Patricia A. O'Malley
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Established 1993

An Overview of American Political Parties
March 5, 2012


Most of the American political debate centers on the two major parties – Democrats and Republicans. Today, most Americans are fed up with politicians and would like to eliminate political parties altogether, but it would never work. Aristotle noted that humans are political animals and will always form associations based on common beliefs and experiences. Or more succinctly, we spend our time with people who see life the same way that we do. Contrary to common belief, the US Constitution does not require a two-party system, or any parties at all. They’re not even mentioned.

A political party is an organization with a distinct view of the purpose of government and seeks to hold power in that government through the electoral process. In his farewell address to the nation before his retirement, George Washington warned us not to let the parties become too powerful. He said they too easily sink to pettiness and favoritism, and would distract from the important business of governing. Hmmmmm.

Thomas Jefferson said:  
"Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.  2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests.  In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.  Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object.  The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all." (Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73)

This is an abbreviated description of the most common political parties in the US, in their own words and in alphabetical order. Surprisingly, it’s very difficult to track down accurate membership figures, so those listed here are very approximate.

Communist Party USA, founded 1919. 15,000 members as of 2002.
The Communist Party USA is the party of and for the U.S. working class, a class which is multiracial, multinational, and unites men and women, young and old, employed and unemployed, organized and unorganized, gay and straight, native-born and immigrant, urban and rural, and composed of workers who perform a large range of physical and mental labor—the vast majority of our society. We are the party of the African American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, all other Latino American, Native American, Asian American, and all racially and nationally oppressed peoples, as well as women, youth, and all other working people.

The living standards of workers and the natural environment on which life depends are under constant attack due to the drive for maximum profits inherent in capitalism. Our party fights for jobs and economic security, a decent and rising standard of living, peace, justice, equality, a sustainable environment, gay rights, health care, education, affordable housing,  the needs of seniors, democracy, and a fulfilling life for everyone, with socialism as our goal. Only through the abolition of the capitalist system and the socialist reorganization of society can exploitation of human beings by others, and the evils of oppression, war, racism, environmental degradation, and poverty be ended. We seek to build a socialist society which puts people and nature before profits.

Yes, it is legal to belong to the Communist Party in the United States.

Constitution Party – founded 1992. 367,000 members as of 2011.  
Seven Principles of the Constitution Party are:

  • Life: For all human beings, from conception to natural death;
  • Liberty: Freedom of conscience and actions for the self-governed individual;
  • Family: One husband and one wife with their children as divinely instituted;
  • Property: Each individual's right to own and steward personal property without government burden;
  • Constitution: and Bill of Rights interpreted according to the actual intent of the Founding Fathers;
  • States' Rights: Everything not specifically delegated by the Constitution to the federal government, nor prohibited by the Constitution to the states, is reserved to the states or to the people;
  • American Sovereignty: American government committed to the protection of the borders, trade, and common defense of Americans, and not entangled in foreign alliances.

Democratic Party – founded 1792. 72 million members as of 2004. 
For over 200 years, Democrats have stood for the idea that wealth and status should not be an entitlement to rule. Democrats recognize that our country and our economy are strongest when they provide opportunity for all Americans—when we grow our country from the bottom up.

Democrats stand for an abiding faith in the judgment of hardworking American families, and a commitment to helping the excluded, the disenfranchised and the poor strengthen our nation by earning themselves a piece of the American Dream. We remember that our country was sculpted by immigrants and slaves, their children and grandchildren. Even today, it is our diversity above all else that provides us with our enduring strength.

Democrats believe that each of us has an obligation to each other, to our neighbors and our communities. Each of us has a role to play in creating our future—and while we have made great progress as a nation, we know that our work is never done.

Democratic Socialists of America – founded 1982. 10,000 members as of 2008. 
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is the largest socialist organization in the United States, and the principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International. DSA's members are building progressive movements for social change while establishing an openly socialist presence in American communities and politics.

At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. We are activists committed not only to extending political democracy but to demanding democratic empowerment in the economy, in gender relations, and in culture. Democracy is not simply one of our political values but our means of restructuring society. Our vision is of a society in which people have a real voice in the choices and relationships that affect the entirety of our lives. We call this vision democratic socialism — a vision of a more free, democratic and humane society.

Green Party – founded 2001. 304,796 registered as of 2005
The Green Party of the United States is a federation of state Green Parties.  Committed to environmentalism, non-violence, social justice and grassroots organizing, Greens are renewing democracy without the support of corporate donors.  Greens providereal solutions for real problems.  Whether the issue is universal health care, corporate globalization, alternative energy, election reform or decent, living wages for workers, Greens have the courage and independence necessary to take on the powerful corporate interests.  The Federal Elections Commission recognizes the

Green Party of the United States as the official Green Party National Committee.  We are partners with the European Federation of Green Parties and the Federation of Green Parties of the Americas.

Libertarian Party – founded 1971. 200,000 members as of 2006. 
Libertarians believe in, and pursue, personal freedom while maintaining personal responsibility.  The Libertarian Party itself serves a much larger pro-liberty community with the specific mission of electing Libertarians to public office. Libertarians strongly oppose any government interfering in their personal, family and business decisions.  Essentially, we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another. In a nutshell, we are advocates for a smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom.

Republican Party – founded 1856. 55 million members as of 2006. 

  • The Republican Party believes that the United States has been blessed with a unique set of individual rights and freedoms available to all. 

  • The Republican Party is inspired by the power and ingenuity of the individual to succeed through hard work, family support and self-discipline.

  • The Republican Party believes in the value of voluntary giving and community support over taxation and forced redistribution.

  • The Republican Party, like our nation's founders, believes that government must be limited so that it never becomes powerful enough to infringe on the rights of individuals.

  • The Republican Party supports low taxes because individuals know best how to make their own economic and charitable choices.

  • The Republican Party is supportive of logical business regulations that encourage entrepreneurs to start more businesses so more individuals can enjoy the satisfaction and fruits of self-made success.

  • The Republican Party is committed to preserving our national strength while working to extend peace, freedom and human rights throughout the world.

  • The Republican Party is guided by these principles as it develops solutions to the challenges facing America.

Tea Party – founded 2009. 67,000 members as of 2010.
The Tea Party movement is a grassroots movement of millions of like-minded Americans from all backgrounds and political parties. Tea Party members share similar core principles supporting the United States Constitution as the Founders intended, such as:

  • Limited federal government
  • Individual freedoms
  • Personal responsibility
  • Free markets
  • Returning political power to the states and the people

As a movement, The Tea Party is not a political party nor is looking to form a third political party any time soon. The Tea Party movement is instead about reforming all political parties and government so that the core principles of our Founding Fathers become, once again, the foundation upon which America stands.

There are several Tea Party Movement groups, including Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, and Tea Party USA.

Other Parties
There are about 80 other parties. Some are regional, some temporary, and some focus only on a few issues. Many of them have similar names. Some are splinter groups of others. There are a handful of parties with the words “independent” or “independence” in their names, but there is no such thing as “the independent party”. If you register to vote as an independent, then you are not registered in any party at all. State laws on independents voting in primary elections vary.

In most states, you are not required to list a party on your voter registration form.  In some states, it’s not even possible to do so. Every year, each state holds a primary election or caucus. In a primary election, the political parties – mainly the Democrats and Republicans – choose the candidates who will represent them in the general election in November.  States have different requirements for putting candidates on their ballots, so not all parties are on the ballot in all states every year. 

For more information
Communist Party USA  
Constitution Party
Democratic Party  
Democratic Socialists of America
Green Party
Libertarian Party  
Republican Party
Voting and elections in the US

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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

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