Government » American Political Parties » What Are Parties and How Did They Form?

Summary and Main Ideas


Political parties are vital to the operation of any democracy. Early U.S. political parties were formed by national elites who disagreed over how to divide power between the national and state governments. The system we have today, divided between Republicans and Democrats, had consolidated by 1860. A number of minor parties have attempted to challenge the status quo, but they have largely failed to gain traction despite having an occasional impact on the national political scene.

Practice Questions

  1. Why were the early U.S. political parties formed?
  2. What techniques led the Democratic Party to national prominence in the 1830s through 1850s?

Sample Answer:

Early parties were electoral coalitions of elites, mostly in the U.S. Congress. They were mostly designed to help win House elections and the presidency, but they quickly expanded activities to the state level.


party platform: the collection of a party’s positions on issues it considers politically important

personal politics: a political style that focuses on building direct relationships with voters rather than on promoting specific issues

political machine: an organization that secures votes for a party’s candidates or supports the party in other ways, usually in exchange for political favors such as a job in government

political parties: organizations made up of groups of people with similar interests that try to directly influence public policy through their members who seek and hold public office

third parties: political parties formed as an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties, also known as minor parties

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