A party within the context of political science is a political organization that seeks to influence government through shaping the views of its personnel. Parties are endemic to democracy. E. E. Schattschneider maintained that “parties created democracy and … modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”
Although parties are universal, their number, structure, and degree of institutionalization vary considerably from country to country. This diversity reflects the fact that parties are not part of the formal apparatus of democracy, nor do most democratic constitutions articulate a role for parties.
Nevertheless, parties play a central role in representative democracies. Three problems requiring collective action prompt the creation of parties: the need to choose candidates from among rivals, the need to take positions on issues from among competing alternatives, and the need to organize campaigns to compete for votes in elections. Hence, parties simplify and regularize the process of collective decision making for both voters and governments following elections.
Parties perform a number of important functions. According to Edmund Burke, “Party divisions are things inseparable from free government.” Most important, parties serve as a link between the governed and the governors. Other functions include policy education and formulation, the aggregation and articulation of multiple group interests, and the organization of government.
In democratic theory, parties serve the purpose of making democratic institutions effective. An essential function of parties is to transmit popular preferences into policy. As Benjamin Disraeli noted, “Party is organized opinion.” Parties also bring stability to legislative politics through the natural advantages of party organization.
In the modern era, parties’ additional electoral functions center on connecting voters to politics: candidate recruitment and selection, campaign management, campaign communications, fundraising, voter mobilization, and the gauging of public opinion.
The modern political party is an American invention. In the American context, parties were originally perceived as collective expressions of the passions and prejudices of specific factions of the public. As a consequence, parties threatened to stand between government and political actions aimed at the general welfare, rather than particular groups. This connection between parties and government responsiveness remains unresolved.
In the early 20th century, Moisie Ostrogorski and Robert Michels, the founding fathers of the study of political parties, criticized parties on the grounds that they were inherently antidemocratic. Ostrogorski characterized party organizations as inevitably corrupt, and Michels deemed the internal party organization inevitably authoritarian. Max Weber’s study of the internal organizational dynamics of political parties led him to conclude that the consequence that followed the inevitable bureaucratization of parties was the rationalization of politics.
There have been few real differences of political principle between the various American parties. Emphasis has been on a party’s electoral function, and, therefore, partisan activity is geared to the electoral cycle, a brand of party politics more pragmatic than programmatic. In the European context, parties had their origin in the formation of groups of ideologically like-minded people who sought power to execute their favored policy programs. Partisan loyalties tended to be based on social cleavages, principally those of class, religion, and region. During the 20th century, this situation was the norm throughout the democratic world, with the important exceptions of the United States, Germany, Italy, and, arguably, France. Indeed, one of the crucial weaknesses of parities in parliamentary democracies is that, regardless of the personal voting records of particular representatives, voters are constrained to support the specific candidates affiliated with the party they wish to form the next government. The effect is to encourage mediocrity and blind obedience to party orders among backbenchers.
Most political scientists view the major European parties not only as chronologically newer, but also as more modern than American parties. This difference results from their traditional, national, and electoral orientations; their large dues-paying memberships; their high degrees of parliamentary discipline; and their relatively authoritarian internal organizations and unified, formal policy commitments.
Minor parties frequently play a vital role in politics. In many countries, the votes garnered by minor parties have been a crucial factor in electoral outcomes. The issues emphasized by minor parties are often absorbed into the platforms of the major parties. Libertarian parties exist in many countries, although all are minor parties. In the voting booth, most libertarians support major parties broadly and rhetorically sympathetic to limited government, such as the U.S. Republicans, the German Free Democrats, and the British Conservatives.
By the 1960s and 1970s, most major parties in the Western democracies have become less determinative of political attitudes and behavior, less highly regarded, and less likely to influence voters. Increased social and geographic mobility has weakened parties at the grassroots level, and TV has replaced the political party as the mediating force between politicians and voters.
Over the past two decades, political parties have responded to these new pressures by deemphasizing their ideological commitments and increasing the power of party leaders. This notion has been reflected in a decline of activist members, an increase in the importance of interest groups, and the recognition of marketing research and techniques as essential campaigning tools. Generally, political parties have responded effectively to ensure their survival as newly professionalized, relevant political actors while diminishing the role of forthrightness and principle in political life.
Bogdanor, Vernon. Parties and Democracy in Britain and America. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Key, V. O., Jr. Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. New York: Crowell, 1964.
Michels, Robert. Political Parties. New York: Free Press, 1962.
Ostrogorksi, Moisie. Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. New York: Andover, 1964.
Webb, Paul D. “Are British Political Parties in Decline?” Party Politics 1 (1995): 299–322.
Yanai, Nathan. “Why Do Political Parties Survive? An Analytical Discussion.” Party Politics 5 (1999): 5–17.
Originally published .