Illustration of an elephant and a donkey wearing red, white, and blue tugging a rope on capital hill

The elephant and donkey represent the Republican and Democratic parties. The groups differ on how the U.S. should be run.

Illustration by John Courtney

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1, L.6-8.4, L.6-8.5

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

JS EXPLAINS

What You Need to Know About Political Parties

These powerful groups have a huge say in who becomes an elected leader and how our country is governed. Here’s how they work.  

A single voice can be hard to hear. But when a huge crowd speaks, the message becomes much louder.

That’s the idea behind political parties. These are groups of people from the same country who share similar ideas about how they want their nation to be run. In the United States, the two main political parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. 

Political parties use the power of many voices to shape our country’s government and laws. They play a key role in determining who gets elected to local, state, and national office. 

But many of our nation’s founders didn’t even want political parties to exist in the U.S. Parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and George Washington, the first U.S. president, cautioned against their very formation. He warned that they would bitterly divide the nation. 

So how did these powerful groups become an integral part of our government and elections? Consider this your formal invitation to learn more about political parties—no RSVP needed.

A single voice can be hard to hear. But when a huge crowd speaks, the message becomes much louder.

That is the idea behind political parties. These are groups of people from the same country who share similar ideas about how they want their nation to be run. In the United States, there are two main parties. They are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

Political parties use the power of many voices to shape our country’s government and laws. They play a key role in determining who gets elected to local, state, and national office.

But many of our nation’s founders did not want political parties to exist here. Parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. And George Washington, the first U.S. president, cautioned against forming them. He warned that they would bitterly divide the nation.

So how did these powerful groups become a key part of our government and elections? Consider this your formal invitation to learn more about political parties. No RSVP needed.

Paul Kinsella/CartoonStoc

Since the early 1850s, every U.S. president has been either a Democrat or a Republican. As a result, the U.S. is considered a two-party system.

1. Why do we have political parties?

Despite George Washington’s concerns, early U.S. politicians quickly realized that forming alliances with like-minded people would help them carry out their ideas for government. 

That’s because the more members a political party has, the easier it is for that party’s candidates to win the most votes and get elected. And as more of a party’s candidates get elected, it’s easier for that party to enact its policies and pass new laws. 

“Politics is kind of a team sport,” explains Hans Noel, a political scientist in Washington, D.C. “You want to elect a bunch of people who will likely work together.”

Political parties also help their candidates by providing money and other kinds of campaign support.

Despite George Washington’s concerns, early U.S. politicians quickly realized that working together with like-minded people would help them carry out their ideas for government.

That is because the more members a political party has, the easier it is for that party’s candidates to win the most votes and get elected. As more of a party’s candidates get elected, it is easier for that party to enact its policies and pass new laws.

“Politics is kind of a team sport,” explains Hans Noel. He is a political scientist in Washington, D.C. “You want to elect a bunch of people who will likely work together.”

Political parties also help their candidates by providing money and other kinds of campaign support.

adamkaz/Getty Images

2. How do political parties help voters?

Americans use political parties to push the government to address certain problems. They vote for candidates whose party has pledged to handle those problems in a way they agree with. They can vote out leaders who don’t follow through. Americans can even create new parties if they think certain issues are being overlooked.

Political parties also simplify voting, says Dan Lee, a political scientist in Las Vegas, Nevada. Knowing a candidate’s party can indicate where that candidate likely stands on key issues, even if voters don’t know anything specific about the candidate, he says.

Americans use political parties to push the government to address certain problems. They vote for candidates whose party has promised to handle those problems in a way they agree with. They can vote out leaders who do not follow through. Americans can even create new parties if they think certain issues are being overlooked.

Political parties also simplify voting, says Dan Lee. He is a political scientist in Las Vegas, Nevada. Knowing a candidate’s party can indicate where that candidate likely stands on key issues, even if voters do not know anything specific about the candidate, he says.

3. How do the main political parties compare?

The Democratic and Republican parties tend to disagree on how involved the federal government should be in solving social problems and regulating business. Democrats generally think the government should play an active role, while Republicans generally think it should play a limited role. 

But both parties are so large that within each one, members hold a wide variety of views. There are also dozens of smaller political parties known as third parties. Only a handful of third-party candidates have gained widespread support in national elections, however, because the main parties are so dominant. 

The Democratic and Republican parties tend to disagree on how involved the federal government should be in solving social problems and regulating business. Democrats generally think the government should play an active role. Republicans generally think it should play a limited role.

But both parties are so large, each one has members holding a wide variety of views. Dozens of smaller political parties exist too. They are known as third parties. But only a handful of third-party candidates have gained widespread support in national elections. That is because the main parties are so dominant.

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