presided over the American Civil War and Reconstruction but was harried by internal factions and scandals toward the end of the 19th century. Today, the Republican Party supports an American conservative platform, with further foundations in economic liberalism, fiscal conservatism, and social conservatism.

Former President George W. Bush is the 19th Republican to hold that office. The party's nominee for President of the United States in the 2008 presidential election was Senator John McCain of Arizona. It is currently the second largest party with 55 million registered members, encompassing roughly one third of the electorate.[5] Since the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans have held a majority in the United States House of Representatives.

Major Third Parties

Constitution Party

The Constitution Party is a conservative United States political party. It was founded as the U.S. Taxpayers Party in 1992. The party's official name was changed to the Constitution Party in 1999; however, some state affiliate parties are known under different names.

According to ballot access expert Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, who periodically compiles and analyzes voter registration statistics as reported by state voter agencies, it ranks third nationally amongst all United States political parties in registered voters, with 438,222 registered members as of October 2008.[6] This makes it currently the largest third party in the United States.

The Constitution Party advocates a platform that they believe reflects the Founding Fathers' original intent of the U.S. Constitution, principles found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and morals taken from the Bible.[7]

In 2006, Rick Jore of Montana became the first Constitution Party candidate elected to a state-level office,[8][9] though the Constitution Party of Montana had disaffiliated itself from the national party a short time before the election.

The Constitution Party's 2008 presidential nominee was Chuck Baldwin.

Green Party

In the United States, the Green Party has been active as a third party since the 1980s. The party first gained widespread public attention during Ralph Nader's second presidential run in 2000. Currently, the primary national Green Party organization in the U.S. is the Green Party of the United States, which has eclipsed the earlier Greens/Green Party USA.

The Green Party in the United States has won elected office mostly at the local level; most winners of public office in the United States who are considered Greens have won nonpartisan-ballot elections (that is, elections in which the candidates' party affiliations were not printed on the ballot.[10] In 2005, the Party had 305,000 registered members in states that allow party registration.[11] During the 2006 elections the party had ballot access in 31 states.[12]

Greens emphasize environmentalism, non-hierarchical participatory democracy, social justice, respect for diversity, peace and nonviolence.

The 2008 Green Party presidential nominee was Cynthia McKinney.

Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party was founded on December 11, 1971.[13] It is one of the largest continuing third parties in the United States, claiming more than 200,000 registered voters and more than 600 people in public office,[14] including mayors, county executives, county-council members, school-board members, and other local officials. It has more people in office than all other minor parties combined.[14]

The political platform of the Libertarian Party reflects that group's particular brand of libertarianism, favoring minimally regulated, laissez-faire markets, strong civil liberties, minimally regulated migration across borders, and non-interventionism in foreign policy that respects freedom of trade and travel to all foreign countries.

The 2008 Libertarian Party nominee for United States President was Bob Barr.

Politics comparison

The following table lists some political ideologies most often associated with the five U.S. political parties with the most members, as well the official party positions on a number of reformist issues where positions diverge. Nuances may be found in the parties' respective platforms. It must be remembered that not all members of a party subscribe to all of its officially held positions, the usual degree of variation generally being higher for the larger parties. Note that party members may hold different views on legislation to be enacted at the state or federal levels—most Libertarians[who?], for example, believe that the federal government has no proper role at all with regard to adult consumption of drugs, abortion, or marriages of any sort, but some believe that the several states have the right to legislate[citation needed].

Comparison of politics of the five United States political parties with the most members
Issue Green Party Democratic Party Libertarian Party Republican Party Constitution Party
Primary related ideologies
Issues framed as
changes to the
status quo.
Abortion restrictions No[15] No[16] No[17] Yes[18] Yes[19]
Public campaign finance Yes[15] No[16] No[17] No[20] No[21]
Legal same-sex marriage Yes[15] Yes[16] Yes[22] No[23] No[24]
Universal health care Yes[15] Yes[16] No[17] No[25] No[26]
More progressive taxation Yes[15] Yes[16] No[17] No[27] No[28]
Strengthening Immigration Laws No[15] Yes[29] No[30] Yes[31] Yes[32]
End capital punishment Yes[15] No[16] Yes No[33] No[34]
Drug liberalization Yes[35] No [16] Yes[36] No No[37]
Civilian gun control Yes[38] Yes[16] No[17] No[23] No[39]
Non-interventionism Yes[15] No[16] Yes[17] No[23] Yes[39]
Instant-runoff voting Yes[15] No[16] Yes[17] No[23] Yes[39]


  1. ^ Washington's Farewell Address Wikisource has information on "Washington's Farewell Address#20"
  2. ^ Witcover, Jules (2003). "1". Party of the People: A History of the Democrats. p. 3.  "The Democratic Party of the United States, the oldest existing in the world, was in a sense an illegitimate child, unwanted by the founding fathers of the American Republic."
  3. ^ Micklethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian (2004). The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America. p. 15.  "The country possesses the world's oldest written constitution (1787); the Democratic Party has a good claim to being the world's oldest political party."
  4. ^ Democratic Party, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Accessed August 21, 2007.
  5. ^ a b Neuhart, Al (January 22, 2004). "Why politics is fun from catbirds' seats". http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/columnist/neuharth/2004-01-22-neuharth_x.htm. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  7. ^ http://constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php "Constitution Party Preamble"
  8. ^ "State Legislature results", Missoulian, November 8, 2006, retrieved November 8, 2006
  9. ^ Control of state Legislature unclear, Helena Independent Record
  10. ^ Green elected officials
  11. ^ "Green Party Ballot Status and Voter Registration Totals (United States)". Greens.org. Retrieved April 12, 2006.
  12. ^ "Greens Win Ballot Access in 31 States, Up From 17 in January". Green Party press release, September 5, 2006.
  13. ^ Libertarian Party:Our History, LP.org
  14. ^ a b "Frequently asked questions about the Libertarian Party", Official Website of the Libertarian National Committee. Retrieved on July 25, 2006.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i Green Party 2004 Platform
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j The 2008 Democratic Party Platform: Renewing America's Promise
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Libertarian Party Platform
  18. ^ "2004 Republican Party Platform: on Abortion". United States Republican Party. 2004. http://www.ontheissues.org/Archive/2004_GOP_Platform_Abortion.htm. Retrieved 2007-02-12. 
  19. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Sanctity of Life)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Sancity%20of%20Life. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  20. ^ Republican Platform: Protecting the Right to Vote in Fair Elections
  21. ^ Constitution Party Platform: Election Reform
  22. ^ "Libertarians press Congress on DOMA, ‘don’t’ ask, don’t tell’". Libertarian Party. 2009-08-17. http://www.lp.org/news/press-releases/libertarians-press-congress-on-doma-‘don’t’-ask-don’t-tell’. Retrieved 2009-08-26. "Libertarians are the only party committed to equal justice under the law, whether it is protection from violence, marriage equality or the ability of a qualified person to serve in the military" 
  23. ^ a b c d Republican Platform: Values
  24. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Family)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Family. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  25. ^ Republican Platform: Health Care
  26. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Health Care and Government)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Health%20Care%20and%20Government. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  27. ^ Republican 2008 Platform: Government Reform
  28. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Taxes)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Taxes. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  29. ^ "Comprehensive Immigration Reform (Democrats.org)". http://www.democrats.org/a/national/american_community/immigration/. Retrieved 2010-08-08. 
  30. ^ Libertarian Issues: Immigration
  31. ^ Republican 2008 Platform: National Security
  32. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Immigration)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Immigration. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  33. ^ Republican 2008 Platform: Crime
  34. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Crime)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Crime. Retrieved 2008-03-25. "We favor the right of states and localities to execute criminals convicted of capital crimes and to require restitution for the victims of criminals." 
  35. ^ Ii. Social Justice
  36. ^ lp.org - LP Monday Message: 20 Obama problems, 20 Libertarian solutions
  37. ^ Constitution Platform: Drug Abuse
  38. ^ Green Party Platform: Criminal Justice
  39. ^ a b c "Constitution Party Platform (Gun Control)". http://www.constitutionparty.com/party_platform.php#Gun%20Control. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 

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