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Why do we have political parties?

Party Politics In The US

Matthew Jones (Political Science Instructor) gives expert video advice on: Why do we have political parties?; Is the US really only a two-party system?; Who decides what the party stands for? and more...

Why do we have political parties?

When democratic elections first started happening in Britain, they figured out that one of the most effective ways to win an election is to create an organization that groups people together in a common political identity. So, we get the idea of "I am a Republican or Democrat and the guy who's running for office is Republican or Democrat." That's an easy connection we have and so naturally, my deep position is to vote for the guy with the same political identity. It's just an effective way to win elections. That's a simple way to put it. That's one of the main reasons why we have political parties. It's not to organize and take positions but to win elections. That's the reason they exist and that's what they're there to do and political parties do it very effectively.

Is the US really only a two-party system?

Functionally yes, it is a two-party system. Now naturally we have more than just the republican and democratic parties. We have the green party. We have the libertarian party. We have the reform party. We have the constitution party. We have... You know the list goes on to almost to the infinitive. But functionally yes, we are a two party system. In that the way that our electoral system works is that two parties really only have a chance of getting enough seats to actually govern. So, getting enough elective offices to govern. And that's because you win the majority of the vote or more votes than anyone else. You win the entire district. So it's usually a choice is between this guy A or girl A or guy A and girl B. So it becomes a two party system in that sense. It is very difficult for third parties to get any more than a small fraction of the vote.

Who decides what the party stands for?

It used to be fifty years ago, even somewhat forty years ago, that at the national conventions they would have party caucuses and party platforms and there would be these epic battles over what the party platform was going to be, and whether the different planks party platform would be unveiled at the national convention, and that was really where the party was decided. Now the national convention and the party platforms have decreased in importance over time. They still have the party platforms and there are still fights over them but in reality the party platforms are more symbolic than hold any real power over governing the party. Currently, or more in modern times, really it is the leaders of the party, especially a President or a Presidential candidate tends to determine more what the party platform stands for. So for instance, George W. Bush is going to have a more active role in determining what this party stands for by what he puts forward and what he champions and the Republican leadership and Congress, the House and the Legislature by what they are willing to go along with and vice versa. So Clinton had a very big role in bringing the Democratic Party economically towards the center, more than the party platform.

How do party systems in other countries compare to ours?

One of the big things is that party systems in other countries tend to be more multiparty systems, not just two party systems. Now, that's true because, for one their electoral system is different. So it's not whoever wins the most votes gets that district. So, for instance, Senator Dianne Feinstein in California, she wins 51% of the vote. Well, the other 49% of the people who voted for somebody else doesn't matter. She wins California. Well, in a proportional representation system, if there's 100 seats in the senate or in the legislature, then everybody votes for a particular party, and the party gets the percentage of seats in the legislature that they got votes in the electorate. So if they get 42% of the vote in the electorate, they get 42 seats. Which makes it easier for third parties, who might only get 8% of the vote, to gain seats in the legislature. Because if you get 8% of the vote in the Netherlands, for instance, you get 8% of the representation. Whereas if you get 8% of the vote in California, you get no representation.