Political parties, at least in theory, serve as a crucial mechanism of representation in American politics. To the extent that broad collections of groups in American society have common interests, a party can serve to articulate their concerns in the political process. Whether the interests of people identifying with a party are ultimately responded to depends on the complex process of reaching political decisions. A fundamental premise of a democratic society, however, is that differing views should be considered in the process. Parties can organize the interests of one broad collection of interests and argue for their concerns versus the interests of others. They can create a dialogue about fundamental differences in interests and views. Parties, despite negative contemporary commentary, can be valuable and very relevant.
Despite the simplicity of that statement, several conditions must prevail to achieve this representation, and each does not occur easily. First, a broad collection of groups must have some identifiable commonality of interests, and those interests must be distinguishable from another set of interests. People who lack but want health care insurance differ from those who have insurance, and the former can be appealed to and organized as a constituency. Students who cannot afford college differ from those who can and the former can also be appealed to and organized as a constituency. If there are no such differences within the public about an issue, then there are no differing group interests that a party could choose to represent. Second, parties must adopt policy positions that respond more to one set of interests than to another; parties must espouse different policy positions. Third, the electorate must perceive a relevant difference between the parties, form reactions to them, and respond by identifying with or voting for one party versus the other.
Change complicates this process. As social conditions change, it may take a while for voters to perceive and accept that their personal situation has clearly changed and that this change may persist. It may take parties a