Political Parties in Eastern Europe: A Discussion about the State of Our Art

  • Kevin Deegan-Krause, Wayne State University
  • Tim Haughton, University of Birmingham
  • Ján Rovny, Sciences Po
  • Stephen Whitefield, Oxford University

This is a full text of a discussion that appears in abbreviated version on the SSEES Research Blog of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ssees/2015/01/19/all-tomorrows-parties-the-future/).

The editors of East European Politics and Societies are grateful to the SSEES Research Blog for hosting this discussion. EEPS is at home at SSEES. Not only is the journal co-edited there, but SSEES and EEPS play complementary roles in supporting and promoting the best in East European studies.

–Wendy Bracewell (SSEES) and Krzysztof Jasiewicz (Washington and Lee University), Editors, EEPS

 A few words of introduction: This discussion had its birth in the “Whither Eastern Europe” conference held at the University of Florida in January 2014 which sparked a series of conversation, both during the presentations and during the excellent breakfasts, lunches and dinners that surrounded the formal sessions. When East European Politics and Societies and Cultures inquired about the possibility of publishing several papers in a special issue, the authors offered to work together to produce this supplementary work to reflect the discussions that were so productive toward building a consensus (and revealing differences). The conversation presented here comprises a combination of in-person conversations, online-text conversations and text responses to a formal set of questions with the goal of coming to greater understanding of what we know about political parties in Eastern Europe, what we still need to learn, and how we can get there.

–Kevin Deegan-Krause, Wayne State University

Dimensions of Competition

Deegan-Krause: Let’s start with a simple question: Is there anything we know we can agree about?

Whitefield: I found it highly instructive to ponder the lessons from three intertwined perspectives. First, what do citizens want from parties? Second, what do parties have to offer to citizens? Third, how does the communication between parties and voters help deliver good democratic governance?

In terms of the citizen-party relationship, I believe that Robert Rohrschneider and I have already well-established that the underlying cleavage structure at the party-level differs between East and West: largely one-dimensional in the East but – importantly – no sign as yet of a shift in the axis of the dimension to resemble the West: in the East, party competition is still based on pro-West/Europe, pro-market, pro-democratic parties versus their opposite.

Rovny: Depending on country circumstances and legacies, you should find different combinations of the left-right versus gal-tan and different degrees of salience. The key is ethnicity (and state-building).

Whitefield: Of course, there is local variation. In some countries – historical national boundaries in Hungary for example or ethnic divisions in Ukraine or Latvia – specific issues are present that give national distinctiveness to party competition. But nonetheless, there exists powerful evidence of the importance of a Communist legacy on the nature of cleavages in the region as a whole and even of the freezing of the party systems there.

Underlying structures

Deegan-Krause: To the extent we do see programmatic patterns (or other patterns for that matter), where do they come from? Do you see them anchored in the experiences of the region and if so, which ones?

Rovny: One of the most interesting debates has been the one on structure versus volatility of politics in eastern Europe. It seems to me that this debate has by now found a set of generally accepted conclusions. First, the literature on party systems and voting behavior clearly and continuously finds increased levels of organizational volatility — parties get born, merged and dissolved more frequently than in the west — as well as increased levels of voting volatility — voters switch between parties at a higher rate than in the west, while fewer people turn out to vote. At the same time, the literature on ideological structure continuously concludes that parties in the region offer reasonably framed ideological choices, and voters select parties on the basis of their political preferences. Strikingly, these two conclusions are seemingly contradictory: organizational and electoral volatility contrasts ideological structure. I believe that we should aim at the theoretical reconciliation of these findings by accepting that structured stability and volatility can coexist.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s talk about stability first. Given the kinds of electoral results we see in the region, it is interesting that there is any talk about stability at all.

Whitefield: We agree with what Jan is saying. Work that I did with Geoff Evans in the 1990s and 2000s did indeed point to the importance (contra some expectations) of most of the usual demographic suspects. Social class, measured using the Goldthorpe-Eriksson class schema—which is really based on characteristics of occupations, particularly manual/non-manual and the supervised/supervisory distinctions—was surprisingly useful in the post-Communist context. Given what might have happened to the nature of occupational structures, this class scheme appears both internally valid (occupation is appropriately associated with occupational characteristics in both West and East) but it also provides good predictive value to both attitudes and political behaviour, as much as in the West. As in the West, it doesn’t work as well in all countries—the cleavage structure and what parties offer helps explain variance—but it works. Age and education also work in wholly expected ways. Gender differentiates little. But where some of the most interesting results come, in my view, are from the comparative study of the impact of religion and religiosity in the region. At the extremes, Catholicism and in Catholic countries church attendance matter significantly to public political values and behaviour; in Orthodox countries, religion appears to matter little. I am intrigued to know whether this is a dog that continues not to bark in Russia and Ukraine.

Historical Legacies

Deegan-Krause: If there are deeply rooted competition patterns in the region, where do they come from? And why aren’t they more obvious in the day-to-day politics.

Rovny: Let me take the first of those two questions. Although there has been significant focus on the role of various historical legacies on the partisan divides in the region, I feel that more work needs to be done. In this regard I am an unashamed Lipset-Rokkanian. I think we can profitably apply Lipset and Rokkan in the east and I believe more effort and resources should be spent on exploring the historical, pre-communist, bases of political competition in the region. Despite its particularities, eastern Europe has been exposed to many of the same core formative historical forces, theorized and demonstrated as crucial for the west, such as the Reformation, center-periphery divides, and industrialization. State-building, its elites and the core conflicts between them in the past are crucial to what we see today. The usual suspects—conflicts over economics, religion, ethnicity—all pop up with predictable regularity, and I suspect that, as in the west, the varying exposure and response to these and similar factors is likely a fundamental source of political conflict in the region, though of course not the only one.

In this context, it seems that we, as a discipline, may have overestimated the effect of communism on the region. While communist rule certainly had significant impact on the societies and polities under study, its effect is varied, and possibly diminishing with time. When I want to be provocative, I argue that communism was a cul-de-sac for eastern Europe. A foreign imposed, post-war temporality, and I think Kitschelt makes a good point when he says that even communist regime types were determined by pre-communist legacies

Haughton: The older legacies have played an important role, though we often see them through the filter of communist legacies which often overshadowed them and sometimes reshaped them. The deepest legacy is ethnicity—the key legacy was the demographic legacy of empire. This still shapes politics in many countries in CEE and will do for years to come. In terms of the communist legacies, they matter, but increasingly in different and less direct ways. I wrote an article once where I talked about the past’s role in the ‘battlefields, uniforms and ammunition’ of party political conflict. Although lustration is still, perhaps surprisingly, an important theme to be used in the ammunition of political debate, who did what to whom is far less significant in politics today a quarter of a century on. Where communist legacies still do matter are in the terrain of politics. Communism bequeathed social and economic legacies that have shaped the ground on which party politics is conducted and how political actors think about conducting and resolving such conflicts. Nonetheless, there are not simple straight lines to draw from the communist experience to today, the impact of the communist experience is mediated through the experiences of the post-communist period (which now amounts to over half the entire communist experience in Central and Eastern Europe).

Deegan-Krause: Does communism, and the place of one’s self or one’s family in the communist system or something like that then become another sort of long term structural variable that affects the east rather than the west, a regionally-specific variant of Lipset and Rokkan’s list of cleavages? Or do we need to think about it in some other way?

Whitefield: Let me weigh in here with an example from work that Robert and I have done followed up by some work by Paul Chaisty and myself, there are dogs that continue not to bark. For example, there is the curious ongoing absence of any real association of environmental or Green politics in the East with other political issues or with the left-right dimension, while at the same time the environment does not emerge as an important political division in its own right. It appears to remain largely disconnected from what most parties stake themselves on – though there is some evidence I am looking at now that does indicate that Green parties in the East take stances and make them salient on the environment that are quite ‘normal’ in the West. Why is this? Why should it be that post-Communist citizens not only are less supportive of environmentalism than people in the West or the developing South, but are distinct from them in the way in which they ‘process’ environmental issues into the rest of their political attitudes? This after now a number of years of ‘Europeanisation’ of environmental issues in law and institutions. Of course, there are features of the transition process that are shared across the region, but if variation in experience is increasingly the order of the day, why would it be that on issues like the environment the region as a whole remains distinct. I think the best explanation has to do with the stickiness of political culture at the mass level, which is supported by something like freezing at the party level. Now, we know from West European politics since the 1960s and perhaps the contemporary scene that eventually political change comes and I am sure it will in the East. But so far, the Communist legacy remains vital to understanding the region. What was it about Communism that made its influence so lasting? That’s a complicated discussion.

Haughton:  There is some nascent agreement that most voters have certain structural tendencies that push their voting in certain directions, that there is a certain stability of voter attitudes and relationships to “sides”, but at the same time voters are not always certain who exactly to vote for because there is a high degree of institutional volatility, both in the choices on offer and in the likelihood of dissatisfied voters to jump to another party on their “side”.


Whitefield: I suppose one of the most pressing and contested questions arise from the character of party organization in the region. We know and can agree that many parties come and go, that the choices available to voters have shifted dramatically in some cases between elections, and that the organizational characteristics or parties in the East are often quite different from the classical mass party organization found in the West. I wonder what difference this makes to important political outcomes – to the nature of cleavages and to democratic representation. Richard Rose famously referred to ‘floating parties’ in a quite derogatory way, since he thought that voters would be unable to hold parties accountable from election to election. There are a number of assumptions about party behavior in Europe that presume institutionalization and programmatic consistency across parties — often on a single ideological dimension. One such issue is that that parties may not have a programmatic identity that is shared between voters’ perceptions, their electoral organizations, their candidates and their office-holders.

Rovny: Under all the institutional instability there is a structure in placements of parties in (some) ideological space. (The parties may differ, but they come and go in similar places) (the various liberals in the Czech Republic are a very good example): and yes, I think voters vote for similar type parties, though again, their names and organizations come and go

Haughton: Likewise the amazing thing about Slovakia is that we see the “right” for example with an incredibly stable share of the vote even though the menu of parties is updated for every election.

Whitefield: I agree entirely that party organization and party volatility are vital areas of study in the region. There is research – for example, Alison Smith’s work on incentives driving parties to build mass membership – that show that there are trends towards the establishment of more stable organizational party bases. But two points I think need to be made even in conditions of organizational weakness. First, as Jan Rovny has shown in a very interesting recent paper and as I have argued even about the Russian party system in the 1990s, voter-party ideological alignment is quite possible – in fact, it appears to happen – even in conditions of rapidly shifting party supply. I think this is a consequence of the rather simple one dimensional ideological structure of political cleavages. Parties can come and go, but the new ones end up competing on the same axis of division. Parties present themselves in those terms and voters are primed to recognize where parties stand. Second, Robert Rohrschneider and I noted what we called ‘a paradox of equal congruence’ in our recent book. What we found was that parties and their various voters were more or less equally aligned ideologically in the East and West. Part of this, we argued, was the result of the very simple nature of cleavages in the East, which made it easier for voters to locate parties, even new ones, while in the West voters were faced with a much more complex and multidimensional cleavage structure, which raises the bar for ideological alignment. But why were voters not more incongruent with parties in the West? Here is where the organizational factor comes into play, because in the West parties can draw on strong mass party ties and resources which significantly enhanced their capacities to represent all sorts of voters. These are largely absent in the East, so post-Communist parties can’t yet draw on organizational strengths. This is just one of a number of ways in which Robert and I are finding organizational factors in the East to work quite differently. There is a lot more mileage in that line of research to my mind.

Deegan-Krause: We are trying to understand what seems to be a change in the way parties operate, shifting toward a much more fluid environment, though one which still has significant islands of stability.  Toward that end we are interested the balance between legacies (some regionally specific) and pervasive newer developments related to technology, media, and finance. There is evidence that are seeing a global shift in how electoral political institutions organize themselves and relate to voters, a shift that is related closely to new communications technology, especially the dramatic lowering of the cost of people to coordinate across distances (a reduction in relational transaction costs that discourages short-run investment in traditional organizations) and the increase in the role of individual celebrity and visibility accompanied by the success of startup models, and a further aging of generations of “members”. This has hit every field that deals with large-scale information transfer and organized persuasion, from advertising and journalism to education to political parties. There is a lot of justified talk about the role of legacies in postcommunist Europe, but the biggest may simply be that the timing of the transition meant that these changes hit when the parties in this system were new or relatively young and therefore vulnerable. Combine established but sometimes vulnerable older parties and new parties that are not built (in some cases not even designed) to survive for very long, and you get the kind of institutional instability that we see in the region. This bifurcation of the old and stable and the young and fragile creates two separate party worlds.

Rovny: The key weakness is party organization. It seems that voters often vote for parties that represent who they are or want to be in some way: this is difficult in the organizationally fluid state of EU politics

Deegan-Krause: It is interesting is that none of these parties seem like they can last and yet people vote for them. Do they look completely fragile to ordinary voters?

Haughton: Don’t underestimate how disillusioned ordinary voters have become in CEE and indeed in Western Europe. Desperate times call for desperate measures. How often do we get a sense from ordinary voters that they have confidence in any elected politician? It’s very rare. They want their lives and the life-chances of their families to be better, so they take a chance on an investigative journalist (“he seems nice and cares about corruption”) or on a local billionaire (“he’s rich so maybe he can make me rich too”). And of course the new parties never point out that they are trying to replace previous “new” parties. They’re usually careful to assign the last lot of new parties to the bad old camp.

Deegan-Krause: There does seem to a shortening of the time horizons of political leaders (and their backers) and a preference for immediate return on party investment. These differences should affect basic elements of what we can expect parties to do, from positioning themselves electorally, to choosing coalition partners, to organizing legislatures. This is happening in the West, too. Maybe not as much. We seem to have 2 theories about why this is happening in the east first they are not necessarily contradictory but 1) says that there are legacies in the east that cause this to happen, i.e. communism, weaker civil society, more economic dissatisfaction 2) (ours) says that even if 1) weren’t the case, there would be something like this because /general/ trends (weaker organization, media, the triumph of celebrity) tend to press against institutional frameworks (Naim’s The End of Power) and that E. European parties are simply easier to push over than western ones. Is there any way to decide between these and/or merge them?

Rovny: Yes, I agree when we look at the “instability” part of the equation, the cul-de-sac frustration of communism plays an important role, but the general trends are really crucial — the wind is blowing, and the CEE parties have shabby roofs. In that sense it’s not what the west is now but what the west could become.

Haughton: Most new parties don’t build their structures well enough. It’s all done too quickly—like cowboy builders—so they are vulnerable when the storms come (which they do quite often)

Deegan-Krause: It sounds as if there is not as much contradiction between the two positions as we might expect.

Haughton: Eastern European parties are fragile both because of historical and communist legacies left them with “shabby roofs” and because they (like parties everywhere) are being blown about by winds that make it difficult to tie anything down? In more concrete terms, historical legacies provide an underlying social structure which has ties to particular ideologies, but political organization and voter affinity is hindered by communism’s damage to political trust and efficacy and by new-style organizational flexibility that tends, in the absence of many really solid parties, to play a big role on the political scene. So these systems tend to replicate stable competition patterns but the parties in them come and go.

Rovny: Yes, but all countries have legacies that may cause such shabbiness, even old democracies (I am struck by this in France on a regular basis): established French parties are definitely getting rained on. And in the east it is even harder: can you build parties properly if there is no history of doing it?

Deegan-Krause: The literature on party institutionalization raises the underlying questions of whether things will actually institutionalize at all or whether that institutionalization will look like we expect it to.  If it does not, what are the consequences for democracy? What are the future prospects for this kind of interaction? It is certainly different than what was hoped for in the region but should we be worried? Are its consequences mitigated by the underlying structural stability? Is there anything we can do? These are questions that will take time and effort to answer, and they will require a great deal of intra-regional and cross-regional comparison.

East and West

Deegan-Krause: The tension between uniquely communist legacies on one hand and more universal influences on the other—both pre-communist structural legacies and post-communist changes in organization and communication—raises the constant questions about the similarities and differences between Eastern European parties and those parties in the west that tend to be their reference points. How should we think about the differences between east and west.

Whitefield: In fact, what I think is remarkable about the broad range of evidence about the salience that parties attach to the positions they adopt in CEE countries is how far they correspond to MOST but not all of our expectations from the study of salience in the West. First, the right kind of parties make salient the policies that we would expect given our sense of who owns what issues. Second, and Jan has shown this in some work on the West, positional explains a large amount of salience variance and the relationship is strongly curvilinear on almost all issue dimensions – parties at the extreme on an issue make them more salient. There are some notable and interesting apparent exception

Whitefield: only democratic parties seem to make democracy salient; and only Green parties seem to make the environment strongly salient. Another difference I think I am seeing between East and West, the impact of party family in the East essentially disappears when positional differences are taken into account. In short, it isn’t that party family is not associated with position in the East, it is just that it doesn’t do any work over and above what position does: that is not the case in the West, and I am not too surprised by that since party family strikes me as a more powerfully rooted determinant of parties’ reputation and therefore stances than in the East.

Rovny: It is clear that many distinctions commonly made between eastern and western Europe are of limited utility. In various political indicators of interest such as the extent of competition over economic versus non-economic issues, there may be more variance within the two blocks than between them.

Haughton: Yes, and we need to deal with the fact that most work on political parties is still dominated by the study of Western Europe. We still tend to test theories and apply models derived from the West. (The only exception is when we revert back to using “legacies” as the core of an explanation which is increasingly unsatisfactory not least given the quarter century of developments since 1989.) It seems to us that the study of CEE should increasingly be thought of as a generator of new theories rather than just a new set of cases to apply theory from the west. At the very least we need to encourage that CEE party systems are put on a par and treated equally. This has been done by some scholars, Robert and Stephen’s book springs immediately to mind, but we need more of this.

Deegan-Krause: So what role does scholarship on Eastern Europe have to play in the broader debate in the field?

Rovny: In many ways Eastern Europe is an advanced laboratory for studying phenomena that are also affecting older democracies, such as the disestablishment of political organization and shifts in party competition.

Deegan-Krause: Yes, Eastern Europe gives us an excellent set of cases for studying what happens when new forces encounter weak parties. We see the same instability in certain places in older democracies—Italy, Israel, and Greece in a big way, and Netherlands and Belgium in a smaller way and many other countries in the West to a limited extent. Crises in many of the Mediterranean parities has not only produced volatility but has produced volatility to new kinds of parties that are themselves not built to last. The gift of the east (and much of the rest of the world) to the west, therefore, is the ability to think about how party systems change when they are not protected by “old growth” forests of established parties and what might happen when, either all at once or piece by piece, the established parties fall and are replaced by parties that look like ferns or mushrooms rather than oaks.

Haughton: We second Jan’s point about Eastern Europe being a laboratory. We think that the effects of post-transition legacies on forming governing and voting coalitions make studying Eastern Europe relevant to other areas in the world. The matter of legacies is an example of the broader phenomenon of contexts where incentives exist to use political institutions and parties for purposes other than ideological or policy-based representation. We see the region as an excellent place for studying how parties adapt to formal and informal institutions. The variation in levels of institutionalization among parties within the same system allows us to see how parties can differ in how they interact with the same institutions. The result is that we see a wider range of situations than Western Europe allows, such parties as with very low ideological cohesion and or facing imminent collapse in support.

Rovny: There are also other interesting ‘experiments’ going on in the eastern lab, and surprisingly they are ones that pertain to ideology. The east is been a testing ground for populist ideological frames connecting socially conservative and economically left-leaning positions, combined not only by some post-communist left parties, but also by most radical ‘right’ parties in the east (which are in economic terms anything but pro-market). But this is no longer just an Eastern European phenomenon. While initially unparalleled in the west, some ten years ago Herbert Kitschelt suggested that western ideological politics, depicted in two-dimensional (economic and social-cultural) space, is rotating. Western parties are less divided over economic issues and more over social cultural issues as the left becomes more economically centrist and the right becomes more socially conservative. Given the latest developments in radical ‘right’ positions in the west, which are slowly taking more economically left-leaning stances (the French FN is the best example), we may see a reproduction of eastern patterns of party competition in the west. Additionally, my recent work suggests an intimate ideological connection between ethnic minorities, their views about civil liberties, and general ideological outlooks of parties associated with them — a relationship which I argue significantly co-shaped party competition in the east. It may also come as some surprise but it may be that the differences between East and West are smaller than they seem, even at this structural level. Ethno-linguistic and religious conflict are more potent in the east than in the west, but I am struck by the Cold War absurdity of putting Finland and Greece into one “Western Europe.” The ethnic questions so pronounced in many eastern European countries are also visible in the west, and I suspect that similar dynamics may be at work in the west especially as ethno-regional identities become more salient in the context of the economic crisis and mobilized by (possibly failed) referenda on independence.

Whitefield: Just a further word in defence of CEE parties here. I mentioned earlier that parties in West and East seem equally capable of representing voters at least in their programmatic offerings. Actually, there is one increasingly important issue – European integration – on which mainstream parties in the East may outperform their Western counterparts in representational terms. As the European issue has loomed larger and citizens have over the past years since the onset of the financial crisis become increasingly Euro-sceptic, it is interesting that mainstream parties in the West have not adjusted their stances on integration to reflect that Euro-scepticism nor have they increased the salience of Europe in their electoral appeals, in fact quite the opposite. This means that almost all of the representational strain of rising Euro-scepticism in the West has been taken up by extreme parties – and these are often parties that are not just extreme on integration but on other issues also. But, as Robert and I show in a recent paper, the representational strain is being taken up much more by mainstream parties in the East, which may mean that there is less of an opening for extreme parties and may also mean that the rise of anti-politics associated with representational failure by mainstream parties may be mitigated in the East. Why are post-Communist parties more willing to move on integration issues than their Western counterparts? Because, in our view, the issue of Europe is bound up on the main axis of political competition rather than, as in the West, sitting orthogonally to it. In the East, mainstream parties always competed on Europe. In the West, mainstream parties don’t compete on it, don’t own the issue, and don’t want to talk about it, leaving it to other parties to take up. That is quite dangerous in my view.

Next Steps

Deegan-Krause: So in light of all of the discussion to this point, what is it that our field needs most? Where should we be putting our attention?

Haughton: Put simply, I am particularly interested in the success and failure of parties at the ballot box: why some succeed, why some have lasting success, some merely fleeting success and why other parties fail to persuade voters to support them. To that end, if time and resources permitted I’d want to conduct large-scale comparative research to work out why voters cast the ballots the way they did (interviewing, focus groups etc. plus polling) over a series of electoral cycles. Much of what we have to do is make educated guesses based on opinion polling and surveys which are often not easily comparable or in a form which makes satisfactory comparison possible. We are left to infer from these statistics which may be accurate, but ultimately we don’t know. Beyond that, I’d love to be able to visit every branch of every party in the region to talk to the activists and party workers.

Rovny: I would like to see a research agenda should focus on the historical state-building elites, on the formation of political camps, and on their social bases of support. Provocatively, such an agenda should question whether these historical factors may ‘return’ to frame eastern European politics as the experience of communism recedes into the past.

Deegan-Krause: I think we need to work in Eastern Europe on the general topic of alignment-dealignment-realignment and whether what we are seeing is a general reduction in the socio-demographic underpinnings of political attitudes and voting behavior and to what extent there is (as Kitchelt, Kriesi and others have suggested) a shift to socio-demographic underpinnings that have not traditionally been the subject of inquiry (sector, professional group).  There is a related question of method and data with regard to these questions of things that parties fight about. The range of sources is great: what experts say about where parties stand (according to various standards, pioneered the Rohrschnedier and Whitefield studies and the North Carolina research, both represented in this discussion), what elites say (to scholars in surveys, or with their votes—the core of the work by Monika Nalepka and Royce Carroll–or with their speeches or with their manifestos), what voters say about parties , what voters of parties believe (according to focus groups, according to surveys).  In some cases disagreements about what is going on in countries rests on these different indicators point in different directions.  I’m wondering to what extent we can integrate these perspectives and what kinds of additional we need and what computational methods might allow us to find some common positions for parties on multiple dimensions. I’d also like to see us develop much more sophisticated measures of party change to replace our binary determination of “successor” v. “not-successor” and therefore allow improved understanding of the nuances of supply side shifts and voter decisions that appear to be dealignment but may in reflect voters following their preferred party leaders from one new party to another.

It may also be worth noting that as part of another project we have conducted an informal poll of over 100 scholars of party systems in regions across the world and found a wide range of topics that experts think we should be studying:

  • Questions of intra-party relationship gathered the attention of 30% of all the scholars involved, but the sub-sets split evenly and widely along directions such as organization and party finance, leadership selection, party-parliamentary relationships, party membership and party life cycle. In comparison to others, scholars of Eastern Europeans tended to emphasize organization and finance rather than membership and factions.
  • An almost equal share—27%—mentioned relationships between parties and their voters. A plurality of these comments focused on voting behavior, but significant shares also went to cleavages and turnout and a few others emphasized a broad range of other topics including clientilism, representation, party communication strategies and dealignment. These voting behavior questions were far more popular among those who study Eastern Europe.
  • While few scholars of other regions focused on specific party types, 15% of the scholars of Eastern Europe found these extremely interesting. Of these just under half mentioned “new parties” and a significant number mentioned populist parties.
  • The position of parties in the broader context of domestic and international political systems also attracted about 15%. As might be expected, those who study Eastern Europe were more interested in the broad process of party Europeanization than scholars from other regions, but they were (again, perhaps indicative of the region) overall less interested in interest groups and policy outcomes.
  • About 10% of the suggestions concerned relationships between parties. Most of these mentioned the study of party positions and dimensions of competition but a few mentioned coalition formation and volatility. The scores for those who study Eastern Europe were in line with these figures in general but considerably higher on the question of volatility.

Useful Guides

As we are moving forward with agendas such as these, what scholarly resources are the most useful? Which ones shape your own work? Let’s start with research on parties as institutions in their own right:

Haughton: I am extremely fond of Redeeming the Communist Past, which is full of significant theoretical and empirical contributions. The question for us now is how to take this kind of work into the second and third post-communist decade. We’ve recently been compelled by Margit Tavits’s Post-Communist Democracies and Party Organization, as well as by Allan Sikk’s works on new parties and “newness” as a quality with its own right

Rovny:Also, I very much like the Allan’s work with Sean Hanley on new anti-establishment parties.

Haughton: Ingrid van Biezen has really helped broaden our understanding about patterns of party change (are parties the way they are because of when they were born, how old they are, or the period in which they are operating) and Andre Krouwel has done helpful work on party typologies for the new century. And recent work by Mainwaring, Gervasoni and Espana and Powell and Tucker have both independently started to enrich our understanding of volatility by looking at the role of system entrances and exits.

Deegan-Krause: What about the broader level of party systems and voting. What are your strongest influences?

Whitefield: as we study the questions of what voters want from parties, we would recommend Dalton’s recent piece on partisan learning in new democracies, Barnes et al’s work on the Spanish transition; and Brader and Tucker’s recent work [on].

Rovny: I would add Stephen’s and Robert’s The Strain of Representation and the string of related articles.

Haughton: And along with The Strain of Representation (and the surveys that book and other work of Stephen and Robert is based on) we would add the many articles from the Chapel Hill expert surveys (in which Jan has played a major role)

Rovny: I think the overall contribution here is to help to resolve a long-standing debate in the field, through a multiplicity of similar pointing to the relatively stable ideological nature of political competition in Eastern Europe, underpinned by social divides and individual preferences. Other recent works, such as those by Margit Tavits have echoed these conclusions.

Deegan-Krause: And while they are not always in perfect agreement, the similarities of their findings on party positioning and, especially, the role of issue salience help us map the electoral environments we are dealing with and understand why parties compete and form coalitions as they do. There is a lot of work to be done and other kinds of measures to be integrated but both of these big studies are an important first start. What sources do you find yourself relying on when looking upstream to the sources of political parties and party systems?

Whitefield: When I look to the citizen-party relationship, I often look to the issues raised by Robert Michels’ Political Parties, John Aldrich’s study Why Parties, Henry Hale’s “Why Not Parties,” and Dalton, Farrell and McAllister’s “Political Parties and Democratic Linkage.”

Deegan-Krause: On the role of legacies, I’d highlight Kitschelt’s work on divergent paths of post-communist transitions as well as his earlier work on cleavages and connections between citizens, parties and outcomes.

Rovny: In a similar vein, I find the works by Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua Tucker on legacies crucial for our deeper understanding of what it actually is that shapes party conflict in the region.

Deegan-Krause: And looking downstream to the consequences of particular party configurations and outcomes.

Whitefield: On the link to the quality of democracy, I really like Thomassen’s and van Biezen’s work which connect empirical questions about parties to a concern with good governance.

Haughton: I also think the state-building literature has been a valuable contribution to the study of the effects of party politics Conor O’Dwyer’s Runaway Statebuilding, the Venelin Ganev’s Stealing the State and Anna Grzymala-Busse’s Rebuliding Leviathan.

Deegan-Krause: Andrew Roberts’ The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe also deals well with the consequences of party competition in particular policy realms.

We asked this same question in our survey of party scholars, and there was considerable agreement on the most important works in the field. Our respondents include nearly all of the works we mentioned here along with several others. By far the most frequently mentioned scholar of parties among our experts is Peter Mair, both alone and in cooperation with Dick Katz

Also receiving multiple mentions the list among scholars of the region are

  • Bonnie Meguid’s work on niche parties and
  • Cas Mudde work on populism and the radical right
  • Fernado Casal Bertoa and Zsolt Enyedi’s work on cleavages,
  • the work of Hanspeter Kriesi and his team of scholars on issue dimensions and globalization,

The list also included the classic works by Lipset and Rokkan, Sartori, Bartolini and Mair, Lijphart, Pannebianco, Scarrow, Knutsen and Scarbrough and Cox.

Lists of scholars who work on other political parties in other regions echo this list of classics along with some of the other works listed here including Mair, Kriesi and Meguid. Here is of the books and articles most commonly cited by scholars of the region is available. Another list including all 100+ books and articles citied by scholars in the survey is available below.

“Adams, James (2005) A Unified Theory of Party Competition. Cambridge University Press

A Cross-National Analysis Integrating Spatial and Behavioral Factors”

Adams, Ezrow, and Somer-Topcu “”Is Anybody Listening”” (2011).

Albright, Jeremy (2010) The multidimensional nature of party competition in Party Politics have been of great interest.

Baumgartner, Frank R., and Bryan D. Jones. 1993. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Benoit Ken and Michael Laver – Party Policy in Modern Democracies (2006)

Berman Sheri “”The Primacy of Politics”” (2006).”

Bevan, Shaun, and Will Jennings. 2014. ”Representation, Agendas and Institutions”. European Journal of Political Research 53(1): 37-56.

Bevan, Shaun, Peter John, and Will Jennings. 2011. «Keeping party programmes on track: the transmission of the policy agendas of executive speeches to legislative outputs in the United Kingdom». European Political Science Review: 1–23.

Birch, Sarah (2003), Electoral systems and political transformation in post-communist Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Budge, Ian, and Richard I. Hofferbert. 1990. “Mandates and Policy Outputs: U.S. Party Platforms and Federal Expenditures.” The American Political Science Review 84(1): 111-131.

Budge, Ian, Hans-Dieter Klingeman, Andrea Volkens, Judith Bara, and Eric Tanenbaum. 2001. Mapping Policy Preferences. Estimates for Parties, Electors, and Governments, 1945-1998. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Budge, Ian, Hans-Dieter Klingemann, Andrea Volkens, Judith Bara, et al. 2001. Mapping Policy Preferences: Estimates for Parties, Electors, and Governments 1945-1998. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caplan, Bryan (2007) The Myth of the Rational Voter. Princeton University Press.

Capoccia, Giovanni and Daniel Ziblatt (2010), ‘The Historical Turn in Democratisation Studies: A New Research Agenda for Europe and Beyond, Comparative Political Studies, p.931-968.

Carey, John M. (2008) Legislative Voting and Accountability. Cambridge University Press.

Carty Kenneth (2004) Parties as Franchise Systems

Caul Kittilson, Miki (2006) Challenging Parties, Changing Parliaments. Women and Elected Office in Contemporary Western Europe. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

Chandra, Why Ethnic Parties Succeed;

Chhibber, Pradeep and Ken Kollman (2004) The Formation of National Party Systems. Federalism and Party System Competition in Canada, Great Britain, India and the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Crotty (eds) Handbook of Party Politics, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi: Sage, pp. 204–27.

Crouch, C. (2004) Post-Democracy. Cambridge: Polity.

Dalton “Political Parties and Democratic Linkage: How Parties Organize Democracy by Russell J. Dalton, David M. Farrell and Ian McAllister

Dalton and Wattenberg, Parties without Partisans

Dalton, R., D. Farrell en I. McAllister (2011) Political Parties and Democratic Linkage; How Parties Organize Democracy, Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press

Dalton, R.J. and Wattenberg, M.P. (eds) (2000) Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies. NY: Oxford University Press.

Dalton, Russell J. (2008) ‘The Quantity and the Quality of Party Systems: Party System Polarisation, Its Measurement, and Its Consequences’, Comparative Political Studies, 41, pp.899-920

Dan Posner, Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa;

De Vries, Catherine and Sara B. Hobolt (2012) ‘When Dimensions Collide: The Electoral Success of Issue Entrepreneurs’, European Union Politics, 13(2) 246-268.

Eijk and Franklin 2009

Erikson, R.S., MacKuen, M.B. & Stimson, J.A. (2002). The macro polity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans G. & De Graaf, N.D. Political Choice Matters: Explaining the strength of class and religious cleavages in cross-national perspective, Oxford University Press, 2013.”

Fiorina, M. (1981). Retrospective voting in American elections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Franklin, Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945 by Mark N. Franklin

Gallagher, M. and M. Marsh. (1988). Candidate selection in comparative perspective. Londres: Sage Publications.

Green-Pedersen, Christoffer, and Peter B. Mortensen. 2010. ”Who sets the agenda and who responds to it in the Danish parliament? A new model of issue competition and agenda-setting”. European Journal of Political Research 49(2): 257–81.

Halikiopoulou, D., Mock, S. and Vasilopoulou, S. (2013) The civic zeitgeist: nationalism and liberal values in the European radical right. Nations and Nationalism, 19 (1). pp. 107-127

Heidar, K. (2007) ‘What Would be Nice to Know about Party Members in European Democracies’, ECPR Joint Sessions, Helsinki, 7-12 May 2007.

Hibbing, John, and Theiss-Morse, Elizabeth. (2002). Stealth Democracy. Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobolt, Sara B., Jae-Jae Spoon and James Tilley (2009) ‘A vote against Europe? Explaining defection at the 1999 and 2004 European Parliament elections’, British Journal of Political Science , 39(1): 93-115.

Hobolt, Sara Binzer, and Robert Klemmensen. 2008. ”Government responsiveness and political competition in comparative perspective”. Comparative Political Studies 41(3): 309–37.

Hofferbert, Richard I., and Ian Budge. 1992. “The Party Mandate and the Westminster Model: Election Programmes and Government Spending in Britain, 1948-85.” British Journal of Political Science 22(2): 151-182.

Hooghe 2006. Party Ideology and European Integration: An East/West: Different Structure, Same Causality, with Liesbet Hooghe, Moira Nelson and Erica Edwards. Comparative Political Studies 39(2), 155-75.

Jones, Bryan D., and Frank R. Baumgartner. 2004. ”Representation and Agenda Setting”. Policy Studies Journal 32(1): 24.

Jones, Bryan D., and Frank R. Baumgartner. 2005. The Politics of Attention: How Government Prioritizes Problems. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Kahneman Daniel and

Kam, C. D., & Palmer, C. L. (2008). Reconsidering the Effects of Education on Political Participation. The Journal of Politics, 70(03), 612–631.

Katz and Kolodny (1994)

Katz, R. y P. Mair. 1995. “Changing models of party organization and party democracy: the cartel party”, Party Politics 1:1-28.

Katz, R.S. (2005) ‘The Internal Life of Parties’, in K.R. Luther, F. Müller-Rommell (eds) Political Parties in the New Europe. Political and Analytical Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kedar, orit book”

Klingemann, The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems by Hans-Dieter Klingemann”

Kitschelt 2000, CPS: “”Linkages between citizens and politicians in democratic politics.””

Kitschelt Herbert “”The Transformation of European Social Democracy”” (1994).

Kitschelt, H. (2000) ‘Linkages between citizens and politicians in democratic polities’, Comparative Political Studies, 33 (6–7): 845–879.

Kitschelt, H. (2007) Growth and persistence of the radical right in postindustrial democracies: Advances and challenges in comparative Research (West European Politics)

Klingemann, H. D, R. I Hofferbert, I. Budge, e H. Keman. 1994. Parties, policies, and democracy. Westview Pr.

Knutsen, O. and Scarbrough, E. (1995) ‘Cleavage politics’, in J. van Deth and E. Scarbrough (eds) The Impact of Values, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 492–523.

Laver, Michael, and Budge, Ian (Eds.). (1992). Party policy and government coalitions. New York: St. Martin’s.

Laver, Michael, e Kenneth A. Shepsle. 1996. Making and breaking governments: Cabinets and legislatures in parliamentary democracies. Cambridge University Press.

LEIRAS, Marcelo (2005) Todos los caballos del rey: la integración de los partidos y el gobierno democrático de la Argentina, 1995-2003. Buenos Aires: Prometeo.”

Lijphart Patterns of Democracy (latest edition)

Lovenduski, Joni (2005) Feminizing Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lovenduski, Joni and Pippa Norris (1993) Gender and Party Politics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Luna Juan Pablo, 2014, Segmented Representation, Oxford.

Mair, P. (2006a) Ruling the Void? The Hollowing of Western Democracy. New Left Review, 42. 25-51

Mair, Peter (2008) The Challenge to Party Government, West European Politics, 31:1-2, 211-234

Mair, Peter, and Jacques Thomassen. “”Political representation and government in the European Union.”” Journal of European Public Policy 17.1 (2010): 20-35.

Mair, Ruling the Void (or his earlier The West European Party System)

Manin, B. (1997) The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

McDonald, Michael D., and Ian Budge. 2005. Elections, Parties, Democracy: Conferring the Median Mandate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meguid, Party Competition Between Unequals

Morgenstern and Potthoff, Electoral Studies, 2005: “”The Components of Elections.””

Moser and Scheiner, Electoral Systems and Political Context;

Mudde, Cas (2007) Populist Radical Right in Europe (CUP)

Müller and Strom, Policy, Office or Votes,

Panebianco (1988)

Petrocik, J. R. 1996. «Issue ownership in presidential elections, with a 1980 case study». American Journal of Political Science: 825–50.

Plasser, Fritz and Gunda Plasser (2002), Global Political Campaigning. A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices, Westport CT: Praeger.

Powell and Tucker on improving our understanding of measuring volatility.

Przeworski’s entire work.

Randall, Vicky and Lars Svasand (2002) ‘Party Institutionalisation in New Democracies’ Party Politics, 8:5, pp.5-29.

Riker, W.H. (1962) The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press

Rothstein, Bo The Quality of Government

Rydgren, Jens (ed.) Class Politics and the Radical right (Routledge)

Samuels and Shugart, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers;

Sartori, Giovanni. 1976. Parties and Party Systems: a Theoretical Framework. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Scarrow (2007)

Schofield Norman and Itai Sened, Multiparty Democracy: Elections and Legislative Politics

Sigelman, Lee, and Emmett H. Buell. 2004. “Avoidance or Engagement? Issue Convergence in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, 1960–2000.” American Journal of Political Science 48(4): 650–61.

Simpser, Why Governments and Parties Manipulate Elections: Theory, Practice, and Implications by Alberto Simpser

Sniderman, Paul, and Hagendoorn, Louk. (2007). When Ways of Life Collide: Multiculturalism and its Discontents in the Netherlands. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.”

Soroka, S.N., e C. Wlezien. 2010. Degrees of democracy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Stegmueller’s POQ article on individual-level partisan dynamics.

Stimson, J.A., MacKuen, M.B. and Erikson, R.S. (1995). “Dynamic representation”. American Political Science Review 89: 543–565

Strøm, K., W.C. Müller and T. Bergman (eds) (2008), Coalition Bargaining: The Democratic Life Cycle in Western Europe, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Strøm, Kaare, and Wolfgang C. Müller. 1999. «The keys to togetherness: Coalition agreements in parliamentary democracies». The Journal of Legislative Studies 5(3-4): 255–82.

Strøm, Kaare. 2000. “Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies.” European Journal of Political Research 37(3): 261-289.

Sulkin, T. 2005. Issue politics in Congress. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.

Thomassen The European Voter (Jaqcues Thomassen ed)

Tsebelis, George. 2002. Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tversky, Amos. (1988). Contrasting Rational and Psychological Analyses of Political Choice. American Political Science Review.

van Biezen (2004)

Van der Brug, Wouter, and Joost Van Spanje. “”Immigration, Europe and the ‘new’cultural dimension.”” European Journal of Political Research 48.3 (2009): 309-334.

Van der Meer, Tom, et al. “”Bounded volatility in the Dutch electoral battlefield: A panel study on the structure of changing vote intentions in the Netherlands during 2006–2010.”” Acta Politica 47.4 (2012): 333-355.

Warwick, Paul V. 2001. “Coalition Policy in Parliamentary Democracies Who Gets How Much and Why”. Comparative Political Studies 34(10): 1212–36.

Warwick, Paul V. 2011. “Voters, Parties, and Declared Government Policy.” Comparative Political Studies 44(12): 1675–99.”

Webb, Party Politics in New Democracies”

Young, L. (2013) ‘Party Members and Intra-Party Democracy’ in W.P. Cross and R.S. Katz The Challenges of Intra-Party Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Work in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part IV

The last post pointed toward a successor that would talk more about dimensions of competition, emphasizing the “non-primary” dimensions.  This allows some attention to the emerging question of “niche” parties and points directly to the question of salience that I promised would follow.  From this we can then look at the links between the kinds of conflicts and their roots in society (or lack thereof).

And one final preliminary note: what follows is far longer and more detailed than anything I intended.  The material here pushed itself in this direction and I merely hung on for the ride.)

The analysis in the previous post suggested a fairly wide consensus about the relatively narrow degree of dimensionality in most polities: something more than one dimension, but rarely more than two dimensions, at least not two dimensions of significance equal to the first.  What scholars find in most cases–whether they use manifesto data or expert survey data–is configurations that consist of one dominant dimension of conflict along with one or more subordinate dimensions, (analogous to the “one and two-halves party system” metaphor discussed with some disdain by Sartori (1976, 168) or perhaps metaphorically akin to the higher dimensions in string theory which are curved tightly in on themselves). The primary dimension is most often but not always socio-economic.  The number, type and strength of non-primary dimensions vary rather significantly from country to country (and, Stoll [2010] would suggest, over time).

The question is how we should handle these various dimensions in scholarly analyses.  The major dimension(s) provide(s) a challenge in their composition, in how many issues they bundle.  Bakker’s work suggests that in most Western European countries the economic dimension bundles in the GAL-TAN dimension bundle whereas in some (especially Greece and Austria) it does so to a much smaller degree.  In postcommunist Europe, by contrast, the overall tightness of the bundling is somewhat lower (both mean and median correlations between economic and GAL-TAN positions are lower by about 0.10).

For the dimensions beyond the primary conflict, problems of definition are different and there are questions of measurement and significance.   These secondary and tertiary dimensions are clearer in that they bundle fewer issues, but our everyday vocabulary–and even our scholarly vocabulary–is ill-equipped to deal with these dimensions and the parties that occupy them.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of this inadequacy is the recent emergence of the notion of the “niche” party into active scholarly consideration.  A slightly-more-than cursory search of electronic sources suggests that this term has shifted over time from a rather idiosyncratic and descriptive term toward a theoretically-grounded concept.

The etymology of the term “niche” is little help, deriving from the architectural term for “a  recess for a statue”(OED http://www.oed.com/?authRejection=true&url=%2Fview%2FEntry%2F126748) into a variety of meanings that imply removal, seclusion, and a general notion of “apartness.”  During the past century ecologists have transformed the word into a metaphor of suitability: every living thing has a “niche” outside of which it is not as fit for survival.

Nor does the phrase “niche party” have a long history that would offer suggestions on how it is best to be used.  The phrase does not to have been in common use before the early 1990’s, with no mentions at all in the Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe or Google Books databases before 1993.  The early uses of the term appear between 1993 and 1999 tend to apply to small parties in systems with two or three dominant parties: the Progressive Democrats in Ireland, the New Democratic Party in Canada, the Ethnic Minority Party and Christian Heritage Party in New Zealand, and Shas in Israel.

Gallagher in 1993 characterizes a “‘niche’ party” as “looking for support from certain groups” and contrasts this strategy with that of a “catchall party” (66, http://bit.ly/ktoN6Q).  A later commentator from New Zealand extends this metaphor directly into the realm of aquaculture:

[Green Party co-leader Rod Donald] used “a fishing analogy to describe the difference between a broad-spectrum party and a niche party. The former “‘trawl” to catch as many voters as possible, while the latter use a more selective long line.  (Luke, Peter. 1999. “Push-button parties.”  The Press. 23 October, section 1, p. 11.)

Niche parties are thus somehow distinctive, small, and unlikely to get much bigger.  Beyond these core characteristics, however, the precise identification of niche parties becomes more difficult and the boundaries between definitional and empirical limits begins to blur.  More recent definitions help to narrow down the field, but they do not necessarily agree.

Perhaps the most specific of the recent definitions is the one provided by Meguid in her meticulous 2005 analysis of the interaction between “niche” and “mainstream” parties.  It is notable, first, that Meguid defines “niche” against “mainstream” rather than “catchall,” suggesting that the difference lay not (solely) in the way a party seeks to attract its voters but rather (also) in its position within the broader party system.  “Niche” here means “away from the main”

Her definition involves three distinct aspects dealt with here or in previous (or future) posts on this topic: voter base, issue dimension and the degree of issue bundling

First, niche parties reject the traditional class-based orientation of politics. Instead of prioritizing economic demands, these parties politicize sets of issues which were previously outside the dimensions of party competition…  [T]hese parties … challenge the content of political debate.

Second, the issues raised by the niche parties are not only novel, but they often do not coincide with existing lines of political division. Niche parties appeal to groups of voters that may cross-cut traditional partisan alignments.

Third, niche parties further differentiate themselves by limiting their issue appeals. They eschew the comprehensive policy platforms common to their mainstream party peers, instead adopting positions only on a restricted set of issues. Even as the number of issues covered in their manifestos has increased over the parties’ lifetimes, they have still been perceived as single issue parties by the voters. Unable to benefit from pre-existing partisan allegiances or the broad allure of comprehensive ideological positions, niche parties rely on the salience and attractiveness of their one policy stance for voter support.  (Meguid 2005, 347-348)

Adams et al (2006) accept some of these restrictions but not all of them.  Their definition focuses on ideology but rejects the need for a cross-cutting ideological dimension or the abandonment of class politics.  Instead they accept as “niche” those

party families who present either an extreme ideology (such as Communist and extreme nationalist parties) or a noncentrist “niche” ideology ( i.e., the Greens). (Adams et al, 2006, 513, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3694232 .)

The key underlying factor for Adams et al thus appears to be some kind of distance from the dimensional segment defined by the main parties; niche parties are either in the same plane as the main competition but some distance from the nearest competitor on its side, or they are some distance away from the main dimension on a secondary or tertiary dimension.  Graphically, the difference between Meguid and Adams et al looks something like this:


Removing the restrictions on the main dimension of competition/class-based appeals is significant.  It minimizes the question of dimensionality, replacing it with proximity (“extreme”, “non-centrist”), and also eliminates Meguid’s demographic limitations that exclude class-based parties from the “niche” category.

Wagner offers a simplified version of Meguid, defining “niche parties” as those “that de-emphasise economic concerns and stress a small range of non-economic issues”(2011, 3, http://homepage.univie.ac.at/markus.wagner/Paper_nicheparties.pdf)

Wagner’s analysis lends itself to an elegant graph that defines niche parties in strictly economic terms and places in the  mainstream any party that either emphasizes economic issues or avoids non-economic issues:

Wagner’s definition thus sets aside any notion of the demographic basis of class competition (potentially opening the door to Communist parties) but it also removes the degree of extremeness of a party’s position in favor of a pure reliance on emphasis (excluding Communist parties from a different direction).  The simplification allows him to address and measure the “niche-ness” of specific parties rather than assuming it based on a party’s “family” which may for an individual party be a poor fit (Bresanelli 2011 finds a fairly large number of parties whose manifestos do not match well with those of others in their European Parliament group, with the share of such parties particularly high in postcommunist Europe, http://euce.org/eusa/2011/papers/6f_bressanelli.pdf).  Wagner’s party-specific measure also accommodates changes over time to and from the “niche” category as parties pick raise or lower their economic and non-economic emphases.  This more nuanced analysis has its limitations: Wagner establishes economic policy as the only dimension used for distinguishing mainstream from niche, and he establishes binary cut-off points for economic and non-emphasis.  Even here, however, he suggests some flexibility: he acknowledges both the possibility of a scalar alternative to the binary cutoff points, and he suggests the possibility of a non-economic variant  for “party systems in some countries are defined more strongly by, for example, ethnic divisions” (9)

An even more recent piece by Miller and Meyer offer an alternative that strengthens Wagner at its weakest points: the binary distinction and the lack of attention to alternative dominant dimensions (2011, http://staatswissenschaft.univie.ac.at/uploads/media/Miller___Meyer_-_To_the_Core_of_the_Niche_Party.pdf).  Miller and Meyer define “niche parties”as those that “compete by stressing  other policies than their competitors“(4) or, according to another formulation in the paper, “A niche party emphasizes policies neglected by its rivals”(5). They operationalize this relatively simple definition with a measure that “compares a party’s policy profile with the (weighted) average of the remaining party system” across multiple dimensions (11).  In the process they depart from Wagner’s use of the economic dimension as a baseline for “the mainstream”: “We conclude that – while economic niches might be rare – to exclude them by definition unnecessarily restricts the concept”(8).  The formula also generates a scale which allows comparison of parties according to the “degree of nicheness.”

The formula is intuitive and easy to grasp.   The farther a party is from all other parties on a given dimension–in terms of emphasis, it must be remembered, and not policy position–the higher is the niche score for its position on that dimension.  The more niches its positions on a variety of issues, the more it can be considered a niche party.  My first attempt to give a visual picture of how distances translate into niche positions is the spatial approach below:

This is misleading,however, because we are used to reading these kinds of graphs as representing positions whereas in this case they represent intensities.  It is therefore useful (and more fun) to reconceptualize the map in terms color, with each party’s emphasis translating into a score on 3 color dimensions: red, blue and green. In this case the intensity of color is roughly analogous to difference from the center (which would be flat grey).  Bright in this case equals “nichy.”

Party A and B occupy opposite positions on a single issue dimension (which could be taken here to be the “main” one except that this method does not identify a “main dimension”) and are low-emphasis on all the others. They thus have quite low niche scores and are quite grey.  Party C’s niche score is even lower because it is likewise low-emphasis on all issues except one and (thanks to parties A, B and G, it is relatively close to the mean on that one issue.  Parties D, E, F, and G all have unbalanced emphasis in their own way, either on one issue (E and G) or two (D) or all three (F) and are therefore brightly colored.  It is noteworthy here that while starting closer to Meguid’s notion of dimensionality than to that of Adams et al, Miller and Meyer end up allowing niche status to parties on any dimension of competition as long as it sufficiently different from the emphasis of other parties.

In practical use, this measure still exhibits a certain degree of awkwardness. In particular it appears to be highly sensitive to number and type of dimensions used for calculating the overall niche scores.  Miller and Meyer use party manifesto data arranged in well-defined categories for Western Europe which appears to serve them well (I cannot judge at first glance), but for Eastern Europe where manifesto data is notoriously problematic, this method might not work as well (and it certainly depends in Miller and Meyer’s case on the not-always-accurate assumption that the sheer amount of verbiage translates into emphasis).  The method should, in theory, be usable with expert survey data on the salience of issues for particular parties, but these vary substantially in terms of what “dimensions” they ask about.  As a result, the results for “niche-ness” of particular parties can differ, even in relatively stable party systems.  The two tables below present results of my preliminary calculations for the two countries I know better than others using the available expert survey data on emphasis.  The results are extremely consistent for some parties and quite different for others, particularly those with some “niche” characteristics or others.

Table 1. Niche scores for parties in the Czech Republic based on Expert Surveys

Party Expert Surveys Overall My own assessment
2002 Eurequal 2006 North Carolina 2007 Eurequal (evaluated dimensions) 2007 Eurequal (policy areas)
CSSD -0.2 -0.3 +0.1 -0.1 Mainstream through intermediate Mainstream
KDU-CSL +0.1 +.6 -0.2 +0.1 Mainstream through niche Interesting question
KSCM -0.1 +0.2 -0.1 +0.4 Intermediate through niche Interesting question
Nezavisli -0.1 Intermediate
ODA +1.1 High
ODS -0.3 +0.0 -0.0 -0.2
Mainstream through intermediate
SNK-ED -0.8 Mainstream
SZ -0.1 +0.5 +0.8 Intermediate to niche Interesting question
US +0.4 Intermediate

Table 2. Niche scores for parties in Slovakia based on Expert Surveys

Party Expert Surveys Overall My own guess
2002 Eurequal 2006 North Carolina 2007 Eurequal (evaluated dimensions) 2007 Eurequal (policy areas)
ANO +0.7 Niche
HZDS -0.4 -0.8 -0.5 -0.4 Mainstream Mainstream(at first)
KDH +1.1 +0.4 +0.6 +0.0 Intermediate through niche Intermediate through niche
KSS -0.0 +0.1 Intermediate Interesting question
PSNS -0.1 Intermediate Interesting question
SDKU +0.1 +.01 +0.0 +0.5 Intermediate through niche Mainstream through intermediate
SF -0.6 Mainstream
Smer -0.3 -0.5 +0.2 +0.2 Mainstream through intermediate Mainstream
SMK -.01 +0.7 +0.2 -0.1 Intermediate through niche Niche if there ever was one
SNS +0.2 +0.7 +0.0 -0.1 Intermediate through niche Interesting question

Used here the method does a fairly good job identifying parties that are clearly mainstream by any reckoning–the Czech ODS and CSSD and the Slovak Smer–but for other parties there is significant disagreement, and many of the parties producing the sharpest disagreements are those that defy easy non-quantitative categorization.

  • Green parties:  The Green party would be considered “niche” by both Meguid and Adams et al and falls into that categorization in both measures of the 2007 Eurequal survey but not in the 2006 North Carolina survey, in large part because the North Carolina survey simply does not have a measurement of environmental questions and so its niche-ness comes out only on lifestyle and ethnic minority questions.
  • Communist parties.  Both the Slovak and Czech communist parties (the unreconstructed ones rather than their social democratic successor parties) emerge as slightly but not overwhelmingly more niche-like than other parties.  That such parties are an open question corresponds well with the disagreement between Meguid and Adams et al about whether to include them in the niche category.
  • Christian Democratic parties.  While not included in either Meguid or Adams categories, such parties in postcommunist Europe (and in certain parts of Western Europe, particularly Scandinavia) often appear to operate by many of the principles specified by Meguid: avoiding class based appeals (they did this from early on), taking up issues off the main issue dimension (church and morality issues are not the main dimension in most of these countries), and keeping a relatively narrow range of issues, though they did at least claim to take positions across all of the major issue areas.  Both the Slovak and Czech Christian Democrats  put a foot in the niche category and in the 2002 survey Slovakia’s Christian Democratic Movement receives the highest niche score of any party in the survey.  At the same time it (and its Czech counterpart) show few niche qualities at all in the 2007 Eurequal survey long version, because their distinctive stands on lifestyle issues are diluted by an extremely large number of economy-related questions in the survey.
  • Ethnic minority parties.  Slovakia brings three additional parties into the niche debate, all of which made strong ethnic-based appeals.  The most clearly niche-like party of these three–indeed perhaps of all the parties listed in the two tables above–is SMK (the Party of the Hungarian Coalition)–a party with an almost purely ethnic Hungarian voting base and no major policy issues beyond minority rights and related issues.  Yet this party produces a high niche score only in the 2006 North Carolina survey which has three questions (out of a total of twelve) on nationalism, ethnic minorities, and decentralization.  The same survey suggests an equally high niche score for the SNS (the Slovak National Party) which takes diametrically opposed but equally emphatic positions on the same issues.
  • Liberal parties.  Finally, there is the question of liberal parties.  These are often small parties, sometimes with relatively narrow issue emphases, but because in Western Europe they tend to compete on the main issue dimensions,  they rarely fall into the niche category and are not included either by Meguid or Adams.  In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, however, they often appear to fall into this category.  The Czech party US (Freedom Union) received a positive niche score in because of its position on social rights (matched and countered by its election coalition partner, the Christian Democrats) and another liberal party, ODA received one of the highest niche scores on the 2002 Eurequal survey (though largely because the party was by then moribund and received low salience scores on nearly every question.  In Slovakia, one small liberal party returned extremely mainstream scores (SF, Free Forum) but two others returned scores that were mixed on the niche side (SDKU, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union) or strongly niche-like (ANO, the Alliance of the New Citizen) on the basis of social rights questions which in Slovakia (as in the Czech Republic) are not a high salience issue when compared to others.

Even if this application of Miller and Meyer’s formula in this form and with this data does not (yet) provide a fully reliable measure, their standard for measuring niche parties does gets at the key issues of “niche-ness” in Central Europe and helps us think more clearly about politics in the region.

Meguid took a helpful first step with her attention to secondary and tertiary issue dimensions, and Wagner and Miller and Meyer add a useful emphasis on issue salience that edges into areas of issue ownership.  One way to think about what politics is “about” in a particular country is to look at what the main political forces fight about and what other political forces “fight to fight about” turning political debate onto some other topic where they are strongest.  From Schattschneider and Riker through contemporary scholars such as Green-Pedersen, there has been a strong current of emphasis on the meta-struggle about the issues over which we struggle.  In this sense we might regard niche parties simply as those that achieve limited success in the herasthetic realm.  They neither fail so badly that they gain no voters nor succeed so well that their issue dimension becomes the dominant one.  Or (since according to Miller and Meyer this sort of  “niche-ness” is not static), they may be simply passing through from one of these extremes to another.  Niche parties thus call our attention to the partial dimensions that surround the main conflict, the asymmetrical battles between one party and all the rest.  They can be characterized as positional conflicts between two rival policies, but it may be better to characterize them as conflicts of attention between parties that do not care and parties that do.  So it is little surprise (in retrospect) that such parties behave differently from others since their struggle is not to attract voters to a position but rather to attract voters’ attention to that position and hold it there.

In a sense it could be argued that all parties seek to do this, even on main dimensions.  So called mainstream parties seek out the niches within the main stream as they try to attract attention to a specific aspect of the issue where they hold the advantage: Party A’s reputation for lowering taxes versus Party B’s reputation for improving services (Colomer and Puglisi 2005).  It is not clear to me whether this is qualitatively different from the kind of effort undertaken by niche parties, but it does seem different to the extent that the two issues are bound up in the minds of voters: if lowering taxes and improving services are inextricably linked in most voters’ minds, then Party A’s appeals to its own area of strength cannot but cast some attention to the rival strength of Party B.  It may be for this reason that a considerable part of party effort may be in this linking or de-linking of issues to one another.  If Party A can argue successfully that the level of taxation has nothing to do with the quality of service, then it can create for itself a “niche”–and because it is a niche within the main stream of political life, where voters are already passionate and attentive, it may hold the key to political majority.  For less-discussed, less-salient issues, an equally persuasive effort at projecting issue ownership will net fewer voters and so niches outside of the mainstream, and so such a party must expend its effort not only to persuade that its position is right, and not only that it is the best party to advance that position, but also that the position matters in the first place.  So we should expect niche parties to be different from other parties.

But perhaps by the same token we should expect niche parties to be different from one another, because some of these partial dimensions, secondary and tertiary dimensions may have fundamentally different characteristics from others.  And here it is necessary to raise the slippery question of demographics.  Demographic characteristics are admittedly less solid than they look.  Questions on public opinion surveys separate respondents into rigid, well-defined categories that seem relatively permanent but even once solid fixtures like class and religion are now in seemingly permanent definitional flux, and as with attitudes, the role of demography in political decision-making depends not only on an individual’s characteristics but on the salience of those characteristics in political struggle.  And salience is not the only fluctuating element.  A key element of demographic (and attitudinal) determinants of politics is the sense of mutual-recognition and groupness among those who share them.  These are often overlooked (perhaps because they are not easily quantified) but play a major role in shaping their importance.  Political decisions are not always made by individuals who participate in groups; they sometimes emerge within groups and capture the allegiance of the individuals involved.  That allegiance, like the demographic characteristics themselves, may be sticky, and may produce fairly high barriers between “in” and “out.”  And here, finally, is where niche parties come in.  Those whose partial issue dimensions depend on individual sentiment and loose attitudinal configurations should behave quite differently from those that stem from hard-to-change characteristics and mutually reinforcing social circles.  Both must constantly fight for the salience of their chief position; only some will do so by encouraging group identity and interconnection.

It is this latter consideration that now causes me to wonder a bit about the wonderful work by Meguid, Wagner and Miller and Meyer.  In one sense it exactly what we need: serious research about partial dimensions and their empirical dimensions and dynamics.  In another sense, though, it may be a misnomer to talk about this in terms of “niches.”  I am struck by a passage of Miller and Meyer which notes that “Niche parties do not have their nicheness carved in stone”(2011, 8) and the contrast between this interpretation and the original meaning of  niche which was by definition something carved in stone.  Of course etymology is not destiny, but there is something relevant about the carved-in-stone-ness of certain party positions.  Niche parties may all shift political competition to questions more relevant to their own programmatic strength, but there is a fundamental difference between greens and majority nationalists on the one hand and ethnic or religious minorities on the other.  The latter come as close as possible to the architectural metaphor of a niche: the recesses are deep and the walls around them quite thick and hard-to-penetrate.  Of course the same can also be said for some Communist Parties, which may explain their inclusion in the work of Adams et al.  Compared to these, majority nationalists or greens or cultural liberals (in Central and Eastern Europe at least) do not fit the same profile, do not face the same advantages in holding a well-defined voting base or the same difficulties in trying to expand.

This analysis suggests two different dimensions, producing three categories of niche party:

Issue Centrality
Secondary/Tertiary Dimension,
Group closure Low Social Democrats Conservatives
Majority nationalists
Some social liberals
High Communists
Some Christian democrats
Ethnic minorities
Religious minorities
Some Christian democrats

Some parties qualify as niche by either standard–they have both a high degree of group closure and a non-central issue.  Of the remainder, some exhibit only collectivity or identity niches but remain on the central dimension of competition, while other occupy (potentially less enduring) issue niches without a sense of group identity or commonality beyond the issue at hand.

This question needs more work that is not strictly relevant for my immediate purpose, so I will come back to it in future posts.  In the meantime, this discussion of niche parties leads directly into the last two topics I want to discuss in this “work in progress” series: issue salience and ownership and parties’ demographic and collective ties.  But more on those in a few days.

Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part III

The last post ended with a comment on the need for understanding the nature of the conflicts and the role of political institutions, but in retrospect that is a bit premature since before I can talk about the tension between the anchoring of conflicts in socio-demographic structures and the manipulation of conflicts by political elites, I need to explore further the nature of the conflicts themselves.

In the first post in this series, I raised a series of questions about cleavage-like conflict.  The second post tried to lay out the substance of those conflicts, at least as they concern postcommunist Europe.  I discussed both the socio-demographic and the attitudinal elements but stopped short of linking them because it is that linkage that is central to much of the controversy about “cleavages” and requires more attention than I had time to give.  And I was not really done with the conflict question, as I had not yet dealt with the questions of dimensionality, bundling, asymmetry or … and this may have to wait for yet another day, salience.  Here are the potentially problematic issues I raised in the first post:

  • The degree to which positions on those issues overlap with one another, and the size of the resulting “bundle” of aligned issues
  • The relative distribution of supporters and parties on particular issues or bundles (the degree to which disagreement is symmetrical and continuous or binary and asymmetrical, forming “niches”)
  • The degree to which a particular issue or bundle of issues is salient for political debate

In one sense I already started to deal with the question of bundling in the previous post to the extent that, short of arguing that an particular issue is not relevant, the only way to reduce the number of dimensions of analysis is to bundle some issues with others.  Of course all “issues” are themselves bundles of specific questions that touch on multiple dimensions.  in some cases multiple dimensions of debate may merge (or some may submerge) to form a single dimension of competition, whereas, as Colomer and Puglese note, a seemingly-unidimensional political question can quickly become the subject of a multi-dimensional debate (2006) (The phenomenon is  easily observable in the case of the U.S. health care debate in which some Republicans chose to attack the Obama admiminstration’s proposals on financial grounds while others focused on its relationship to abortion and euthanasia).

What emerges as a result is the challenge of measuring dimensionality:  how many dimensions shape political competition, and what specific issues do those actually contain.  As Budge and Fairlie note, the upper end of the dimensionality scale has “as many dimensions as there are political actors and public preferences held by them – forming an underlying space of almost infinite dimensions therefore”(cited in Colomer and Puglese). The need for clarity, however, calls for the least misleading possible reduction to a relatively small number.  At the far end of this process of reduction, is the uni-dimensional conflict between two dominant positions which bundle together everything else (the number of dimensions more or less inversely related to the size of their bundles).

The most common framework for understanding unidimensionality, of course, is “left” and “right.”  According to Mair (2007: 208) this framework still ”

appears to offer both sense and shape to an otherwise complex political reality’ at three levels. First, in terms of voters, data from the European Social Surveys conducted in recent years show that more than 80 per cent of voters define themselves as left- or right-wingers. Second, regarding observers and researchers ‘expert surveys’ systematically identify the left-right conflict as one of the most relevant issues in the competition among political parties. Third, with party programmes and electoral platforms, content analysis systematically shows that ‘some form of left-right dimension dominates competition at the level of the parties’ (Mair 2007: 209–210).

But in this dimensional reduction there emerge two significant follow-up questions:  what do “left” and “right” actually mean in any particular case?  and how much does the left-right dimension capture political competition in any particular country.

As Budge et al note, the positions bundled by “left” and “right” are highly idiosyncratic, differing from country to country and even from one time period to the next in a single country:

“The specific policy position contents of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or of ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ global ideological positions are accidental.”  ‘There is after all no logical or inherent reason why support for peace (for instance) should be associated with government interventionism (also for instance).’ (Budge et al 2001, 13)

The difficulty of finding a unified sense of “left” and “right” is especially difficult in postcommunist Europe where Communist-successor parties pursue pro-market economic reforms (Tavits2009) and where debates over ethnic rights and corruption defy easy categorization into “left” and “right.”  Nor do all “lefts” and “rights” easily coincide.

Recent research by Bakker et al (The Dimensionality of Party Politics in Europe, http://www.jhubc.it/ecpr-porto/virtualpaperroom/104.pdf) uses the University of North Carolina expert surveys to assess the correlations between party positions on an economic “left”-“right” scale as well as the Green-Alternative-Libertarian (GAL) versus (Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist) scale in which the former receives the label “left” while the latter is considered “right.”   They find an average correlation coefficient between the two scales 0.65 and a correlation coefficient above 0.50 in eighteen of the twenty-four European cases they study (EU members except for Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg) and above 0.75 in nine of the twenty-four, suggesting that a left-right dimension is fairly reliable in many cases.  On this measure postcommunist countries actually scored slightly higher than other EU members.  A separate analysis of unbundled issues for the same set of countries found multiple dimensions in every country, but most of the twenty-four cases, the strength of the second dimension was well below that of the first, and the ranking of dimensionality in the countries corresponded relatively well to their rankings in the analysis of the hypothesized main dimensions.

Other aspects of their work, however, suggest a degree of caution about a simple left-right framework, particularly in post-communist Europe.  First, whereas all non-postcommunist cases yielded a positive correlation coefficient between economic left and “GAL Left,” among the postcommunist cases there was considerable variation:  three countries showed a positive correlation (Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia) while seven others produced a negative correlation in which “economic left” coincided with “TAN Right” (Hungary, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania) and one case produced no correlation at all (Slovakia) (2010, 6).  Only in the first three cases, then, would it be possible to talk about a unidimensional left-right axis, while in the larger group of seven the unidimensionality is difficult to label (is a particular side to be called “left” after its economic aspects or right after its cultural aspects) and in final case the problem does not emerge because there is no dominant dimension.

The analysis also corresponds with the findings of Henjak (West European Politics 2010) and Whitefield and Rohrschneider (and before them, Lijphart, 1999), that while nearly all countries exhibit a fairly significant socio-economic dimension, there is considerable variation in the nature of the secondary and tertiary dimensions.  At the risk of going further afield, I will talk about those “other” dimensions in the next post (as promised, actually) before moving on to the question of salience and from there to the conflict-related interaction between voters, party organizations and party positions.


Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part II

The last post began what will probably be a fairly discussion of how we should think about “cleavages” in the early 21st century in what we currently call post-communist Europe (a conceptual framework that becomes less relevant every year).   I continue that discussion here with attention to one of the questions raised last time: The number and type of issues about which the main actors in the political system compete.

Today I simply begin with a list of “things that people say” and some cursory analysis. When scholars who work on Central and Eastern Europe look for the main dividing lines, whether at the level of socio-structural grouping or attitudinal/value difference, what do they tend to find?

Since there is no dominant framework, it is helpful look at commonly-used frameworks to find commonalities in assessments of “cleavage-type” divisions.  It is useful to start with broad multi-national assessments before delving into the specifics of individual cases.  Lijphart defines seven “issue dimensions of partisan conflict”(Patterns of Democracy, 1999, 79), many of which straddle the distinctions between socio-demographic and attitudinal categories

  • Socioeconomic
  • Religious
  • Cultural-ethnic
  • Urban-rural
  • Regime support
  • Foreign policy
  • Postmaterialist

A similar starting point focusing on Central and Eastern Europe appears in a 2010 literature survey by Berglund and Ekman who refer to the findings of the 2004 Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe and other sources when they define ten dividing lines in three broad categories related to periods of historical development (Handbook of European Societies, 100):


  • Core population versus ethno-linguistic minorities
  • Religious versus secular
  • Urban versus rural
  • Workers versus owners
  • Social democrats versus communists


  • National versus cosmopolitan
  • Protectionist versus free market
  • Generational
  • Socio-economically disadvantaged versus occupational and managing elites


  • Apparatus versus forums/fronts

Most of these refer to “demographic” clusters.  The first four recapitulate the framework established by Lipset and Rokkan, and two others in the “contemporary” list extend and nuance this list to include a more inclusive variant on “workers versus owners” and the question of generational differences.  Other entries on this list–those in italics–refer not to strictly demographic questions but to value or attitudinal questions about national identity and economic distribution which are related but not necessarily identical to the demographic categories.  Still others–those underlined–point more toward conflicts in the institutional realm related to party organization and party institutions.  In this list Lijphart’s more issue-based dimensions of foreign policy and postmaterialism are notably absent and the question of regime type appears only in partial form in the question of “apparatus versus forums.”

The nature of the list depends not only on the regional focus but the question at hand Kitschelt makes clear distinctions between the “fabric of sociodemographic traits and relations” on one hand and “preferences for political action” on the other, though he notes that both of these shape political choice (West European Politics, 2010, 661).  His assessment of the “fabric of traits” does not specify particular demographic groups, but rather identifies a list of eleven potentially important characteristics:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Family
  • Status
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Education
  • Skill
  • Risk exposure
  • Ethnic (divides)
  • Cultural (divides)

Many of these are consistent with Lipset and Rokkan’s list as used by Berglund and Ekman, but Kitschelt’s framework here moves away from identifying specific groups toward identifying specific dynamics: religiosity becomes a kind of cultural preference, while economic questions of sector and class are disaggregated into a combination of status, occupation type, income, skill, and risk exposure.

Other scholars have engaged in a similar elaboration and transformation of attitudinal and value issues, not only separating these from assumed socio-demographic mooring but also seeking to split (and sometimes recombine) key elements.

Stoll’s work on Western Europe identifies “six theoretically  interesting  ideological conflicts” (West European Politics, 2010, 455)

  • Socioeconomic (free enterprise, welfare state)
  • Ethnic (multiculturalism, centralization)
  • Religious
  • Urban-rural
  • Foreign policy (EC/EU and special relationships with particular countries)
  • Post-materialist (environmental protection)

But even though the differences between Western and “Eastern” Europe have diminished, Stoll’s list overlaps imperfectly with the lists employed by those who research the region.  Of these, perhaps the most extensive is that of Whitefield and Rohrschneider, who identify eight primarily attitudinal conflicts in their expert survey (They also identify two variants of Lipset and Rokkan’s sociodemographic divisions–regional and urban-rural–but they do not use these in much of their subsequent analysis) (Comparative Political Studies, 2009, Appendix).

  • Economy: Redistribution Issues (for example, tax levels, welfare state spending)
  • Economy: State-run versus Market Economy
  • Democracy: Strengthening Democratic Institutions
  • Ethnic Rights (for example, minorities)
  • Nationalism and Internationalism (for example, views about the EU).
  • Religiosity (role of church)
  • Social Rights (for example, lifestyle)
  • Views of the Communist Past and Its Legacies

The question, as above, is whether the long list of value differences can be conveniently shortened.  The expert surveys conducted by Hooghe and Marks begin with a simple two dimensional approach which looks separately at party positions on economic issues (role in the economy, taxes, regulation, spending and welfare state) and views on democratic freedoms and rights where they differentiate Green/Alternative/Liberal (GAL) attitudes (expanded personal freedoms, for example, access to abortion, active euthanasia, same-sex marriage, or greater democratic participation) from Traditional/ Authoritarian/ Nationalist (TAN) belief that government “should be a firm moral authority on social and cultural issues” (  While these two dimensions capture much that is in the Whitefield and Rohrschneider typology–particularly their two economy questions and their religiosity and “social rights” questions–they discard important information by conflating the elements of GAL/TAN, which in postcommunist Europe tend to remain separate.  Postcommunist European authoritarianism has less to do with social regulation than it does in Western Europe and more to do with democratic institutions.  Postcommunist European concern about nationalism and ethnic rights is relatively independent of questions about social rights.  In this sense Kitschelt offers a slightly more suitable framework when he suggests a three-fold difference that adds a “group” dimension to the dimensions for economic and cultural (“grid”) regulation:

  • economic distribution
  • preferences over the internal governance of societies (“grid:” how many and what kind of binding rules of conduct should be codified by politics, including rules of political participation?)
  • preferences over the external boundaries of polity membership (“group:” insiders and outsiders).

Even this triple division is limiting, however, since it folds questions about democracy into the “grid” category.  Empirical work by Whitefield and Rohrschnieder find that democracy questions in Postcommunist Europe tend to correlate instead with national questions, but even here evidence suggests that the connection is contingent rather than necessary (Deegan-Krause 2007), and so it is best to hold democracy separate as a fourth relevant dimension.

Nor does any of this narrowing of dimensions address the role of the Communist era, which is not quite a demographic question–though it is closely related to the shift in individuals’ respective demographic positions between the Communist and postcommunist era–and not quite a purely attitudinal question.  In this it may resemble to some extent the question of religiosity, which has both ascriptive and value elements. A brief look at the region suggests that on one hand it deserves to be treated as a distinct category, since in various settings “Communism” may mean anti-market, or anti-religion, or anti-national (or pro-national), but on the other hand it is arguable that the core of the dimension lies in whatever “Communism” and “anti-Communism” ally with rather than the question of Communism itself.  This, however, is an empirical question that will simply need more study.

The question of Communism, in fact, calls attention to the underlying dynamics of the political conflict.  “What are they fighting about?” may be the first question we ask when we approach a new polity (or try to figure out a polity that has become opaque to us over time) but we also need to know how the struggle occurs.  We need to look at the depth of the conflict and the role of political institutions in shaping the struggle.


Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part I

In an effort to get some genuine writing done over the coming weeks, I am going to try to do some of that writing in a place and in a way that I enjoy, and so I plan to subject those who read this to a rather academic treatment of the question of “cleavage formation” and how it has taken place in Central and Eastern Europe.  If this is not your cup of tea, then just skim right on by and come back later for more interesting stuff about Slovakia, the Czech Republic or complaints about local news anchors and the other sorts of things that occasionally appear on this blog.  But for now, cleavages.

The reason we study cleavages is that we want to understand conflict and to think about what is really at stake in the conflicts that dominate our polities.  A question that can forms the basis of a cleavage is by definition something big, something that nearly all citizens care about enough to get out of bed and vote and that some care enough about to devote entire lives.  It is also something enduring, something that, barring upheaval will be more or less the same in five years as it is today or as it was five years ago–and maybe fifty.

The search for basic, enduring conflicts has generated a broad literature about what should look for and how we would know it when we found it.  In the process

Lipset and Rokkan created the literature with their … in 1967, but resisted a formal definition.  Franklin summarizes the conditions for a cleavage as “When social groups recognize their political differences and vote for different parties because those parties are dedicated to defending the interests of particular groups”(Franklin, WEP, 2010)

Bartolini and Mair focused on each of these key elements in this definition in defining cleavage in terms of “a combination (overlap) of social-structural, ideological/normative, and behavioral/organizational divisions”(Kriesi, WEP, 2010).  This tripartite operationalization has dominated subsequent cleavage research for the past two decades, though in the last decade it has seen a degree of challenge from those who seek to take away some elements and (or) add others.

Enyedi, in particular argues that the definition is overly restrictive in its insistence on the social-structural elements.  He notes that Bartolini and Mair themselves acknowledge that the socio-demographic element of a cleavage may erode, and suggests that it may be possible to have a cleavage-like conflict between entrenched “sides” without all of the elements of Bartolini and Mair’s definition.

the definitional requirement of socio-structural origins and well-defined socio-structural bases has narrowed down radically, and in my mind unnecessarily, the applicability of the concept. Acknowledging thatinstitutions and values, instead of social categories,may in some instances also dominate the identity of deep-seated, enduring, and comprehensive (that is, cleavage-like) political conflicts, the concept becomes suitable for analyzing a wider range of phenomena without losing its distinctiveness from ordinary and ephemeral political debates.  (Enyedi 2008, 288)

Values alone may suffice as the basis for division, and may become established simply with the habituation allowed by time.

At the opposite end of the scale from sociocultural structures to political institutions, there is also considerable debate about the potential independent role of political parties, particularly in shaping the degree to which particular cleavages shape the overall political conflict in a country.  They acknowledge from the outset that,

Conflicts and controversies can arise out of a great variety of relationships in the social structure, but only a few of these tend to polarize the politics of any given system. There is a hierarchy of cleavage bases in each system and these orders of political primacy not only vary among polities, but also tend to undergo changes over time.  (1967; [1985 edition, 118])

Within this environment they tend to focus on the role of underlying sociological variables, but they also explicitly acknowledge the role of political institutions, particularly political parties and the possibility elite-led shifts:

Cleavages do not translate themselves into party oppositions as a matter of course: there are considerations of organizational and electoral strategy; there is the weighing of pay-offs of alliances against losses through split-offs; and there is the successive narrowing of the ‘mobilization market’ through the time sequences of organizational efforts. (1967; [1985 edition, 141])

Without necessarily ignoring the underlying sociological underpinnings, scholars of cleavages have begun to focus attention on the process by which particular conflicts come to the fore, and notions of “salience” and “framing” has taken on importance in the literature that rivals that of “position” and “structure.”  Recent significant work by Whitefield and Rohrschneider suggests that while party positions in Eastern and Central Europe tend to reflect a fairly consistent bundling of issues (pro-market and pro-democracy against the opposite), the overall political conflict in a particular society may not lie on this line but on more salient questions of religion and (especially) ethnicity (2009).  Other works by Green-Pedersen (alone, 2011, and with Mortensen, 2007) focus on the role of agenda-setting and issue competition (defined not as competition on a particular issue but in the Carmines’ (1991) sense of competition about which issue is to be the main focus of political competition).

Any discussion of cleavage in the 2nd decade of the 21st century must thus deal with a number of questions, some quite traditional and some rather newer:

  • The number and type of issues about which the main actors in the political system compete
  • The degree to which positions on those issues overlap with one another, and the size of the resulting “bundle” of aligned issues
  • The relative distribution of supporters and parties on particular issues or bundles (the degree to which disagreement is symmetrical and continuous or binary and asymmetrical, forming “niches”)
  • The depth to which individual and institutional positions on those issues are anchored in societal structures and/or value orientations
  • The endurance of those positions over time
  • The degree to which a particular issue or bundle of issues is salient for political debate
  • The role of political leaders in shaping the both the positions of political parties and the salience of a particular issue dimension

As these categories imply, it is important to look always at the “supply” side of the political equation which looks at what political elites and their parties offer as options as well as at the “demand” side which looks at the ways confluences of human desires in particular areas shape the political realm.  It is in that context that my next posts on this subject will treat the questions discussed above.


Polls, Parties and Politics, Part 7: How (not) to help voters translate preferences into votes

Poznamka:  Vitajte!  Prepac, ze vsetko tu je len po anglicky ale 1) moja slovencina je bohuzial slaba a 2) mnohe z mojich citatelov nehovoria po slovensky.  Prepac.  Mam, vsak, “google translate buttons” na pravej strane (bohuzial grafy a tabulky su len po anglicky.  Ak chcete preklad, daj vediet: pozorblog@gmail.com alebo nechaj “comment”).

Poznamka II: HN uz publikoval slovensky preklad (neviem kto to robil, ale dakujem): http://hnonline.sk/slovensko/c1-43853830-kovac-junior-sa-uniesol-sam-volim-hzds

In recent years thanks to interactive web technologies, a variety of news outlets, civic groups and party organizations have begun to create online tests to help voters figure out the relationship between what they want and the party that most closely fits their ideological preferences (for example http://www.quizrocket.com/who-should-i-vote in the US, http://www.selectsmart.com/FREE/select.php?client=GLAR in the UK, and most recently and impressively, http://www.euprofiler.eu/).  This trend has finally made it to Slovakia in the form of “Voličomer“, Pravda’s voting test which asks “How will people with similar opinions to yours vote?  The same, similar or completely different?  Fill out this questionnaire and you will find out right away.”

What I found out right away is that Voličomer leaves rather a lot to be desired:

  • The first time that I filled out the survey, I tried to exhibit the profile of a European social democrat, the party family closest to my own:  moderately statist on economic questions and liberal on cultural questions.  What came up first on the list, however was the Communist Party followed by the tiny HZDS-splinter AZEN, though with with a variety of other left wing parties nearby including Smer.  I was willing to accept this result as reflective of the absence of cultural liberalism from most left wing parties in Slovakia (though I have a hard time believing that the KSS is the closest alternative).   
  • I then tried to fill out the survey as a supporter of Slovakia’s opposition.  Here the results were rather good, with SaS coming first and SDKU coming second on the list, though oddly with AZEN again appearing near the top of the list.
  • My next effort was to to represent a member of one of the Slovak national parties, with criticism of both Hungarians and Roma and mixed answers on economic questions that are less important for such voters.  The result was below.  As with my social democratic effort, an extreme party popped up first–the radically xenophobic NS–followed by Meciar’s HZDS and the Slovak National Party.  But in between HZDS and SNS appeared the Party of the Hungarian Coalition, MKP-SMK!  It is virtually impossible for me to think of any meaningful quiz in which these parties appear next to one another except on in which the adjectives “Slovak” and “Hungarian” are erased and respondents are simply asked about the intensity of their national feeling (which would be an interesting exercise but it is not what Pravda is trying to do with Volicomer).  
  • A second attempt to represent a supporter of a Hungarian party produced an equally odd pattern that included, in the top five, two HZDS splinter parties (ND and AZEN), the Christian Democrats (KDH), the Party of the Hungarian Coalition (MKP-SMK)–but not until third place–followed in short order by an obscure worker’s party (ZRS), Smer, the Roma party and the radically anti-Roma NS.

The problem here is that Volicomer does not seem to be set up in a way that could produce a meaningful answer except in certain circumstances or by accident.  Setting aside the fact that like almost all such tests Volicomer is based only on policy questions and not on relevant circumstances such as who respondents voted for in the past or their affection for individual politicians, its failure to identify party preference has more a fundamental cause in its failure to deal with the linked questions of underlying issue dimensions and their salience.

Issue Dimensions

Voters’ answers to political questions tend to form a limited number of reasonably well-defined clusters, (in which case an individual’s answers each of the questions is, theoretically, fairly closely related to the answers o the others).  The content of these clusters varies from country to country and from one decade to the next, though most countries have long-lasting oppositions between pro-market and pro-state clusters on economic questions and many have similar clusters on cultural and religious questions, questions of foreign policy, regional and language policy and other sets of issues (for far too much detail on this question, see http://www.la.wayne.edu/polisci/kdk/papers/cleavage.pdf).  In some countries all the major political questions are more or less reducible to a single cluster, so that we can speak of  one-dimensional political competition.  In most, however, knowing voters’ or a parties’ position on one did not help guess positions on the others, producing two or three relatively independent dimensions.  (One of the core messages in my own courses on American politics is that despite our obsession with the all-out war between “liberal” and “conservative,” there are at least two dimensions in American politics: one economic and the other cultural.  For far to much detail on that question see http://www.pozorblog.com/2010/03/american-politics-in-a-nutshell/).

In Slovakia, I have argued, competition is at least two-dimensional.  With an economic dimension and a national dimension.  These have sometimes overlapped considerably but at other times have been almost completely unrelated, producing a two dimensional axis such as this graph that I’ve used in other settings:

This gets a bit complicated, of course, because “nation integrating” means, “Slovak nation defending” and its rival pole is not so much “Slovak nation integrating” as “Hungarian nation defending” but I simplify it here because the main area in which Hungarian parties and Slovak parties agree on this side of the axis is the need to integrate Slovakia into European structures.  Regardless of their labels, the important question is the degree to which these axes are independent of one another or somehow aligned so that positions on one are closely related to positions on the other.  This is an open question in changing circumstances.

I have some thoughts that in fact political competition in Slovakia is not defined by two dimensional but actually contains at least two additional “half” dimensions.

One of these is cultural, not in the national sense but in the religious sense and relates to issues of church and state and traditional morals.  The dimension seems to be at right angles to both of the others, forcing the inclusion of a third dimension on the graph, but unlike the others two dimensions, the distribution of people and parties on this dimension is quite asymmetric, with a relatively small share on the side of the church and traditional moral and the bulk of the population and the party system on the other side.

A second half-dimension, more speculative, is one that Tim Haughton and I have identified in Slovakia and other countries in central and eastern Europe: a “novelty” dimension.  We have argued that there is a relatively stable (if not dominant) bloc of voters who seek less corrupt governance and who seek new, untainted parties to achieve the goal, but who are invariably disappointed when those parties themselves become corrupt.  Thus although the dimension remains stable, the players on the “New and ‘clean'” pole are constantly changing.  Parties such as ZRS (1994), SOP (1998), ANO and Smer (2002), SF (2006) and today’s SaS and Most-Hid have at their peak occupied the “new and ‘clean'” end of this axis but slip gradually to the other end and, with the notable exception of Smer, which found other issues on which to build its base, disappear from political competition.

Which brings us back to the Volicomer question.  It is virtually impossible to understand the role of programmatic issues for party choice without a clear understanding of how those issues cluster together, how many clusters there actually are and how they are related to one another.  Except in certain circumstances, a simple additive list will ultimately produce gibberish (as Volicomer does on anything other than the economic dimension where the plurality of its questions are concentrated), while the best political quizzes begin with the question of dimensionality (see Idealog, http://www.idealog.org/, and Political Compass, http://www.politicalcompass.org/).


Even a quiz designed to account for Slovakia’s two-and-two-halves dimensions of competition will not produce particularly meaningful results unless it also accounts for the salience of the issue clusters.  All parties and voters emphasis that parties and voters place on them clusters when making their political decisions and these are not the same form party to party or from voter to voter.  In Slovakia in particular, those who tend to care about national questions put relatively little emphasis on other clusters of issues while those interested in economics usually put national questions in the background.  Knowing a person’s positions on issue dimensions, therefore, is important only if you know which of the dimensions is most important for that person.  By asking a high number of economic questions, Volicomer privileges the economic dimension and therefore produces acceptable, if not particularly useful results on that dimension while failing to produce anything meaningful on issues that are restricted to one or two questions.

Volicomer2: A (not so) Facetious Alternative

But things like Volicomer are hard to do, you might argue, and I should accept it as better than nothing unless I am willing to do the work to provide a better option.  Challenge accepted.  In the spirit of the old television game show “Name that Tune” (which I have never actually seen but which was part of the pop culture of my upbringing), “I can name that party in 4 notes.”  The flowchart below is a not-so-serious (but not entirely frivolous) attempt to integrate issue dimensions and salience to reduce the number of questions necessary for picking the major parties (and for the smaller parties the choice is largely random in any case):

Even a cursory look at the flowchart reveals the assumptions that I use when approaching Slovakia’s politics:

  • The “National Question” is the most polarizing and those who care about national issues are unlikely to care about much else.
  • The “National Question” is largely distinct from the economic questions, though those who care a little bit about national questions are more likely to prefer a statist economic policy (hence the “a bit” option that points to the choice between Smer and HZDS.  This was not always the case but the two axes have slowly come into closer alignment).
  • The choice between MKP-SMK is largely a personality driven one and therefore largely unpredictable on other bases.
  • The choice between SDKU, KDH, and SaS is one based on religiosity in the first case and novelty/”cleanliness” on the other.  In other words the two half-dimensions currently function primarily within the right wing of the political spectrum.  My guess is that by the next elections there will also be a “new party” alternative within the left wing that will siphon some votes from Smer, but we will have to wait to see about that.

I’m not convinced I’m right about any of this, so I’d encourage everybody who reads this to try Volicomer, try the quiz above and see which works better.  On this, as with everything, I’d love to see a larger number of reader comments!

Jokes from the bathroom wall (about Communism)

My students laugh when I tell them I study cleavage in postcommunist countries, but sometimes, by accident, the image that flashes into their minds is the correct one. Those who lament the disappearance of communist era political humor can take some solace in my recent discovery of the following poem (badly translated by me) on a bathroom wall at the University of Muenster in Westphalia.

Was dem Weib sein Büstenhalter
ist für das Volk der Ulbricht–Walter,
denn beide bringen ganz enorm
die Massen in die rechte Form
A woman’s bra–a Büstenhalter,
is like our leader Ulbricht (Walter),
as both compress the quite enorm-
ous masses into their proper form

I have no idea why it should appear in “West” Germany 65 years after its likely origination, but I’m glad to see the genre still around. Seeing it sparks three small side notes:

  1. Political humor has been in the news in Slovakia with an interesting but ultimately inconclusive April fool’s day article on political humor in Pravda, the most interesting part of which is the report of an entirely characteristic joke (both in form and substance) told by Vladimir Meciar in 2006:  “Meciar goes to the WC with Dzurinda and Fico and they say to him, “Why are you turning away.  Don’t be ashamed, we’re all guys here.”  To which Meciar replies, “I know we’re all guys and I’m not ashamed, but I also know about you, and that whenever you see something big Fico wants to nationalize it and Dzurinda wants to sell it to foreign investors.”
  2. SME, for its part, has posted a rather elaborate online election game which involves making the right choices for candidates: http://volby.sme.sk/hra/  Some of the questions are themselves quite funny and there’s a nice selection of Shooty’s best cartoons.
  3. In the Czech Republic MF Dnes has done some decent photoshopping to put Necas in old-style Komsomol imagery (a visualization of Paroubek’s recent joke):
  4. Finally, in searching for the Ulbricht poem above I discovered that the Büstenhalter-Walter rhyme found another life in the best possible circumstances:  the German version of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, in which it replaces “bra” and “papa”.  Nice job here by Michael Palin.

Slovakia’s politics in a nutshell

Everything you never wanted to know about politics in Slovakia and were therefore afraid to ask (lest I’d tell you).  I’ve finally had a chance to annotate an absurdly long and detailed presentation on Slovakia’s politics which derived in large part from the exercises I’ve been conducting on this blog (and past efforts).  The questions, some of which are rigorously answered in this presentation (and others of which I speed through hoping you’ll take my word for it):

  • What is politics in Slovakia about?  What is the struggle
  • Where is the power?
  • What are the parties like?  Their history, organization, voters, recent poll performance
  • What coalitions are possible after the elections?  Which are most probable?  Why?

Much of this is conjecture on my part, though I’ve tried to ground it as well as I could in data.  As always, I crave comments lest I write out into the void.

There are two versions:

American Politics in a Nutshell

imagesI am a comparativist by training and so it is not particularly surprising that I am fond of  T. S. Eliot’s famous quatrain from Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And I am therefore extremely grateful to Michal Kovacs of the Introduction to North America class at the Economics University of Bratislava for the chance to reverse the normal equation and talk about my own country using the tools that I usually use to talk about Slovakia.  Thanks, too, to the students who paid close attention and asked excellent questions (but I’m still not telling whom I would vote for if I were a citizen of Slovakia).  For those students who participated and for anyone else odd enough to care, a hasty, non-annotated (and therefore probably incomprehensible) .pdf of the talk is available here:

Since this is in many regards just a highly abbreviated version of lectures in my Citizenship class, the truly foolhardy can find a more extensive treatment at http://waynehonorsgold.pbwiki.com (login: waynehonorsgold@yahoo.com, login: abercrombie)