Movement Parties

Herbert Kitschelt. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. 2006. Sage Publishing.


Movements, interest groups, and parties are the main vehicles of political interest articulation and intermediation. Students of political parties do not commonly employ the notion of ‘movement party’ as a formal concept with a specific terminological content. To supply such content is the first task of this chapter. In a nutshell, I characterize the transition from movement to party as one in which political entrepreneurs change the institutional setting in which they operate and make investments in an organizational infrastructure of collective action as well as procedures of social choice that create collective preference schedules (‘party programs’). Political entrepreneurs in movement parties shift to the institutional site of partisan electoral competition without making requisite investments in overcoming challenges of collective action and social choice that party politicians encounter in electoral and legislative arenas. I then sketch theoretical arguments accounting for the conditions under which political entrepreneurs switch from extra-institutional movements to movement parties as their primary vehicle to bring societal interests to bear on policy-making. Next, I turn to the circumstances that induce politicians to convert movement parties into political parties pure and simple or to stick to the movement party hybrid. The remaining two sections illustrate the general theoretical considerations with two applications. The first of these discusses the trajectory of ecological parties, one variant of a broader party family I have called ‘left-libertarian’ parties. Many of such parties originate in social movements and, at least initially, choose organizational forms that embody principles of ‘movement parties.’ The second application is concerned with what can very broadly be termed the far right in the party systems of advanced postindustrial democracies. Although such parties do not typically originate in social protest movements, right-wing political entrepreneurs have a tendency to adopt organizational models and tactics consistent with the analytical type of movement party. But like ecology parties, they then face challenges that compel them to reconsider their organizational forms and programmatic appeals or face electoral demise.

Movements, Parties, and Movement Parties

It is a well-known problem that the boundaries between different modes of collective political interest articulation figuring under the rubrics of movements, interest groups, and parties are empirically fuzzy (cf. Burstein, 1998). Nevertheless, we can identify conceptual types that are more or less approximated by empirical manifestations. At least two dimensions of properties allow us to differentiate modes of interest articulation in democratic polities: institutional and functional criteria.

First, actors advance collective interests in three different institutional arenas through distinct types of practices. If they participate in institutions of territorial democratic representation through competitive multi-candidate elections to legislatures, teams of candidates for electoral office and their supporters form political parties. If they band together to influence and bargain with politicians in legislative and executive institutions through the provision of information, persuasion, financial contributions to parties within the bounds of legality, or the credible threat of withdrawing electoral support from electoral office-holders, they constitute interest groups. Finally, if they resort to ‘street politics’ of protest and disruption in pursuit of a collective purpose outside or against the institutionalized channels of political communication and politicians inserted in them—whether in a non-violent or a violent fashion—they participate in political movements (cf. Della Porta and Diani, 1999: 13-16). Empirical organized vehicles of collective interest mobilization may practice all three strategies, but each with a characteristically different profile of emphasis on protest, influence through institutional channels, or electoral contestation.

Second, borrowing from Aldrich (1995), we may distinguish vehicles of political interest mobilization not according to institutional, but functional criteria by the extent to which such vehicles invest in solutions to problems of collective action and problems of social choice. The coordination of collective action in time and space requires resources such as human labor and capital equipment that organize social communication, induce participation, and effect cooperation among members of a large constituency of potential contributors. Organizations exert power by conferring the capacity to mobilize people in disruptive action, lobbying, or voting on a constituency and its leaders. But the extent to which entrepreneurs mobilize resources for political organization varies across practices of collective interest articulation.

Social movements geared to disruptive protest build little organizational structure to solve problems of collective action. They therefore have a limited spatio-temporal reach and can bring together large numbers of participants only for short periods of time. Interest groups and political parties, in contrast, embody greater investments in organizational structure that extend their spatio-temporal reach. They define membership roles, predictable contributions to the organizational effort (member fees, fund drives), an organizational structure with a division of labor among political professionals, and a chain of command, whether its members are recruited by election or appointment.

In functional terms, political entrepreneurs make investments in enhancing collective action capabilities only if such efforts and resource expenditures are warranted in order to reach collective objectives. This is the case where entrepreneurs anticipate that the salient objectives of collective mobilization amount not to a single-shot collective decision—e.g. abolish child labor, enfranchise women, prevent the stationing of nuclear armed missiles—but a temporally sustained and spatially extensive mobilization of constituencies whose pursuit requires continuous refinement and updating of specific objectives. The issue of child labor turns into that of industrial relations more generally, that of nuclear arms into the issue of defense policy, and so forth.

Political entrepreneurs overcome problems of social choice if they construct a single collective preference schedule over jointly pursued objectives in a collective mobilizational effort, even though each individual participant may subscribe to a somewhat divergent individual preference schedule over salient collective goals. Just as the solution of collective action problems, the production of a collective preference schedule requires labor and capital resources assembled in organizational structures to coerce or bribe members’ compliance with collective objectives, or to sustain a participatory process of interest aggregation that commands the voluntary compliance of all constituency members involved. The collective preference schedule, manifested in organizational ideologies and policy programs, is the result of hard organizational labor and deep resource investments distributed over an often protracted collective process of learning.

Again in functional terms, entrepreneurs invest in the construction of a complex collective preference schedule over manifold objectives that overcomes the problem of individual preference heterogeneity only if salient collective objectives cannot be decomposed into separable modules and ‘contracted out’ to independent vehicles of interest mobilization. In other words, entrepreneurs incur the transaction costs of organizing compliance around a complex set of collective objectives only if each salient collective objective is interdependent with every other salient collective objective. Analytically, social movements and interest groups simplify problems of social choice and thus reduce organizational transaction costs by isolating decomposable collective objectives. They lower the cost of organizational compliance building by focusing on relatively simple objectives: environmental protection, but not population control; wage bargaining, but not abortion rights. By contrast, if entrepreneurs mobilize around complex, intrinsically interdependent collective objectives, they form political parties.

So far, I have developed only (1) a semantic convention of how to name efforts of collective mobilization with different investments in solving problems of social choice and collective action, and (2) a task structure based logic that gives rational political entrepreneurs incentives to choose a particular mode of mobilization from the available menu. Interestingly, the resulting fourfold table leaves a cell that is rarely discussed in theories of political mobilization, but may sometimes play an important role. Where individuals invest resources in the refinement of collective objectives, such as the development of political programs and ideologies, but then do not organize collective action in operational terms, they constitute the ‘organic intellectuals’ (Antonio Gramsci) of a societal constituency that may orient collective action, once other leaders step in and organize interest groups and parties.

The interesting theoretical problem that leads us to the issue of ‘movement parties’ now consists in examining the interface between functional, i.e. task structure related, and institutional incentives for choosing different collective mobilizational vehicles. Functional incentives may direct political entrepreneurs toward one mode of mobilization (say, movements), but empirically they choose another (say, political parties). Why would such discrepancies occur? And what happens empirically when political entrepreneurs choose an organizational form that expresses a mismatch between institutional arena and functional profile of movement demands? For example, what happens if social movement entrepreneurs who address spatio-temporally discrete and substantively separable stakes therefore invest little in solving problems of collective action and social choice, but nevertheless enter the field of party competition?

Before addressing these questions in the next two sections, let me introduce another set of linguistic conventions that label all the logically feasible configurations with a mismatch between functional incentives of a task structure to invest in an organizational infrastructure of collective social choice on the one hand, and institutional incentives to coordinate around a particular mode of collective mobilization, on the other. The ‘congruent’ modes of mobilization run diagonally from the top left (disruptive causes making few investments in solving problems of collective action and social choice) to the bottom right (causes that seek electoral representation and invest both in solving problems of collective action and social choice). The object of this chapter, however, ‘movement parties,’ constitute an incongruent option located in the top right of the table.

Movement parties are coalitions of political activists who emanate from social movements and try to apply the organizational and strategic practices of social movements in the arena of party competition. This entails several things. First of all, they make little investment in a formal organizational party structure. Movement parties may have no formal definition of the membership role. Anyone who comes to a meeting or activity of the party is considered a ‘member’ in the sense of entitlement to participation (and voting on motions, where it is called for). Movement parties also lack extensive and intensive formal organizational coverage. They lack a staff of paid professionals and a physical infrastructure of communication (offices, vehicles, etc.).

Second, social movement parties invest little in the process of solving problems of social choice. They lack an institutionalized system of aggregating interests through designated organs and officers with authority to formulate binding decisions and commitments on behalf of the party. The way movement parties diverge from the institutionalized type, however, varies widely. At one extreme, movement parties may be led by a charismatic leader with a patrimonial staff and personal following over which s/he exercises unconditional and unquestioned control. At the other extreme, movement parties may attempt to realize a grassroots democratic, participatory coordination among activists. Here all relevant decisions are taken in assemblies of activists and implemented by delegates elected to very short non-renewable tenure in representative political offices, whether they are intra-party or legislative. Both charismatic patrimonialism and grassroots democracy lead to a capricious, volatile and incomplete collective preference schedule. Attention is devoted to a small set of issues, while many others are neglected. The pursuit of these salient objectives may be inconsistent and contradictory.

Third, in terms of external political practice, movement parties attempt a dual track by combining activities within the arenas of formal democratic competition with extra-institutional mobilization. One day, legislators of such parties may debate bills in parliamentary committees, but the next day, they participate in disruptive demonstrations or the non-violent occupation of government sites.

The transition from movement party to any other form of party then involves investments in either organizational structure or modes of interest aggregation. Whether or not political activists are ready to make these investments, however, depends on circumstances discussed below. Furthermore, exactly what it means that politicians invest in organizational structure and modes of preference aggregation depends on exogenous factors such as technology (modes of communication, transportation) and human capital (e.g. level of education in an electorate). The conventional model of the mass membership party that was embodied by socialist workers’ parties and Christian confessional parties in Europe from the late 19th to the last third of the 20th century in this perspective constitutes a specific expression of investments wedded to an age with weak electronic mass media and a comparatively uneducated population by standards of the early 21st century.

From Movement to ‘Movement Party’

There is no a priori guarantee that politicians choose the ‘correct’ institutional arena, given their objectives and their ability to make investments in solving problems of collective action and social choice. Why, then, would social movements sometimes constitute movement parties? At least four theories, outlined below, have attempted answers to this question. The last two are theoretically and empirically the most relevant for democratic polities.

First, the evolution of political forms may be a matter of political learning through trial and error. Social movement activists may realize that their stakes really entail a comprehensive reorganization of society rather than singular measures of policy reform. As they develop broad-ranging ideologies and programs, they clash with established political parties on a wide variety of political issues. Movement entrepreneurs at that point may decide to enter the competitive electoral arena with a new party.

Second, the transition from movement to movement party may be a special case of a game with incomplete and asymmetrical information (Hug, 2001). Movement entrepreneurs have ‘private information’ about the size of the constituency that would support them, were they to enter the arena of party competition with the movement’s political appeals. Politicians in established parties may discount the threat emanating from the entry of movement entrepreneurs into the electoral arena and not embrace the objectives sought by such entrepreneurs because they do not properly assess the magnitude of defection from their own party in case of continued intransigence. But the premise of the game-theoretical model, namely the informational advantage of external challengers, may be misleading. If anything, conventional parties have much better knowledge of the electoral landscape than their potential challengers because they have the resources to collect information, e.g. through opinion polls.

Third, whether or not movement entrepreneurs enter electoral politics depends on the interplay between the intensity and salience of their constituents in pursuit of the movement interest and the barriers to entry created by electoral laws and other formal or informal thresholds that restrict the growth of a new challenger (e.g. party finance, access to electronic mass media). A movement entrepreneur will enter the arena of party competition with some prospect of success only if barriers to entry are sufficiently low so that the expected electoral support level provides a reasonable prospect of winning an electoral quorum entitling the new party to legislative representation. The entire literature on electoral laws and party system format bears on this question (cf. Taagepera and Shugart, 1989; Lijphart, 1994; Cox, 1997). Systems of proportional representation with low thresholds of representation are more forgiving and should stimulate a greater proliferation of movement parties with, at least initially, narrow issue appeals than polities with high barriers to electoral representation.

While the literature on party entry finds evidence confirming this general hypothesis, the amount of statistical variance explained by electoral laws is often quite mediocre. The number of parties and new party entry varies substantially across similar electoral systems. Furthermore, hardly anywhere does the number of relevant political parties approach Cox’s formula of m+1, the number of candidates elected in a district plus one.

This is where, fourth, spatial theory of party competition, drawing on social and political mobilization of conflicts of interest in society (‘cleavages’) comes in. Only where an intensely felt, salient political interest harbored by a quantitatively significant constituency lacks representation in the existing party system are movement entrepreneurs likely to enter the electoral arena. But in contrast to signaling models in game theory, it is not ignorance that prevents existing electoral parties from competing for the newly mobilized constituency but a rational calculation of voter trade-offs. Existing parties may refrain from trying to win (or hold) voters motivated by hitherto unrepresented, but salient, issue positions simply because they figure that such appeals would alienate significant other elements of their electoral constituency whose loss would equal or outweigh the support of the newly mobilized constituency.

Social movement entrepreneurs may enter electoral politics not necessarily with the ex ante expectation to establish permanent parties. It suffices that they think of their effort as creating ‘blackmail parties’ (Sartori, 1976) that force established parties to take the electoral trade-offs of alternative programmatic appeals and constituency representation seriously. Movement parties are there to mix up the legislative agenda and to get issues discussed and decided that otherwise might be swept under the carpet by established parties for fear of dividing their own electorates.

Party formation then results from the interplay between the formal and informal barriers to entry into the game of electoral competition movement entrepreneurs encounter and the intensity of hitherto unrepresented political interests in the existing spectrum of political parties. Social movement parties are most likely to appear where (1) collective interests are intensely held by a large constituency willing to articulate their demands through disruptive, extrainstitutional activities, (2) established parties make no effort to embrace such interests for fear of dividing their own electoral constituency and (3) the formal and informal thresholds of political representation are moderate to low.

Preserving or Abandoning the Mode of Movement Party

When parties invest in organizational structure and an extensive and intensive refinement of their programmatic reach, they abandon the mode of movement party in favor of one of the remaining types listed in Table 23.2. What makes the continued existence of movement parties feasible or compels them to change by penalty of extinction in case of resistance? Three theoretical answers to this question have inspired the literature.

The first is a principal-agent model and goes as far back as 1911 (Michels, 1962), but also underlies more recent treatments such as Panebianco (1988). According to this model, the exigencies of electoral competition sooner or later induce the entrepreneurs of the movement party to abandon the interests of their constituencies by choosing organizational forms and strategies that are geared to the pursuit of votes and legislative office more than constituency service and by toning down disruptive, extra-institutional protest in favor of legislative politics of bargaining and electioneering. A party leadership, supported by a professional staff of functionaries, makes its peace with the societal status quo, abandons or at least waters down the unique organization and objectives of the movement party and creates a wide hiatus to political preferences and aspirations of the rank-and-file activists and constituencies. The main problem of this popular theoretical argument is that it does not take seriously multi-party electoral competition, generating an exit option for voters and party activists if they are dissatisfied with a leadership. In a democracy, unaccountable agents will find the ranks of their principals thinning out. Increased gaps of representation result in voter defection to other existing parties or the entry of new challenging parties, contingent upon institutional entry conditions. Because incumbent politicians anticipate this reaction, they stay sufficiently close to the heartbeat of their constituencies so that radical dissenters who exit usually can only take small elements of an established party’s following with them.

A second theoretical strand makes a more plausible argument why politicians invest in addressing problems of collective action and social choice. It builds on learning from institutional incentives. Legislatures are organs of territorial representation that are not functionally constrained in their policy agenda. In a system of territorial rather than functional representation, anything and everything can become a salient subject of the legislative agenda. Passing the annual government budget highlights the thematic diversification of legislative politics and compels territorial representatives to take a stance on a wide range of issues. Parties and politicians therefore cannot easily refuse to develop positions on large areas of the legislative schedule that are salient to at least some other politicians and their constituencies and instead confine themselves to a single or a small number of issues on which they have an articulate position. Social movement parties often experience chaos of internal coordination when they are compelled to articulate positions on issues outside their primary purview. This appearance of disarray and lack of internal coordination may prompt voter defection from the party and ultimately the movement party’s demise. After winning a first round of elections on an issue-specific ‘movement partisan’ appeal, in preparation for subsequent rounds of competition it therefore often becomes imperative for party politicians to generalize the party’s appeal in programmatic-ideological terms. For those critical minorities of rational voters who are information misers, but respond to the programmatic cues set by parties and therewith may often at the margin decide the difference between victory and defeat of parties in elections, a moderately coherent party program simplifies the act of electoral choice. Knowing a party’s position in highly general left-right/liberal-conservative terms and/or a few issue positions enables such voters to predict the parties’ positions on many other issues without having to incur high search and information costs. For rational information misers, it is more attractive to vote for a predictable, coordinated party than an unpredictable movement party.

The institutional theory, like the principal-agent theory, however, has the problem of underpredicting the tenacity of movement parties. While, in general, it may be true that institutional cues may spell the demise of single-issue or narrowly focused parties competing over multiple rounds of electoral politics, there are counter-examples that illustrate the occasional viability and resurgence of movement parties. One way to fix this problem is to bring in more institutional arguments, for example about the ballot format and the candidate nomination procedures in electoral politics (cf. Carey and Shugart, 1995; Morgenstern, 2003), in order to account for greater or lesser incentives for politicians to produce coherent programmatic parties. But, as Morgenstern (2003) shows, it may be necessary to bring in the cleavage structure of a polity to account for the diversity of party strategies in identical institutional settings.

A third theory, therefore, builds on a spatial-programmatic interpretation of party competition as a configuration of party alternatives aligned in a very low-dimensional space of programmatic party alternatives that capture relevant salient issues (cf. Hinich and Munger, 1994). In direct contrast to the Michelsian principal-agent model, it is the principals themselves who indirectly compel the agents to adjust their programmatic positions. They are rewarded or punished based on their political achievements. In other words, the strategic conduct of a movement party and its competitors influences the preference distribution among electorates. Voter preferences, in turn, feed back into a party’s strategies by rewarding or punishing it in elections.

The support of militant organizational forms and narrow, salient objectives that defy the institutional incentives, practices, and ideological justification depends on the strategic configuration in which a movement party is placed. Following Gamson (1990), let us distinguish the impact of movement politics according to procedural and substantive gains, the former indicating the inclusion of the movement party in procedures of policy-making (such as cabinet membership), the latter indicating the change of policies salient to movement parties in line with their objectives. Perversely, the more a movement party achieves in terms of procedural gains and/or substantive policy change, the more it may change its voters’ preferences or salient interests such that the party experiences growing pressure to abandon its existing profile of organization and policy appeal.

Social movement parties are most tenacious and durable where governments and established parties make neither procedural nor substantive concessions. As long as the issues at the heart of a movement party mobilization remain salient, the party is likely to thrive. Where substantive, but no procedural concessions are forthcoming, the movement party may feel pressure to hedge its bets by expanding its thematic purview and generalizing its message so that it remains attractive, even if the constituency for whom the movement party’s core issues are decisive were to shrink. Next, where movement parties achieve procedural inclusion and substantive concessions on policies relating to their core objectives, they demonstrate competence to their constituencies that gives them a lease on life. At the same time, procedural inclusion in policy formation entangles a party in many decisions on issues that are far removed from its original core objectives. Particularly as a party’s original core issues may become less salient due to policy reform, it becomes critical for the party to diversify its appeal while simultaneously showing consistency in its pursuit of objectives based on a programmatic-ideological framework.

The worst situation for a movement party undoubtedly occurs when it achieves procedural concessions, such as cabinet participation, but gains little in terms of substantive concessions. The urgency of thematic generalization is here very intense, as the party’s rationale for existence can no longer be credibly defended with its original substantive policy objectives. In fact, social movements supporting such objectives may abandon the party so that it has to find entirely new electoral support groups. In most instances, therefore, inclusion without policy concessions should lead to the demise of a movement party and its displacement by existing parties or a new entrant renewing the struggle of the deceased party.

A special case of the configuration with procedural inclusion but substantive exclusion exists where a bipolar configuration of competition among established parties may enable a new party that has hitherto been in the opposition to tip the balance of forces toward victory or defeat of one partisan camp. In that instance, movement parties will be hard pressed to declare which side of the bipolar opposition they are willing to support. Even voters who emphasize a movement party’s core issues may attribute a great deal of weight to which side wins government control and how victory affects the overall complexion of salient public policies. To become a credible and calculable player in this game, voters will want the movement party to generalize its issue appeals.

Matching Partisan Competition, Organizational form and Strategic Appeal: The Experience of Ecological Movement Parties

Movement parties confined to the opposition benches with few opportunities to influence government policy or little leverage to change the make-up of governments have the easiest time to preserve a fluid movement party structure, configured around grassroots democratic principles or charismatic authority. Examples abound, however, that the strategic salience of a new movement party for government formation makes a thematically narrow interpretation of the parties’ policy objectives around the core concerns of social movements highly unattractive even for voters sympathetic on the parties’ core issues. New parties running under the labels of ecology, environmentalism, and Green politics in the 1970s and 1980s provide evidence for these propositions.

Ecological movements generated their own electorally successful parties only where such movements were (1) strongly mobilized, where simultaneously (2) no existing party already represented the issue position and where there was (3) a history of center-left governments and corporatist interest intermediation. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, environmentalism and corporatism were strong, but left-socialist parties adopted ecology and feminism in the 1970s and 1980s and thus left little room for a successful new ecology party. Furthermore, even under the most favorable structural circumstances, tactical conditions facilitated or impeded the successful emergence of ecological movement parties. They grew most successfully at times when their appearance was unlikely to upset the chances of the center-left to govern. Thus, the German and Austrian Greens began to grow strongly only when the social democrats had already lost office or been forced into a coalition government. In Belgium and Switzerland, conditions of government formation made ecology parties strategically irrelevant for the bargaining power of social democracy throughout the 1980s. It is no accident that in all cases of electoral success, Green or ecology movement parties soon began to generalize their ideological appeal in order to create a closer match between the imperatives of territorial representation and electoral accountability, on the one hand, and the legislative appeals and activities of the new parties, on the other.

Ecological movements failed to form successful movement parties where the competitive balance between government and opposition would have impaired the chance of the moderate left to govern. This applies to Britain and France in the 1970s and 1980s and to Sweden in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What is more important, although partially endogenous to the strategic configuration among conventional parties, the ecology parties in all three countries refrained from generalizing their programmatic claims beyond the domains broadly related to energy and the domestic or global environment. Because all three countries already had radical left-socialist parties (France, Sweden) or party factions (Britain) on the left of conventional social democratic or socialist parties, ecologists initially found it unattractive to adopt a left-leaning general programmatic profile. But in all three cases, their strategy to situate themselves outside the generalized left-right programmatic-ideological spectrum and insist on a narrow core issue driven movement party appeal produced electoral failure. Voters caring about ecology were not prepared to support parties that ultimately might hurt the chances of the conventional center-left to govern a country. In France and Sweden ecology parties eventually gained substantial electoral support when they became partners of conventional social democratic parties.

Placed in a very different structural and strategic situation than their British and French counterparts, the German Greens embarked on a programmatic generalization almost from their inception and developed complex party manifestoes by the mid-1980s. Here also, their electoral stability and performance have been wedded over the past twenty years to the party’s willingness to make a credible commitment to center-left government coalitions, whenever such arrangements appear feasible in legislatures. With some delay, the same center-left alignments paid off for the Austrian and the Belgian Greens. In all instances, government participation intensified the urgency of programmatic generalization, as ecology parties had to take stances on and bargain with government partners on issues covering a wide variety of policy areas.

The development of general political programs did not come easy in ecological and other left-libertarian parties. Even the core demands concerning environmental protection, feminism, and peace or security policy have a somewhat disjointed character (cf. Talshir, 2002). Matters are further complicated by questions of economic distribution. The linkage among different elements of Green or left-libertarian ideology does not result from logical necessity or normative theoretical stringency, but from the coalitional structure of economic and cultural interests configured around left-libertarian parties, especially those of the young, well-educated, disproportionately female professionals mostly with jobs in the non-profit and public personal service sector (Kitschelt, 1994).

The organizational structure of the ecology parties was initially molded in the image of a grassroots democratic movement party with member assemblies making most decisions and holding elected office-holders in rotating appointments on a short leash. But both the framework of legislative institutions as well as the exigencies of bargaining and governance when ecology parties had strategic leverage over government formation and ultimately ministerial portfolios compelled Green activists and politicians to undergo an organizational learning process in which critical elements of the original governance structure were abandoned. Rather than being punished for a process of internal reform that amounted to ‘selling out to the system,’ however, voters rewarded the parties for their strategic flexibility and programmatic generalization and punished them for strategic intransigence in external bargaining and for organizational chaos in internal processes of interest aggregation. Such changes in the organization of ecology parties include a longer tenure and stability of office-holders in the party apparatus or in electoral office as well as greater reliance on principles of formal delegation and representation (cf. Burchell, 2002; Müller-Rommel and Poguntke, 2002).

All this is not to say that the process is unilinear and irreversible, nor that ecology parties are asymptotically approximating the organizational structures of conventional parties in postindustrial democracies. They still stand out as ‘framework’ or ‘cadre’ parties with very low member/voter ratios. Furthermore, political decision-making in ecology and other left-libertarian parties tends to be more participatory and less predictable than in other parties because of substantial internal diversity of political opinions and factionalism. Furthermore, ecology parties at times have responded to incentives promoting a return to organizational patterns and strategic appeals common to the movement party. This is the case where disruptive ecological protest movements intensify and/or where ecology parties lose their strategic significance for government formation because conventional center-left parties are too weak or coalesce with parties of the center right. Instead of following Michels (1962) and postulating an ‘iron law’ of organization, amounting in this case to an irreversible transition of ecology parties from the type of ‘movement party’ to that of a conventional center-left ‘programmatic party’ supplementing social democracies in forming governing coalitions, it is more plausible that the parties follow contingent structural and strategic incentives that make a return to the pattern of movement party possible, if circumstances are conducive. Where the incentives lead away from movement parties toward organizational investments in party structure and ideological investments in programmatic generalization, ecology parties that stick to the profile of movement party are destined to fail in elections.

Movement Party Appeal without Movement Support? The New Radical or Extreme Right

Setting left-libertarian parties aside, there is one other cohort of new parties that has made electoral inroads in many postindustrial democratic polities. These parties are variously called radical right, extreme right, right-wing populist, right-authoritarian, or new radical right. There are family resemblances and overlaps among all parties nominated as members of this cohort. But these parties also vary in how they emphasize and combine positions on at least five programmatic elements: (1) aspects of political governance (democracy/authoritarianism; modes of interest intermediation through popular participation, the ‘political class,’ corruption etc.), (2) social exclusion (multiculturalism; immigration and immigrant culture); (3) nationalism (also integration of the European Union); (4) moral traditionalism (family, women, reproductive rights); and (5) economic distribution and governance (scope and redistributive thrust of social policies and taxation, regulation of market participants). Rather than disputations over the ‘correct’ general definition of the current extreme right, it is probably more productive to account for different expressions of rightist forces in different polities, identified by the positions they articulate on these five dimensions.

The concern of this article is not with the growth and profile of these parties more generally, but only with the extent to which they articulate practices and strategies of ‘movement parties.’ As in the case of left-libertarian parties, the electoral rise of radical rightist parties presupposed the presence of salient issue positions that remained unrepresented by existing conventional political parties and thereby made possible the entry of ambitious political entrepreneurs into the arena of party competition. Unlike ecology parties, the growth of new rightist parties does not coincide with strong, disruptive movement activities. It would therefore be wrong to claim that such parties grow out of movements. On the one hand, they may constitute substitutes for movements. Extreme rightist violence against immigrants and cultural minorities may be empirically lower where rightist parties are stronger (Koopmans, 1996). Rightist parties preempt or contain rightist violence. On the other hand, the rightist parties themselves have served as initiators of disruptive protest events against immigration, European integration, high taxes, and so forth. With regard to their strategy and tactics of expressing interests and grievances, extreme rightist parties are thus ‘movement parties’ only in the sense that they create or displace social movement practices.

Relatively little systematic comparative research exists concerning the organizational structure of rightist parties in postindustrial democracies. They tend to exhibit, however, certain traits common to movement parties, namely a lack of investment in solving problems of collective action and social choice. They have generally small formal memberships, as measured by member/voter ratios. Their organizational structure is quite fluid and often characterized by feuding cabals of rival activists, resulting in considerable instability of collective decision-making and political representation in legislatures and party executives. At the same time, the informality and fluidity of many right-wing extremist parties does not primarily derive from bottom-up participatory politics promoted by rank-and-file activists, but from the dominance of a single or of a handful of rival charismatic political leaders who govern the party in a despotic, patrimonial fashion. Fissures, splits, and succession crises at the level of national and regional leaders are therefore common to right-extremist parties. Organizational stability of extreme rightist parties is predicated on the undisputed control of a party by a single charismatic individual.

In terms of the programmatic generalization of the rightist parties’ strategic appeals, the evidence is mixed and controversial in the scholarly community. Let us distinguish here the level of party leaders’ external appeals and of voters’ policy preferences. In terms of the leaders’ pronouncements, it is clear that rightist parties have highlighted single-issue positions, such as opposition to immigration, to European integration, to high taxation, to clientelistic practices among politicians belonging to ‘cartel parties’ (Katz and Mair, 1995), to women’s reproductive rights, or to environmental regulation. In a way theoretically characterized by Hinich and Munger (1994), however, these may be salient issues of the day that politicians ‘map’ on underlying broad ideological dimensions that are indirectly communicated to voters. While rightist politicians emphasize currently salient single issues, they take care to formulate them against an ideological background dimension that makes them compatible with a host of other potentially consistent policy positions.

The electoral and organizational development of various extreme rightist parties illustrates the importance of combining intense single-issue appeal with a broader programmatic coherence of philosophy and political values. The Danish and Norwegian Progress parties started out in 1972/73 as protest affairs against high progressive income taxation. Once in parliament, they discovered, however, that there is a great deal more to the politics of taxation than a simple change of tax rates. The resulting legislative disarray of the parties translated into their electoral decline in subsequent elections. They made a comeback only in the 1980s when they could combine a renewed and diversified single-issue appeal, now including anti-immigration platforms, with a more comprehensive programmatic grasp that signaled to voters where they stood on issues that separate left and right in their respective party systems. Incipient right-wing radical parties have not always succeeded in bringing about an electorally winning issue and programmatic appeal. Examples of a failure to achieve this combination include the Swedish New Democrats in the early 1990s, as well as the German Republicans. The most spectacular instance of failure is probably Pim Fortuyn’s list before and after the 2002 Dutch parliamentary election. Out of nowhere the culturally divisive, ethnocentrist appeal of this new party in an environment characterized by the post-9/11 shock, economic decline, and the centripetal convergence of the existing major parties made it the second strongest party in the Dutch parliament. But lacking a broad programmatic collective preference schedule and stripped of its charismatic leader who fell victim to an assassin days before the election, it took only a few months until the party broke apart as a result of conflicts over numerous policy issues and was virtually wiped out in new legislative elections.

Also at the level of right-wing party voters, there is little support for the idea that a single-issue could carry the day for a party. Right-wing voters tend not to be protest or single-issue voters (see van der Bruget al., 2000). While they attribute great importance to the issues made salient by the charismatic leadership of right-wing parties, they express a broader configuration or profile of beliefs and preferences that is distinctly different from left and left-libertarian voters and partly different from voters of the conventional center-right parties. While there have been disputes about the extent to which extreme right party voters also support market-liberalizing economic policies, even manual working-class voters supporting the extreme right do not endorse social democratic and left-libertarian redistributive economic policies.

Both at the level of elite programmatic appeals and popular preference profiles among electoral supporters of the extreme right, we need not assume that the right wing’s ‘winning formulas’ are perfectly static and uniform in time and space. The Italian Lega Nord under Umberto Bossi certainly provides a vivid example of how quickly parties controlled by a single individual can recast their appeal and electoral coalition, contingent upon the changing strategic configuration of partisan politics (Ignazi, 2003: 53-62). What is relevant for the analytical concern with ‘movement parties,’ however, is that in the overwhelming number of cases right-wing extremists articulate broader programmatic concerns that set them apart from the pure model of movement party, even though their leaders’ appeals often focus on individual issues and even though such leaders may initiate movement activities, such as marches and demonstrations, to promote the popular salience of their parties’ core issues.

As in the case of left-libertarian parties, organizational and strategic elements consistent with the type of movement party become particularly controversial when extreme rightist parties exercise decisive influence over the political complexion of governments and sometimes join government coalitions (cf. Minkenberg, 2001). Being compelled to take responsibility for a wide variety of policies and to bargain with coalition partners whose issue and ideological positions differ from those of their own party, extreme rightist parties often exhibit intense internal strain that may translate into the demise or the reorganization of the parties.


Movement parties are transitional phenomena, but not in the linear sense the tradition from Michels (1962) to Panebianco (1988) has suggested. The main problem is not a systematic tendency of ambitious, self-interested party leaders, as agents, to abandon the interests of their principals, whether they are party activists or electorates. Effective inter-party competition domesticates the rent-seeking propensities of political leaders, where liberal democracies with full civil and political rights prevail.

Movement parties are unstable, because a variety of incentives nudge politicians and their constituencies towards accepting organizational structures and strategic appeals inconsistent with those of movement parties. The institutional premises of territorial representation in legislatures make programmatic generalization of issue appeals at the expense of the emphasis on single issues attractive to both voters and party politicians. Whereas institutional incentives operate permanently, other incentives for politicians in movement parties to change their practices and appeals may exist only intermittently. At least three such conditions may induce politicians to move away from the profile of movement party: a declining salience of the core movement issue that originally inspired the mobilization; a policy reform consistent with movement demands; and the incorporation of the movement party in government executives that are forced to take responsibility for a wide variety of salient political issues. All these conditions do not imply that movement parties are impossible. But they lead to the prediction that movement parties, in the analytical characterization provided in this chapter, are comparatively rare phenomena.