History of Political Parties

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.” [1] 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.” [2]

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. [3] 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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