The Development of Political Parties in America
The history of political parties in the United States is colorful and complex. Over the course of more than two hundred years of American elections, numerous political parties have competed for votes. Some parties, such as the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties, have existed as continuous organizations for extended periods of time. Other parties, such as the Prohibition party or the Socialist party, fielded presidential candidates for years but with little success. Still other parties existed for only an election or two, or competed in only a few states.
In this chapter we focus on changes that have occurred in the major political parties over the course of electoral competition in the United States. As Table 2.1 shows, we identify four distinct periods of party organization. American parties have changed over time in response to new political and social conditions. The first parties to emerge in this nation were composed almost entirely of elite national politicians. In organizational terms, political parties were elite caucuses that helped unite politicians and allowed them to advance their common policies. These early parties also became a means for politicians to seek support among the small number of voters in various states. As the electorate grew in the 1820s and 1830s, parties became more organizationally sophisticated in order to mobilize large numbers of voters. The period of mass party organizations saw the development of elaborate national conventions, party platforms, mass rallies with partisan speakers, and highly effective techniques for mobilizing voters. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, strong party organizations were under attack. Changing social conditions and Progressive legislation led to a decline in party organization. The existing parties did not disappear, but these newly "reformed" parties had to adapt to the new political rules laid