Chapter 41: What Do Political Parties Do?

“I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.”

–George Washington (1)

The Theoretical Context of Political Parties

In 1950, a committee of the American Political Science Association (APSA) published a set of proposals to strengthen political parties in the United States. It rested on the assumption—explicitly stated, in the case of the APSA committee report—of what is known as a theory of responsible party government. This theory posits a mechanism fundamental to the operation of a democracy—namely, that public preferences are translated into governing policy and that there is a continual process for the public to hold those policy-makers accountable when their wishes are not followed. How is this to be accomplished? Most political scientists recognize that political parties play a vital role in this mechanism. The primary goal of a political party is to determine government policies by having its candidates win elections and become decision makers. The APSA committee report summed up the mechanism this way: “An effective party system requires, first, that the parties are able to bring forth programs to which they commit themselves and, second, that the parties possess sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs.” (2)

Let’s look at that last statement more carefully. Responsible party government needs parties that develop a political program, which is a set of policies on the variety of issues facing the country. This program should be prominent and well-publicized, because the theory suggests that voters are rational creatures who vote for the party that best advances their interests. Voters can’t do that if the parties are unclear about their political program. The party also has to be strong enough to carry out the program once it is in power. In other words, the party has to be able to control its own politicians sufficiently to guarantee that the program will be translated into bills that can pass the legislature and become policy. When parties have sufficient power and coherence to translate political programs into policy, voters can easily see which party is responsible for what policies—and this is essential information as they head into the voting booths at the next election. They will reward the politicians from the party they support and punish the politicians from the party they oppose.

The theory of responsible government runs into two important limitations. The first is divided government, which refers to the state of affairs in American politics where the national-level political institutions are controlled by different parties at the same time. For example, the Republicans might control the White House and the Senate, but the Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives. Or a Democrat might be president, but the Senate and House are controlled by Republicans. Since the early 1970’s, divided government has been the norm. Typically, divided government refers to the elected institutions. However, given that Supreme Court control is a goal for both political parties, we can add it into the mix. The current conservative Court majority means that Democratic victories in congressional and presidential elections can be countered by the life appointments of five conservative justices. What does this mean for responsible party government? Divided government makes it very difficult for American political parties to translate their political programs into public policy. Stalemate frustrates voters’ ability to clearly reward one party and punish the other because it’s so difficult for them to know why nothing seems to get done in Washington.

The second limitation of the theory of responsible party government centers on the twin assumptions that voters are knowledgeable and rational. Voters are not particularly knowledgeable. As economist Bryan Caplan famously put it, “The people ultimately in charge—the voters—are doing brain surgery while unable to pass basic anatomy.” (3) The theory of responsible party government needs an electorate with particular characteristics. Voters need to understand American history and current public policy choices, which means they need to know fairly complicated things like what a single-payer healthcare system actually entails, how international trade works, how corporate governance is structured, how federal tax brackets and marginal tax rates operate, the complexities of sex and gender, and so forth. There’s a great deal to know! Beyond that, voters need to be rational enough to match their interests to the political party system—i.e., which political party best represents my mix of interests? Voters actually display what is known as bounded rationality, a concept political science borrowed from behavioral economics, meaning that voters are not fully rational due to the complexity of the decisions they have to reach, their own cognitive limitations, and the limited time and resources they have to devote to understanding politics. (4) Absent full knowledge, voters’ ability to actually process all the needed information–in the time needed to do so–results in rational decision-making short cuts.

When we acknowledge the theory of responsible party government and its limitations, we begin to understand a basic dilemma at the heart of politics. We want politics to operate on a rational basis in which parties put forward political programs that compete in a marketplace of ideas, and we want voters to carefully weigh those programs to reach rational decisions about which party to support. But we know that people are, in the words of political scientist Christopher Achen, “doing the best they can. They just don’t have a lot of information, and so they substitute guesses and views of the world that make them feel comfortable.” (5) This, then, is the context in which political parties operate.

What Do Political Parties Do?

Let’s remember that political parties want to have their candidates win elections so they can become the decision-makers who implement public policy. With this in mind, it’s fair to say that political parties perform three basic functions.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Recruit political candidates—The leaders of state and national party organizations use their networking skills to recruit potential candidates for local, state, and federal offices. Obviously, this is very important for offices in which the party does not have an incumbent running for reelection. There is no “perfect” candidate, although it appears from the kinds of candidates the parties typically put forward that there are several characteristics of attractive candidates. Name recognition is important, so parties try to recruit people who are already in office to run for higher office, or they recruit prominent business leaders, or people who have been active in the community. Access to money is another important characteristic, meaning candidates who can partially self-fund their campaigns or who have a plethora of connections to people who are in a position to donate to the campaign. Parties also look for candidates with a particularly appealing biography, which might include anything from being a combat veteran to being a successful entrepreneur. Candidates who get recruited by party leaders still have to face the primary or caucus nominating process, which we’ll talk about more in the textbook section that deals with elections.

Attempt to win elections—Political parties support their candidates in the election by engaging in four main activities. They engage in political advertising for specific candidates, which can involve everything from yard signs to YouTube ads, from radio spots to micro-targeted messages on social media. Parties also conduct voter registration drives by helping people from specific neighborhoods or from specific demographic groups register to vote. They also engage in increasingly sophisticated voter turnout efforts, meaning that they make sure as many of their partisans as possible actually vote in the election. This may entail organizing party workers to contact potential voters directly or to drive people to the polling stations. Finally, parties provide candidates with expertise and data, hooking them up with consultants and making mailing lists and past election results available to them.

Organize governance and opposition—Once elected, a party’s candidates organize themselves into party groupings—in Congress, for example, or the state legislature. They elect their own leadership and meet as a group to plan their legislative strategies. They may also discipline party members who don’t vote with the group, although American parties are not known for engaging in that kind of discipline too often.

Party Organization

Party organization in the United States reflects the federal nature of our political system. That is, parties exist on the national, state, and local levels. If we look at parties from the top down, national committees conduct the party’s business in between the quadrennial national conventions and are composed of prominent members of each state’s party organizations. The Democratic National Committee’s membership and structure are a bit more complicated than that of the Republican National Committee. Each national committee has a chairperson and a variety of other leadership posts. If the party in question has elected the President of the United States, the president typically selects the party chairperson, although the national committee officially votes them into the chair. They are responsible for the party’s vitality, its fundraising, outreach, voter registration efforts, and articulating the party platform, which is adopted at the national convention. The platform lays out the party’s position on various issues of the day.

Also, at the national level are the Hill committees—referring to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In the House of Representatives, there are the Republican and Democratic Congressional Committees, composed of each party’s various representatives. In the Senate, there are the Republican and Democratic senatorial committees, composed of each party’s U.S. senators. While Hill committees have been in existence for many years, the increase in congressional partisanship has elevated their importance. According to Political Scientist Sandy Maisel, “Their role has increased dramatically. Not only do they raise money for candidates, but they play critical roles in setting national campaign priorities.” (6)

The larger parties have a state organization in each of the fifty states. State party organizations have become more institutionalized, professional organizations in the last several decades. Still, state and local parties rely on countless volunteers to get their work done. Often, state party organizations will offer a few paid positions—like an executive director—who organizes volunteers to work in capacities from treasurer to secretary, from recruitment chair to various caucus chairs. State parties provide the same help to state candidates that national parties do to federal candidates. Indeed, state party organizations “are increasingly becoming service agencies for candidates.” (7)

Parties also have local units. For a time, urban political machines were key power centers in American politics, particularly for the Democratic Party. The machine built by Democrat Richard Daley helped him rule Chicago from 1955 to 1976. There are still vestiges of the Daley machine in Chicago and Democratic machines in other urban areas. Tammany Hall dominated New York City politics for much of the nineteenth century, providing immigrants with food, coal, patronage jobs, and a decidedly Democratic political orientation. The equivalent of suburban machines—mostly Republican—also existed in places like Nassau and Westchester counties in New York, Delaware and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, and DuPage county in Illinois. (8) But across the country, power has shifted from the local level up to state party organizations. Why? In many places, it was simply more efficient to locate party centers at the state level. Reforms that instituted merit systems for hiring city workers undercut the urban machine’s ability to use such jobs as patronage rewards. Government-run social welfare programs took away a mechanism for parties to use handouts to cultivate support among poor voters. And regulations requiring fair processes for awarding contracts largely eliminated the machine’s ability use those city contracts to garner key supporters.


1. George Washington letter to Thomas Jefferson. July 6, 1796. The National Archives.

2. No Author, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” American Political Science Review, vol. 44. September, 1950.

3. Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Page 6.

4. Stefano Fiori, “Forms of Bounded Rationality: The Reception and Redefinition of Herbert A. Simon’s Perspective,” Review of Political Economy. Volume 23, Issue 4. October, 2011.

5. Sean Illing, “Two Eminent Political Scientists: The Problem With Democracy is Voters,” Vox. June 24, 2017. See also Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

6. Sandy Maisel, American Political Parties and Elections. A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Page 65.

7. Jewell and Morehouse, Political Parties and Elections in American States. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001. Page 50.

8. James Reichley, The Life of the Parties. A History of American Political Parties. New York: The Free Press, 1992. Page 401.



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