Ideological Parties: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 What is an Ideological Party?
  • 0:54 Different Kinds of Parties
  • 5:38 Dictating the Issues
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
The U.S. political system is built around (and for) two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans - but those aren't the only parties in town. Ideological parties, often lumped in with other third parties, have their own agendas, and their own definitions of victory.

What is an Ideological Party?

If you've heard the phrase 'a 2-horse race', you can probably already figure out what it means - that in a particular contest, there's really only two contestants who have a serious chance of winning. You can find '2-horse races' in just about any competitive walk of life, but no more so than in American politics, where a 2-party system has dominated electoral outcomes practically since the founding of the Republic.

This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't other 'horses' in the race. Though to the outside eye, it may look like those parties are riding a historic losing streak, to the members of those groups, the definition of 'victory' is measured differently than in the number of ballots cast. Ideological parties, made up of people committed to a particular set of beliefs, are dedicated to changing the American way of life, rather than just winning American elections.

Different Kinds of Parties

For someone watching the American political system from the outside, it probably seems sometimes like there are only two parties, which is not really the case. There are lots of other parties and lots of different kinds of beliefs. But despite this, there are currently only two parties in America that has any real chance of winning national-level elections: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

This wasn't always the case, of course; party politics really began in 1800, with the Federalists of John Adams facing off against the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson. For a while, of course, it was the Democratic-Republicans versus the Whigs.

What's odd about American electoral politics is that, though the names have changed and the boundaries of their geographic bases have occasionally moved, it has basically always been a 2-party system. There are several reasons for this. First, it seems that voters, in spite of occasional griping, prefer it (since third or alternative parties have never fared well). Second, with such a vast republic, only large national organizations can possibly compete. And since there are 50 states, and since every state has its own requirements for registering to be in an election, it's almost impossible for a small party to even get on the ballot.

But most of all, the real inhibiting factor for third parties is the winner-take-all system of electoral math we use. We have a majority rule system, under which the candidate who gets 50%, plus one of the votes, wins. Think, for instance, of the presidential election. Each state, in the U.S. system, is given a certain number of electoral votes, which is the number of U.S. Congressmen a state has plus its two senators. So, California, for instance - the largest state in the Union - has 53 members of the House of Representatives and two senators, so they have 55 electoral votes. The 'winner-take-all' system means the following: if the nominee of the Democratic Party wins the presidential popular vote in California by any margin - even by one vote - he or she gets all 55 electoral votes. This means that a 3rd-party candidate, who might get, say, 25% of the vote - which is a pretty fair amount of votes - gets exactly zero electoral votes!

What this means is that the two major parties have to appeal to as broad an electorate as possible to really win anything. Though it may seem odd to say so in the current, highly-partisan political climate, the Democrats and the Republicans actually agree on quite a lot. Though they may differ, for instance, on the proper role of the U.S. military, both parties agree there should be a military.

Ideological parties have a different agenda from Democrats and Republicans. The Communist Party of America, for instance, has never won a presidential election. In fact, its best finish was in 1932, when its candidate, William Z. Foster, got over a hundred thousand votes, and, because of the electoral 'winner-take-all' system, got exactly zero electoral votes. Since 1984, it hasn't even put up a presidential candidate, instead endorsing (much to their chagrin) the Democratic nominees.

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