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: alebo nechaj “comment”).

Poznamka II: HN uz publikoval slovensky preklad (neviem kto to robil, ale dakujem):

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 in the US, in the UK, and most recently and impressively,  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  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

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,, and Political Compass,


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!

New publication: How much difference do parties really make?

To watch American television news coverage of political questions (something I can no longer bring myself to do) or even to read American newspapers (only slightly less painful) is to learn that leaders matter.  Whether a policy succeeds or fails, whether a candidate wins or loses depends on tactical decisions, on turns of phrase, on the right color tie.  To read some America scholarly work on the subject is to learn the opposite: economic conditions, cultural values and demographic trends shape outcomes so strongly that you can set up an accurate electoral model before you even know who the candidates are.

As usually happens (but not always) happens, the answer is usually somewhere in between.  But where depends on a whole variety of circumstances.  Toward that end I have been working with Zsolt Enyedi to think about how and when agency by parties and candidates can overcome the inertia of structures that include habit, cultural values and group identities.  The main outcome of the first stage of our efforts is a  still forthcoming issue of West European Politics and a Routledge edited volume on the structure of political competition in Western Europe that includes a long article that Zsolt and I wrote on the topic, but in advance of that volume the European Union Democracy Observatory has been kind enough to print a slightly earlier version as a Working Paper.  The paper is available here where it appears alongside work by Marina Popescu and Gabor Toka, Peter Mair and Alexander Trechsel.

Below  you can find other particulars.  Zsolt and I are moving to the next step in this project and are very much interested in comments, questions, concerns and slashing criticism.

Title: Agency and the Structure of Party Competition: Alignment, Stability and the Role of Political Elites
Authors: DEEGAN-KRAUSE, Kevin
Keywords: political parties
public opinion
Issue Date: 2010
Series/Report no.: EUI RSCAS
EUDO – European Union Democracy Observatory
Abstract: The study of cleavages focuses primarily on constraints imposed by socio-demographic factors. While scholars have not ignored the agency of political elites, such scholarship remains fragmented among sub-fields and lacks a coherent conceptual framework. This article explores both temporal stability and positional alignments linking vote choice with socio-demographic characteristics, values and group identity to distinguish among particular kinds of structural constraints. On the basis of those distinctions, it identifies various methods by which elites reshape structures, and it links those to a broader framework that allows more comprehensive research connecting political agents and structural constraints in the electoral realm.
ISSN: 1028-3625
Appears in Collections: RSCAS Working Papers