Political parties are organizations subscribing to an ideology or formed around a special interest, with the aim of attaining power within government. They participate in elections, select candidates for public office, mobilize voters, raise funds, articulate political positions, coordinate policy making, develop campaign strategies, and generate symbols of party identification and loyalty. Parties are rooted in political, religious, sectional, ethnic, racial, and/or economic class interests. Parties are frequently coalitions of groups espousing disparate interests. Persons who support a party’s candidates, espouse its policies, and work to advance its political objectives are partisans. An opposition party does not challenge the legitimacy of the government, but only its policies.
European political parties formed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to advise the monarchy. The model of a political party can be traced to Great Britain as the Tory and Whig parties fought for control of Parliament. Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) founded the first U.S. political party, the Federalists, in 1792 to support his fiscal and political policies.
Although a competitive party system is considered to be an essential prerequisite for political freedom today, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American thinkers were wary of political parties, faulting them for serving special interests rather than the public good.
Parties often were associated with treason and conspiracy. George Washington (1732–1799), the first president of the United States, in his “Farewell Address” deplored “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party” (Washington 1796, p. 226). John Adams , the second president, held that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution” (Adams 1851, p. 508). Political leaders who serve only the interests of their parties rather than the common good were condemned as corrupt. The Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans did not regard each other as legitimate opposition parties, but as threats to the republic that should be eliminated. When the Federalist Party collapsed in 1814, the political consensus that ensued—the “Era of Good Feeling”—was cited as evidence that the U.S. system had succeeded.
Others wrote more sympathetically and prophetically about the positive role that parties played in political life. Edmund Burke saw party competition as a necessary good. Famously defining a party as “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon particular principle in which they are all agreed,” Burke declared that “[p]arty divisions whether operating for good or evil are things inseparable from free government” (Burke 1925, p. 229).
One of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison , following the English philosopher David Hume, held in Federalist Paper number 10 that parties, or “factions,” could not “be removed” because they are rooted in man’s natural propensity to differ. The “mischief” of factions that cause, though, could be curbed by fostering a multiplicity of “factions and parties” that would render unlikely “that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of citizens.” If they do, sufficient impediments, such as bad roads and poor communications, would make it difficult for them “to act in unison” (Madison 1787, pp. 55–61).
Although there is no mention of political parties in the U.S. Constitution, political parties are a logical outcome of the constitutional system. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, both necessary conditions for the emergence of voluntary political organizations.