In politics, a political party is an organized group of people who have the same ideology, or who otherwise have the same political positions, and who field candidates for elections, in an attempt to get them elected and thereby implement the party's agenda. They are a defining element of representative democracy.
While there is some international commonality in the way political parties are recognized and in how they operate, there are often many differences, some of which are significant. Most of political parties have an ideological core, but some do not, and many represent ideologies very different from their ideology at the time the party was founded. Many countries, such as Germany and India, have several significant political parties, and some nations have one-party systems, such as China and Cuba. The United States is in practice a two-party system but with many smaller parties also participating.
Historical developmentThe idea of people forming large groups or factions to advocate for their shared interests is ancient. Plato mentions the political factions of Classical Athens in the Republic, and Aristotle discusses the tendency of different types of government to produce factions in the Politics. Certain ancient disputes were also factional, like the Nika riots between two chariot racing factions at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. However, modern political parties are considered to have emerged around the end of the 18th or early 19th centuries, appearing first in Europe and the United States. What distinguishes political parties from factions and interest groups is that political parties use an explicit label to identify their members as having shared electoral and legislative goals. The transformation from loose factions into organised modern political parties is considered to have first occurred in either the United Kingdom or the United States, with the United Kingdom's Conservative Party and the Democratic Party of the United States both frequently called the world's "oldest continuous political party".
Emergence in BritainThe party system that emerged in early modern Britain is considered to be one of the world's first, with origins in the factions that emerged from the Exclusion Crisis and Glorious Revolution of the late 17th century. The Whig faction originally organised itself around support for Protestant constitutional monarchy as opposed to absolute rule, whereas the conservative Tory faction supported a strong monarchy. These two groups structured disputes in the politics of the United Kingdom throughout the 18th century. Throughout the next several centuries, these loose factions began to adopt more coherent political tendencies and ideologies: the liberal political ideas of John Locke and the notion of universal rights espoused by theorists like Algernon Sidney and later John Stuart Mill were major influences on the Whigs, whereas the Tories eventually came to be identified with conservative philosophers like Edmund Burke.
The period between the advent of factionalism, around the Glorious Revolution, and the accession of George III in 1760 was characterised by Whig supremacy, during which the Whigs remained the most powerful bloc and consistently championed constitutional monarchy with strict limits on the monarch's power, opposed the accession of a Catholic king, and believed in extending toleration to nonconformist Protestants and dissenters. Although the Tories were out of office for half a century, they largely remained a united opposition to the Whigs.
When they lost power, the old Whig leadership dissolved into a decade of factional chaos with distinct Grenvillite, Bedfordite, Rockinghamite, and Chathamite factions successively in power, and all referring to themselves as "Whigs". The first distinctive political parties emerged from this chaos. The first such party was the Rockingham Whigs under the leadership of Charles Watson-Wentworth and the intellectual guidance of the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke laid out a philosophy that described the basic framework of the political party as "a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed". As opposed to the instability of the earlier factions, which were often tied to a particular leader and could disintegrate if removed from power, the party was centred around a set of core principles and remained out of power as a united opposition to government.
caricatured Fox's return to power in a coalition with North. George III is the blockhead in the centre.
A coalition including the Rockingham Whigs, led by the Earl of Shelburne, took power in 1782, only to collapse after Rockingham's death. The new government, led by the radical politician Charles James Fox in coalition with Lord North, was soon brought down and replaced by William Pitt the Younger in 1783. It was now that a genuine two-party system began to emerge, with Pitt leading the new Tories against a reconstituted "Whig" party led by Fox. The modern Conservative Party was created out of these Pittite Tories. In 1859 under Lord Palmerston, the Whigs, heavily influenced by the classical liberal ideas of Adam Smith, joined together with the free trade Tory followers of Robert Peel and the independent Radicals to form the Liberal Party.
Emergence in the United StatesAlthough the framers of the 1787 United States Constitution did not anticipate that American political disputes would be primarily organised around political parties, political controversies in the early 1790s over the extent of federal government powers saw the emergence of two proto-political parties: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, which were championed by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, respectively. However, a consensus reached on these issues ended party politics in 1816 for nearly a decade, a period commonly known as the Era of Good Feelings.
The splintering of the Democratic-Republican Party in the aftermath of the contentious 1824 presidential election led to the re-emergence of political parties. Two major parties would dominate the political landscape for the next quarter-century: the Democratic Party, led by Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party, established by Henry Clay from the National Republicans and from other Anti-Jackson groups. When the Whig Party fell apart in the mid-1850s, its position as a major U.S. political party was filled by the Republican Party.
Worldwide spreadAnother candidate for the first modern party system to emerge is that of Sweden. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the party model of politics was adopted across Europe. In Germany, France, Austria and elsewhere, the 1848 Revolutions sparked a wave of liberal sentiment and the formation of representative bodies and political parties. The end of the century saw the formation of large socialist parties in Europe, some conforming to the philosophy of Karl Marx, others adapting social democracy through the use of reformist and gradualist methods.
At the same time, the Home Rule League Party, campaigning for Home Rule for Ireland in the British Parliament, was fundamentally changed by the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s. In 1882, he changed his party's name to the Irish Parliamentary Party and created a well-organized grassroots structure, introducing membership to replace ad hoc informal groupings. He created a new selection procedure to ensure the professional selection of party candidates committed to taking their seats, and in 1884 he imposed a firm 'party pledge' which obliged MPs to vote as a bloc in parliament on all occasions. The creation of a strict party whip and a formal party structure was unique at the time, preceded only by the Social Democratic Party of Germany, even though the latter was persecuted by Otto von Bismarck from 1878 to 1890. These parties' efficient structure and control contrasted with the loose rules and flexible informality found in the main British parties, and represented the development of new forms of party organisation, which constituted a "model" in the 20th-century.
Origin of political partiesPolitical parties are a nearly ubiquitous feature of modern countries. Nearly all democratic countries have strong political parties, and many political scientists consider countries with fewer than two parties to necessarily be autocratic. However, these sources allow that a country with multiple competitive parties is not necessarily democratic, and the politics of many autocratic countries are organised around one dominant political party. There are many explanations for how and why political parties are such a crucial part of modern states.
Social cleavagesOne of the core explanations for why political parties exist is that they arise from existing divisions among people. Building on Harold Hotelling's work on the aggregation of preferences and Duncan Black's development of social choice theory, Anthony Downs showed how an underlying distribution of preferences in an electorate can produce regular results in the aggregate, such as the median voter theorem. This abstract model shows that parties can arise from variations within an electorate, and can adjust themselves to the patterns in the electorate. However, Downs assumed that some distribution of preferences exists, rather than attributing any meaning to that distribution.
Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan made the idea of differences within an electorate more concrete by arguing that several major party systems of the 1960s were the result of social cleavages that had already existed in the 1920s. They identify four lasting cleavages in the countries they examine: a Center-Periphery cleavage regarding religion and language, a State-Church cleavage centered on control of mass education, a Land-Industry cleavage regarding freedom of industry and agricultural policies, and an Owner-Worker cleavage which includes a conflict between nationalism and internationalism. Subsequent authors have expanded on or modified these cleavages, particularly when examining parties in other parts of the world.
The argument that parties are produced by social cleavages has drawn several criticisms. Some authors have challenged the theory on empirical grounds, either finding no evidence for the claim that parties emerge from existing cleavages or arguing that this claim is not empirically testable. Others note that while social cleavages might cause political parties to exist, this obscures the opposite effect: that political parties also cause changes in the underlying social cleavages. A further objection is that, if the explanation for where parties come from is that they emerge from existing social cleavages, then the theory has not identified what causes parties unless it also explains where social cleavages come from; one response to this objection, along the lines of Charles Tilly's bellicist theory of state-building, is that social cleavages are formed by historical conflicts.
Individual and group incentivesAn alternative explanation for why parties are ubiquitous across the world is that the formation of parties provides compatible incentives for candidates and legislators. One explanation for the existence of parties, advanced by John Aldrich, is that the existence of political parties means that a candidate in one electoral district has an incentive to assist a candidate in a different district, when those two candidates have a similar ideology.
One reason that this incentive exists is that parties can solve certain legislative challenges that a legislature of unaffiliated members might face. Gary W. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins argue that the development of many institutions can be explained by their power to constrain the incentives of individuals; a powerful institution can prohibit individuals from acting in ways that harm the community. This suggests that political parties might be mechanisms for preventing candidates with similar ideologies from acting to each other's detriment. One specific advantage that candidates might obtain from helping similar candidates in other districts is that the existence of a party apparatus can help coalitions of electors to agree on ideal policy choices, which is in general not possible. This could be true even in contexts where it is only slightly beneficial to be part of a party; models of how individuals coordinate on joining a group or participating in an event show how even a weak preference to be part of a group can provoke mass participation.
Parties as heuristicsParties may be necessary for many individuals to participate in politics, because they provide a massively simplifying heuristic which allows people to make informed choices with a much lower cognitive cost. Without political parties, electors would have to evaluate every individual candidate in every single election they are eligible to vote in. Instead, parties enable electors to make judgments about a few groups instead of a much larger number of individuals. Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald E. Stokes argued in The American Voter that identification with a political party is a crucial determinant of whether and how an individual will vote. Because it is much easier to become informed about a few parties' platforms than about many candidates' personal positions, parties reduce the cognitive burden for people to cast informed votes. However, evidence suggests that over the last several decades the strength of party identification has been weakening, so this may be a less important function for parties to provide than it was in the past.
StructureA political party is typically led by a party leader, a party secretary, party treasurer and party chair. Most of the above positions are also members of the party executive, the leading organization which sets policy for the entire party at the national level. The structure is far more decentralized in the United States because of the separation of powers, federalism and the multiplicity of economic interests and religious sects. Even state parties are decentralized as county and other local committees are largely independent of state central committees. The national party leader in the U.S. will be the president, if the party holds that office, or a prominent member of Congress in opposition. Officially, each party has a chairman for its national committee who is a prominent spokesman, organizer and fund-raiser, but without the status of prominent elected office holders.
In parliamentary democracies, on a regular, periodic basis, party conferences are held to elect party officers, although snap leadership elections can be called if enough members opt for such. Party conferences are also held in order to affirm party values for members in the coming year. American parties also meet regularly and, again, are more subordinate to elected political leaders.
Depending on the demographic spread of the party membership, party members form local or regional party committees in order to help candidates run for local or regional offices in government. These local party branches reflect the officer positions at the national level.
It is also customary for political party members to form wings for current or prospective party members, most of which fall into the following two categories:
- identity-based: including youth wings and/or armed wings
- position-based: including wings for candidates, mayors, governors, professionals, students, etc. The formation of these wings may have become routine but their existence is more of an indication of differences of opinion, intra-party rivalry, the influence of interest groups, or attempts to wield influence for one's state or region.
The internal structure of political parties has to be democratic in some countries. In Germany Art. 21 Abs. 1 Satz 3 GG establishes a command of inner-party democracy.
Parliamentary partiesWhen the party is represented by members in the lower house of parliament, the party leader simultaneously serves as the leader of the parliamentary group of that full party representation; depending on a minimum number of seats held, Westminster-based parties typically allow for leaders to form frontbench teams of senior fellow members of the parliamentary group to serve as critics of aspects of government policy. When a party becomes the largest party not part of the Government, the party's parliamentary group forms the Official Opposition, with Official Opposition frontbench team members often forming the Official Opposition Shadow cabinet. When a party achieves enough seats in an election to form a majority, the party's frontbench becomes the Cabinet of government ministers. They are all elected members. There are members who attend party without promotion.
RegulationThe freedom to form, declare membership in, or campaign for candidates from a political party is considered a measurement of a state's adherence to liberal democracy as a political value. Regulation of parties may run from a crackdown on or repression of all opposition parties, a norm for authoritarian governments, to the repression of certain parties which hold or promote ideals which run counter to the general ideology of the state's incumbents.
Furthermore, in the case of far-right, far-left and regionalism parties in the national parliaments of much of the European Union, mainstream political parties may form an informal cordon sanitaire which applies a policy of non-cooperation towards those "" present in the legislature which are viewed as 'anti-system' or otherwise unacceptable for government. Cordons sanitaire, however, have been increasingly abandoned over the past two decades in multi-party democracies as the pressure to construct broad coalitions in order to win elections – along with the increased willingness of outsider parties themselves to participate in government – has led to many such parties entering electoral and government coalitions.
Starting in the second half of the 20th century, modern democracies have introduced rules for the flow of funds through party coffers, e.g. the Canada Election Act 1976, the PPRA in the U.K. or the FECA in the U.S. Such political finance regimes stipulate a variety of regulations for the transparency of fundraising and expenditure, limit or ban specific kinds of activity and provide public subsidies for party activity, including campaigning.
Partisan stylePartisan style varies according to each jurisdiction, depending on how many parties there are, and how much influence each individual party has.
Nonpartisan systemsIn a nonpartisan system, no official political parties exist, sometimes reflecting legal restrictions on political parties. In nonpartisan elections, each candidate is eligible for office on his or her own merits. In nonpartisan legislatures, there are no typically formal party alignments within the legislature. The administration of George Washington and the first few sessions of the United States Congress were nonpartisan. Washington also warned against political parties during his Farewell Address. In the United States, the unicameral legislature of Nebraska is nonpartisan but is elected and often votes on informal party lines. In Canada, the territorial legislatures of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are nonpartisan. In New Zealand, Tokelau has a nonpartisan parliament. Many city and county governments in the United States and Canada are nonpartisan. Nonpartisan elections and modes of governance are common outside of state institutions. Unless there are legal prohibitions against political parties, factions within nonpartisan systems often evolve into political parties.
Uni-party systemsIn one-party systems, one political party is legally allowed to hold effective power. Although minor parties may sometimes be allowed, they are legally required to accept the leadership of the dominant party. This party may not always be identical to the government, although sometimes positions within the party may in fact be more important than positions within the government. North Korea and China are examples; others can be found in Fascist states, such as Nazi Germany between 1934 and 1945. The one-party system is thus often equated with dictatorships and tyranny.
In dominant-party systems, opposition parties are allowed, and there may be even a deeply established democratic tradition, but other parties are widely considered to have no real chance of gaining power. Sometimes, political, social and economic circumstances, and public opinion are the reason for others parties' failure. Sometimes, typically in countries with less of an established democratic tradition, it is possible the dominant party will remain in power by using patronage and sometimes by voting fraud. In the latter case, the definition between dominant and one-party system becomes rather blurred. Examples of dominant party systems include the People's Action Party in Singapore, the African National Congress in South Africa, the Cambodian People's Party in Cambodia, the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, and the National Liberation Front in Algeria. One-party dominant system also existed in Mexico with the Institutional Revolutionary Party until the 1990s, in the southern United States with the Democratic Party from the late 19th century until the 1970s, in Indonesia with the Golkar from the early 1970s until 1998.
Bi-party systemss are states such as Honduras, Jamaica, Malta, Ghana and the United States in which there are two political parties dominant to such an extent that electoral success under the banner of any other party is almost impossible. One right wing coalition party and one left wing coalition party is the most common ideological breakdown in such a system but in two-party states political parties are traditionally catch all parties which are ideologically broad and inclusive.
The United States has gone through several party systems, each of which has been essentially two-party in nature. The divide has typically been between a conservative and liberal party; presently, the Republican Party and Democratic Party serve these roles. Third parties have seen extremely little electoral success, and successful third party runs typically lead to vote splitting due to the first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all systems used in most US elections. There have been several examples of third parties siphoning votes from major parties, such as Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and George Wallace in 1968, resulting in the victory of the opposing major party. In presidential elections, the Electoral College system has prevented third party candidates from being competitive, even when they have significant support. More generally, parties with a broad base of support across regions or among economic and other interest groups have a greater chance of winning the necessary plurality in the U.S.'s largely single-member district, winner-take-all elections.
The UK political system, while technically a multi-party system, has functioned generally as a two-party system; since the 1920s the two largest political parties have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Before the Labour Party rose in British politics the Liberal Party was the other major political party along with the Conservatives. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties, though each has in the past century relied upon a third party to deliver a working majority in Parliament. There are also numerous other parties that hold or have held a number of seats in Parliament.
Multi-party systemssystems are systems in which more than two parties are represented and elected to public office.
Australia, Canada, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Ireland, United Kingdom and Norway are examples of countries with two strong parties and additional smaller parties that have also obtained representation. The smaller or "third" parties may hold the balance of power in a parliamentary system, and thus may be invited to form a part of a coalition government together with one of the larger parties, or may provide a supply and confidence agreement to the government; or may instead act independently from the dominant parties.
More commonly, in cases where there are three or more parties, no one party is likely to gain power alone, and parties have to work with each other to form coalition governments. This is almost always the case in Germany on national and state level, and in most constituencies at the communal level. Furthermore, since the forming of the Republic of Iceland there has never been a government not led by a coalition, usually involving the Independence Party or the Progressive Party. A similar situation exists in the Republic of Ireland, where no one party has held power on its own since 1989. Since then, numerous coalition governments have been formed. These coalitions have been led exclusively by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
Political change is often easier with a coalition government than in one-party or two-party dominant systems. If factions in a two-party system are in fundamental disagreement on policy goals, or even principles, they can be slow to make policy changes, which appears to be the case now in the U.S. with power split between Democrats and Republicans. Still coalition governments struggle, sometimes for years, to change policy and often fail altogether, post World War II France and Italy being prime examples. When one party in a two-party system controls all elective branches, however, policy changes can be both swift and significant. Democrats Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were beneficiaries of such fortuitous circumstances, as were Republicans as far removed in time as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama briefly had such an advantage between 2009 and 2011.
FundingPolitical parties are funded by contributions from
- party members and other individuals,
- organizations, which share their political ideas or which could benefit from their activities or
- governmental or public funding.
From the second half of the 20th century on parties which continued to rely on donations or membership subscriptions ran into mounting problems. Along with the increased scrutiny of donations there has been a long-term decline in party memberships in most western democracies which itself places more strains on funding. For example, in the United Kingdom and Australia membership of the two main parties in 2006 is less than an 1/8 of what it was in 1950, despite significant increases in population over that period.
In some parties, such as the post-communist parties of France and Italy or the Sinn Féin party and the Socialist Party, elected representatives take only the average industrial wage from their salary as a representative, while the rest goes into party coffers. Although these examples may be rare nowadays, "rent-seeking" continues to be a feature of many political parties around the world.
In the United Kingdom, it has been alleged that peerages have been awarded to contributors to party funds, the benefactors becoming members of the House of Lords and thus being in a position to participate in legislating. Famously, Lloyd George was found to have been selling peerages. To prevent such corruption in the future, Parliament passed the Honours Act 1925 into law. Thus the outright sale of peerages and similar honours became a criminal act. However, some benefactors are alleged to have attempted to circumvent this by cloaking their contributions as loans, giving rise to the 'Cash for Peerages' scandal.
Such activities as well as assumed "influence peddling" have given rise to demands that the scale of donations should be capped. As the costs of electioneering escalate, so the demands made on party funds increase. In the UK some politicians are advocating that parties should be funded by the state; a proposition that promises to give rise to interesting debate in a country that was the first to regulate campaign expenses.
In many other democracies such subsidies for party activity have been introduced decades ago. Public financing for parties and/ or candidates has several permutations and is increasingly common. Germany, Sweden, Israel, Canada, Australia, Austria and Spain are cases in point. More recently among others France, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and Poland have followed suit.
There are two broad categories of public funding, direct, which entails a monetary transfer to a party, and indirect, which includes broadcasting time on state media, use of the mail service or supplies. According to the Comparative Data from the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, out of a sample of over 180 nations, 25% of nations provide no direct or indirect public funding, 58% provide direct public funding and 60% of nations provide indirect public funding. Some countries provide both direct and indirect public funding to political parties. Funding may be equal for all parties or depend on the results of previous elections or the number of candidates participating in an election. Frequently parties rely on a mix of private and public funding and are required to disclose their finances to the Election management body.
In fledgling democracies funding can also be provided by foreign aid. International donors provide financing to political parties in developing countries as a means to promote democracy and good governance. Support can be purely financial or otherwise. Frequently it is provided as capacity development activities including the development of party manifestos, party constitutions and campaigning skills. Developing links between ideologically linked parties is another common feature of international support for a party. Sometimes this can be perceived as directly supporting the political aims of a political party, such as the support of the US government to the Georgian party behind the Rose Revolution. Other donors work on a more neutral basis, where multiple donors provide grants in countries accessible by all parties for various aims defined by the recipients. There have been calls by leading development think-tanks, such as the Overseas Development Institute, to increase support to political parties as part of developing the capacity to deal with the demands of interest-driven donors to improve governance.
Colors and emblemsGenerally speaking, over the world, political parties associate themselves with colors, primarily for identification, especially for voter recognition during elections.
- Blue generally denotes conservatism.
- Yellow is often used for liberalism or libertarianism.
- Red often signifies social democratic, socialist, or communist parties.
- Green is often associated with green politics, Islamism, agrarianism, or Irish republicanism.
- Orange is the traditional color of Christian democracy.
- Black is generally associated with fascist parties, going back to Benito Mussolini's blackshirts, but also with anarchism. Similarly, brown is sometimes associated with Nazism, going back to the Nazi Party's tan-uniformed Stormtroopers.
Political color schemes in the United States diverge from international norms. Since 2000, red has become associated with the right-wing Republican Party and blue with the left-wing Democratic Party. However, unlike political color schemes of other countries, the parties did not choose those colors; they were used in news coverage of the 2000 election results and ensuing legal battle and caught on in popular usage. Prior to the 2000 election the media typically alternated which color represented which party each presidential election cycle. The color scheme happened to get inordinate attention that year, so the cycle was stopped lest it cause confusion the following election.
EmblemsThe emblem of socialist parties is often a red rose held in a fist. Communist parties often use a hammer to represent the worker, a sickle to represent the farmer, or both a hammer and a sickle to refer to both at the same time.
The emblem of Nazism, the swastika or "hakenkreuz", has been adopted as a near-universal symbol for almost any organised white supremacist group, even though it dates from more ancient times.
International organizationDuring the 19th and 20th century, many national political parties organized themselves into international organizations along similar policy lines. Notable examples are The Universal Party, International Workingmen's Association, the Socialist International, the Communist International, and the Fourth International, as organizations of working class parties, or the Liberal International, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Christian Democratic International and the International Democrat Union. Organized in Italy in 1945, the International Communist Party, since 1974 headquartered in Florence has sections in six countries. Worldwide green parties have recently established the Global Greens. The Universal Party, The Socialist International, the Liberal International, and the International Democrat Union are all based in London.
Some administrations outlaw formal linkages between local and foreign political organizations, effectively outlawing international political parties.
Typescategorised European parties into nine families, which described most parties. He was able to arrange seven of them from left to right: Communist, Socialist, Green, Liberal, Christian democratic, Conservative and Libertarian. The position of two other types, Agrarian and Regional/Ethnic parties varied.
Political scientists have distinguished between different types of political parties that have evolved throughout history. These include cadre parties, mass parties, catch-all parties and cartel parties. Cadre parties were political elites that were concerned with contesting elections and restricted the influence of outsiders, who were only required to assist in election campaigns. Mass parties tried to recruit new members who were a source of party income and were often expected to spread party ideology as well as assist in elections. In the United States, where both major parties were cadre parties, the introduction of primaries and other reforms has transformed them so that power is held by activists who compete over influence and nomination of candidates.