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When the Founders of the American Republic drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution, they did not envision a role for political parties. Indeed, they sought through various constitutional arrangements — such as separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches; federalism; and indirect election of the president by an Electoral College (see below) — to insulate the new republic from parties and factions.
In spite of the Founders’ intentions, the United States in 1800 became the first nation to develop nascent political parties organized on a national basis to accomplish the transfer of executive power from one faction to another via an election. The development and expansion of political parties that followed was closely linked to the broadening of voting rights. In the early days of the republic, only male property owners could vote, but that restriction began to erode in the early 19th century as the result of immigration, the growth of cities and other democratizing forces, such as the westward expansion of the country. Over the decades, the right to vote was extended to ever larger numbers of the adult population as restrictions based on property ownership, race and sex were eliminated. As the electorate expanded, the political parties evolved to mobilize the growing mass of voters as the means of political control. Political parties became institutionalized to accomplish this essential task. Thus, parties in America emerged as a part of democratic expansion, and, beginning in the 1830s, they became firmly established and powerful.
Today, the Republican and Democratic parties — both of them heirs to predecessor parties from the 18th and 19th centuries — dominate the political process. With rare exceptions, the two major parties control the presidency, the Congress, the d the state legislatures. For instance, every president since 1852 has been either a Republican or a Democrat, and in the post-World War II era, the two major parties’ share of the popular vote for president has averaged close to 95 percent. Rarely do any of the 50 states elect a governor who is not a Democrat or a Republican. The number of independent or third-party members of Congress or of state legislatures is extremely low.
In recent decades, increasing numbers of individual voters classify themselves as “independent,” and they are permitted to register to vote as such in many states. Yet, according to opinion polls, even those who say that they are independents normally have partisan leanings toward one party or another.
An exception to this general rule can be found at the local level, particularly in small cities and towns where candidates may not be required to declare any party affiliation or may run as part of a slate of like-minded office-seekers under the banner of a particular local initiative — such as downtown redevelopment or school construction.
Although the two major parties organize and dominate the government at the national, state, and local levels, they tend to be less ideologically cohesive and programmatic than parties in many democracies. The ability of the major parties to adapt to the nation’s political development has resulted in a pragmatic domination of the political process.