By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Define political party.
- Explain the purpose and activities of political parties.
- Differentiate among different types of political parties and systems.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) is Scotland’s largest political party. It describes itself as “center left and social democratic.”50 The SNP supports policies such as expanding government-provided health care and removing Britain’s nuclear submarine program off the shores of Scotland, but it is also increasingly associated with a single focus, Scottish independence from Britain. Though a recent Panelbase poll indicated that support for Scottish independence has cooled, numbers also illustrate that 70 percent of Scotts under the age of 35 think Scotland should abandon the United Kingdom.51 After winning three consecutive majority terms in Scottish parliament, current SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has promised a referendum, an election in which the voters decide whether to overturn existing law or policy, on Scottish independence in 2023.
What Happens if Scotland Leaves Britain?
This video from The Economist considers the movement for Scottish independence and the potential consequences if it is successful.
What Are Political Parties?
How do political parties work? Political parties are groups that organize around a shared political ideology, with the primary goal of electing party members to positions in government. Political parties have a lot in common with interest groups. Like interest groups, political parties operate to influence policy makers. However, political parties differ from interest groups in one crucial way. While PACs donate to certain candidates, interest groups ultimately work with any elected official if they feel doing so will meet their policy ends. In contrast, political parties seek to control the government from within by getting as many of their party members elected as possible.
Like interest groups, parties form in response to the need for collective action. Their activities allow candidates to reach and mobilize individual voters, or as Indiana University professor Marjorie Randon Hershey writes, political parties are a means by which people agree to behave cooperatively over the long term so as to secure benefits that they would not have been able to gain as individuals.52 Tufts University professor Jeffrey Berry and Georgetown University professor Clyde Wilcox contend that political parties act as counterweights to interest groups, curbing too much external influence over government.53 Political parties and interest groups can be seen as partners in many of their activities when it comes to getting candidates elected. For example, the Republican Party in the United States has long maintained ties with conservative Christian groups in order to recruit and organize voters, and the election of President Trump was no exception; some claim that since the 1970s, no Republican candidate could win a nomination for president without the mobilization efforts of religious figures such as televangelist Jerry Falwell.54
In the United States, political parties have taken different forms and different names, but the country has steadily maintained a two-party system. However, Japan, one of the oldest democracies in Asia, is an example of a party system where a single dominant party (the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP) has been in place for decades despite a fully competitive electoral system.55 This contrasts with China, which has one ruling party (the Chinese Communist Party) but has no democractic elections.
Women in the US Congress
Leading up to the general election in 2020, the United States saw a sea change in the makeup of candidates seeking political office, in which almost half of the candidates seeking congressional seats were women (204 of 435.)56 Considering the adage “You can’t win if you don’t run,” it is significant that so many female candidates sought elected office, reflecting trends in representation in society in general. Women now make up just over a quarter of the members of the 117th Congress, a record in American history and a 50 percent increase from a decade ago.57 Additionally, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is not only the first woman to hold the position, she is the only woman to hold it twice.
Central Party Activities
In addition to working to choose and elect candidates, parties serve other practical functions. Political parties, like interest groups and their PACs, raise money for campaigns. By electing members of their parties to government, parties work to garner a majority coalition in order to direct policy outcomes, and in the United States, money in elections continues to grow. In the 2020 election cycle, both parties raised close to $2 billion to distribute to various candidates and their campaigns.58 In 2018, the aforementioned Liberal Democratic Party raised ¥2.46 billion (or roughly $22 million) to fund campaigns in Japan despite the assumption that the party would continue to dominate the political system.59
Parties are instrumental in identifying potential members, and registering new voters is a key component of their work. Because American voters are not automatically registered to vote and, depending on their state of residence, may be required to register with a party in order to vote in a political primary, political parties shoulder the important burden of finding new voters to participate in elections. While close to half of voters in the United States register to vote in their states when they apply for a driver’s license, political parties try to make up the difference by registering as many members to their own parties as they can. In the 2020 election cycle, the Republican Party added close to 150,000 new voters in Florida and 30,000 additional voters in Arizona.60 However, the gains the party made during the run-up to the election were lost after the Capitol Hill riots on January 6, 2021, with the New York Times reporting that 140,000 members left the Republican Party in the 25 states that have readily available data.61 The death of George Floyd in early summer of 2020 may have spurred additional Democractic registration throughout several states including Michigan and Minnesota.62 However, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School notes that overall registration pales in comparison to 2016 for both parties in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The center found that voter registration decreased by 38 percent in 17 of 21 states it analyzed.63
Political parties also vet and recruit candidates for election, and a party that cannot nominate candidates is toothless in its power.64 Univerity of Illinois professor Lester G. Seligman echoed this sentiment, calling candidate recruitment a basic function of a political party.65 The extent to which parties perform this function varies by country. The United Kingdom is an example of a parliamentary system where parties play an important role in candidate recruitment, with elected officials often cutting their teeth in local government before being considered for a seat in Parliament.66 In the United States, candidate recruitment is increasingly seen as a responsibility political parties and interest groups share, with the latter taking on more of the gatekeeping role in recent years thanks to their organizational powers and ability to gather resources and mobilize supporters.67
Contemporary Party Systems
Throughout its political history, the United States has had what is considered a two-party system. Over time the two parties have taken on different forms and names, starting with the Federalists and the Democratic Republican parties, then the Whigs and the Democrats, and now the Democrats and Republicans. While third parties like the Green Party and Democratic Socialists certainly exist, the United States is considered a two-party system since only two parties have a realistic chance of wielding political control. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party (Tories) and the Labour Party enjoyed long-standing dominance throughout the 20th century. However, the emergence of the Liberal Democrats, Reform UK (or the “Brexit Party”), and smaller influential parties at the local and regional level has altered the United Kingdom’s traditional two-party system, making it look more like a multiparty system.68 Germany provides another interesting example of a multiparty system. Prior to Adolf Hitler’s rise, over a dozen political parties held seats in the German government. After the rise of Nazi Germany, the country became a single-party government (Third Reich), and this single party structure remained in place from 1933 to 1945, until the end of the Second World War.69 Germany subsequently broke into two separate countries, East and West Germany. A single party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, ruled East Germany. During this era, several parties grew in West Germany, including the Christian Democratic Union, and after the reunification of Germany in 1990, Christian Democratic Union majority party leader Helmut Kohl led the government. Then, in 2016, the outcome of the German election led to a “six-party government,”70 with power sharing between the Social Democrats, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Christian Democrats, the Left, the Green, and the Free Democrats. Single-party systems still exist today; though China has multiple registered minority parties, it is considered a single-party system where the Communist Party has controlled all levers of government since its rise to power in 1949.71 Similarly, Cuba has been a single-party Communist state since 1959.72 Eritrea, in Northeast Africa, has also been ruled by a single party, The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, and a single leader, President Isaias Afwerki, since 1993.73