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Political Parties: An Overview

Updated on April 3, 2018
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 28 years.

The Republican Party of the United States is often called the "Party of Lincoln" as Abraham Lincoln was its first successful candidate to win the US presidency in 1860. The Republican party, along with the Democrat party, constitute a two-party syste
The Republican Party of the United States is often called the "Party of Lincoln" as Abraham Lincoln was its first successful candidate to win the US presidency in 1860. The Republican party, along with the Democrat party, constitute a two-party syste

Political parties are vital to democracy. They provide a forum where citizens unite to staff government offices with officials chosen by the people. We can define a political party as that institution whose role is to provide electable candidates for governmental offices. A political party is different from an interest group in that parties are mostly interested in placing their people in government offices while interest groups are geared toward influencing those that are already in office. Furthermore, a person is usually a member of only one political party while he might be a member of several interest groups. At least in the United States, political parties are heavily regulated by state laws. However, interest groups are protected under the First Amendment’s right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Modern political parties began in western democracies like the United Kingdom and the United States; today they are an important institution in all democratic states and in some authoritarian ones. This article is devoted to helping you better grasp the different types of party systems and the role they play in modern governments.

Parties in Democratic and Authoritarian States

Besides providing electable candidates for public office, political parties in authoritarian and democratic states bear little similarity. First, we expect to find many parties in democratic states; in authoritarian states, the tendency is to find one party or no party. In a democracy, there should be a clear distinction between the party and the government. If an authoritarian regime has a party, the distinction between the party and the government is not as clear. For example, in communist states, it appears that instead of the people being in possession of the parties, the parties are in possession of the people. In an authoritarian state, the party’s candidates for office are chosen by elites or party officials; in democratic nations, the trend is for the people to select party nominees. For the rest of this chapter, our discussion will be confined to democratic states; at the end of this chapter, we will revisit parties in authoritarian regimes.

"Bipartisanship" Defined

We have two parties here, and only two. One is the evil party, and the other is the stupid party. I’m very proud to be a member of the stupid party. Occasionally, the two parties get together to do something that’s both evil and stupid. That’s called bipartisanship.~ Samuel T. Francis


We have already mentioned one basic function of a political party: to staff government offices with electable citizens. For the average voter, the party provides him a voting cue, a shortcut that gives him direction on how to vote. Parties also serve a useful function for governments as they tend to aggregate the interests of society. By “aggregating interests” we mean that parties sift through the multitude of interests and (hopefully) bring to the forefront those interests that are of most importance to their members. The role of these additional functions will depend upon how vital of a role the party plays in a government. In the United States, parties do not serve as vital of a role as they do in some of the parliamentary democracies like in the United Kingdom (UK). In the UK, the party gives important direction to the government. We often refer to the British government as the “Conservative Government” or the “Labour Government.” This implies a uniform and partisan direction of policy. However, in the United States it is possible that the leadership of the government is bipartisan, that is “two party.” For example, the president can be of the Democrat party while the Congress can be controlled by the Republican party. An arrangement like this would not happen in the UK.

Mexico has traditionally been a one-party state, being ruled by PRI (the Revolutionary Party) since 1929. Recent political events in Mexico indicate that PRI may be losing its monopolistic hold on Mexican politics.
Mexico has traditionally been a one-party state, being ruled by PRI (the Revolutionary Party) since 1929. Recent political events in Mexico indicate that PRI may be losing its monopolistic hold on Mexican politics. | Source

Party Organization

Hague and Harrop (2007) have distinguished between two types of party organizations. First an elite or “caucus” party is a party organization that formed within the assembly. These parties serve as “cliques” within the assembly. The earliest parties were caucus parties. Britain and the US parties were caucus parties in the beginning. In the United States the party caucus inside the Congress chose the party’s presidential nominee. These parties have few members. The prominent institution in elite parties tends to be the “party in the legislature.”

Later, a different type of party, a "mass” party developed. A mass party is one that developed outside the assembly. These were not parties that started in the assembly; often they started as social movements among the working class. Unlike the elite parties, these parties have many members. They tend to have an organization outside the assembly, a party “machine” that provides government positions in exchange for votes. These party machines operate as a welfare organization. The party “boss” takes care of those that are a part of his party: he provides them jobs. He will probably pay their rent if they are late or bail them out of jail if they get in trouble. In turn, the recipient of these benefits votes for the candidates the machine backs during the election. Many of the socialist parties that developed in Europe would qualify as mass parties.

Selecting Candidates

As was mentioned above, parties exist to provide nominees to run in elections and win public office. Parties use different means to select a pool of candidates which will be winnowed to one or a smaller group of nominees that will “stand” for the party. In the United States, the major method that is used for the selecting of party nominees is a primary, which is a party election. Primaries began during the Progressive era of American politics when progressives sought to wrest control of the parties away from party bosses. This was achieved by giving party members, namely the voters, the control over who would select party nominees. Today, many nations have followed the American model in having primaries to select party nominees.

In other nations, like Great Britain, the party organization, rather than the voters, select the party nominee. In Great Britain, local party organizations select the party nominee who will stand for their constituency in the election. However, the national party has a veto on any candidates that the local parties might select. Britain’s approach is the more traditional method of candidate selection which is to have the party organization select party nominees. However, the trend today among democratic states is to give people greater control over the selection of party nominees and take that power away from the party organization.

How Many Parties?

Democratic nations tend to have many parties. However, the number of parties that actually field a viable number of candidates for office varies from nation to nation. For example, in the United States, there are only two parties, the Republican and Democrat parties, which provide the major pool of candidates for elective office. Other nations, like Italy and Israel are multiparty systems that will have many parties that will provide candidates to elective office. We can distinguish between three different party systems: a one-party system, a two-party (or “bipartisan) system, and a multiparty system.

One Party—In a one-party system, a single party has extensive control over the government. In many ways one-party states look like authoritarian systems with one party that controls the government. The difference is that in one-party democratic states, other parties are not outlawed, although the single party tends to render the other parties ineffective due to its control over government resources such as the state media and its ability to channel funds to selected campaigns. Patronage is essential to these parties. Examples of one-party states include the African National Congress in South Africa; the Liberal Democrats in Japan; the Congress Party in India, and the Revolutionary (PRI) party in Mexico.

Two Party—In a two-party system, two major parties compete for government control. The United States is an example of a highly-competitive bipartisan system. The French sociologist Maurice Duverger posited a relationship between electoral systems and political systems, a relationship that has come to be called Duverger’s Law. A part of Duverger’s Law says that elections that reward the candidate with the most votes tend to favor a two-party system. Such elections are called plurality elections. In such an election there are no second or third-place winners. This arrangement tends to drive smaller parties out and encourages party members to join one of the two major parties. What you have in the assembly is a group of “first-place winners.”

The two-party system is in retreat in some nations such as New Zealand, Canada, and perhaps in Great Britain. The advantage of a bipartisan system is that partisan opposition tends to be directed at the other party. Two-party systems are also valued for their stability. The disadvantage of two-party systems is that they shut out most parties from having representation in the assembly. Because two-party systems are not proportional, the proportion of party members in the assembly might not reflect the arrangement of party members in the society.

Multiparty—A third type of party system, the multiparty system, tends to be found in continental Europe. Unlike the two-party system, the multiparty system tends to uphold the principle of proportionality by having the arrangement of parties in the legislature to be reflective of the arrangement of the parties in society. For example, if the Revolutionary Party got thirty percent of the votes in the last election, they will get roughly thirty percent of the seats in the legislature. Assigning the percentage of assembly seats based on the percentage of the party vote in the election is called proportional representation.

Multiparty systems have the advantage of allowing for more representation of parties. Voter turnout is also likely to be higher. Their disadvantages tend to be that they are unstable (Finland had more governments than it had elections from 1945-1975; since 1945 Italy has over 50 governments). However, some multiparty states tend to be stable, such as Sweden, Norway, and Germany. In Germany a procedure called a constructive vote of no confidence is employed where the current government and the prime minister cannot be dismissed until there is agreement on a new government. This tends to have the effect of securing unity in the government before the current government is dismissed. Finally, multiparty states seem not to function well during times of rapid policy change.

The former Soviet Union was considered a "party state" where only one party was tolerated, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The party was used as an instrument of totalitarianism.
The former Soviet Union was considered a "party state" where only one party was tolerated, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The party was used as an instrument of totalitarianism.

A One-Party State

If the Soviet Union let another political party come into existence, they would still be a one-party state, because everybody would join the other party. ~ Ronald Reagan

Parties in Authoritarian States

Although parties originated in democratic states, they can also be found in authoritarian states. In authoritarian states, the tendency is for there to be either one party or no parties. Some Middle Eastern monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait, tend to be dominated by ruling families that do not allow parties. They might also be a one-party state. Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated Singapore politics since 1959. It still holds the dominant power by limiting access to the media and by using its position to attack opposition candidates.

Even totalitarian states have parties. In fact, communist systems tend to be based on a single party-the Communist Party. Other parties are forbidden. It was Vladimir Lenin the first brought the idea of a single party into Marxism. Lenin taught that a single vanguard party would be needed to guide the communist worker's revolution. The communist developed the “party state” where the party is the most vital institution of society. Government was merely a department (a bureau or politburo) within the larger party. The party even had its own propaganda system and its own national police (like the KGB). In communist regimes, the leaders serve the party.

The Fascist parties (like the Nazi party) were weaker than the communist parties in that the party tended to participate in a personality cult that centered on a person (the leadership principle or Fuhrerprinzip) rather than an organization. With fascism, the party served the leader. The Nazi party was only a stepping stone to the real power which was near Hitler, not in the party itself. State officials swore allegiance to Hitler, not the party.

Hague, Rod, and Martin Harrop. Political Science: A Comparative Introduction, 5th ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

© 2011 William R Bowen Jr


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