Materials developed by-
K. D. Kennedy
Political Science Department
College Of San Mateo

Lesson Twelve: Political Parties and Interest Groups

ReadingTest Material DiscussionLinks

Reading Assignment:
O'Connor and Sabato, Chapter 12, (pages 417-457) and Chapter 16 (pages 581-609)

Final Exam Material

These are clues to the multiple choice questions on the final from this chapter:


The Systemic Role of Parties and Interest Groups

One of the odd features of the Constitution is how little it says (almost nothing) about political parties. Consider that political parties exist in almost all political systems, it is startling that the founders spent so little time carving out an official role for them. Our first President even went so far as to warn against them (he called them factions) in his Farewell Address. The fact that they arose so quickly in our history and occur in almost every major political system suggests that parties play a significant if not crucial part in the operation of a political system. Let's look at that role.

First, in every system there is a need to generalize the specific citizen needs into demands or issues that the government can deal with. It would be awkward, for example, for the political system to respond to millions of citizens individually, interrogating them as to their needs and supplying them with specific remedies like a new refrigerator, automobile, better job or education. But those items can be the result of national policies for lower interest rates (so you can afford the frige), lower unemployment (more jobs) and a better school system. If everyone agreed on those priorities, AND which ones come first, we might need only one party. Differences over which groups of citizens the party wants to respond to form the differences in party platforms (in Europe called manifestos). So reflecting and transmitting felt needs and desires is a critical function of a system most often fulfilled by poltical parties. I want to emphasize that almost every system of governance will need to have this function fulfilled whether or not it is done by political parties or some other institution.

A second function of most systems (certainly all democratic systems) is "recruitment", i.e., how do we get new folks into the leadership roles at all levels. Political parties are a key conduit for recruitment. In very strong party systems they are virtually the only way to get to a leadership position. In one party systems (such as China, the old USSR) it is the ONLY way to get ahead in the political structure. The U.S. has a very "open" recruitment structure that is only loosely coordinated within the parties. Often, citizens make their way into the political structure by joining in a campaign for an individual or issue rather than working with the official political parties. In other countries, it can often be a bit more difficult to get accepted within the party of your choice.

A third function performed by political parties is "iconic". That is, the political party serves to "stand for" certain issues and reflects that in the candidates it nominates. We often rely on the fact that a candidate is a good "Republican" or "Democrat" and allow ourselves to gloss over the real stands the individual candidates are taking. In strong party countries such as Britain and Germany, there is less risk in doing this. Not only do the parties control who they nominate, but the party leaders command the allegiance of party members. Voting with the party in the legislative body (Parliament in Britain, Bundestag in Germany for example) can often be highly predictive along party lines (90% or better) where in the American Congress party predicts voting on issues only about 75% of the time and party leaders in the U.S. have few tools to command allegiance to the party. Additionally, American political parties are what the sociologist Roberto Michels called "mass" parties. They are large umbrellas for groups with varying and sometimes contending views. This does NOT mean they are the same (though they sometime sound like it). For example, recently President Bush argued for a tax cut (usually very popular). His tax cut will give the same percentage to every citizen (in theory) thereby giving the largest dollar return to those with the biggest tax bill (richest). The Democrats have argued for a smaller cut "targeted" to lower incomes. Both sides have marshalled their arguments, but whatever you say for one side or the other, they are different. The parties also reflect the differing groups that support them. You would expect that if they are fulfilling function one. But what about the "national" interest? Who speaks for that? That I suggest was Washington's question implicit in his farewell address.

American political parties are "weak" political parties. They can't control nominations (primaries), they don't have very good control of legislative votes, and they can't expel dissident, disagreeable or contradictory members. I'm not even sure what the word "expel" would mean in the American context. We seem to like this, but we pay a price in our inability to identify responsible parties when thing go badly. There is another price for weak political parties.


In a sense, interest groups play the same role in the system as political parties. They are mechanisms to transmit desires and views to the decision-making elements. They differ in that they aren't normally trying to run the government, just influence the outcome. They also tend not to represent broad elements of population, but rather to represent specific groups with a narrow rather than general focus. It may be the case that the U.S. has more interest groups (lobbyists) than most countries because it has weaker political parties than most. Weak political parties encourage citizens to use other means to influence government such as organizations which will represent some specific interest. With weak political parties and very expensive campaigning, the U.S. is a prime target for interest group money. This can give some groups more influence in specific areas than the political parties.

Further Reading

A set of works on presidential campaigns can be found in:
Wayne, The Road To The White House, 1996, St. Martin's Press or the 1992 version.

Also, try out the movie "Primary Colors" if you haven't already seen it. Also an older movie "The Best Man" is a good "convention" movie. Additionally, "The Candidate" is also worth looking at.


This area contains links to sites that have material that applies to the subject. The text sites are included as the first links.

The text site
The text site
The Campaignline site
Common Cause campaign studies
Campaign finance reform
The inside scoop on interest groups and money


K. Kennedy