The Evolution of Political Parties in the US: A Historical Perspective

Factions or political parties began to form during the struggle for the ratification of the Federal Constitution of 1787. Tensions between them increased as attention shifted from the creation of a new federal government to the question of how powerful that federal government would be. To understand the resilience and adaptability of American political parties, it is important to examine their colorful historical development. Parties evolved from factions in the 18th century to becoming political machines in the 19th century. In the 20th century, parties underwent waves of reforms that, according to some, marked a period of decline.

Today's renewed parties are service-oriented organizations that provide assistance and resources to candidates and politicians (Aldrich, 1995; Eldersveld & Walton Jr.). We have all been part of a group trying to solve a problem at some point, such as choosing a restaurant or movie to attend, or completing a big project at school or work. The members of the group probably had different opinions about what should be done. Some may have even refused to help make the decision or to follow it once it was made.

Others may have been willing to do the same, but were less interested in contributing to a viable solution. Because of this disagreement, at some point, someone in the group had to find a way to make a decision, negotiate a compromise, and ultimately do the work necessary for the group to achieve its goals. You can read the full platform of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party on their respective websites. Winning elections and implementing policies would already be difficult enough in simple political systems, but in a country as complex as the United States, political parties must assume great responsibilities to win elections and coordinate the behavior of numerous local, state and national governing bodies. In fact, political differences between states and local areas can contribute to great complexity. If a party chooses to issue positions that few people agree on and therefore builds an overly narrow coalition of electoral support, that party can be marginalized.

But if the party takes too broad a position on issues, it could find itself in a situation where party members disagree with each other, making it difficult to pass laws, even if the party can secure victory. It should come as no surprise that the history of United States political parties largely reflects the history of the United States itself. The country has experienced radical changes in its size, relative power, and social and demographic composition. These changes have been reflected by political parties as they try to change their coalitions to establish and maintain power across the country and as party leadership has changed. As you'll learn later, this also means that the structure and behavior of modern parties largely parallel the social, demographic, and geographical divisions of today's United States. To understand how this has happened, we look back at the origins of US national political parties.

As we understand them today, they did not really exist in the United States during its first years as a republic. Most politics during this time was local in nature and was based on elite politics, limited suffrage (or voting rights), and ownership. Residents of various colonies (and later states) were much more interested in events taking place at their state legislatures than those occurring at national level or later in Washington DC. To address domestic problems that did exist, collective security efforts were largely limited to external rivals such as Britain or France and perceived internal threats such as conflicts with Native Americans. However, soon after emerging from Revolutionary War a rift began to emerge between two groups holding very different views on future direction of United States.

Therefore from beginning of its history US has had system of government dominated by two different philosophies: Federalists who were largely responsible for drafting & ratifying US Constitution generally favored idea of stronger more centralized republic with greater control over regulation of economy; Anti-federalists preferred more confederate system based on state equality & autonomy. Constitution's authors certainly knew that political parties existed in other countries (such as Great Britain) but they hoped to avoid them in US. They felt importance of states in US federal structure would make it difficult to form national parties & expected fact that college of electors voted for executive branch (in which two most voted became president & vice president) would discourage formation of parties. This system worked in first two presidential elections when virtually all voters voted for George Washington as president. But by 1796 Federalist & Anti-Federalist camps had been organized into electoral coalitions; anti-federalists joined many other assets in process to become known as Democratic-Republicans. Federalist John Adams won Electoral College vote but his authority was undermined when vice-presidency went to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson who finished second.

Four years later Republican Democrats managed to avoid this outcome by coordinating voters to vote for their two main candidates but when vote ended in tie Congress was finally left deciding who would be third president of United States. Thomas Jefferson nearly lost presidential election of 1800 against his own running mate when flaw in design of Electoral College caused tie that had to be resolved by Congress. This led many people questioning whether it was necessary reform executive branch selection process so people elect president & vice president directly rather than through Electoral College? Should people vote separately for each office instead voting for both at same time?These questions remain relevant today as US continues grapple with how best structure its electoral system ensure fair representation & effective governance. Political parties have evolved over time adapting changing social & demographic conditions while still maintaining core values & principles that define them. As we look back on history we can see how these changes have shaped our current system & how they will continue shape our future.