Essay menjelang UTS


American Political Process examines both the formal institutions of government and organisations such as political parties and pressure groups. It analyses how these bodies interact in the making of public policy in the United States in order to provide an understanding of contemporary American politics.

Political scientists have frequently emphasised that democratic government in a modern industrial society would not be possible without political parties. Parties are not simply appendages of representative government; they are central to its effectiveness and play a positive role in it. They are organised attempts to select candidates for official positions, promote certain goals and objectives, and gain government power. The Constitution of the United States does not mention these informal institutions and George Washington warned against the ‘baneful effects of the spirit of party’. Since that time an American political culture has developed which has traditionally been  suspicious of strong parties and concentrations of authority, but political parties have been an integral and essential part of the American political system since its early days. In examining the workings of the three branches of the federal government, we have already seen the importance of

party for an understanding of American politics. American political parties have to operate within a very diverse society and a federal system of government; they have therefore tended to be broadly based coalitions of interests organised in a decentralised way rather than tightly disciplined hierarchical structures. American parties have traditionally been rather weak organisations compared to their counterparts in European democracies. American political scientists have often been concerned that this weakness has adversely affected the ability of parties to perform some of the key functions that they normally fulfil and, what is more, they have been organisations in decline, making them even less relevant to the American political system in recent decades. In this chapter we shall examine some of the characteristics of American parties and the party system, and investigate how far these concerns are justified.

The structure of American parties

A number of diffuse elements make up what is usually known as the American party ‘organisation’. Discussion of political parties can be complicated by the fact that they generally do not have fee-paying or card-carrying members. We therefore have to distinguishbetween the vast array of people with different sorts of connection and relationship tothe Democratic or Republican parties. Parties comprise the following groups:

1 The party’s voting support. Every election there are millions of Americans who vote regularly or sporadically for one of the parties’ candidates. These people, therefore, include both hard-core supporters and ‘independents’ who have decided to vote for the party in that specific year.

2 Registered party supporters. In identifying on a regular basis with one of the major parties, millions of voters are prepared to register themselves on the electoral list as ‘Democrats’ or ‘Republicans’ where state laws allow them to do so. Although they pay no subscription to the party, these registered supporters are the closest to being party ‘members’. In return for this public expression of support, they usually receive the right to participate in the selection of party candidates in primary elections.

3 Party activists. A much smaller number of Americans regularly play an active role in party politics. These people provide the voluntary labour at elections to mobilise voters, contribute money to campaigns, and may hold local committee positions. Party activists may also attend party conventions as delegates.

4 Party leaders outside government. In both parties there are leadership positions at local and state level as well as within the national organisation which are sought by the most dedicated activists. These leaders are often referred to as the party ‘professionals’ and they often exert considerable influence over the party’s administration and finance.

5 Party leaders holding government positions. For many Americans political parties are, in practice, the government office-holders who carry the party label at elections. The President is, of course, the national leader of one of the parties and the parties have their own leaders in each congressional chamber but there are also many important Governors and Congressmen who are seen as the party leaders within their own states and who can exercise control over the running of state and local parties. What is more, the voters’ image of the parties is, to a large extent, shaped by the personalities of its best-known political and governmental leaders. Political parties are often subject to very detailed regulation of their affairs by state laws, mostly originating from the Progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century when there was considerable concern about political corruption.


To understand the working of any political system it is important to gain an appreciation of a nation’s political culture – that is, the citizens’ collection of beliefs and attitudes towards government and their feelings about their own place within the system. The political culture of the United States has a number of distinctive features which have evolved as a result of its particular historical development. The term ‘American exceptionalism’ has been coined to emphasise the peculiar and unique characteristics of the nation’s culture and society that set it apart from other liberal democracies. The introductory survey in this chapter has pointed out the importance of the belief in the freedom of the individual and the suspicion and distrust of government control. Together these may be said to have given rise to an anti-authority political culture that has underpinned such movements as those opposing gun control and expressing hostility to taxation on the basis that it will be used wastefully by inefficient government bureaucracy. There has been a marked decline in trust in the federal government since the 1960s. Some of this may be accounted for by the upheavals and discontent following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal and the more adversarial role taken by the media since that time. However, the failure of government to deal effectively with major social problems and to meet public expectations have also played their part. Many surveys have demonstrated this trend. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in August 1997, for example, found that three-quarters of Americans distrusted the federal government despite the nation enjoying a prosperous economy at the time. The crisis following the 11 September attacks led, at least temporarily, to more people expressing confidence in the national government and backing measures to give it more power to protect the nation from further terrorist assaults. Americans have usually had a sense of optimism and confidence in the nation’s future which has been accompanied by a belief that individuals can succeed in America by their own efforts. A lack of deference and a relatively high degree of social equality have been associated with social and geographical mobility. A strong belief in equality of opportunity has coexisted with a substantial degree of economic inequality and lack of support for a socialist movement. A firm commitment to democracy and representative government has been counterbalanced by restraints on majoritarianism and a powerful appointed judiciary that can override the decisions of the elected branches. Finally, the esteem in which the Constitution and the rule of law are held has led to a society in which recourse to the courts to settle disputes and protect rights is commonplace.


——-. 2005. US Political and Government.


About Renny Candradewi Puspitarini

Lecturer at Panca Marga University Faculty of Social Science and Political Science Department of Public Administration

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