Political Culture & Political Parties

American Democratic Values

Although the United States is a diverse society, it is united under a common political culture, or common set of beliefs and attitudes about government and politics. This political culture translates into a consensus of basic concepts that support democracy. Democracy is not guaranteed; therefore the American people must continue to practice these concepts.

  • majority rule/minority rights—Although democracy is based upon majority rule, minority rights must be guaranteed.
  • equality—Equality of every individual before the law and in the political process.
  • private property—Ownership of property is protected by law and supported by the capitalist system.
  • individual freedoms—Guarantees of civil liberties and protections of infringements upon them.
  • compromise—Allows for the combining of different interests and opinions to form public policy to best benefit society.
  • limited government—Powers of government are restricted in a democracy by the will of the people and the law.

It is vital to note that the importance of each of the above changes over time. During the presidency of George W. Bush (2001–2009), some believed that, because of the "War on Terror," the power of the government should be greatly expanded.

American Political Culture

Political Socialization

Political socialization is the process by which citizens acquire a sense of political identity. Socialization is a complex process that begins early in childhood and continues throughout a person's life. It allows citizens to become aware of politics, learn political facts, and form political values and opinions. Although the paths to political awareness, knowledge, and values differ, people are exposed to a combination of influences that shape their political identities and opinions:

  • Family and home influences often help shape political party identification. It is strongest when both parents identify with the same political party.
  • Schools teach patriotism, basic governmental functions and structure, and encourage political participation.
  • Group affiliations (interest groups, labor unions, professional organizations) provide common bonds between people which may be expressed through the group or its activities.
  • Demographic factors (occupation, race, gender, age, religion, region of country, income, education, ethnicity).
  • Mass media inform the public about issues and help set the political and public agendas.
  • Opinion leaders, those individuals held in great respect because of their position, expertise, or personality, may informally and unintentionally exercise influence.
  • Events may instill positive or negative attitudes. For example, the Watergate scandal created a mistrust of government. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, patriotic spirit increased in many parts of the United States.
Political Socialization

Public Opinion

Public opinion is a collection of shared attitudes of many different people in matters relating to politics, public issues, or the making of public policy. It is shaped by people's political culture and political socialization. Public opinion can be analyzed according to distribution (physical shape of responses when graphed), intensity (how strongly the opinions are held), and stability (how much the opinion changes over time). A consensus occurs when there is general agreement on an issue. Public opinion that is strongly divided between two very different views is a divisive opinion.

Measuring Public Opinion

The measurement of public opinion is a complex process often conveying unreliable results. Elections, interest groups, the media, and personal contacts may signal public opinion on certain issues; however, the most reliable measure of public opinion is the public opinion poll. Businesses, governments, political candidates, and interest groups use polls.

Early polling in the United States involved the use of straw polls, asking the same question of a large number of people. They were unreliable because they did not necessarily include a cross-section of the general population of the United States. The most famous mishap occurred in 1936 when the Literary Digest mailed postcards to more than 10 million people concerning the outcome of the 1936 presidential election. With over 2 million responses, the magazine incorrectly predicted the defeat of Franklin Roosevelt and victory of challenger Alf Landon. The magazine had used automobile registrations and telephone directories to develop its sample, not realizing that during the Depression many people did not have cars or telephones. Many voters who supported Roosevelt had not been polled. The mailings had also been done early, and some voters changed their minds between answering the poll and actually voting.

Modern polling began in the 1930s when George Gallup helped develop the use of a scientific polling process that includes:

  • sampling—Those chosen to participate in the poll must be representative of the general population and chosen at random.
  • preparing valid questions—Directions should be clear and questions should be phrased and ordered in a way that does not lead the respondent to a particular answer (clear, fair, and unbiased).
  • controlling how the poll is taken—Make sure the respondent has some knowledge of the issues addressed in the poll and that the pollster's appearance and tone do not influence the responses. Survey methods may include telephone, mail, and in-person interviews.
  • analyzing and reporting results—Reporting the results of polls without providing information about how the poll was conducted, sampling errors, or when the poll that was taken can lead to misinformation and error.

Today, the use of statistical analysis through computers has made polling an even more accurate research tool.



An ideology is a consistent set of beliefs. A political ideology is a set of beliefs about politics and public policy that creates the structure for looking at government and public policy. Political ideologies can change over time. Differences in ideology generally occur in the arena of political, economic, and social issues.

Political Parties Redux

Ideology: A Political Spectrum

  • radical—favors rapid, fundamental change in existing social, economic, or political order; may be willing to resort to extreme means, even violence or revolution to accomplish such change (extreme change to create an entirely new social system)
  • liberal—supports active government in promoting individual welfare and supporting civil rights, and accepts peaceful political and social change within the existing political system
  • moderate—political ideology that falls between liberal and conservative and which may include some of both; usually thought of as tolerant of others' political opinions and not likely to hold extreme views on issues
  • conservative—promotes a limited governmental role in helping individuals economically, supports traditional values and lifestyles, favors a more active role for government in promoting national security, and approaches change cautiously
  • reactionary—advocates a return to a previous state of affairs, often a social order or government that existed earlier in history (may be willing to go to extremes to achieve their goals)
PUBLIC OPINION - Cram for the Exam
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Political Parties

Roles of Political Parties

  • party in the electorate—all of the people who associate themselves with one of the political parties
  • party in government—all of the appointed and elected officials at the national, state, and local levels who represent the party as members; officeholders
  • party in organization—all of the people at the various levels of the party organization who work to maintain the strength of the party between elections, help raise money, and organize the conventions and party functions
  • Party Systems

    One-Party System

    In a one-party system only one party exists or has a chance of winning election. Generally, membership is not voluntary and those who do belong to the party represent a small portion of the population. Party leaders must approve candidates for political office, and voters have no real choice. The result is dictatorial government.

    Two-Party System

    In a two-party system there may be several political parties but only two major political parties compete for power and dominate elections. Minor parties generally have little effect on most elections, especially at the national level. The Electoral College system makes it difficult for third-party candidates to affect presidential elections. It would be almost impossible for a third-party candidate to actually win a state, which is necessary to capture electoral votes. Systems that operate under the two-party system usually have a general consensus, or agreement, among citizens about the basic principles of government, even though the parties often differ on the means of carrying them out. The use of single-member districts promotes the two-party system. Voters are given an "either-or" choice, simplifying decisions and the political process. The two-party system tends to enhance governmental stability; because both parties want to appeal to the largest number of voters, they tend to avoid extremes in ideology.

    Multi-Party System

    Multi-party systems exist when several major parties and a number of minor parties compete in elections, and any of the parties stands a good chance of winning. This type of system can be composed of from 4 to 20 different parties, based on a particular region, ideology, or class position, and is often found in European nations, as well as in other democratic societies. The multi-party system is usually the result of a proportional representation voting system rather than one with single-member districts. The idea behind multi-party systems is to give voters meaningful choices. This does not always occur because of two major problems: in many elections, no party has a clear majority of the vote, and not receiving a majority forces the sharing of power by several parties (coalitions). The multi-party system tends to promote instability in government, especially when coalition governments are formed.

    24. AP60X - 2 Party System

    What Do Political Parties Do?

  • Recruit candidates—find candidates interested in running for public office, especially if no incumbent is running
  • Nominate and support candidates for office—help raise money and run candidate campaigns through the party organization
  • Educate the electorate—inform the voters about the candidates and encourage voters to participate in the election
  • Organize the government—The organization of Congress and state legislatures is based on political party controls (majority vs. minority party); political appointments are often made based on political party affiliation
  • The Two-Party Tradition in America

    The Constitution did not call for political parties, and the Founding Fathers at first did not intend to create them. James Madison, in Federalist #10, warned of the divisiveness of "factions." George Washington was elected president without party labels and in his farewell address warned against the "baneful effects of the spirit of the party." During the process for ratification of the Constitution, Federalists and Anti-Federalists conflicted over ideals concerning the proper role of government. This conflict resulted in the development of the first political parties: the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, or Democratic-Republicans as they were later called.

    Why a Two-Party Tradition?

    Although there have been numerous minor parties throughout its history, why has the United States maintained the two-party tradition?

    • historical roots—British heritage, Federalist and Anti-Federalist divisions
    • electoral system—single-member districts mean that only one representative is chosen from each district (one winner per office)
    • election laws—vary from state to state, which makes it difficult for minor parties to get on the ballot in many states

    Party Development

    Rise of Political Parties: Party Development (1789–1800)

    The earliest political parties began to develop under the administration of George Washington. Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, supported a strong national government; his followers became known as Federalists. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson supported states' rights and a less powerful national government. The clash between these two individuals and their supporters led to the development of political parties. In the election of 1796, Jefferson challenged John Adams, the Federalist candidate, for the presidency but lost. By 1800 Jefferson was able to rally his supporters and win the presidency.

    Democratic Domination (1800–1860)

    The Democratic-Republicans dominated the government from 1800 to 1824, when they split into factions. The faction led by Andrew Jackson, the Jacksonian Democrats or Democrats, won the presidency in 1828. The major opposition to the Democrats during this time was the Whig Party. Although the Whigs were a powerful opposition party in the U.S. Congress, they were able to win the presidency only twice, in 1840 with the victory of William Henry Harrison and in 1848 with that of Zachary Taylor. From that election until the election of 1860, Democrats dominated American politics. The Democratic Party became known as the party of the "common man," encouraging popular participation, and helping to bring about an expansion of suffrage to all adult white males.

    Republican Domination (1860–1932)

    The Republican Party began as a third party, developed from a split in the Whig Party. The Whigs had been the major opposition to the Democrats. By 1860 the Whig party had disappeared and the Republican Party had emerged as the second major party. The Republican Party was composed mostly of former members of other political parties, appealing to commercial and antislavery groups. The Republican Party was successful in electing Abraham Lincoln president in 1860, and by the end of the Civil War had become a dominant party. Sometimes called the Grand Old Party or GOP, the Republican Party often controlled both the presidency and Congress.

    Return of Democrats (1932–1968)

    With the onset of the Depression, new electoral coalitions were formed and the Republicans lost their domination of government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to unite blacks, city dwellers, blue-collar (labor union) workers, Catholics, Jews, and women to create a voting bloc known as the New Deal coalition. The election of 1932 brought the Democrats back to power as the dominant party in American politics. Roosevelt was elected to the presidency an unprecedented four times. From 1932 to 1968 only two Republican presidents (Eisenhower and Nixon) were elected. Not until 1994 did the Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress.

    Divided Government (1968–Present)

    Since 1968 divided government has characterized American institutions, a condition in which one political party controls the presidency and the opposing party controls one or both houses of Congress. This division creates a potential gridlock when opposing parties and interests often block each other's proposals, creating a political stalemate. In the election of 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency and the Republican party won control of the House of Representatives and Senate (until Jim Jeffords changed affiliation to Independent). In the mid-term election of 2002, the Republicans again gained control of the executive and legislative branches, creating a unified government. In the 2006 off-year election, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress, returning divided government to U.S. politics. In the 2008 elections, the Democrats won control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, although few predicted that this would permanently end the era of divided government.

    Electoral Dealignment

    When significant numbers of voters no longer support a particular political party, dealignment has occurred. Often, those voters identify as independents and believe they owe no loyalty to any particular political party.

    Electoral Realignment

    Historically, as voting patterns have shifted and new coalitions of party supporters have formed, electoral realignment has occurred. Several elections can be considered realigning elections, where the dominant party loses power and a new dominant party takes its place. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are examples. Many consider the 1980 election in this light; it remains to be seen if the 2008 election will have the same impact.

    Political Realignment for Dummies

    Types of Third Parties

    Some third parties have been permanent, running candidates in every election; however, many third parties disappear after only a few elections. Several types of minor parties have emerged:

    • ideological—those based on a particular set of social, political, or economic beliefs (communist, socialist, libertarian)
    • splinter/personality/factional—those that have split away from one of the major parties; usually formed around a strong personality who does not win the party nomination; may disappear when that leader steps aside (Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" Progressive, Strom Thurmond's States' Rights, George Wallace's American Independent)
    • single issue—parties that concentrate on a single public policy matter (Free Soil, Right to Life, Prohibition)
    • protest—usually rooted in periods of economic discontent; may be sectional in nature (Greenback, Populist)

    Structure and Organization of Political Parties

    A political party must have an effective organization to accomplish its goals. Both of the major parties are organized in much the same manner. Both parties are highly decentralized, or fragmented. The party of the president is normally more solidly united than the opposition. The president is automatically considered the party leader, while the opposition is often without a single strong leader. Usually one or more members of Congress are seen as the opposition leaders.

    National Convention

    The national convention serves as the party's national voice. Party delegates meet in the summer of every fourth year to select the party's candidates for president and vice president. They are also responsible for writing and adopting the party's platform, which describes the policy beliefs of the party.

    National Committee

    The national committee manages the political party's business between conventions. They are responsible for selecting the convention site, establishing the rules of the convention, publishing and distributing party literature, and helping the party raise campaign contributions.

    National Chairperson

    The party's national committee, with the consent of the party's presidential nominee, elects the national chairperson. The chairperson is responsible for directing the work of the national committee from their national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The chairperson is involved in fund raising, recruiting new party members, encouraging unity within the party, and helping the party's presidential nominee win election.

    Congressional Campaign Committee

    Each party has a committee in the House of Representatives and Senate that works to ensure the election or reelection of the party's candidates by raising funds and determining how much money and support each candidate will receive. The committee often works to defeat an opposition party member who appears weak and might be open to defeat.

    State and Local Organization

    State law largely determines state and local party organization. Differences exist from state to state; however, state and local parties are structured in much the same way as the national party organization. Generally, state parties today are more organized and better funded than in previous years. As a result of soft money, money that is distributed from the national political party organization and that does not have to be reported under the Federal Election Campaign Act (1971) or its amendments, state parties have become more dependent on the national party organization and are subject to their influence. In 2002, however, the use of soft money was significantly restricted by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act.

    Future of Political Parties

    The future of political parties in the United States is uncertain. In recent decades, political parties have been in decline. This decline may be attributed to several factors:

    • third-party challenges—In recent elections third-party challengers have taken votes from the major candidates, lessening their ability to win a majority of the vote.
    • loss of support by party loyalists—An increase in the number of independent voters.
    • increase in split-ticket voting—Many voters no longer vote a straight ticket (only for candidates of one political party) but rather split their vote among candidates from more than one party.
    • lack of perceived differences between the parties—Voters often believe there are no major differences in the parties or their candidates.
    • party reforms—Changes within the parties themselves to create greater diversity and openness have allowed for greater conflict within some parties.
    • methods of campaigning—New technologies have allowed candidates to become more independent of parties and more directly involved with the voters.