Thesis: State of Today's Modern American Political Parties

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¶ … American Political Parties

There is a great deal of controversy concerning the state of today's American political parties, with some analysts suggesting that in spite of the enormous amount of resources directed to them, political parties have lost their direction and ability to fulfill their responsibilities to their membership in a meaningful fashion. Others, though, suggest that modern political parties in the United States have been recently reinvigorated and have become more important to the political process compared to recent years. Clearly, both of these perspectives cannot be entirely accurate so in order to determine which assertion is most accurate, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning current the state of modern American political parties, as well as their relevance and impact on the political process, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

On the hand, there are political scientists, pundits and casual observers all lining up to sound the death knell of American political parties today. For example, Hart (2010) recently observed that, "American political parties, as we have known them for two centuries, are disintegrating. They are being replaced by shifting coalitions that are forming and reforming constantly. This transition is leaving an awful lot of Americans adrift" (2). On the other hand, and assuming that this assertion is accurate, this current dismal state of affairs is in sharp contrast to the influence of American political parties before the end of World War II. For example, Hart adds that, "Well before the twentieth century the two major parties had come to exert hierarchical control over virtually all political processes, including the nomination of candidates for office, at the national and state levels. They were the conduits for campaign financing, access to the media, dissemination of political information, the structuring of ideas and policies, and the exercise of political discipline" (2010:3). Following the end of World War II, though, things began to change for political parties in the United States in ways that appear to be irreversible. In this regard, Hart notes that, "In recent years, the [political] parties' entire role and therefore their power has been collapsing. If a candidate is clever enough and has something to say, he or she can get direct access to the media. As political entrepreneurs, most candidates now raise their own financing and depend on money from the parties less and less" (2010:4).

While party bosses may have been the powerbrokers and movers-and-shakers of the early 20th century, this is no longer the case and today's political aspirants have a much wider range of choices available to them in terms of where they seek support. For example, Hart suggests that the role played by political parties in the United States in the past has been replaced by media-savvy candidates and interest groups who are able to develop support in ways that were not possible a few decades ago. In this regard, Hart (2010) concludes that, "Candidates form their own policy groups or court the flourishing idea forums that span the political spectrum. Self-confident and ambitious candidates put themselves forward for any office they desire, up to and including the presidency, without seeking the approval of party officials. Individual office-seekers form their own coalitions by shopping for support among the smorgasbord of interest groups" (5-6).

While political parties emerged in the United States early on as a framework in which like-minded citizens and interests group could collaborate, strategize and promote candidates of their choice, political parties are not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, political parties have played a formative role and have wielded varying degrees of influence on the American political process virtually since its inception. According to Black's Law Dictionary (1991), a political party is "an associated of individuals whose primary purposes are to promote or accomplish elections or appointments to public offices, positions or jobs" (1158). As White (2010) points out, though, "Embedded within any definition of a political party are several normative assumptions about what parties are and are not-and, even more frequently, what they should be" (2). As examples, White asks whether American political parties are best viewed as mediating institutions that bridge the gap between the country's political leadership and the electorate, and if so, what tasks should they be performing to fulfill these responsibilities? In their analysis of American political parties, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) suggest that the mediating institution role best describes the function and purpose of political parties in the United States today: "Conventional conceptions of political parties view them as multidimensional linkage institutions between the mass electorate and elected officials in the government. Parties exist as organizations, with some degree of structure, varying divisions of labor, and some number of full-time employees and, in the government, with officials (actual and potential) standing for election under party labels" (347). Indeed, a truly democratic republic demands some type of intermediary institution in its political process in order to function efficiently. In this regard, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) suggest that political parties today continue to fulfill this vital function: "Political parties are a central type of linkage structure in the modern American political system. As intermediary organizations, they help produce positive action and effective decisions in the face of fragmentation, conflict, and mass involvement. These structures are groups that engage in activities and organize initiatives that make cooperative behavior possible" (348).

Notwithstanding these observations concerning the viability and importance of modern political parties, other authorities are quick to point to various changes in American society and global affairs that have diluted the importance of role of political parties play today. For instance, Lawson and Poguntke (2004) report that, "Political scientists have debated for some 20 years whether parties are in decline, losing their social anchorage, their hold on the electorate, their capacity to influence policy. Empirical evidence is manifold, pointing at, among other factors, declining party membership across modern democracies, increasing volatility and questionable policy impact" (1). These assertions concerning the diminishing influence of political parties are balanced by others that point to the manner in which political parties have responded to these changes in the American political landscape. Although political parties have declined in influence at the national level, this is not a wholesale indictment of the system from the perspective of Lawson and Poguntke who note that, "Others have maintained that even though parties' erosion of social anchorage is hardly questionable, this does not amount to party decline across the board because, by and large, parties have been able to compensate for this loss by turning to the state" (1).

Yet other analysts suggest that both of these arguments concerning the decline of the American political party system ignore the reality of the resurgence of American political parties at all levels. For instance, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) emphasize that, "Following the epitaphs written for American political parties, a resurgence of sorts has occurred. The political parties have long shown themselves to be adaptable in an uncertain political environment, making and remaking themselves as conditions permit or demand. They have, in a sense, seen opportunities and taken advantage of them" (347). This assertion suggests that it may be too soon to sound the death knell for American political parties, but the fact remains that things have changed for Americans in the 21st century in ways that have challenged politicians and the parties that support them.

The nature of the challenges that have confronted political parties in recent decades include the dramatically increased social complexity of a modern America and innovations in telecommunications that have provided the opportunity for politically minded Americans to hold their elected officials more accountable for their actions. In this regard, Curtis (2006) reports that, "In an era of communication, people are becoming more aware of what legislative bodies are doing, and they're looking for accountability. People want to see what their legislator is doing to resolve issues that are important to them" (20). This point is also made by Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) who note, "The emphasis on grassroots politics that once was the bread and butter of the local political parties gave way in the 1980s to technocentric parties that seemed to have forgotten the party-in-the-electorate. Political scientists were quick to ascribe all manner of political pathologies to the decline of political mobilization by entities such as parties, and there was something to the argument. By the late 1990s, however, evidence pointed to the rediscovery of the mass base of political decision making. Grassroots mobilization efforts, by all accounts, were making a comeback. The virtually unfettered ability of individuals and organizations to disseminate information and facilitate mobilization efforts in the first few years of the twenty-first century was but one indicator of the trend" (348).

Other trends since the end of World War II suggest that like civil liberties, the influence of political parties in the United States tends to swing back and forth between two extremes. In this regard, Oskamp and Schultz (2004) point… [END OF PREVIEW]

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