The Functions of Political Parties

Political parties perform an important task in government. They bring people together to achieve control of the government, develop policies favorable to their interests or the groups that support them, and organize and persuade voters to elect their candidates to office. Although very much involved in the operation of government at all levels, political parties are not the government itself, and the Constitution makes no mention of them.

The basic purpose of political parties is to nominate candidates for public office and to get as many of them elected as possible. Once elected, these officials try to achieve the goals of their party through legislation and program initiatives. Although many people do not think of it this way, registering as a Democrat or Republican makes them members of a political party. Political parties want as many people involved as possible. Most members take a fairly passive role, simply voting for their party's candidates at election time. Some become more active and work as officials in the party or volunteer to persuade people to vote. The most ambitious members may decide to run for office themselves.

Representing groups of interests

The people represented by elected officials are called constituents. Whether Republican or Democrat, constituents make their concerns known to their representatives. In turn, elected officials must not only reflect the concerns of their own political party but must also try to attract support from people in their districts or states who belong to the other party. They can attract this support by supporting bipartisan issues (matters of concern that cross party lines) and nonpartisan issues (matters that have nothing to do with party allegiance).

Political parties represent groups as well as individuals. These interest groups have special concerns. They may represent the interests of farm workers, urban African Americans, small business operators, particular industries, or teachers — any similar individuals who cooperate to express a specific agenda.

Simplifying choices

The two main political parties in the United States appeal to as many different groups as possible. They do so by stating their goals in a general way so that voters are attracted to a broad philosophy without necessarily focusing on every specific issue. Republicans are known for their support of business, conservative positions on social issues, and concern about the size of government; Democrats traditionally have supported labor and minorities and believe that government can solve many of the nation's problems. The alternative to using the general philosophies of the political parties to sort out candidates is to vote for individuals based on just their own one-or two-issue programs.

Making policy

Political parties are not policymaking organizations in themselves. They certainly take positions on important policy questions, especially to provide alternatives to the position of whichever party is in power. When in power, a party attempts to put its philosophy into practice through legislation. If a candidate wins office by a large majority, it may mean that the voters have given him or her a mandate to carry out the program outlined in the campaign. Because President Bill Clinton failed to win a majority of the popular vote in both 1992 and 1996, few considered his victories a mandate for any specific policy or ideology. President George W. Bush also entered office without a clear mandate, because his opponent, Al Gore, won more votes (and might have won the Electoral College if not for irregularities, such as confusing ballots, in Florida).