Dr. Eileen Lynch
19. Political Parties
Define political parties. Explain the functions that they perform in democratic governance.
Our textbook defines a major political party as a broadly based coalition or group of men and women that attempts to gain control of the government by winning elections in order to exercise power and reward its members.
However, the text offers the tangential option of regarding a political party not so much for what it is (which could be a small group in a community, or proponents of certain ideology, or the millions who vote during elections, or all of them together at once) but instead to think of it in terms of what it does.
What a political party does is to perform and essential function in the management of succession to power. They are a means to choose and offer the electorate some competitors for public office. Since the concept of democracy is that an electorate gets to choose, if there is no choice, there is no democracy. Since one of the worst problems of any government is how to manage the transfer of power, a democracy needs to provide an orderly institutional arrangement for the transfer of power. This is in contrast to totalitarian governments, where power actually has to be seized and thus the wielders of it are loath to part with it. When they have to, the transition often comes unexpectedly and in a disorderly manner. So the parties are part of the machinery of choice and order within a democracy.
Also, within this framework of political systems, the political parties help to mobilize the demands and supports that are inputs into the system and participate as well in the authoritative decision making, or outputs, of the government. In the example of elections for public office, a party helps to hold officials accountable to the voters and to recruit more candidates for those public offices. It helps its members to express their attitudes about the government in a more comprehensive and representative manner than, for example, interest groups; in fact, instead of trying to influence government on a certain issue, a party tries to become the government. This is a way that they could reconcile the interests of conflicting groups in society at large. A party can be a mediator among interest groups because in order to become the government a party actually tries to appeal to many groups of voters in a broad manner.
In short, a political party manages the transfer of power, offers a choice of rival candidates and programs to the voters, serves as a bridge between government and people by helping to hold elected officials accountable to the voters, helps to recruit candidates for office, might serve to reconcile conflicting interests in society, staffs the government and helps to run it, and links various branches and levels of the government.
The fact box in page 258 of the textbook offers a rather inspired synthesis of what a political party is:
“The truth is that the national party is a broadly based, loose coalition of national political figures, state party leaders, staff workers, members of Congress, and other elected officials who come together every four years to support a presidential candidate. A political party tries to gain control of the government by winning elections in order to exercise power and reward its members.”
Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American System, 10th Edition, Milton C. Cummings, Jr., David Wise, Thomson