The stage for American political parties was set before the Constitution was even ratified. Although several voters may associate with a particular party, they may not understand how and why the parties were founded.
“Political parties developed outside the language of the Constitution. Nowhere in the Constitution does it state anything about political parties,” said J. Edwin Benton, a USF political science professor. “In fact, George Washington, the United States’ first president, warned the nation of political parties, fearing it would divide the new nation.”
But it began even before that with the controversy over the Constitution. Two parties began out of this: the Federalist party, which supported ratification, and the Anti-Federalists, which did not. After the ratification of the Constitution by all the states in 1790, the Federalist party died out after 10 or 20 years.
In 1798, Thomas Jefferson founded a party called the Democratic-Republican party, which later dropped the name “Republican.”
In 1800, Jefferson became the first Democratic president elected. This party led the country into what was known as “The Era of Good Feeling.”
During the time from approximately 1815-1825 was the only time in American national political history that only one party existed, according to Benton. The first democratic convention was held in 1848.
Around 1854, members of political parties began to grow weary of the chaos over the issue of slavery. Because of this, Alvan E. Bovay joined together members of The Free Soil Party and the Whigs who represented the interests of the North to form the Republican party. The members agreed on the issues of free land and avoiding the spread of slavery to the West. The first convention was held in 1854 in Michigan. As the slavery issue became more important, more anti-slavery Republicans were elected. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president elected in 1860.
Even though the Republican and Democratic parties have played major roles in the politics of the United States, the third or independent parties share a role as well.
“When (third parties) do appear they sometimes will raise a question that at least prompts us to think about the issue that the major parties maybe wanting to bury because it is controversial,” said John Belohlavek, a USF history professor who specializes in 19th Century Political and Diplomatic History. “But there’s a danger, too, which we saw with Nader this time. The third party can compromise a major party in terms of siphoning off votes.”
Benton said these third parties can be classified in two categories: the factional and the ideological. The factional parties want to convince other parties to negotiate. These parties want to force Republicans and Democrats to support their issues to get their votes. On the other hand, Benton said, the ideological parties simply want to make a political statement. The party that makes the biggest allowances for the third party’s interests will win the largest share of the vote.
“Poll after poll has shown since 1948 no candidate has won the presidency that didn’t win the majority of the independent vote,” Benton said.
Over the years, the politics of parties has changed. The biggest difference is in the responsibilities and powers.
“If you were in the 1830s or ’40s, you could get into a fight in a bar over what party you were in. People felt party loyalty very passionately. Now it’s not so much party loyalty as it is a particular philosophy that you might have,” Belohlavek said.
When parties were founded, there were no televisions or radios, and the newspapers were not widely read. So the parties served as a way to acquaint the public with the candidates, according to Benton. The parties were much stronger because the candidates needed the parties more. What the people knew about candidates came from the parties. They were also the major source of campaign funding.
“So the very things the candidate needed to win, recognition, visibility, getting out the vote, money for campaigns, getting the nomination itself, control of the convention was in the hands of the party,” Benton said.
Political conventions serve a different purpose since 1972 when the primaries began.
“The biggest way that conventions have changed is that nowadays you get to the convention and the nominee is all but officially decided. We knew Kerry was going to be the Democratic nominee back in March or April,” said Dave Cutler, a political science major. “Back before primaries, it was still kind of up in the air.”
“It gives people who are registered for the party a chance to get motivated and inspire grass roots,” said Jennifer Schutlze, a psychology student. “It also gives people the chance to spread the motivation to others and encourage them to vote.”
Although parties’ influence has changed, candidates still need political parties today. They may not need their money or the nomination, but they are still an important part of politics.
“From my perspective, political parties are still important today because I think it allows people to associate and align themselves with others who believe in the same ideology and principles and candidates or nominees,” Cutler said.
Political parties and the members of the parties can differ as well.
“Parties would like to win elections but they’d rather like to make an ideological statement,” Benton said. “That’s why Democratic and Republican platforms, respectively, will be more liberal, more conservative than the candidates.”
Candidates who usually win will be more at the center of their party. Benton’s examples include Richard Nixon, a moderate Republican, and Bill Clinton, a moderate Democrat.
“The fact that Republican and Democratic parties tend to hold to a very predictable kind of middle ground means that they’re going to take very few risks in raising issues that may in fact be really, really important,” Belohlavek said.
Political parties have been around for more than 200 years and nothing can exist that long without change. Issues such as slavery have come and gone. Issues such as war have come and gone and are back again. The country is always changing to deal with issues. Even political parties’ platforms have changed throughout the years, so one can expect even more change in the next 200 years.
“Political parties are like insurance,,” Schultze said. “If you don’t know the candidates, their party can serve as a guideline. You can vote for a candidate of your party and know that the candidate supports your values.”