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Political parties in the United States


Political parties in the United States

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the United States

This article presents the historical development and role of political parties in United States politics, and outlines more extensively the significant modern political parties. Throughout most of its history, American politics have been dominated by a two-party system. However, the United States Constitution has always been silent on the issue of political parties; at the time it was signed in 1787, there were no parties in the nation. Indeed, no nation in the world had voter-based political parties. The need to win popular support in a republic led to the American invention of voter-based political parties in the 1790s.[1] Americans were especially innovative in devising new campaign techniques that linked public opinion with public policy through the party.[2]

Political scientists and historians have divided the development of America's two-party system into five eras.[3] The modern two-party system consists of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Several third parties also operate in the U.S., and from time to time elect someone to local office.[4] The largest third party since the 1980s is the Libertarian Party.

Since the 1930s, the modern American political spectrum and the usage of left–right politics have basically differed from the rest of the world. For example, among the two major parties, modern American Conservatism and the Republican Party support economic liberalism and classical liberalism's central principle of limited government, instead of modern American Liberalism and the Democratic Party.[5]


  • Modern U.S. political party system 1
    • Democratic Party 1.1
    • Republican Party 1.2
    • Major third parties 1.3
      • Constitution Party 1.3.1
      • Green Party 1.3.2
      • Libertarian Party 1.3.3
      • Other parties 1.3.4
      • Independents 1.3.5
    • Party comparisons 1.4
  • History 2
    • First Party System: 1792-1824 2.1
    • Second Party System: 1828-1854 2.2
    • Third Party System: 1854-1890s 2.3
    • Fourth Party System: 1896-1932 2.4
    • Fifth Party System: 1933-present 2.5
    • Minor parties and independents 2.6
  • References 3

Modern U.S. political party system

U.S. party affiliation, 2004[6]

The modern political party system in the U.S. is a two-party system dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. These two parties have won every United States presidential election since 1852 and have controlled the United States Congress to some extent since at least 1856.

Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is one of two major political parties in the U.S. It is the oldest political party in the world.[7][8]

The Democratic Party, since the division of the Republican Party in the election of 1912, has positioned itself as the liberal party on domestic issues. The economic philosophy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has strongly influenced American liberalism, has shaped much of the party's agenda since 1932. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition controlled the White House until 1968 with the exception of Eisenhower 1953-1961.

In 2004, it was the largest political party, with 72 million voters (42.6% of 169 million registered) claiming affiliation.[9] The president of the United States, Barack Obama, is the 15th Democrat to hold the office, and since the 2006 midterm elections, the Democratic Party is the majority party for the United States Senate.

A 2011 USA Today review of state voter rolls indicates that registered Democrats declined in 25 of 28 states (some states do not register voters by party). Democrats were still the largest political party with more than 42 million voters (compared with 30 million Republicans and 24 million independents). But in 2011 Democrats numbers shrank 800,000, and from 2008 they were down by 1.7 million, or 3.9%.[10]

Republican Party

The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States of America. Since the 1880s it has been nicknamed (by the media) the "Grand Old Party" or GOP, although it is younger than the Democratic Party.

Founded in 1854 by Northern anti-slavery activists and modernizers, the Republican Party rose to prominence in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who used the party machinery to support victory in the American Civil War. The GOP dominated national politics during the Third Party System, from 1854 to 1896, and the Fourth Party System from 1896 to 1932. Today, the Republican Party supports an American conservative platform, with further foundations in economic liberalism, fiscal conservatism, and social conservatism.

Former President President of the United States in the 2012 presidential election was Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts. Since the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans have held a majority in the United States House of Representatives.

USA Today '​s review of state voter rolls indicates that registered Republicans declined in 21 of 28 states (not all states register voters by party) and that Republican registrations were down 350,000 in 2011. The number of independents rose in 18 states, increasing by 325,000 in 2011, and was up more than 400,000 from 2008, or 1.7%.[10]

Major third parties

Constitution Party

The Constitution Party is a conservative United States political party. It was founded as the U.S. Taxpayers Party in 1992. The party's official name was changed to the Constitution Party in 1999; however, some state affiliate parties are known under different names.

According to ballot access expert Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, who periodically compiles and analyzes voter registration statistics as reported by state voter agencies, it ranks third nationally amongst all United States political parties in registered voters, with 438,222 registered members as of October 2008.[11] This makes it currently the largest third party in the United States.

The Constitution Party advocates a platform that they believe reflects the Founding Fathers' original intent of the U.S. Constitution, principles found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and morals taken from the Bible.[12]

In 2006, Rick Jore of Montana became the first Constitution Party candidate elected to a state-level office,[13][14] though the Constitution Party of Montana had disaffiliated itself from the national party a short time before the election.

The Constitution Party's 2012 presidential nominee was Virgil Goode.

Green Party

In the Greens/Green Party USA.

The Green Party in the United States has won elected office mostly at the local level; most winners of public office in the United States who are considered Greens have won nonpartisan-ballot elections (that is, elections in which the candidates' party affiliations were not printed on the ballot).[15] In 2005, the Party had 305,000 registered members in the District of Columbia and 20 states that allow party registration.[16] During the 2006 elections the party had ballot access in 31 states.[17]

Greens emphasize environmentalism, non-hierarchical participatory democracy, social justice, respect for diversity, peace and nonviolence.

Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party was founded on December 11, 1971.[18] It is one of the largest continuing third parties in the United States, claiming more than 331,000 registered voters.[19] They currently have about 144 elected officials, more than any of the other minor parties.[20]

The 2012 Libertarian Party nominee for United States President was former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson. He achieved ballot access in every state except for Michigan (only as a write-in candidate) and Oklahoma. He received over one million votes in the election, the highest for any candidate since the founding of the party in 1971.

The Libertarian Party's core mission is to reduce the size, influence and expenditures of all levels of government. To this effect, the party supports minimally regulated markets, a less powerful federal government, strong civil liberties, drug liberalization, separation of church and state, open immigration, non-interventionism and neutrality in diplomatic relations, free trade and free movement to all foreign countries, and a more representative republic.[21]

Other parties

Besides the Constitution, Green and Libertarian parties, there are many other political parties that receive only minimal support and only appear on the ballot in one or a few states.


Some political candidates, and many voters, choose not to identify with a particular political party. In some states, independents are not allowed to vote in primary elections, but in others, they can vote in any primary election of their choice. Independents can be of any political persuasion, but the term most commonly refers to politicians or voters who hold centrist views that incorporate facets of both Democratic and Republican ideology.

Party comparisons

The following table lists some political ideologies most often associated with the five U.S. political parties with the most members, as well the tendencies of the official party positions on a number of reformist issues where positions diverge. Nuances may be found in the parties' respective platforms. Not all members of a party subscribe to all of its officially held positions, the usual degree of variation generally being higher for the larger parties. Party members may hold different views on legislation to be enacted at the state or federal levels. Furthermore, the modern American political spectrum, and the usage of left–right politics, differs from the rest of the world. For example, the Democratic Party, the primary left-of-center party in the country, generally supports a social liberalism position rather than a classical liberalism one.

Modern political party comparisons
Issues Green Party Democratic Party Libertarian Party Republican Party Constitution Party
Primary related subjects
Issues * Abortion restrictions No[22] No[23] No[24] Yes[25] Yes[26]
Limiting private financing of campaigns Yes[22] Yes[23] No[24] No[27] No[28]
Legalization of same-sex marriages Yes[22] Yes[23] Yes[29] No[30] No[31]
Universal health care Yes[22] Yes[23] No[24] No[32] No[33]
Progressive taxation Yes[22] Yes[23] No[24] No[34] No[35]
Immigration restrictions No[22] No[23] No[36] Yes[37] Yes[38]
Capital punishment No[22] Yes[23] No[24] Yes[39] Yes[40]
Drug liberalization Yes[41] No[23] Yes[42] No No[43]
Civilian gun control Yes[44] Yes[23] No[24] No[30] No[45]
Non-interventionist foreign policy Yes[22] No[23] Yes[24] No[30] Yes[46]

* The top issues in the country are selected for this table.


Popular votes to political parties during presidential elections.
Political parties derivation. Dotted line means unofficially.

The Farewell Address.[47] Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison, who wrote the aforementioned Federalist Papers against political factions, ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson helming this political faction, that created the environment in which, once distasteful partisanship, came to being.[48][49]

First Party System: 1792-1824

The First Party System of the United States featured the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party (Anti-Federalist). The Federalist Party grew from Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong united central government, close ties to Britain, a centralized banking system, and close links between the government and men of wealth. The Democratic-Republican Party was founded by James Madison and by Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who strongly opposed Hamilton's agenda.[50] Both parties had newspapers favoring them, with the Federalist paper being the Gazette of the United States and the Democratic-Republican paper being the National Gazette.

The Era of Good Feelings (1816–1824), marked the end of the First Party System. The elitism of the Federalists had diminished their appeal, and their refusal to support the War of 1812 verged on secession and was a devastating blow when the war ended well. The Era of Good Feelings under President James Monroe (1816–24) marked a brief period in which partisanship was minimal.[51] These good feelings inspired the first short-lived "era of internal improvements" from the 18th through the 25th Congress, which ended with the panic of 1837.[52]

Second Party System: 1828-1854

In 1829, the Second Party System saw a split of the Democratic-Republican Party into the Jacksonian Democrats, who grew into the modern Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party, led by Henry Clay. The Democrats supported the primacy of the Presidency over the other branches of government, and opposed the Bank of the United States as well as modernizing programs that they felt would build up industry at the expense of the taxpayer. The Whigs, on the other hand, advocated the primacy of Congress over the executive branch as well as policies of modernization and economic protectionism. Central political battles of this era were the Bank War and the Spoils system of federal patronage.

The 1850s saw the collapse of the Whig party, largely as a result of deaths in its leadership and a major intra-party split over slavery as a result of the Compromise of 1850. In addition, the fading of old economic issues removed many of the unifying forces holding the party together.

Third Party System: 1854-1890s

The Third Party System stretched from 1854 to the mid-1890s, and was characterized by the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican Party, which adopted many of the economic policies of the Whigs, such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges. Civil war and Reconstruction issues polarized the parties until the Compromise of 1877, which ended the latter. Thus, both parties became broad-based voting coalitions. The race issue pulled newly enfranchised African Americans (Freedmen) into the Republican party while white southerners (Redeemers) joined the Democratic Party. The Democratic coalition also had conservative pro-business Bourbon Democrats, traditional Democrats in the North (many of them former Copperheads), and Catholic immigrants, among others. The Republican coalition also consisted of businessmen, shop owners, skilled craftsmen, clerks and professionals who were attracted to the party's modernization policies.

Fourth Party System: 1896-1932

The Fourth Party System, 1896 to 1932, retained the same primary parties as the Third Party System, but saw major shifts in the central issues of debate. This period also corresponded to the Progressive Era, and was dominated by the Republican Party. It began after the Republicans blamed the Democrats for the Panic of 1893, which later resulted in William McKinley's victory over William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. The central domestic issues changed to government regulation of railroads and large corporations ("trusts"), the protective tariff, the role of labor unions, child labor, the need for a new banking system, corruption in party politics, primary elections, direct election of senators, racial segregation, efficiency in government, women's suffrage, and control of immigration. Most voting blocs continued unchanged, but some realignment took place, giving Republicans dominance in the industrial Northeast and new strength in the border states.

Fifth Party System: 1933-present

The Fifth Party System emerged with the Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, and a more successful moderate wing exemplified by the politics of Northeastern leaders such as Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, and Henry Cabot Lodge. The latter steadily lost influence inside the GOP after 1964.[54]

Experts debate whether this era ended (and a Sixth Party System subsequently emerged) in the mid-1960s when the New Deal coalition did, the early 1980s when the Moral Majority and the Reagan coalition were formed, the mid-1990s during the Republican Revolution, or continues to the present. Since the 1930s, the Democrats positioned themselves more towards Liberalism while the Conservatives increasingly dominated the GOP.[55]

Minor parties and independents

Although American politics have been dominated by the two-party system, several other political parties have also emerged throughout the country's history. The oldest third party was the Anti-Masonic Party[56] and was formed in upstate New York in 1828; the party's creators feared the Freemasons, believing they were a powerful secret society that was trying to rule the country in defiance of republican principles.

Despite the large influence of political parties, a number of political candidates and voters refer to themselves as independents and choose not to identify with any particular political party at all. Several state governors and congressmen such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have officially run as independents.


  1. ^ Roy Franklin Nichols (1967). The invention of the American political parties. Macmillan. 
  2. ^ Robert J. Dinkin, Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices. (Greenwood 1989) online version
  3. ^ Paul Kleppner, et al. The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (1983),
  4. ^ William B. Hesseltine, Third-Party Movements in the United States (1962)
  5. ^ Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1956) from: The Politics of Hope (Boston: Riverside Press, 1962).
  6. ^ Neuharth, Al (January 22, 2004). "Why politics is fun from catbirds' seats". USA Today. 
  7. ^ Witcover, Jules (2003). "1". Party of the People: A History of the Democrats. p. 3.  "The Democratic Party of the United States, the oldest existing in the world, was in a sense an illegitimate child, unwanted by the founding fathers of the American Republic."
  8. ^   "The country possesses the world's oldest written constitution (1787); the Democratic Party has a good claim to being the world's oldest political party."
  9. ^ Neuhart, Al (January 22, 2004). "Why politics is fun from catbirds' seats". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-07-11. 
  10. ^ a b Wolf, Richard (December 22, 2011). "Voters leaving Republican, Democratic parties in droves". USA Today. Retrieved June 20, 2012. 
  12. ^ "Constitution Party Preamble"
  13. ^ "State Legislature results", Missoulian, November 8, 2006, retrieved November 8, 2006
  14. ^ Control of state Legislature unclear, Helena Independent Record
  15. ^ Green elected officials
  16. ^ "Green Party Ballot Status and Voter Registration Totals (United States)". Retrieved April 12, 2006.
  17. ^ "Greens Win Ballot Access in 31 States, Up From 17 in January". Green Party press release, September 5, 2006.
  18. ^ Libertarian Party:Our History,
  19. ^ "Frequently asked questions about the Libertarian Party", Official Website of the Libertarian National Committee. Retrieved on July 25, 2006.
  20. ^
  21. ^ "The Libertarian Option". The Libertarian Party. Libertarian National Committee, Inc. Retrieved 5 July 2014. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h "Green Party 2004 Platform".  
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The 2012 Democratic Party Platform: Moving America forward".  
  24. ^ a b c d e f g "Libertarian Party Platform".  
  25. ^ "2004 Republican Party Platform: on Abortion".  
  26. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Sanctity of Life)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  27. ^ "Republican Platform: Protecting the Right to Vote in Fair Elections".  
  28. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Election Reform)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  29. ^ "Libertarians press Congress on DOMA, ‘don’t’ ask, don’t tell’".  
  30. ^ a b c Republican Platform: Values
  31. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Family)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  32. ^ 2008 Republican Platform: Health Care
  33. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Health Care and Government)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  34. ^ Republican 2008 Platform: Government Reform
  35. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Taxes)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  36. ^ Libertarian Issues: Immigration
  37. ^ Republican 2008 Platform: National Security
  38. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Immigration)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  39. ^ Republican 2008 Platform: Crime
  40. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Crime)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2012-02-12. We favor the right of states and localities to execute criminals convicted of capital crimes and to require restitution for the victims of criminals. 
  41. ^ Ii. Social Justice
  42. ^ - LP Monday Message: 20 Obama problems, 20 Libertarian solutions
  43. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Drug Abuse)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  44. ^ Green Party Platform: Criminal Justice
  45. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Gun Control)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  46. ^ "Constitution Party Platform (Foreign Policy)". Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  47. ^ Washington's Farewell Address 
  48. ^ Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840 (1970)
  49. ^ Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)
  50. ^ William Nisbet Chambers, ed. The First Party System (1972)
  51. ^ George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (1952)
  52. ^ Stephen Minicucci, Internal Improvements and the Union, 1790–1860, Studies in American Political Development (2004), 18: p.160-185, (2004), Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/S0898588X04000094
  53. ^ Richard Jensen, "The Last Party System: Decay of Consensus, 1932–1980," in Paul Kleppner et al., The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Greenwood, 1981), pp 205–206.
  54. ^ Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (1989)
  55. ^ Matthew Levendusky, The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans (U Chicago Press, 2009)
  56. ^  
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