By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
One of the reasons why political parties get such a bad rap in today’s times is because people often confuse them with political partisanship. When individuals become ardent supporters of a party, it is called partisanship. However, this is different from the institutions that are called political parties, which help in the organization of democracy.
A political party is a coalition of interests joined together in an effort to get its candidates elected and policies enacted. Parties differ from interest groups, advocates, or political activism in a really important way. Whereas groups and advocates often are looking for a particular type of policy change, a political party is ultimately interested in winning elections. That is, a political party’s main job is to help its members win seats in legislatures and other elected offices.
Often, political parties build policy-driven coalitions that help them to achieve their electoral goals, so advocating for specific policies is a regular part of party politics; but, it’s helpful to think of parties as being motivated more by winning elections than by winning policy outcomes.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
An Anathema to Democracy
Understandably, political actors who are motivated by winning elections have different incentives than those who are motivated by achieving particular policies, and those differing incentives have real consequences in any political system. One might ask why political parties exist in the first place. To know the answer it is necessary to look at America’s political history.
Interestingly, it turns out that when the framers of the Constitution created the basic structures of the American government, they did not intend for political parties to form. In fact, many of them thought political parties were dangerous and anathema to democracy. In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington, America’s first president, famously warned against the formation of parties.
In retrospect, however, it seems that the framers’ lack of foresight about the formation of political parties has left a lasting intractable problem in American politics. America’s political institutions were created as if political parties did not exist. Therefore, the institutions do not account for the political partisanship that can arise from parties. In the contemporary political environment where political parties reign and partisanship has become polarizing, the incentives and actions of many elite political actors do not fit the institutions they’re asked to operate within.
Learn more about the fundamentals of elections and voting.
Collective Action Problem
So, the parties formed, like most political institutions, to help people solve collective action problems. Individuals face a collective action problem when together they can solve a problem, but individually they have no incentive to contribute to the solution. When each individual has no incentive to contribute, it becomes difficult to generate group action.
Political parties solve three particular types of collective action problems for three different groups of political actors. These include candidates, voters, and politicians.
For candidates, political parties provide a brand that candidates can use to build an electoral coalition to compete in competitive elections.
For voters, political parties provide an informative signal about the ideas candidates stand for; for voters, parties are like brand names that help voters identify the candidates that most closely align with their own preferences and values.
For politicians who hold elected office, political parties help them assemble coalitions within policymaking bodies, like the US Congress, to help them pass legislation.
PIE, PAO, and PIG
Given that this one word, parties, is used to refer to three separate types of collective action problems that party institutions solve, a simple mnemonic device can be used to remember these. These have been adopted from a scholar who is an expert in parties, Hans Noel. One can think of parties as PIE, PAO, and PIG. These terms are acronyms.
P-I-E stands for Parties In the Electorate. These are the party labels, like Republicans and Democrats that individual voters hold as part of their identity.
The next one is P-A-O, as in the common Chinese-American dish Kung Pao Chicken. It’s for Parties As Organizations. This refers to the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, and all of their sub-organizations and local affiliates.
P-I-G stands for Parties In Government. This refers to the party coalitions organized within a legislative body, such as Congress. While the terms ‘Democratic’ and ‘Republican’ are used to refer to political parties in all of these contexts, it is important to remember that parties really are serving different purposes in each of these different domains.
Learn more about how American democracy works.
Are Political Parties Unpopular?
One of the most fundamental institutions to any democracy is the political parties. Yet, they are often maligned in contemporary American politics. Part of the reason they are so unpopular is that this is currently an age with heightened partisan polarization. However, understanding how and why political parties came into existence helps with understanding US polity and their roles in it better.
Common Questions about What Political Parties Are and Why They Exist
A political party is a coalition of interests joined together in an effort to get its candidates elected and policies enacted.
Many of them thought political parties were dangerous and anathema to democracy. In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington, America’s first president, famously warned against the formation of parties.
For voters, political parties provide an informative signal about the ideas candidates’ stand for; for voters, parties are like brand names that help voters identify the candidates.