History of Political Parties
A favorite pastime of political journalists is periodically assessing the state of political parties, usually
in conjunction with national elections. Journalists are rarely optimistic or complimentary when
describing parties’ present status or forecasting their future. However, history has shown that the
Democratic and Republican parties are amazingly enduring institutions, even when the mass media have
sold them short.
Reporters routinely take stock of the parties, and their prognosis is typically bleak and filled with
foreboding. In 2003, New York Times political reporter Adam Clymer took stock of the Democratic and
Republican parties in a series of front-page articles. “With the Congress thinly divided along partisan
lines, another presidential election taking shape, and the rules of campaign finance in limbo, the two
national political parties are at crucial turning points,” he wrote. Clymer described a revitalized
Republican Party that was looking forward to an era of political dominance after having had “one foot in
the grave” for more than twenty years since the Watergate scandal in 1974. His prognosis for the
Democratic Party was more pessimistic. Clymer quoted a Democratic Party leader as saying, “God knows
we need help” and another who observed that his party had “run out of gas.”  He argued that the
Democrats lacked a unified message or a clear leader, and quoted a party activist: “Our party has so many
disparate points of influence that we can never focus enough to achieve our programs.” 
In hindsight, Clymer’s predictions are not entirely accurate, especially after the victory of Democratic
president Barack Obama in 2008, and illustrate the pitfalls of speculating about the future of political
parties. However, his observations raise important ideas about American parties. Political parties are
enduring and adaptive institutions whose organization and functions change in response to different
political and historical circumstances.  The two major American political parties, the Republicans and
the Democrats, each have gone through periods of popularity, decline, and resurgence.
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