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Definition: political parties from Greenwood Dictionary of Education

Distinctive social organizations whose principal objective is to place their avowed leaders into the offices of government. Political party systems are almost always in some interlocking relationships with other political institutions: as managers of election systems, as controllers of military and other national bureaucracies, as coalition builders among organized interest groups, as communicators with and through the media, and as civic educators. (cd)


Summary Article: political party
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Association of like-minded people organized with the purpose of seeking and exercising political power. A party can be distinguished from an interest or pressure group, which seeks to influence governments rather than aspire to office, although some pressure groups, such as the Green movement, have over time transformed themselves into political parties.

Politics, as an activity, has been practised for thousands of years, but political parties seem to have been largely a product of the 19th century, eventually epitomized by the major British parties, the Whigs and the Tories. Although the US constitution contains no reference to parties, the Republican and Democratic parties became essential elements of the political system, reflecting the country's history and social and economic structure. The one-party state, in which party and state institutions became enmeshed, was the distinguishing feature of the political system established in Russia by Lenin (and later Stalin) after World War I.

Edmund Burke defined a political party as ‘a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle upon which they are all agreed’. Political parties may also be defined as agencies of political mobilization which seek to exercise power directly. In this they may be distinguished from pressure groups which, though also agencies of political mobilization, do not seek to exercise power directly but to influence its exercise.

Origins The origin of political parties may be traced to the existence of political factions which appear to have existed in all states and political systems as far back as the ancient world. No matter what form of government exists, groups of individuals, with varying interests in common, tend to coalesce to influence or to direct the exercise of power. Inevitably, therefore, the distinction between parties and pressure groups is blurred.

In those monarchical states in Europe in which constitutional limitations over the sovereign developed, or in which the monarchy was replaced by republican forms of government, intra-legislative and extra-legislative parties developed. In England the factions within Parliament that supported and opposed the exclusion of James, Duke of York, as heir to his brother, Charles II, became Whigs and Tories respectively. Both names were originally terms of abuse, but became accepted by the landed families that formed the two factions that dominated politics until the emergence of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party in the 19th century.

Burke's definition is an important reminder that parties are often, though not always, based on ideological differences. Thus the Tories were identified more closely with the monarchy, the established Church, and the status quo, the Whigs with moderate social and political reform and laissez-faire.

With the development of a mass electorate, especially as a result of the Reform Act 1867, the recently emergent Conservative and Liberal parties began to form extra- legislative organizations. Despite attempts by Joseph Chamberlain, in the cases of the Liberals, and Lord Randolph Churchill, in the case of the Conservatives, to give the mass party organization some control over the parliamentary parties, the extra-legislative organizations remained subordinate to the latter. In the meantime other groups formed extra-legislative parties in order to secure representation in Parliament, the most notable instances being the various groups which eventually came together to form the Labour Party. Nonetheless, despite its extra-legislative origins the Labour Party has for the most part been controlled by its parliamentary leadership, although the Labour Party Conference has exercised a significant influence from time to time.

Types of political parties Parties developed in a similar way in the United States, with the eventual formation of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, and in most Western European countries. Such parties were, to varying degrees, committed to some form of democratic government. Other parties, however, rejected Western liberal democratic values and sought to establish authoritarian regimes. Notable among these were the fascist parties which secured power in Italy and Germany between the two World Wars, and the communist parties in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, mainland China, parts of Southeast Asia, and Cuba.

Parties may therefore be distinguished by their basic ideological commitment to the type of regime they seek to establish, but within that commitment they may be further distinguished by their degree of radicalism or conservatism, often referred to as Left and Right. Such terms are, of course, relative. Communist parties, Labour parties, and Social Democratic parties are generally parties to the left of centre; Conservative, Liberal, and Christian Democratic parties are generally to the right of centre; but the relative position of the centre tends to vary from country to country. On the whole, for instance, the political centre is further to the left in Western Europe than in North America. The ideological underpinning of parties may also include nationalism, regionalism, religion, ethnicity, language, culture, and so on, so that ideological classification tends to be complex.

Parties may also be classified according to the way in which they are organized. Membership, for example, may be open to anyone sympathetic to the party's policies and willing to pay a small subscription, or it may be limited and controlled. Power within the party may be highly centralized or dispersed and the membership may merely endorse the decisions of the leadership or it may have a meaningful impact on the determination of party policy. Finally, in systems which allow electoral competition between parties, parties may be classified according to the sources of their electoral support, which may be based on various socio-economic differences, such as class, religion, ethnicity, and region.

Party systems Parties may also be classified according to the type of party system in which they operate. The most useful classification is based on the extent to which a party system is competitive. Thus in the former Soviet Union the Communist Party was the only party that legally existed and there was no open electoral competition between candidates from rival parties for election. Such a system is known as the one-party system.

In other countries, such as India, electoral competition may exist between a number of parties, one of which, in this case the Congress party, governed continuously for 30 years; these are known as one-party dominant systems.

In countries such as the United States ,vigorous electoral competition exists between two major parties, each of which wins office from time to time, hence the nomenclature ‘two-party system’. Western European countries, however, have multiparty systems involving electoral competition between three or more parties. The reasons why the degree of electoral competition, where it is permitted, varies are extremely complex. There is a partial association between the existence of two-party systems and the simple plurality electoral system, which tends to discriminate electorally in favour of parties with the larger electoral support, but it is misleading to attribute multiparty systems to proportional representation systems which, as their name implies, give each party a number of seats in the legislature in proportion to the vote it receives.

In general, party systems are a reflection of the cleavages in the society in which they exist. A widely fragmented society, such as France, exhibiting many deep social cleavages, is likely to have a fragmented party system which reflects those cleavages and, where it is used, proportional representation serves only to reflect them more accurately in electoral competition. Ironically, for most of its modern history France has not used proportional representation. More homogeneous societies, such as Britain, are more likely to produce a two-party system, although it is important to point out that if proportional representation existed in Britain no party would normally win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. This is not to say, however, that proportional representation would necessarily alter the fact that electoral competition is primarily two-party.

There may also be important historical reasons why a two-party system exists, in that the parties may represent traditional lines of cleavage, as in the United States. Moreover, institutional factors may also be important: British government has institutionalized the roles of government and opposition, for instance, whilst the fact that the chief executive power of the United States is vested in a single person is regarded as an important factor in the creation and maintenance of a two-party system simply because the office of President cannot be divided. In France, for instance, the creation of a similar executive under the Fifth Republic has encouraged the parties of the Left to unite in support of a single candidate for president in opposition to their Gaullist rivals.

Party government The chief significance of political parties is that in many, though not all countries, governments are formed by parties and may be opposed by other parties seeking to replace the government. In some cases, as we have seen, it is by a single party, sometimes in a competitive sometimes in a non-competitive situation. In other cases the government may be a coalition of two or more parties this is commonly the case in multiparty systems, since often no party has a majority of seats in the legislature.

It is important, however, to distinguish between those instances in which the party is the basis of the government in that the existence of the government is dependent on the existence of the party, and those instances in which the government is the basis of the party in that the party exists merely as a support mechanism for the government. In countries as disparate as France, and the United States the former is the case, but in countries in which power is invested primarily in a single person, political parties, where they are allowed to exist, may only serve to support the regime. In either case, however, parties are important means of seeking to legitimize the actions and policies of governments, thus acting as agencies of political mobilization.

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