It seems that political parties just can't win in the eyes of professional commentators and the public at large. Either they're responsible for causing divisions in society by being "too partisan" or they don't stand for anything because they represent too many diverse interests.
These contradictory criticisms of parties are not new. Some of the founders of the United States famously saw political parties as sources of "intolerant spirit,"  a view that has persisted in contemporary times. At the same time we often criticize parties for lacking any coherent political program. The "laundry list" of issue positions produced by party committees - a result allegedly caused by the need for parties to unite enough interests in order to win elections - can often seem to be driven by pragmatism rather than principle.
Parties often do accentuate divisions in society while still uniting multiple groups within the electorate. They can be driven by ideology, while also bowing to the practical need to build coalitions to win elections. And their platforms often contain something for almost everyone, at the expense of a clear and specific vision.
Despite all of the complaints about parties, they perform roles that are critical to the operation of our democratic system and to the overall coordination and functioning of our political system.
First, they provide the means for millions of Americans, including Texans, to participate at various levels of the political system, as many of the convention delegates interviewed in this chapter's Getting Involved video feature illustrate. Second, in addition to providing opportunities for citizen input and participation, parties also engage citizens in a continuing political dialogue by helping to structure and present the issues of the day. Third, parties provide the glue that binds government vertically among the various levels of the political system, and horizontally across the nation.
These roles are replete with tensions - between principle and pragmatism, division and unity, vision and mere distribution of the spoils - that endow our political parties and the party system with a dynamism that powerfully shapes our political system. This chapter of Texas Politics examines how parties work, how they serve as mechanisms for representing societal interests in the political system, and how the history of parties in Texas both shaped and has been shaped by the particular historical forces within the state.
We organize our examination of political parties in Texas by focusing on several areas:
- The legal and ideological context in which parties operate
- The roles and functions of parties
- Interaction between political parties and government institutions
- The multiple ways that individuals can participate through political parties
- The evolution of political parties and party systems in Texas
- The prospects for change in the future
1 Alexander Hamilton, "Federalist No. 1" The Federalist Papers. link: http://memory.loc.gov/const/fed/fed_01.html