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Chapter 11Political Parties and Interest GroupsEssentials of American GovernmentWhat is a Political Party?Basically, a political party is a group of office holders, candidates, activists, and voters whoidentify with a group label and seek to elect to public office individuals who run under thatlabel. This is a practical definition in keeping with the practical nature of Americanpolitics. Our parties tend not to be as ideological as parties in other countries. Ours is acentrist party system.Our system contains two major parties: The Democratic Party and The Republican Party.We also have a number of minor or third parties at any given time. Among the moreimportant third parties today are the Reform Party and the Libertarian Party. Parties aremade up of three types of “members”:•the office holders and candidates•workers and activists•those who vote for the party or consider themselves to be allied or associated with itThe Evolution of American Party DemocracyAmericans have had a love-hate relationship with parties since the beginning of therepublic. George Washington despised parties and used his Farewell Address to warnagainst them. However, Hamilton and Jefferson, as heads of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist groups, respectively, are often considered 'fathers' of the modern party system.By 1800, this country had a party system with two major parties that has remainedrelatively stable ever since. We have had some people sound the death knell for both partieson a variety of occasions but, they always seem to survive somehow.The period from 1817 to 1825 was called the Era of Good Feelings and party politicspractically disappeared at the national level. However, parties were alive and well at lowerlevels. The electorate expanded dramatically at this time---the US pushed westward, moststates abolished property requirements for voting, and immigration continued.Nomination processes and the Electoral College also opened up to additional participation.This broadened the base of the parties. Conventions were held beginning with the 1832Democratic Convention to nominate presidential candidates. Andrew Jackson was the firstcandidate nominated at a party convention.Jackson's populism and strong personality polarized politics and the Whig Party emergedto oppose him. The Whig Party was descended from the Federalists and its early leadersincluded Henry Clay (Speaker of the House). The Whigs and Democrats were fiercelycompetitive. However, the issue of slavery plagued the Whigs and they soon dissolved to be
2replaced by the Republican Party formed in 1854. The Republicans set their sights on theabolition of slavery and by 1860 elected Abraham Lincoln as president.Democrats and RepublicansFrom the presidential elections of 1860 to the present, the same two major parties havecontested elections in the United States: Republicans and Democrats. Control of the majorinstitutions of government has seesawed between them.