220 American Government and Politics
Spring, 2000

Kenneth Janda, Instructor

Week 5: Elite-Mass Linkage
Lecture 3: Party Reform

April 26

Questions raised in studying electoral systems in other countries and the nature of parties

  • There are many differences between electoral systems in the US and in Europe
    • The US has a fixed schedule of elections;
      • European countries have flexible schedules.
    • The US elects national, state, and local officials at one time;
      • national elections in Europe are usually for seats in parliament only.
    • The US elects members to congress from single-member districts;
      • outside of Britain and France, European countries elect slates of party candidates from multimember districts.
    • The US system emphasizes majority representation;
      • outside Britain and France, European systems emphasize proportional representation.
    • The US system downplays the importance of party in voting choice
      • European systems play up the importance of party in voting choice
  • There are many differences between the party systems in the US and in Europe
    • The US has a two party system
      • Only Britain even approaches a two-party system; most countries have multiple parties with genuine political importance.


What is the relationship of political parties to democratic government?

  • Most political scientists link political parties to democracy
    • Political parties created democracy
    • Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties
  • What is a political party?
    • There are two basic and contrary elements in definitions of a party:
      • Edmund Burke: a body of like-minded people united on a common principle.
      • Anthony Downs: Teams of elites competing for political office 
    • These elements conflict in all political parties, but to different degrees at different times:
      • The Democratic Party in the 1970s stressed liberals values over winning elections.
      • The Republican Party in the 1990s stressed conservative values over winning elections.
    • A minimalist definition:
      • An organization that sponors candidates for political office under the organization's name.
      • The NRA and NOW endorse and support candidates
      • but does not run them under the NRA or the NOW labels on the ballot
      • It these groups did that, they would cross the line separating an interest group from a party.
  • Why does the US have a two-party system? 
    • Due to electoral laws.
    • Due to political socialization.
    • Due to presidential government
      • The presidency is the ultimate prize in national politics
        • A majority of electoral votes is required to win the presidency
        • These electoral votes are decided by plurality rule in states
          • Thus, each of the 50 states acts as a "single member district"
          • Contending forces tend to coalese into two parties to win.
      • Third parties have little or no chance to win the ultimate prize.

The issue of party reform in American politics

  • The need for reform: Bill of indictments
    • Two parties don't provide enough choice
      • How many would you need?
        • Three?
          • There are no party systems in the world with 3 parties of comparable size.
          • Britain and Germany, at 2.5 parties, are closest to this concept.
        • Four?
          • A worker's party (Democrats)?
          • A business party (Republicans)?
          • A black party?
          • An evangelical party?
        • More than four?
      • To change the number of parties, one would have to change our Constitutional structure of government.
    • Our parties are Tweedledee and Tweedledum--they don't differ in their policies.
      • This argument is patently false.
    • There is too much money in politics.
      • The problem doesn't lie with the parties, but with the candidates.
      • Softmoney is not a problem, but a solution.
    • Party campaigns have gotten too long.
      • Speed up planetary motion.
  • The case against the need for reform
    • The US has had democratic government and a two party system for nearly 150 years.
    • If it's not broke, don't fix it.