Party Transformations: The United States and Western Europe

William Crotty. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.

The function of political parties is both to adapt to social transformations and to enable the society to manage its divisions in a peaceful manner. It is the role of the parties to identify the demographic and other cleavages found in the population; to offer policy programs providing competing resolutions to the paramount problems of the time (and, not incidentally reflecting the core interests of their base); and to mobilize support for their positions sufficient to elect their candidates and to realize their issue agendas. Parties’ responsibilities include: forming coalitions, establishing policy commitments, selecting candidates, and mobilizing voters. In the process of such critical democratic linkage functions, they coalesce electoral support among relatively like-minded groups, respond to their needs, and attempt (through government action) to address those needs once in office. It can be viewed as a continuing cycle of identification and resolution, one vital in keeping a democracy viable and responsive to the concerns of its citizens.

As John H. Aldrich (1995) writes, at any one period in time parties can be identified and contrasted both in terms of their social mission and the manner in which they choose to approach it. A party is structured

in a particular context—in terms of problems it is constructed to address …. The party is created to address a central, defining problem and institutionalized to resolve it over the long term. … that problem changes over time and with it the form of party that political elites create to seek to resolve matters in their favor. … The historical context yields different concerns … and these well may have … a consequence that particular sets of institutional arrangements within these very broad constraints are better choices for politicians seeking to resolve those differing problems on favorable terms.

The demands of society change, and the parties change to meet them. In this sense, parties are derivative institutions, reflecting the nature and concerns of the society that develops them. The following posits the fundamental functions parties address and examines the conceptual and empirical explanations given for the parties’ systemic evolution. The focus is on Western Europe and the United States, beginning with the latter. In the conclusion, some thoughts are offered as to the consequences of the transformations under way. The most basic objective in such an analysis is to assess the qualitative aspects of change as they relate to implementing a liberal (in the classic sense), representative, and democratic governing order.

Party Functions in a Democratic Society

Parties are of core importance to the conduct of fully representative democratic politics. Although they are seldom broadly perceived in such a positive light, a democracy cannot operate without a vital, competitive, and responsive party system (Schattschneider, 1960, 1942; Dalton, 2002; Hofstadter, 1969; Aldrich, 1995; Coleman, 1996; Crotty, 2001a, 2001b).

Table 43.1 Functions served by the parties
  • Parties-in-the -Electorate
  • Simplifying choices for voters
  • Educating citizens
  • Generating symbols of identification and loyalty
  • Mobilizing people to participate
  • Parties-as- Organizations
  • Recruiting political leadership and seeking governmental office
  • Training political elites
  • Articulating political interests
  • Aggregating political interests
  • Parties-in-Government
  • Creating majorities in government
  • Organizing the government
  • Implementing policy objectives
  • Organizing dissent and opposition
  • Ensuring responsibility for government actions
  • Controlling government administration
  • Fostering stability in government

Source: Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000: 5.

V.O. Key, Jr. (1964), the most influential of American social scientists in laying the foundation for the study of political parties, distinguished three levels of party activity: the party-in-the-electorate; the party as organization; and the party-in-government. Building on this tripartite classification, Russell J. Dalton and Martin P. Wattenberg (2000) subclassify the functions served by a party in a democratic society. These are listed in Table 43.1. In abbreviated form, they can be summarized as follows:

  • mobilizing voters and organizing electoral choice;
  • including a mass electorate in political decision-making;
  • recruiting a nation’s political leadership through its policy-making and administration of public affairs in regard to the most pressing social concerns, while remaining accountable to the needs of its base-level supporters.

The basic questions given this agenda, then, are: How well do the contemporary political parties perform the functions critical to a democratic society? How and with what degree of success do parties adapt to societal pressures? What drives party transformations? How can such change and its broader consequences be accounted for and evaluated?

Foundations of Party Change

Social change leads to party transformations. One of the basic elements in this process is the nature and consolidation of the parties in the social fabric of a nation, measured in this case by levels of party support and the impact of party affiliations on voter decision-making. Another, is the question of the parties’ ability to mobilize voters to the extent that the mass electorate, at a minimum, participate in elections. Thirdly, there is the question of accountability, in the sense of how representative the parties are in reflecting and responding to the views of their electors and being held responsible for their actions and policies through the medium of elections.

We begin by looking at the American system in detail, and then suggest that it may be indicative of the movements affecting party systems throughout the Western world.

The Parties’ Roots in the Electorate

It has been fashionable in recent decades to speak of the political parties’ weakening hold on the electorate (Burnham, 1970; Wattenberg, 1991, 1998; Crotty, 1986; Dalton, 2002; Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000; Lawson and Merkl, 1988). Much of the debate has focused on what has come to be referred to as ‘party decline’. Basically the argument is that parties fulfill their electoral function less satisfactorily, and that non-party groups, individuals, and for-hire consultants have become increasingly important in financing candidates and winning campaigns. The parties have become further separated both from their base in the electorate and, with the party reform movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, even lose control of the choice of the candidates who run under their label.

Possibly the most damaging aspect of the ‘decline’ literature has been the emphasis on the increasingly distant relationship between the parties and their supporters or identifiers and, as a consequence, the declining impact of the parties on electoral decision-making. To fully appreciate the argument, it is necessary to go back to the earliest of the national, survey-based, empirical studies of mass party affiliation and its prominence in determining election outcomes. These initial studies had shown party identification to be the principal factor influencing voter choice (Campbell et al., 1960, 1966; Miller and Shanks, 1996). A series of later studies questioned the primacy of the parties’ influence, emphasizing instead the increasing importance of issue positions in electoral decision-making, reflecting the changing nature of the times, of policy importance in a campaign, and of a candidate’s appeal (Pomper, 1972; Pomper and Lederman, 1980; Nie et al., 1976).

In broad terms, and looking at the electoral system as a whole (as against the forces influencing individual choice), the shift appears to have begun in the mid- to late 1960s. Walter Dean Burnham (1970) spoke of what he called ‘party decomposition’ and ‘long-term electoral disaggregation’. Burnham and others have developed this argument by focusing on the ‘dealignment’ of the electorate from the parties, that is, the increasing independence of voters in deciding on candidates and being influenced by issue positions in a campaign. These emphases have led to a decreasing impact of party affiliation on the electoral decision. Burnham contends that the election of 1968 ushered in a new era in American politics, one in which ‘the parties were decisively replaced at the margins by the impact of the “permanent campaign”’ (Burnham, 1970; see also Paulson, 2000).

Others have taken up the cry. A number of studies have demonstrated a substantial decline in party identification over the four to five decades (or more) since the party identification measure was introduced. The early years which provided the baseline for subsequent studies and in which much of the theorizing was built came to be called the ‘stable-party period’. More recent decades have seen volatility and unpredictability in voting outcome that have undermined the stability produced by the decisive influence of party loyalty in determining the vote.

As party ties have weakened, there has been a concurrent rise in the number of Independents. Three characteristics stand out about the increase in the independence of the electorate. First is the reconfiguration of the composition of the Independent bloc. It was once considered the most apathetic, most ill-informed, and least politically involved of all party-related voting categories. In more recent times, the move towards the Independent group in the electorate has shown quite the opposite trend: those with high levels of formal education, the better-off economically and more professional occupations with greater political sophistication and more issue sensitivity in deciding their vote are coming to dominate the Independent bloc. Those groups closest to the political extremes, the least knowledgeable and the least well-off in society, and the least active as well as the most knowledgeable and better-off (and considerably more politically active), combine in the Independent category. The influx into this category of those who traditionally would have been considered the most atypical of Independent voters has been taken as a sign of disillusionment with, and potential rejection of, the contemporary parties.

As a consequence, the Independent vote has increased in importance in deciding election outcomes. The images associated with the parties are less positive and less compelling for such voters (Crotty 2001a, 2001b; Owen et al., 2001; Wattenberg, 1991, 1998; Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000). The shifts in voter alignments have also resulted in a major decline in party-line voting (i.e., the correlation between voting for the same party at different levels of the electoral system, roughly 0.80 in the first decades of the twentieth century, has come down to levels of 0.4 and 0.3 in more recent elections). Split-ticket voting has become a staple of contemporary elections and what has come to be called the ‘candidate-centered campaign’ dominates the current political scene. The changes in party relevance are directly correlated with demographic factors such as income, formal education, lifestyles, occupation, and age (the oldest voters in the electorate are the most partisan, the youngest -and those entering politics during the height of the Vietnam era—the least partisan). Dealignment tendencies increase as one systematically moves towards younger voter groups.

Within a restructured political environment, what then is the role of the parties? The parties do not disappear, but their ability to shape voting decisions within the electorate and to attract mass support has been threatened. Martin P. Wattenberg writes: ‘most voters now view parties as a convenience rather than as a necessity’. He goes on to reassert the historic importance of parties by posing the question that brings into relief the transitions under way: ‘regardless of whether the public recognizes it or not, parties are necessities for structuring the vote. Political scientists have long recognized the indispensable functions performed by parties, and dealignment has only reinforced this view. … the key question then is not whether political parties can survive in an atmosphere of dealignment, but whether they still perform many of their key functions’ (Wattenberg, 1991: 32).

Not everybody accepts this critique. Warren E. Miller argued for the continued importance of party identification as a principal force in structuring voter decision-making (Miller, 1990, 1998, 2002; Miller and Stokes, 1996). Miller contends that the events associated with the late 1960s and the early 1970s—the war in Southeast Asia, Watergate, political assassinations, widespread disorder and violence, the civil rights revolution, counter-culture demonstrations against authority—did significantly affect young adults during this time period and thus have had a lasting impact on the quality and intensity of this age group’s ties to the parties. The impact of these events was less pronounced in influencing the party loyalties of older generations. As Miller (1998: 115) put it:

the larger impact of the anti-politics debate seems to have been a generational effect: The young reacted to the events of the period more sharply and possibly even more permanently than did the older cohorts. It was the refusal and delay of the young in accepting partisan ties, not the lasting rejection of the loyalties once held by their elders, that produced the indicators of dealignment in the mid-1970s.

Given this, future partisan identifications might have been expected to continue to fall off, but:

the post-1976 evidence points to an increase in the incidence of party attachments among the young and strengthening of their partisan sentiments.

… where the strength of partisan sentiments is concerned, a pervasive upturn since the 1970s has been led by the same young cohorts whose original entry into the electorate was dominated by non-partisans. Each of the younger cohorts who contributed so much to the apparent national dealignment has experienced a dramatic increase in both the incidence and the intensity of partisan sentiments in each of the elections of the 1980s as the political climate normalized. Their level of attachment … remained much below the norm that we associate with their generational counterparts in the 1950s, but primarily because they started from such an abnormally low point when they first entered the electorate. They have in fact made a large contribution to the national indications of renewed partisanship. (Miller and Shanks, 1996: 109)

Miller contends that party identification, while showing changes in intensity and in the comprehensiveness of affiliation, remains a powerful influence on and predictor of the vote (Miller, 1990, 1996, and with Goldstein and Jones, 2002).

In many respects, the contending sides may not be as far apart as they appear. Partisan identification has declined (and other factors have increased in importance accordingly) but it is still significant for those who vote. The parties do not reach out as systematically or as effectively as they might to organize or draw into the electorate the less politically sophisticated non-voters or members of minority groups. Failure to mobilize non-voters is a fundamental weakness of the modern party system (Conway 2001a).

While substantial disagreement exists as to the extent of partisan dealignment and its consequences, it pales in significance compared to efforts to explain the future directions of parties. A realignment of the New Deal party system, one that would reinvigorate it and position it as a force of primary relevance in contemporary politics, has long been anticipated. Miller claims a realignment did occur in the 1960s and in the Reagan era, and Burnham and Paulson (among others) also view 1968 as a critical realigning election or period. None of these candidates to be called realigning elections, however, reached significant groups in the apolitical strata of the electorate or fundamentally changed the cleavage system supporting the major parties. On the other hand, Wattenberg and others would argue that Americans perceive the conventional party system as irrelevant to the resolution of the major issues of the day and that because the political parties are seen as less relevant, or irrelevant, a realignment is non-functional and unlikely (Wattenberg, 1991, 1998; Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000).

The issues may appear technical and remote from everyday concerns. In truth, the argument is over the importance of the political party in determining election outcomes and in structuring choices for the mass electorate. The future of the parties’ role in all of these scenarios at best is unclear and at worst assumes a weak and diminishing significance. Given Burnham’s (and others’) contention that parties are the most effective agencies ever created to organize and represent mass electorates, and since there are no obvious contenders to fill this role, these are not encouraging signs.

Several conclusions can be asserted with some degree of certainty: the current parties are less significant than they were at the height of the ‘stable-party period’ in the 1950s; their impact on voter decision-making is more in question today than in earlier times; political candidates run now on their own initiative; the parties’ contribution, beyond supplying links to fundraisers, consultants and pollsters, is minimal; and the future of the political parties in these regards is speculative and uncertain.

Parties and Democratic Mass Mobilization

A chronic problem, and one of the most extraordinary failures of the political parties and the political system more generally, is voter turnout. The United States has consistently had one of the lowest voter turnouts among industrialized nations. It is not a welcome situation for those who believe democracy means the participation of all, or as many as possible, in deciding a nation’s direction.

E.E. Schattschneider has called the rate of participation in elections ‘the sickness of democracy’. He raised the question as to what is ‘the limit of tolerance of passive abstention’ within the American system. As Schattschneider (1960: 104) notes, the problem is severe and ‘it points out a profound contradiction between theory and practice in American democracy’:

Every regime lives on a body of dogma, self-justification, glorification, and propaganda about itself. In the United States this body of dogma and tradition centers about democracy. The hero of the system is the voter who is commonly described as the ultimate source of all authority. The fact that something like 40 million [in the 1950s] adult Americans are so unresponsive to [the] regime that they do not trouble to vote is the single-most truly remarkable fact about it.

More recently, the overall level of participation in elections has hovered at around one-half of the eligible voters in presidential contests (49.1% in 1996, 50.7% in the 2000, and 57% in 2004) and one-third to 40 percent in mid-term congressional races.

Schattschneider goes on to make the point that the major way of stimulating significant change in public policy is through an expansion of the political community and that extensions of the electorate have been a by-product of party conflict. Political parties are the principal agents for creating a more inclusive electorate and for expanding the frontiers of democratic decision-making (Keyssar, 2000). The evidence is that they are not doing an acceptable job in these regards. The consequences could be grave: ‘If we have lost the capacity to involve an expanding public in the political system, it is obvious that American democracy has arrived at a turning point’ (Schattschneider, 1960: 98).

There is a distinct pattern dividing participants and non-participants. Those less likely to vote include those with the least formal education, those of lower socioeconomic status, minorities, the less well-off economically, younger people, and those not affiliated with a political party or having a low level of interest in campaigns or election outcomes.

It could be contended that America has a class-driven electorate: those of higher socioeconomic status participate in politics, while those of lower socioeconomic standing do not. This pattern of a class-divided turnout and a low rate of participation is not found to the same extent in democratic nations with more encompassing and active party systems (Dalton, 2002).

One argument has been that those who choose not to vote participate in other ways. Such is not the case. M. Margaret Conway writes:

Citizens of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in several kinds of political activities, including organizational and campaign activities and contacting public officials as well as voting in elections [than those of lower socioeconomic status]. They also perform each of these activities more frequently. This pattern of more frequent performance of several types of political activity by persons of higher socioeconomic status does not occur in all developed democracies. In some countries, social and political organizations mobilize individuals of lower socioeconomic status and bring them to levels of political activity similar to those attained by the middle class. (Conway, 1991: 21)

The advantages of professional and economic status are magnified, not lowered, when other forms of political participation are examined (Verba et al., 1995).

Registration barriers to the vote have lessened substantially in recent decades, although the American system of personal registration presents more of an obstacle than that experienced in other countries. Yet as registration barriers have weakened since the 1960s, the participation levels have not increased (Flanigan and Zingale, 1994: 46). No one has a clear answer as to why, or what can be done to increase overall participation in the long run. An estimated two-thirds to 70% of registered voters participate in elections, a turnout comparable to most advanced industrial nations.

A general disillusionment with politics and detachment from the political system appear to play a significant role in explaining low turnout. Two general sets of factors can be identified as important. One can be labelled ‘social connectedness’, or the extent to which individuals are integrated into the community, and the other ‘political connectedness’, the extent to which they believe a political presence important and politicians and parties relate to their concerns and can address their problems (Teixeira, 1980; see also Wolfinger and Rosenstone, 1980; Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993). The designations get at the basic idea of a disconnection from the political system that appears to affect millions of Americans.

Voter mobilization and the extension of the bounds of participation in the political system are functions of the individual parties and the party system more generally. The evidence is they are doing a poor job. In terms of expanding the voting pool to include the interests of the less well-off and those without other political resources, they have been lacking. This can contribute to the picture of a party system more unified and cohesive at elite levels and designed to service such elites in election campaigns and in office, but one deficient at the mass level.

Some class and economic interests fare better than others. They do so because they participate in politics. The parties and candidates confine their campaign appeals to the known or most likely voters in the established voting universe, preferring not to venture into uncertain waters through expensive and unpredictable efforts to mobilize those with weaker political attachments. The result, in effect, is a middle-class electorate. Its interests are the ones both parties choose to address in campaigns. Unfortunately, it is one that excludes around one-half of those potentially eligible to vote.

A constantly underrepresented electorate limits the possibilities for structural change. The same voters repeatedly participating in elections have fashioned a middle- and upper middle-class electorate, one to which both parties have adapted. Representation for the groups identified as participation-oriented places policy and strategic boundaries on the parties seeking to win office, ones that confine the issues publicly debated and the parties’ sensitivity to these. Agenda redirection or expansions of the voting pool would likely occur only under the most extraordinary of electoral circumstances.

Explaining Party Change: Secular and Critical Realignments

The most basic of questions in parties’ research is how to approach and understand party developments over time in a meaningful manner. It is to this concern we now turn.

In broad terms, there are two prevalent approaches to identifying and explaining party change. One is to look at party votes and operations in an individual election or for a specified period and compare them to previous research on the parties’ appeals and approaches. This is a fundamentally incremental form of analysis.

Somewhat similar is the concept of ‘secular realignments’ as developed by V.O. Key Jr. Key identified and suggested the foundation for two realigning developments. A secular realignment involves gradual but identifiable party transformation or change in individual group coalitional affiliations over a significant period of time. ‘Critical elections’ or ‘critical realigning periods’, by contrast, are intense, short-term transformative patterns that rearrange the party and political landscape on a permanent basis. While secular realignments are always on-going to some extent, critical realignments are rare.

A few cautionary notes: First, the conceptual and taxonomic approach identified is based on the American experience. Secondly, ‘any … gross characterization of elections presents difficulties in application. The actual election rarely presents in pure form a case fitting completely any particular concept.’ Still, and despite the variety and diversity of forces acting on the electorate, the political parties, and the society, he argues that ‘a dominant characteristic often makes itself apparent’ (Key 1955: 17). Finally, this is still very much a body of work in progress.

Secular Realignments

Considerably less spectacular than critical realignments, but also considerably more frequent (to an extent, they occur in all elections) are secular realignments. They are often difficult to discern and to analyze meaningfully in any given election. Such a conceptual approach:

supposes the existence of processes of long-run, or secular, shifts in party attachment among the voters … [E]lection returns merely record periodic readings of the relative magnitudes of streams of attitudes that are undergoing steady expansion or contraction … [T]he rise and fall of parties may … be the consequence of trends … that … persist over decades and elections may mark only steps in a more or less continuous creation of new loyalties and [the] decay of old. The slow rate at which that process may occur suggests the potency of the frictions to change built into the electorate by its attachment to old symbols, old leaders, [and] old parties. (Key 1959: 198; emphasis added)

Such elections, with their gradual—at times virtually imperceptible—changing alignments, are the norm in party politics.

Such a secular reconstitution of support patterns is subtle in any one categorical group in a particular election. It is usually not readily apparent as a contribution to a long-term redefinition of the parties’ coalitions. Different patterns of voting for individual parties are likely to swing in one direction or the other, depending on the candidates and electoral circumstances, before flattening out in a cumulative and permanent repositioning. In many cases, a cause for confusion is the occurrence of a given group of voters shifting their proportion of the vote in favor of their party or the opposition, but remaining predominantly loyal to their original party choice.

The changes can be difficult to detect and are not usually obvious in any one election, but require a series of election outcomes to become apparent. Differences in party votes by demographic groups from one election to another, usually small though occasionally substantial, can be driven by an issue or a candidate attractive to or more representative of the interests of a particular voting bloc.

This approach is the most prevalent form of party analysis, and can be done exceedingly well. The series of books (since 1980) by Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rhode on Continuity and Change … focusing on successive elections and the party, demographic attitudinal, candidate, and issue/ideological factors that drive the vote and affect the parties’ coalitional support (as well as its impact on the outcome) illustrates the explanatory power of the perspective (see Abramson et al., 2002, as an example). Each election and its party voting configurations are critiqued independently and within a longitudinal and comparable conceptual framework that stretches back to the original The American Voter (Campbell et al., 1960), whose approaches have dominated the field since. The research by Abramson, Aldrich, and Rhode and its refined application in subsequent elections provides the most in-depth, intensive, and comprehensive understanding of the parties’ shifting group alignments and their impact on election results.

Another series of edited quadrennial studies of presidential elections, appearing immediately after the final vote count, critiques the parties, their appeals, and the consistency of their voting blocs; the issues dominant in the campaigns; the appeal of the candidates; the resource base (financial, organizational, extra-party group involvement) of the parties and their candidates; the primary processes; the campaign strategies of the contenders; and the significance of the election results for policy priorities in the new administration. These include a number of studies edited by Gerald M. Pomper, Michael J. Nelson, and William Crotty among others (see, for example, Pomper, 2001; Nelson, 2001; and Crotty, 2001a).

These studies are valuable for appreciating the parties’ role within the context and dynamics of a given election. They are less helpful in fathoming and developing the evolutionary process under way in the parties’ membership, group loyalties, and their long-run repositioning within the electorate.

Critical Realignments

‘Critical realignments’, with their defining symbol of a specific ‘critical election’, are far more dramatic and much rarer. They are seen as pivotal to the fundamental recasting of a nation’s politics and party coalitions. These are elections in which ‘voters are … unusually deeply concerned, in which the extent of electoral involvement is relatively quite high, and … the decisive results of the voting reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate. Moreover, and perhaps this is the truly differentiating characteristic … the realignment … seems to persist for several succeeding elections’ (Key 1955: 4). In such elections, the extent of voter participation is great, ‘profound readjustments occur in the relations of power within the community’, and ‘new and durable electoral groupings are formed’ (Key 1955: 17). Such critical elections are milestones in the adjustment of parties to the social needs of the period and measuring points in the evolution of a nation’s democratic representation.

These elections permanently reshape the terrain the opposing parties must contend with, restructure their coalitions, and reorient the policy agendas and political environments, setting the stage for a new generation of party battles. Normally one party or the other moves from minority to long-term majority status, substantially broadens its appeal, attracts new adherents, and measurably increases its dominance and political power in relation to its opposition. They are, of course, fundamentally important to an appreciation of the parties’ role in the society and its relevance to political representation.

Such realigning elections (or electoral eras) are infrequent. Those indicated (and broadly accepted as such) include the outcomes of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932. The ‘system of 1896’, as it has been called, was significantly different from the others. There was no shift in party control. However, the Republican party, in a contest with the Democratic-Populist coalition, moved from a competitive but generally successful position, to one that dominated politics up to the New Deal. There was also arguably a realignment in 1968 (Burnham, 1970; Paulson, 2000; Miller and Shanks, 1996), although this is not universally accepted. The post-World War II period has seen the decline of the New Deal party system (Petrocik, 1981), but the dynamics of the forces at work in the generations that followed have appeared more complex and less clearly developed than those leading up to previous realignments.

Developing the Realignment Thesis

There has been a rich and extensive use of realignment concepts to explain processes of party change. The most influential of these has been the contribution of Burnham. Setting out to provide Key’s original ideas with ‘qualitative depth and meaning’ (Burnham, 1970: 1), he describes a critical election, or realigning set of elections, as

marked by short, sharp reorganizations of the mass coalitional bases of the major parties which occur at periodic intervals on the national level; are often preceded by major third-party revolts which reveal the incapacity of ‘politics as usual’ to integrate, much less aggregate, emergent political demand; are closely associated with abnormal stress in the socioeconomic system; are marked by ideological polarizations and issue-distances between the major parties which are exceptionally large by normal standards; and have durable consequences as constituent acts which determine the outer boundaries of policy in general, though not necessarily of policies in detail. (Burnham, 1970: 10)

Further, realignments are not random, rather ‘there has been a remarkable uniform periodicity in their appearance’. Such realignments ‘emerge directly from the dynamics of … constituent-function supremacy in American politics in ways and with implications … [that] involve constitutional readjustments … [and] are ultimately associated with and followed by transformations in large clusters of policy’ (Burnham, 1970: 9).

The importance of realignments cannot be underestimated. They are adaptive devices for the parties in representing the popular will; they link people to political elites in a manner meaningful to contemporary societal conditions; and they allow for the peaceful adjustment and evolution of party institutions to the social/economic restructuring that occurs in society:

critical realignment emerges as decisively important in the study of the dynamics of American politics … But even more importantly, critical realignment may well be defined as the chief tension-management device available to so peculiar a political system. Historically, it has been the chief means through which an underdeveloped political system can be recurrently brought once again into some balanced relationship with the changing socioeconomic system, permitting a restabilization of our politics and a redefinition of the dominant Lockian political formula in terms which gain overwhelming support from the current generation. (Burnham, 1970: 181-2)

The concept is the most powerful analytic tool in parties research and one that connects the party, voting, social restructuring, and the constitution of the state into a meaningful, comprehensible, and analytically applicable tool for understanding party and social change and adaptation with the attendant policy consequences and shifts in representational pressures.

There is a general acceptance of realignments in the years specified up to 1932 (or the period 1928-36) (Andersen, 1979). There is, as noted, considerably more debate over realignments, or their need or value, in the modern era’s party system. A number of candidates have been put forward in addition to the election of 1968 (or the 1968-72 electoral period). These include 1980-84 and 2000-04. To the extent that there is a degree of consensus, it focuses on the 1968 results.

In a well-documented and analytically strong assessment, Arthur Paulson (2000) makes the case. It is his (and others’) contention that the 1960s witnessed ‘the most compelling realignment in American history’ (Paulson, 2000, xxiv). His argument is that: the realignment evolved from factional struggles in both parties and was decided in favor of the ideological wings of each; ideological politics (along with the advantages of incumbency) explains the increased prevalence of split-ticket voting and frequent periods of divided government; beginning in the 1970s with the Nixon administration and carrying through the Reagan and two Bush presidencies, and as a consequence of the realignment, a new conservative agenda replaced that of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; by the 1990s the top-down new alignment had spread to each party’s relationship to its base. The overall outcome was two ideologically charged, highly polarized parties bounded only by the necessities of the American electoral system (Paulson, 2000: xxiv-xxvi).

As this analysis would indicate, critical elections (or electoral eras) are transformative periods in the life of the parties, ones that align the parties with changing cleavage structures and newly dominant political forces in the society. The results have fundamentally important consequences for the representative institutions, direction for the government, and for the policy agenda that prevails.

The Critics of Realignment Theory

Not everyone accepts those assumptions. Some challenge the elections chosen to be highlighted and the historical circumstances surrounding them. Others reject the entire conception of elections with realignment potential.

The critiques have been numerous. The most thoroughly developed opposition to the realignment conception has been put forward by David R. Mayhew (2002). He acknowledges that ‘the study of American electoral realignments … has been one of the most creative, engaging, and influential intellectual enterprises by American political scientists’. But he goes on to ask: ‘How good is the realignment genre as a guide to the last two centuries of American electoral, party, and policy history?’ His assessment is: ‘not very good at all … Worst yet, I believe … the genre has evolved from a source of vibrant ideas into an impediment to understanding’ (Mayhew, 2002: 1, 5).

Mayhew ranks the realignment theorists in terms of boldness and inclusiveness roughly from Key at one end, with a narrowed conception and limited claims, through to Burnham and his more ambitious explanatory agenda. He then combs through the proponents for 15 propositions that can be tested, or at least examined in detail, emphasizing a review of historical data and events. After analyzing the forces surrounding key elections and party and policy transformations, Mayhew (2002: 165) is clear in his conclusion: ‘The realignments way of thinking adds little or no illumination, but it does exact opportunity costs. Other lines of investigation might be more promising’.

This points to one of the implicit negatives of realignment theorizing emphasized by its critics: it ties economic and social restructuring to party and political representation. It harbors a certain ideological perspective, or even bias, toward the representative function of party in political decision-making and the focus is on class issues and mass-level voter concerns. Nevertheless, it remains as the most useful and forceful of explanatory models for making sense of party transformations. Minimally, it has proven a force for stimulating debates of the periods in question, the nature of party transformations, how these can be most effectively analyzed, and, in the long run, what their broader consequences entail. The challenge for its critics is to develop alternative conceptual schemes with explanatory power comparable to, or refinements and reapplications of, the realignment thesis.

The European Experience

The European system includes a wide variety of electoral forms and a broader range of party and policy alternatives (Lijphart, 1994; Katz and Mair, 1994). Most Western European countries employ some form of proportional representation, in which every vote has meaning. In the United States, voters in non-competitive, Republican- or Democratic-dominated areas play little role in campaigns and have less impact on policy agenda that those in the most competitive areas. Losing voter coalitions in districts won by the opposing party (even if 51% to 49%) are not represented in legislative seat distributions under the single-member, first-past-the-post electoral system (Duverger, 1954; Lijphart, 1994).

The electoral systems adopted have consequences for party operations. In comparing the parties in Europe and the United States, Russell J. Dalton writes:

Parties are the primary institutions of representative democracy, especially in Europe … Parties define the choices available to voters. Candidates in most European nations are selected by the parties and elected as party representatives, not as individuals. Open primaries and independent legislators (including the Germans) vote directly for party lists rather than individual candidates. Political parties also shape the content of election campaigns. Party programs help define the issues that are discussed during the campaign. … In many European nations, the parties, not individual candidates, control advertising during the campaign. Political parties and party leaders thus exercise a primary role in articulating the public’s concerns.

And, in terms of enactment of policy programs and campaign commitments:

Once in government, parties control the policymaking process. Control of the executive branch and the organization of the legislative branch are decided on the basis of party majorities. The parties’ control is often absolute, as in the parliamentary systems of Europe, where representatives from the same party vote as a bloc … American parties are less united and less decisive, but even here parties actively structure the legislative process. Because of the centrality of political parties to the democratic process, political scientists describe many European political systems as a system of ‘responsible party government’ (Dalton, 2002: 125-6).

These processes provide different levels of access and magnify the influence of political participation and party mobilization rewards (at least in comparison with the United States).

In the words of Arend Lijphart (1994: 139), ‘the degree of electoral disproportionality or proportionality [in skewing the outcome relative to the voter cast in elections for a party or candidate] responds very sensitively to the rule of the electoral system’. There is a closer and more direct alignment in European systems between the party vote and parliamentary representation than in the United States. The European party systems also perform many key functions—representing public opinion, offering policy alternatives, mobilizing an electorate, and having the discipline to enact their party programs when in office -more effectively than American parties.

There is, then, a contrast of significance with political parties in America. Nonetheless, trends found in the United States may be endemic to democratic parties in advanced industrial societies such as those found in Western Europe. The European parties thus experience, if less intensely, the same problems as do the American parties. These include:

  • declines in partisanship and party identification;
  • party dealignment;
  • decreases in party mobilization;
  • a changing electoral environment;
  • a fall-off in the formal affiliation with party organizations;
  • a more limited organizational role in campaigns;
  • a greater emphasis on the candidate heading the tickets;
  • a greater personalization (and less institutionalized approach) in party and electoral politics;
  • a more fragmented party constituency;
  • a greater reliance on for-hire public relations strategists, campaign consultants, and skilled media personnel in getting their message across to voters; and
  • a continuingly strong, yet less distinctive (in comparison with previous times) party presence in policy formation and implementation in government (Dalton and Wattenberg, 2000).

This last point is particularly disturbing given the primacy of the European parties in establishing policy objectives in campaigns and acting on these once in office.

Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair (1995) have argued that a new type of party may be emerging in European politics, the ‘cartel party’. In this form of party system, parties and state ‘interpenetrate’ and ‘collude’. Kaare Strøm (2002: 202) refers to this as ‘opportunistic institutional engineering’ (see also Gunther and Diamond, 2003).

Distinctive programs and party appeals are deemphasized, leaving electors and more generally the representative system with a blurring of policy strands and less directly accountable party operations. Miki L. Caul and Mark M. Gray (2000: 236-7) write:

If voters are unable to ‘feel’ and ‘see’ much difference in the programmatic outputs and economic performance of different party governments it becomes more likely that they may no longer see much relevance in going to the polls or even paying attention to politics. In systems where parties look and act more alike the differentiation may increasingly come down to the style and personality characteristics of party leaders and candidates … The trivialization of party politics may ensue. Although party command over policy and economic outcomes may be constrained by global and social forces beyond their control, it is unlikely that the average voter has been aware of such changes. The focus of public policy will remain on parties—voters and the media expect them to have an impact. However, if the patterns found in … fifty years of data continue, parties will more than likely persist with a limited capacity to affect aggregate policy outcomes and are likely to continue to struggle to significantly differentiate themselves on policy matters.

It may be that as European parties in a broad outline move further toward the American model the era of ‘responsible party government’ long associated with these party systems will be increasingly compromised. If so, there are significant impacts on democratic governance:

Table 43.2 Lipset and Rokkan’s four cleavages
Cleavage Critical Juncture Issues
Center-periphery Reformation-Counter-Reformation: 16th-17th Centuries National vs. supranational religion; national language vs. Latin
State-church National Revolution: 1789 and after Secular vs. religious control of mass education
Land-industry Industrial Revolution: 19th Century Tariff levels for agricultural products; control vs. freedom for industrial enterprise
Owner-worker The Russian Revolution: 1917 and after Integration into national polity vs. commitment to international revolutionary movement

Source: Lipset and Rokkan, 1967: 47.

When parties make fewer and fewer efforts to mobilize citizens they worsen inequality of participation. Parties that centralize and professionalize their office in lieu of citizens active as party members might contribute to the demobilization of the public and the diminished understanding and trust in the democratic process. Parties that develop public funding sources in order to insulate themselves from the ebbs and flows of public support will inevitably distance themselves from those they represent. Running elections and governing by marketing principles may be successful in the short term for parties, but this strategy may well undermine the democratic process in the long term. (Dalton and Watterberg, 2000: 284)

There are consequences, potentially profound, for the changes in process. The ultimate impact on the current party system and the more significant consequences for the democratic order look to be less appealing than the system presently in operation.

Assessing Change in European Party Systems

There are a number of ways to approach the evaluation of political party systems. In this section we discuss five such ways.

Party Electoral Analyses

This approach is broadly similar to those employed in research in the United States. These examine the electoral connection to the vote, the continuing patterns of support for the parties, and the dominating effect of identifiable factors such as policy issues, party loyalties, and candidate appeal on the election outcome. The conceptual and analytic approach borrows heavily from comparable American research (Campbell et al., 1960). A study by David Butler and Donald E. Stokes, Political Change in Britain (1971) represents an example of what can be accomplished. The most influential contemporary analyst applying this approach may well be Russell J. Dalton (as an example, see Dalton, 2002) although others have applied related perspectives.

Social Cleavage Analysis

This approach focuses on the divisions within a society that give rise on the macro level to the founding and evolution of competitive party systems. The group and related issue concerns that explain different individual party developments are given priority treatment. The early work of S.M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan, as illustrated in their collaborative work Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives (1967), provided a foundation for such analytic approaches. Conceiving of the formation of party systems in broadly historical terms and from a national developmental point of departure, Lipset and Rokkan identify four decisive cleavages that resulted from critical junctures in a nation’s political development and provided the orientation for its particular party system (Table 43.2).

Organizational Analysis

This perspective has been relied on to a greater extent in assessments of Western European parties, and has proven of greater explanatory power, than in studies of American parties. The reasons for the differences in application are clear: the European parties are far better structured and their organizations more important in aligning voters, developing and implementing policy programs, and providing social and other benefits on a year-round basis. A seminal contributor to this approach was Duverger (1954), with his emphasis on electoral forms and contrasting of organizational structures and their roles within national party systems.

Many have used variations on the organizational conception before and since, among them Michels (1959), Joseph La Palombara and Myron Weiner (1966), M. Ostrogorski (1902), Giovanni Sartori (1976), Hans Daadler and Peter Mair (1983), Alan Ware (1987, 1988), Kenneth Janda (1980), Peter Merkl (1980), and Kay Lawson and Peter Merkl (1988).

The more recent evidence indicates that the parties’ organizational role is shifting. David M. Farrell and Paul Webb (2000: 123, 125) write:

Political parties have invested heavily in election campaigning, making full use of new technologies, adapting their organizations and employing specialist agencies and consultants. As a result, the party of today and the way it operates in the context of electioneering, is a significantly different creature from what it was twenty years ago. … [F]irst, parties have tended to become more centralized and professionalized; second, they have become more cognizant of citizen opinion and demands; and third, party and (especially) leader image has come to assume a prominent thematic role in campaigning. … [P]arties and their organizations have shown many signs of change as they have sought to adapt to the altered political, social, and technological environments in which they find themselves, and they undoubtedly will have further adaptations to negotiate in the future. They remain stubbornly persistent entities with important roles to play at the heart of the contemporary democratic process.

In all of this, including also, and most pointedly, American parties, it is clear that party members and voters more generally are having an increased impact on organizational decision-making. However, in Europe, unlike the United States, the cohesiveness of the party operations and the role of the party leadership in deliberations remain important. In assessing the move towards what they refer to as ‘electoralist party organization’, Scarrow et al. (2000: 149) conclude:

[G]rass-roots party members (and even non-member supporters sometimes) commonly play a significant role in selecting legislative candidates and in legitimizing election programmes, though party elites generally retain vetoes over candidate selection and enjoy considerable autonomy in shaping party policy. … [P]arty members are gaining significant rights to elect their leaders. Intra-party decision-making has thus become more inclusive, but not necessarily in a way that restricts the strategic initiatives of leaders. … [T]here are now many instances around the democratic world where party leaders operate a coalition of power in which grass-roots members are significant junior partners.

Party organizations and their leadership remain important, although they are adapting to a changing social and political environment in which the parties’ base is exercising greater influence.

Realignment/Dealignment Theorizing

This conceptual approach has been less evident in research on European party change. Dalton et al. (1984: 7-8) argued that the electoral, and consequently party, map of European (and American) democracies was being fundamentally challenged:

[T]he prevailing theme in comparative party research was the persistence of democratic party systems. In addition to Lipset and Rokkan’s treatise on the freezing of cleavage alignments … studies … concluded that the major question facing researchers was to explain the observed stability in democratic systems. … [S]omething has changed dramatically … [T]he parties are being presented with new demands and new challenges. Partisan change—rather than partisan stability—is a common pattern in virtually all … nations.

Their argument exemplifies the radical shift in analytic perspectives of party stability, from an emphasis on explaining stability and a traditional continuity in approaches, policy appeals, and electoral support to one forced to deal with the dynamics inherent in change.

In a later work Dalton (2002) advances this line of thought. He acknowledges that realignments have marked past behavioral patterns of change in European (and American) party history. The changes evidenced in the contemporary party dynamics also fuel speculation as to new realignments along different issue lines, reactive to developing societal cleavages. But he warns that the political cleavages of what he refers to as ‘the New Politics’ (see below) bear little relationship, and may well be far more transitory, than those that sustained former realignments and went on to serve as the foundation for the party systems that emerged:

The process of partisan realignment is normally based on clearly defined and highly cohesive social groups that can develop institutional ties to the parties and provide clear voting cues to their members. A firm group base provides a framework for parties to develop institutional ties to the groups and for groups to socialize and mobilize their members.

There are few social groupings comparable to labor unions or churches that might establish the basis of a New Politics realignment. … generational differences in support for New Politics parties might indicate an emerging New Politics cleavage, but age groups provide a very transitory basis for mobilizing voters. Other potential group bases of voting cues, such as education or alternative class categorizations, so far remain speculative, without firm evidence of realigning effects. (Dalton, 2002: 168-9)

Realignment theory remains a useful approach to establishing criteria for party change and the durability of the coalitions being reshaped. It may not fully explain the more subtle shifts in social and partisan cleavages taking place in electorates, and may need either refinement or a reconfiguration of analytic approaches. It has been relevant in the understanding of previous shifts in party behavior. In an age of ‘dealignment’, its precise role as an explanatory tool needs clarification.

Postmaterialism and Party Change

Party systems in contemporary democracies give every appearance of moving away (more incrementally than radically) from the class polarization and economic divisions that formed their base to a new focus on lifestyle issues (self-actualization, gender concerns, social inequalities, consumerism, environmental safeguards, limitations on nuclear energy and weapons, human rights priorities) that, as Dalton (2002: 168) indicates, ‘may provide the basis for a new partisan alignment’.

It is possible that these postmaterialist values are becoming of greater importance in patterns of party support and in the appeals candidates and parties adopt in campaigns. Ronald Inglehart (1977, 1990, 1997) has done the most to develop this line of inquiry. Postmodern political and value structures are built on post-economic developments and party bases:

Postmodern values would be difficult to sustain without a thriving industrial and technological infrastructure. Even in terms of postmodern values, the rejection of modernity would be unattractive if it meant going back to a life expectancy of 35 years, coupled with the need for sexual abstinence before marriage and for women to spend their entire adult lives in childbearing and childrearing. Postmodernity must necessarily coexist with modernity (Inglehart, 1997: 339)

The value structure projects an assault (in varying degrees) on established and traditional institutions of authority and rising levels of citizen participation, that might well significantly redefine political, and party, agendas and operations. The impact of such changes has broad significance for democratic systems built on a vital and competitive party system. What is less clear is the rate of the transformation and its stability in creating durable partisan alignments and a degree of predictability in explaining party behavior.

These are among the major variations in the main forms of inquiry into European party systems. Each has its appeal. What stands out is the general agreement on the party changes under way, rather more so than on their long-term significance and impact.


Parties and politics are in transition. This much all agree on. How the escalation in the changes under way will affect the parties and their representative role in a society is speculative. One argument is that party ‘decline’ or ‘decomposition’ or ‘fragmentation’ or ‘dealignment’, whatever it may be called, evidences a serious threat to the ability of parties to conduct their business and erodes the crucial tie between the parties and a democratic state. Others, while accepting that change is in progress, see it more as the natural process of party evolution in response to social, economic, and, in the more contemporary era, global forces. While redirecting party energies, the assumption is that it should not severely affect the functional dependence of a democratic state on the party system.

Richard Gunther and Larry Diamond, after surveying party developments worldwide, conclude:

Political parties are not what they used to be. … they lack the depth of involvement and emotional and ideological attachment that they commanded a century, even two or three decades, ago. … there is growing evidence that membership in political parties is declining, that parties’ ties with allied secondary associations are loosening or breaking, that their representation of specific social groups is less consistent, and that public opinion toward parties is waning in commitment and trust. Does this mean … that parties as institutions are declining, that they are ceasing to play a crucial role in modern democracies, and that their former functions may be performed as well or better by other kinds of organizations—social movements or interest groups? … Are political parties in modern democracies losing their importance, even their relevance, as vehicles for the articulation and aggregation of interests and the waging of election campaigns? Or have we entered an era, more keenly felt in the advanced democracies but increasingly apparent in the less developed ones as well, where technological and social change is transforming the nature of the political party without diminishing its importance for the health and vigor of democracy? (Diamond and Gunther, 2001: 3)

It is their belief that a shift, while not linear in development nor simultaneous in societies, is taking place, but this is marked by the type of parties that dominate in a democratic state. The European party model may not be (and does not appear to be) relevant for all parties. What we may be experiencing is ‘the progressive displacement of mass-based parties by organizations that are structured in different ways, pursuing different objectives, or pursuing the same objectives through different means’ (Diamond and Gunther, 2001: 4). Such a continual evolution would retain the primacy and mass representative functions, of parties in a democracy.

The parties in Europe and the United States are adjusting to communications and technological advancements, a less and less party-dependent electorate, a globalized world community with a macro focus, and international pressures that parties historically have found difficult to deal with. The social and technological changes under way have not been kind to the party systems. The basic concern is the degree to which they can maintain their electoral integrity and continue as representative institutions that link voter, government, and policy outputs in a meaningful and accountable form. The shape of the political universe is changing; the hope is that as party systems adjust to the needs of a democratic society the functional importance of the parties will not be compromised.