Contemporary studies view parties as alliances of politicians whose ultimate objective is to win electoral office. Parties make promises on behalf of their candidates about what they will do if elected, and help improve chances of reelection for incumbents through their records of implementing their programs (Bawn et al. 571). It is plain to see how these parties might serve democracy. Citizens can give more effective direction to government by voting for a party instead of an individual. They create an incentive for responsible governance by holding an entire party rather than a single politician accountable for government actions (Bawn et al. 571). Further, political parties facilitate democracy by supplying regular constitutional opportunities for changing ruling officials, and allowing the majority of the population to influence important decisions of the government (Lipset 48). Political parties also give order to the legislative process in the country.
Decline of the role of political parties in America
Political parties in the United States of America have been on the decline in US politics on account of their diminished roles in political processes including the presidential and congressional elections. With the enactment of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) of 1974, election campaigns have become candidate-centered, interest groups did little more than contribute directly to candidates, and this weakened the national political party organizations (Cakmak 165). The concept of candidate-centered politics denotes the rising importance of candidate qualities in the decision making schemes of American voters (Sabato and Ernst 62). In the past, party identification was the key predictor of candidate selection. These days however, voters increasingly evaluate candidates on social and economic factors. With the decline of partisanship as a mediating factor in candidate selection, the public began to look to the personal attributes of candidates when determining to vote (Sabato and Ernst 62). The development of Political Action Committees (PAC) have emerged to dwarf the role of political parties and making them obsolete and unnecessary.
It has become fashionable for; political commentators to claim that political parties in the United States of America are on the decline. This is because the role of political parties in presidential and congressional elections has diminished and that it is no longer a useful political tool in the political process. This is because the emergence of the PACs has dwarfed political parties. Candidates are no longer supposed to be depended on political parties to be reelected. Political parties have become less relevant and significant. The political environment has become candidate centered as opposed to party centered. American voters are moving away from associating with partisan political parties. Political Action Committees (PACs) are not found in other political systems except in the United States of America. PACs deal with matters related to finance. As compared to other political systems, Political parties in America don’t receive financial support from the Federal Reserve. Most democratic countries have passed legislations that restrict finances from outside sources such as from corporations and labor unions, they instead make use of finances from the government. This makes political parties vibrant and strong as opposed to America where a political party sources for money from outside sources.
Emergence of Political Action Committees (PAC) and effect on political parties
With the emergence of PAC, political parties in America have been weakened in getting financial support hence the decline of political parties in the political landscape of America. Those opposing the idea that political parties are on the decline argue that political parties are not declining but, they only transforming themselves in the current political environment; this is to enable the parties to adopt to their contemporary roles, functions and responsibilities.
In elections for both presidential and congressional office, while the candidates receive support from their party, they are responsible for their own campaigns. Voters largely focus their attention on the candidate rather than on the parties of which they are affiliated (Sabato and Ernst 62). This is partly because of the self-selection of most candidates instead of the recruitment by parties. Candidates must fight even for the right to represent their party, which occurs in primary elections (Sabato and Ernst 62). Hence, they must build their own campaign group that will continue their service after they are selected as the party’s nominee in the general election.
Political parties and electoral politics
However, there is evidence suggesting that national political parties are instead more relevant today than they were 40 years ago. Proponents of this perspective contend that political parties have taken on new functions to suit the current political environment and to compensate for areas in which party influence has declined (Fortier and Malbin 468).
This paper intends to demonstrate that parties still play a significant role in American politics, thus a candidate supported by the more unified party will be more successful. Facts presented as the indication of party decline actually suggest that political parties still greatly influence election results. It is further argued that although the new political setting is more candidate-centered than it used to be, it does not necessarily signify obsolescence of political parties.
Role of political parties in financial matters
Political parties play a significant role in almost any facet of contemporary American society. History tells of how political parties have been involved not only in the financial matters of elections but also in the practice of democracy by the governing class. Candidates depend on their political parties to facilitate their nomination and election. Political parties help candidates in campaign financing by providing financial resources to the candidates; political parties sponsor candidates financially (Muller 310). When there are at least two political parties involved, one that pushes for the ratification of a policy, and the other in opposition, incumbents are restrained from abusing their power. The presence of an opposition seeks to reduce the resources available to officeholders and at the same time expands the rights available to those out of power (Lipset 48). This contradiction between the governing and opposition parties paves the way for the institution of democratic rules. Scholars stress that although political parties are primarily concerned with imposing their own view on matters affecting the state, the interaction among parties has contributed to the rise of norms of tolerance and the establishment of equal rights (Lipset 49). In essence, parties make the government appear accountable because multiple interests are addressed by their dissimilarity in ideals. While the PACs are charged with the duty of soliciting money for political parties, other developed democracies have provisions where political parties are financed from the treasury. The money provided to political parties are used to finance the activities of the respective political parties like sponsoring candidates during elections and also facilitating party campaigns during electoral contests.
Relationship between political parties and the practice of democracy
Democracy is what prompts the government to respond to the preferences of the people. A central feature of a governmental system that is characterized by democracy is that the power and processes of the government are regulated by constitutions, provisions, institutional practices and different groups (Polin, “The Role of the American Political Party System”). Political parties represent both participation and institution, and are critical for negotiating balance between them (Stokes 245). Free, competitive and fair participation within a structure of authentic and reliable institutions enable the people to protect their interests, to act on issues that concern their lives, and to hold public officials accountable for their decisions. Parties connect leaders to followers and simplify political choices, framing them in terms of the interest of the people (Stokes 245). On the other hand, a one-party system cannot be considered as authentically democratic. Authentic democracy requires that there should be periodic election to elect new leaders and that there should be change in government. In the elections there should be losers and winners to make it competitive. In a one party system, there are no periodic elections and often same leaders hold power for a long period of time. Authentic democracy requires that there be an opposition system of political parties that works at liberty in the interest of the people, but not a party that is a controlled mechanism of the government (Polin, “The Role of the American Political Party System”). One party system is associated with dictatorial regimes that do not entertain divergent opinions or opposing ideas. This is contrary to the tenets of democracy where there should periodic and competitive elections, change of government, many political parties competing for power and presence of opposition. These are not common in a single party political system.
Political parties in facilitating campaigns of candidates
Parties have also become more valuable to the candidates they serve. New research proposes that parties strive to recoup their previous authority with respect to selection of candidates. It is noted that national parties, more particularly those of the Republicans, have taken the active role in persuading candidates to run for senate and local offices. Cohen et al. (11) find that presidential candidates broadly endorsed by party leaders have the most chance of winning the nomination. In a study of the impact of endorsements of party elites, it is found that party loyalists respond to party elite endorsements when making contributions during the primaries (Maisel et al. 34). Additionally, parties supply campaign services to candidates such as training sessions, survey data, and media assistance. Meanwhile, Polsby and Wildavsky (35) assume that no individual candidate can credibly commit to a platform that disagrees with his sincere preferences--this is problematic for office motivated candidates who are fully willing to compromise ideology for office. They join political parties because they have the ability to coerce group members into toeing the party line once in office. Political parties can therefore credibly commit to pursuing any policy in the Pareto set of its members. This is obviously advantageous to ambitious politicians who, acting alone, cannot credibly commit to such a platform.
Hacker and Person introduce the view of politics as an organized combat. This type of politics places a lot of attention on transforming what the government does. This is an alternative perspective aimed at limiting the median voter influence. Politics as an organized combat emphasizes on the duty of organized groups in shaping public polices mediating distributional outcomes. Politics as an organized combat captures the politics of rising inequality or winner take all inequality. This is as opposed to politics as electoral spectacle where elections and preferences are the main focus. Contenders are skilled and resourceful interest groups which run roughshod over the unorganized (Bawn et al. 591). The motivations of party formation are aligned to one important thing—gaining office. Hence, candidates supported by more organized political parties are more likely to win the election and become more successful in their political agendas than those endorsed by less organized parties.
The Federal Electoral Commissions Act and Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act
FECA 1974 was enacted by Congress in response to the reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 presidential campaigns. Early legislation by Congress attempted to restrict the influence of wealthy individuals and special interest groups on the result of national elections, regulate spending in campaigns, and discourage abuses by requiring public disclosure of campaign finances (Nownes 143). FECA prohibited all direct contributions to federal candidates and political parties from all interest groups other than the Political Action Committees (PACs).PACs can give $5,000 to a candidate committee per election, up to $15,000 per year to any national party committee, and $5,000 per year to any other PAC (The Center for Responsive Politics, "What is a PAC"). FECA established spending limits for congressional candidates but was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. FECA was revised in 1976 and 1979 for the purpose of allowing parties to spend unlimited amounts of hard-earned money on initiatives like promoting voter attendance and registration (Nownes 143). This resulted in the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 is the most recent major federal law on campaign finance, which revised some of the legal limits on expenditures, set in FECA 1974, and prohibited unregulated contributions to national political parties. The Court did permit, in theory, independent expenditures by the parties on their candidate’s behalf. Party committees may contribute funds directly to federal candidates, subject to the contribution limits. National and state party committees may make additional "coordinated expenditures," subject to limits, to help their nominees in general elections. Party committees may also make unlimited "independent expenditures" to support or oppose federal candidates. Campaigns have also become more focused on media and advertising, and thus more preoccupied with the huge sums of funds needed to make such efforts (Hacker and Pierson 181). In response, politicians have turned to wealthy contributors and organized interests as never before to finance these soaring costs. Parties, for instance, now contact between one-quarter and one-third of the wealthiest of Americans directly during campaign seasons (Hacker and Pierson 181). The Act sanitized and regulated campaign financing; it was aimed at providing a level playing field for all political parties taking part in elections. It made it possible for corporations and labor unions to finance political parties.
The Act has been plagued by many controversies such as the Citizen United v. FEC. In this case Citizen United sought an injunction against Federal Election Commission to prevent the application of BCRA to its film, the Hillary. Citizen United were of the argument that section 203 of BCRA that prevents labor unions and corporations from funding communication from their treasuries. Citizen United argued that it violates the First Amendment when applied to the movie and its related advertisement. Citizen United also argued that Section 201 and 311 that required donor disclosure are unconstitutional, if, applied. The District Courts of the United States denied the injunction.
Another motive for associating with a political party is for political leaders to gain support in their recommended policy. Parties may influence how their members vote in Congress. They may also restructure the legislative process and influence congressional decisions in their favor, for instance by controlling committees and their proposed bills, or by implementing special rules (Brady and McCubbins 3). Meanwhile, Aldrich proposes a group-centered view of legislative politics to explain the relevance of political parties to the members of Congress (Brady and McCubbins 2). Assuming that the legislature has three members each sponsoring a bill that is advantageous to its own district but poses costs on the others, Aldrich suggests that whereas all three legislators would benefit if all the bills passed, they would benefit more by forming a coalition. This coalition can vote in favor of the two bills, and against the third, thereby increasing their payoffs (Brady and McCubbins 3).
Fiorina and Abrams define polarization as the simultaneous presence of conflicting ideals (566). It is not clear why the US political system is highly polarized, but many scholars have observed that parties may be unsure about what exactly voters want, and that this uncertainty can lead them to adopt non-centrist positions (Schwartz 4). Literature on the causes of the recent polarization of parties stresses such factors as readjustment of politics and the rising social and economic inequality in the country. Also included is the dissatisfaction relative to previous voting experiences for individual candidates. While membership to political parties help increase chances for election, politicians still see the need to get the approval of the people. Yet because they are not able to predict inclinations of voters, politicians do not strictly adhere to their party’s view. This means that politicians are likely to change their stand based on what they believe would help them become favored by, if possible, the majority of voters (Schwartz 4). On the other hand, others argue that the lack of voter attentiveness is what creates license for parties to take non-centrist positions, regardless of what voters may actually want (Fiorina and Abrams 567). This theory suggests that voters do not really care about the ideals political figures stand for; voter decisions are contingent on the political party they support.
The success of a political figure is dependent upon the unity of their party. A united political party can rally and marshal its supporters to boost the candidature of its political leaders. A united party can speak with one voice during elections hence boosting the success of its candidates during elections. A well united party is able to promote and maintain its brand, and this helps get the support of the voters. Similarly, reelection of an incumbent government official hinges on how the party performs. In view of the importance of party unity to many political endeavors, the question now is how parties retain unity among their members. According to Brady and McCubbins (6), party members assign party leaders who will enforce cooperation within the party. Party leaders are responsible for stifling proposals that might divide the members. Consistent with this agenda, party leaders unionize the legislative process and employ their influence to restructure Congress based on their interest (Brady and McCubbins 7). It is through this acquisition of control over the order of the legislative setting that the majority party manipulates policy output.
On the other hand, politicians each have their own interest that can be more powerful than the influence of party leaders. Note that in the earlier sections of this paper, it was theorized that the primary objective of politicians for joining parties is either to retain their place in the government or to increase their political power, which is dependent on their party membership, the decision of the voters, and support from major interest groups. Party leaders acknowledge that they find it rather difficult to maintain party unity. Social policy in the US has always been reinforced by cross-party coalitions (Mule 189). In the quest to realize their aspirations, parties face tradeoffs. First among these is the tension between party unity and the desire of each member to vote against the party line, either because his goals are not consistent with those of the party, or that his desire to vote according to his choice is very strong (Heller and Mershon 34).
Political parties have internal discipline mechanisms that are implemented in the event there is a threat to party unity. Discipline imposes costs on members who fail to stay within the goals of the party line (Heller and Mershon 36). Party leaders control several disciplinary tools designed partly to deter tendencies of members to vote against the party. These tools include, but are not limited to, the right to use the party label, committee positions, and increased influence over party policy positions (Heller and Mershon 37). Political figures select party leaders who have a high influence on members because they believe that party discipline is crucial for maintaining their shared brand name (Grynaviski 168).
Political Parties in modern American politics
Even when their roles have changed to a great extent, parties are still important to the many aspects of politics in the US. In addition, a political figure who is a member of a more unified party is more likely to succeed. A single political leader may not possibly thrive in a political environment on his own, regardless if he serves the best interest of the people.
The roles of parties are not limited to the acquisition of funds from external sources. Private organizations finance political processes through their association with party leaders. Parties are also mainly responsible for recruiting candidates and increasing their chances of winning the elections. Parties are essential for the practice of democracy by government officials. The presence of an opposition party helps prevent the abuse of authority by the incumbents, and in allowing the public and those who are not in power to have a voice in the government.
Political figures are prompted to form parties and coalitions because this is their tool for gaining office. Their candidacy is not financed by the treasury; they must form a party that represents the interest of a particular private organization in order to get their support. Members of Congress form parties to get the required number of votes for their proposed policy. Membership to a party also raises chances of being reelected.
Party unity is maintained initially through cohesion of members. Because a party is a coalition of individuals who share a common goal, members acknowledge that collective effort is crucial to maintain their brand, which is what voters use as a deciding factor for supporting a party. When cohesion fails, party leaders use disciplinary tools. Members who deviate from the goals of the party automatically lose support from the party and the right to use their brand.
American politics is characterized by many as a winner-take-all scheme. The voters are the audience to a massive spectacle called election, in which, the candidates are the actors. It is organized in the sense that parties and large business groups manipulate the turn of events. The winners and the interests they represent dominate the entire arena. This posits that American politics is mainly organized by election-minded politicians. It is instituted by groups that aim to control policy-making. The term organized would then imply disproportionate influence. On the other hand, there are some who believe that political parties rectify the inequalities in resources. Schattschneider (105), for instance, said that parties could organize conflict such that more numerous groups, and not merely wealthier ones, would win out. This was supported by another scholar, Key (106) who argued that the rise of political parties have provided a mechanism through which the underprivileged could act and express their wishes.
Electoral candidates are expected to find their own financial resources in order to push through with their campaigns (Roskin et al. 199). Their need to get financial support for their campaigns prompts politicians to join a party. In short, one of the basic reasons politicians align themselves with a political party is the fact that political parties have been successful in obtaining funds from external suppliers. Political parties are the point of contact for entities that want to make contributions to particular candidates (Cakmak 164). In exploring new avenues for party fundraising, Hernson observes that the increase in party contributions are coming from members, former members, or leadership political action committees built by current members of Congress (21). In fact donations of leadership PACs of both parties in the 2003-2004 election cycle are ten times as much as those in the 1983-1984 election cycle, and twice as much as those in the 1995-1996 election period (Postosi et al. 4).
Political parties are considered central to American politics; political parties strengthened American democracy to what it is now and democracy can be unthinkable without political parties. Political parties have been used, abused, reformed or dumped by individuals to further their political goals and ambitions; this makes political parties as dangerous institutions that are shaped by individual actors. Ambitious individuals turn to political parties to further their political goals; this makes political parties only feasible during elections. Political parties have been organized and reorganized by individuals pursuing their strategic interests. Political parties are an epitome of divided political landscape. The two main political parties in the United States of America were born out of divergent views that characterized the ancient political environment. Political parties defined diverse political opinions in the society; voters are therefore drawn into the rank of these political parties and they start associating with them. Political parties represent certain ideologies and the presence of political parties makes a country’s democracy vibrant. The emergence of independent candidates in elections has diminished the role of political parties. Most Americans have been disenchanted by party politics because they no longer represent their interests. Political parties serve the purpose of: sponsoring candidates for political offices, organizing the government, checking the political party in power and informing the public.
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