Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Democracy and the Cartelization of Political Parties$

Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780199586011

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: July 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199586011.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 17 September 2019

The Problem

The Problem

(p.1) 1 The Problem
Democracy and the Cartelization of Political Parties

Richard S. Katz

Peter Mair

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Most conventional conceptions of what democracy is and of how it should be organized imply particular characteristics and functions for parties and party systems, and particular kinds of relationships among parties, citizens, and the state. Our contention is that the party government model so conceived, while quite powerful prescriptively, has only a marginal connection to the way parties and party system really work in the early twenty-first century. Our basic argument is that at the level of party systems, the mainstream parties, and most minor parties as well, have effectively formed a cartel. While the appearance of competition is preserved, in terms of political substance it has become spectacle—a show for the audience of audience democracy.

Keywords:   mass party, cartel party, democracy, party government, principal-agent

There is little dispute with the idea that “democracy is a messy concept.” Nonetheless, most political scientists, most democratic politicians, and most of the growing “democracy-promoting industry,” share a common, and relatively simple, understanding of democracy. At least in the modern age, they agree with Joseph Schumpeter’s definition of democracy as a system “in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (1962: 269). Moreover, in a large society meaningful competition for the people’s vote requires both that the options among which the people are asked to choose be sufficiently limited in number, and that they be sufficiently coherent, that what might be called the “Ostrogorski problem”1 can be mitigated. And providing those coherent options is identified as either a principal function, or else as the defining characteristic, of political parties. Parties also are understood to provide the coordination within representative assemblies, and across different branches or agencies of government, that is required for the efficient conduct of business. As a result, effective democracy is not just competition among individuals, but competition among individuals organized into political parties. Both as definition, and as the conclusion of an assumed causal process, democracy is what results when people are free to form political parties, those parties compete in periodic free and fair elections, and the winners of those elections take effective control of the government until the next elections.

If there is little doubt that “democracy is a messy concept,” there is also a growing consensus that “democracies are in a mess,” particularly with regard to political parties. As we will show later in this book, parties have become one of the least trusted political institutions; politicians are almost everywhere the least trusted professionals; with a few upward blips, turnout in elections is declining markedly, as is membership in political parties and identification with them. If political parties are divided into two groups—the mainstream parties that dominated post-war governments at least into the 1990s, on the one hand, and populist or anti-party-system parties, on the other hand—electoral support for the first group has declined (in many cases, plummeted might be a more accurate description), while support for the latter has grown. (p.2) Not only have the post-1989 predictions of a universal triumph of liberal democracy proven to be overoptimistic with regard to the former Soviet bloc and the so-called Third World, even in its heartland of the first world the future of liberal democracy appears less secure than only a few decades ago. The natural question is how did this happen. E. E. Schattschneider’s often quoted observation “that the political parties created democracy and that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties” and its less often quoted continuation that “the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime…The parties are not therefore merely appendages of modern government; they are in the center of it, and play a determinative and creative role in it” (1942: 1), is representative of the centrality accorded to parties in modern empirical analyses of democracy. Following Schattschneider’s lead, we look to the parties to provide some of the answers to the question of how this, admittedly only the latest, “crisis of democracy” came about. In particular, we argue that the mainstream parties have formed, or at least have behaved in ways that could lead an outside observer to believe that they have formed, what is in effect a cartel. This cartel-like behavior has been driven by rational adaptation to social and political changes, but it has also rendered the mainstream parties unable or unwilling (often in the name of behaving “responsibly”) to address many problems that confront their societies. This, in turn, has opened a space for challenges not just to the parties in power at any moment, but to the whole idea of liberal party democracy. While this is the particular theme of Chapter 7, the entire volume is directed at laying the groundwork for that analysis.

In arguing for the centrality of political parties to any understanding of democracy, Schattschneider (1942: 16) also complained that “the political parties are still the orphans of political philosophy.” As van Biezen and Saward (2008) say, that complaint remains largely true seventy-five years after it was originally published. At a more mundane level, however, the perceived centrality of parties has led to widely accepted, and in some cases quite specific and detailed, prescriptions regarding how both parties and government more generally should be organized. These prescriptions frequently have been justified by a particular, albeit at the same time somewhat vague, idea of democracy as “democratic party government”(Castles and Wildenmann 1986; Katz 1987; Rose 1974). This, in turn, is often elaborated in the increasingly popular terms of a “principal-agent” model of party politics (Müller 2000; Strøm et al. 2003).

This principal-agent model and its associated prescriptions for the organization and behavior of individual parties, and for the relationships among the several parties, and among parties, citizens, and the state has exercised strong influence over the way both social scientists and “political engineers” think about establishing and maintaining healthy democracies. Our contention in this book, however, is that this model in fact has only quite marginal (p.3) connection to the ways in which parties and party systems really work in the early twenty-first century. Moreover, we contend that the disconnect between the normative justifications of, and prescription for, party democracy, on the one hand, and the contemporary realities, on the other hand, is an important contributor to the current malaise. Many of the empirical claims about parties and party systems that we will be making—for example, that party membership has been declining nearly everywhere—have been recognized for some time. They have, however, generally been recognized only one at a time, and interpreted as independent “problems” that can be addressed individually, and rectified within the established principal-agent framework for understanding party government. In contrast, we propose a comprehensive framework that explains how these individual findings hang together, how they came about, and how, in particular, they undermine both the empirical validity and the theoretical utility of the standard principal-agent model of democracy—and how, in doing so, they pose an important challenge to the survival of party government—and potentially to the survival of democratic government as understood through the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond more generally.

The Simple Principal-Agent Model of Party Government

In its simplest form, the principal-agent model of democracy in a parliamentary system can be portrayed as illustrated in Figure 1.1. Starting on the right-hand side of the figure, the apparatus of the state (particularly the bureaucracy) works as the agent of the ministry, exercising authority delegated to it by the (p.4) ministry in the pursuit of objectives set by the ministry. The ministry, which is thus the immediate principal of the state apparatus, is simultaneously the agent of the parliament, which is to say of the parliamentary majority as organized in a coalition of parties. Finally, the parties in parliament act as the agents of the electorate. The result is an unbroken chain of principal-agent links from the electorate to all of the government (parliament, ministry, state apparatus), ultimately making all of the government the agent of the electorate, and thereby rendering the whole arrangement democratic.

The Problem

Figure 1.1 Simple principal-agent model of democracy

Source: Katz (2014)

This highly schematic rendering of democratic party government glosses over many significant variations. Particularly from a European perspective, attention primarily focused on variants of what Beer, drawing on the British case, labeled “Socialist Democracy,” rooted in both the social and the political theory of the mass party of integration (Beer 1969: ch. 3; Duverger 1959 [1951]: bk 1). The democratic theory associated with this can be expressed as the principal-agent model illustrated in Figure 1.2, in which the single “parties” box from Figure 1.1 is disaggregated into three separate parties, to allow the idea of elections as competition among alternatives, and at the next stage to allow the distinction between electoral winners and losers, to be made explicit. In this version of democratic party government, each party is the “political committee” of a particular segment of society (for example, of a social class or confessional group) and acts as its agent, with the social segments collectively encompassing the entire body of citizens. A coalition of the parties in parliament then negotiates the formation of a ministry as their agent; assuming that it is a majority coalition, and further assuming that its majority in parliament reflects the support of a majority in the electorate, it is therefore also the agent of the electoral majority—and if one accepts the principle that the majority is entitled to decide/act for the whole, it becomes the agent of the whole electorate. Finally, the ministry employs the state (p.5) apparatus as its agent. The direct principal-agent chain from voters to parties to ministry to administration summarized in Figure 1.1 is thus maintained, with the administration still the ultimate agent of the voters.

The Problem

Figure 1.2 Mass party principal-agent model with three social segments/parties and coalition government

Source: Katz (2014)

Particularly in the later decades of the last century, an alternative version of this model, derived from economic theory and identified eponymously with Anthony Downs (Downs 1957), rather than being derived from sociology as interpreted, for example, by Lipset and Rokkan (1967), came to prominence. In this model, parties are teams of politicians (Downs 1957: 25; Schumpeter 1962 [1942]: 283; Schlesinger 1994: 6), rather than associations of citizens, and compete to be “hired” as the agents of the whole society, rather than operating as the already established agents of particular social segments. The principal-agent understanding of democracy, at least in stylized form, however, appears to be virtually the same—especially if the primary competitors are assumed to be either two parties or two distinct and stable coalitions. Even in a multiparty case, the graphic representation in Figure 1.3 appears essentially the same as that illustrated in Figure 1.2. The voters as principals choose a party to act as their agent, although in this case it is not majority support for a particular party or coalition, but rather that the governing coalition includes the party that represents the first preference of the median voter, that underpins legitimacy, whether or not the cabinet represents a majority coalition. The party (or coalition of parties) in parliament installs a ministry to act as its agent. The ministry employs the state apparatus as its agent. Yet again, government is the ultimate agent of the voters, and the system is, therefore, democratic.

The Problem

Figure 1.3 Downsian principal-agent model with three parties and coalition government

Source: Katz (2014)

This model (at this level of generality, it is reasonable—and common—to regard the models in Figures 1.2 and 1.3 simply as variants of the simple model in Figure 1.1) is very comforting for those who would like to reconcile the realities of modern politics with a normatively informed vision of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” although its (p.6) appropriateness as an empirical model, as opposed to a normative ideal, has always been open to some question. Indeed, Blyth and Katz (2005) have gone so far as to suggest that the entire model might be reversed, with the cabinet acting as the agent of the administration (individual ministers arguing for their department’s policies and budget) rather than its principal, the cabinet buying the support of MPs with the prospect of career advancement and promotion of pet policies, and the parties buying voters with policy promises and patronage.

Be that as it may, like all principal-agent relationships, those portrayed in this model are subject to “agency slack.” One of the “core assumptions” of the canonical principal-agent is that the interests or preferences of the agent differ from those of the principal (Miller 2005: 205–6), and this creates incentives for shirking by the agent. Much of the literature on principal-agent relationships concerns ways in which such shirking can be contained, but at its base, it still retains the basic idea that initiative lies with the principal, so that outcomes ultimately can be traced to the interests or preferences of the principal. From this perspective, agency slack accounts for observed failures of agents to act optimally in the interests of their principals in much the way that friction accounts for the failure of falling objects to conform exactly to the predictions of the simple equations of first-year physics. As some exponents of “behavioral economics” (e.g., Cartwright 2011; Diamond and Vartiainen 2007) have argued in contrasting their approach to that of classical (or “rational choice”) economics, it is possible for the divergences between model and reality to become so great that the model no longer provides even a useful baseline against which divergences can be assessed, and becomes instead an impediment to understanding.

For the principal-agent model to be appropriate for describing the relationship between citizens and parties requires that ultimate power rests with the citizens as principal. In Sappington’s (1991: 47) words, “The principal is endowed with all of the bargaining power…and thus can make a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer to the agent.” As translated into the electoral sphere, this means at least that, on the one hand, the electorate must have a substantial choice among competing parties, and, on the other hand, that the cost of the potential sanction of electoral defeat to a party is sufficiently high as to “concentrate the mind wonderfully.” The essence of our argument, first advanced some twenty years ago (Katz and Mair 1992a, 1995) but even more true today, is that these conditions are not well met in modern democracies: the choice offered to electors by the “mainstream parties” (i.e., those with a realistic chance of being in government in the medium term) has become progressively less substantial in the sense that changes of government are less directly tied to changes in policy or outcomes, and the cost to parties in the mainstream of losing an election (the difference in pay-offs between being a winner and being a loser) has been significantly reduced. Going beyond this simple observation, we make two additional claims. On the one (p.7) hand, even if these changes can in some ways be traced back to long term social processes, many of these social processes are, in their turn, the result of government policies, and thus they are only partially exogenous to the parties. On the other hand, it is most immediately the intentional responses of the parties to these social processes, not the social changes themselves, that have undercut the basis for a principal-agent understanding of party government. In particular, our argument is that at the level of party systems, the mainstream parties, and most minor parties as well, have effectively formed a cartel, through which they protect their own interests in ways that sap the capacity of their erstwhile principal—the electorate—actually to control the parties that are supposed to be the agents of the electorate. While the appearance of competition is preserved, in terms of political substance it has become spectacle—a show for the audience of “audience democracy” (Manin 1997; de Beus 2011). Further, we argue, in order to facilitate this cartel-like behavior, political parties have adapted their own structures, giving rise to a new type of party organization, which we identify as the “cartel party.”

This book is devoted to connecting these twin developments of waning substantive competition and political party transformation, along with the social, historical, and political processes that underpin them, to understanding their impact on both the practice of, and popular support (or not) for, democratic government, and to considering what these processes mean for the future of liberal democratic party government.

Party Change

As is true of virtually all social processes, with the benefit of hindsight the roots of these developments can be found reaching back well before they were generally recognized to be significant—in our case, at least to the 1950s. Also, like most general social processes, they developed at different times and at different rates (and from different starting points) in different countries. Their acceleration and confluence at a level sufficient to pose a serious challenge to the practices and legitimacy of established institutions of party government are of fairly recent origin, however. We do not suggest that there was some golden age in which democratic party government functioned smoothly and with unquestioned legitimacy. Nonetheless, while the party government model was always an ideal type rather than a fully accurate description, an array of social changes have occurred, accompanied by changes in the parties themselves, that have moved reality so far away from the ideal type that even its heuristic utility must be questioned. The result is a far less sanguine view (p.8) than the “triumph of democracy” literature (e.g., Mitchell 1997; Preston 1986) might lead one to expect.

At least into the 1980s, most theory and research concerning political parties, at least outside of the United States, was premised on the assumption that the norm, both empirically and evaluatively, was either the mass party of integration, or else the more modern catch-all party, still understood to be a variant of the mass party. This was what parties in democratic polities should be like, and how they should be organized and behave. To the extent that they did not meet these standards, they were, essentially by definition, somehow weak or failing. Philippe Schmitter’s (2001) critical evaluation of the role of parties in the consolidation of the new democracies of the last quarter of the twentieth century provides a good example of the persistence of this mode of thinking. Even in the 1990s, however, it was apparent to some observers that the process of party organizational development and adaptation was more varied, more fluid, and more open-ended than that narrow conception allowed (Katz and Mair 1994).

In particular, the decline in partisan attachments (party identification, party membership, electoral turnout), declining social segmentation, increasing education and leisure time, all appeared to be undercutting the assumptions upon which the mass party model had been constructed. Simultaneously, the economic model upon which many government policies, especially those that defined the welfare state, had been built was also being called into question. Not surprisingly, accounts of party change (e.g., Katz and Mair 1992a) focused almost exclusively on domestic factors, whether social, political, economic, or institutional.

In retrospect, it is clear that the influence of factors drawn from the world of international politics might have been taken into account even then, and certainly need to be included now. In the early 1990s, economic globalization began to be recognized as a serious constraint on the capacity of all governments to manage their national economies. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Bloc, and then the Soviet Union itself, began to crumble. In February 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was signed by the member states of the European Union (EU), with the national currencies of all of the then members of the EU except the United Kingdom (UK), Denmark, Sweden, and Greece (which joined the rest in 2001) replaced by the euro on January 1, 1999, ending national control over monetary policy in the eurozone countries. In January 1995 the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established. The events between 1989 and 1999 obviously brought about major changes in international affairs, but they also had a profound impact on domestic politics in the advanced industrial democracies. Although Maastricht, the treaties that followed it, and the introduction of the euro are specific to the EU, the impact of the collapse of the Soviet empire and of economic globalization and the WTO has been felt far more widely.

(p.9) These developments substantially undermined the stakes of traditional electoral competition, first by reducing the perceived importance of the left-right ideological divide that lay at the heart of most Western party systems, and that, whether implicitly or explicitly, fed off the Cold War divide; second by transferring control over a range of economic (and other) concerns beyond national borders to technocratic and largely non-partisan institutions like the EU system, the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, and World Bank—and to multinational corporations, some of which have budgets larger than the GDPs of many of the countries in which they operate; and third, even beyond the formal transfer of powers and responsibilities to institutions like the EU or the WTO, by facilitating an ideational shift (Blyth 2002) suggesting that what had traditionally been the central political concerns of inflation and unemployment now properly lay outside the control of national governments, and thus were no longer among the core responsibilities of the parties that formed those governments. We address all of these issues elsewhere in this volume, and particularly in Chapter 4.

These changes in the international arena interacted with the tendencies already noted in the domestic arena to give all significant political parties, no matter how bitter their rivalries had been in the past—and indeed no matter how intense their rivalries might appear to be in the present—a core set of common interests and common constraints, and thus also common incentives to cooperate, and to collude, to protect those interests. Cooperation and collusion, which are obviously important elements in our cartel thesis, become easier when the stakes of competition are reduced, and this was one of the results of the shedding of responsibility for managing the economy and of the end of the existential struggle between the “free” and “communist” worlds.2

The Cartel Thesis

We initially arrived at the idea that new patterns of relationships were emerging among parties, society, and the state, among the parties themselves, and within individual parties among their various “faces” (Katz and Mair 1993) inductively from a data-gathering project whose primary purpose was to document changes in party organizations from 1960, when the mass party was widely believed to be losing ground to the catch-all party as the dominant (p.10) form of party organization in Europe. Although the project did not start from any particular hypothesis or theory, our attention was quickly drawn to a series of real-world developments that appeared to be striking, to be reasonably pervasive, and not to have been widely noticed or studied. Two of these in particular need to be emphasized.

The first was the evident transformation of parties from purely private organizations, structured by their own constitutions, governed by their own rules and procedures, and funded by their own resources, into organizations that were ever more controlled by regulations laid down by the state and ever more dependent on resources provided by the state. Although Kirchheimer had already noted in the 1950s (e.g., Kirchheimer 1957, see also Krouwel 2003, 2006: 258–60) that parties were being drawn into what he saw as an excessively close relationship with the state, most work on party organizational change—including that of Kirchheimer himself—focused on the society as the driving force and as the place where explanations for party change could best be sought (for an exception, see Müller 1993).

In contrast to society-driven explanations of party change, we saw decisions made by the state and embodied in law to be of great significance. One of these decisions that stood out in particular in our early work was the increasingly widespread practice of providing the parties with substantial state subventions to fund party organizations both within and outside of parliament. These subventions were often accompanied by party laws that laid down, sometimes in quite detailed terms, what parties could or could not do, not only with regard to the use of these state-supplied funds, but with regard to privately raised funds, and indeed with regard to their organizational practices more generally. Access to public service broadcasting and sometimes even commercial broadcasting and media, which were becoming more and more important for party campaigning and publicity, was increasingly a subject for detailed state regulation. Simply, parties were becoming less able to make their own decisions without reference to legal restrictions—and because those restrictions applied to all parties, there was less room for parties to distinguish themselves from one another in organizational terms.

If, as now seems undeniable, parties are strongly influenced by the state, and indeed in a real sense are drawing closer to, and more involved with, the state, might they also be drawing further away from society? In our original papers, we suggested that this was the case, without presenting systematic evidence. Later research, summarized very comprehensively in Dalton and Wattenberg (2000; see also Mair 2013), has suggested that the ties between parties and society are indeed becoming more tenuous: there has been a sharp decline in party membership in the 1990s and into the 2000s; there has been a consistent decline in levels of party identification; there has been a somewhat more erratic but nonetheless pronounced fall in voter turnout. We discuss this later in the volume, and in particular in Chapter 2.

(p.11) Further, if parties are increasingly influenced by the state, and in particular by regulations that apply to all parties, then it is likely that they will also come increasingly to resemble one another. Many things would be shared by all parties, including their means of communication, their principal sources of finance, their internal organizational form and modes of adapting to party laws, and their ever more common experience of holding public office—see especially Chapters 4 and 5. In other words, when speaking of party experiences or the nature of a party, it had begun to make more sense to speak in terms of “the parties” or “the party system” rather than in terms of any individual party or party “family.” To be sure, the influence of the state on the parties was only one of a number of factors pushing parties to resemble one another and thereby promoting organizational convergence (Epstein 1967). Other influences stemmed from social changes that led the parties to appeal to similar and overlapping constituencies and from the development of modern campaign technologies. Adaptation to party laws, state subvention requirements, and the exigencies of holding government office were also crucial, however, and these factors had often been overlooked by the literature.

Moreover, although parties were more influenced by the state, by public regulations, and so on, this did not imply that they were being influenced by something that was entirely exogenous to themselves. The laws and rules influencing parties were those that they themselves, as governors, had been centrally involved in writing. Indeed, the parties are unique in that they have the ability to devise their own legal (and not only legal) environment and, effectively, to write their own salary checks. As van Beyme (1996: 149) observed, “the new political class as a transfer class was privileged in two respects: by being the only elite sector which determines its own income, and by organizing state-support for the organizations which carried them to power, e.g., the parties.”3

Given all this, it also makes sense for us to expect that parties would cooperate with one another. In fact it is generally necessary (or at least politically expedient) for parties to cooperate with one another if general party regulations are to be written and if a system of public financing is to be introduced. And it is clearly a small step from consideration of cooperation and agreement, particularly with regard to measures perceived by the parties to be necessary but unpopular like increasing subsidies for themselves, to consideration of collusion. But to recall: all of this starts from the empirical (p.12) observation that shows that parties are moving towards the state. And while what follows in our reasoning may be contested or qualified, the original observation nevertheless still stands.

From the very beginning we conceived of party organizations as being akin to political systems, with three important constituent units or “faces” (see also Chapter 3). This was different from the approach commonly used up to that point to discuss party organizations, which simply distinguished the party in parliament and the extraparliamentary party. Our division was similar to, but not identical with, V. O. Key’s (1964: 164) tripartite division of US political parties into the party as organization, the party in government, and the party in the electorate. Our concern was only with the party itself, and for the most part with parties that (unlike American parties) have formal membership organizations, and hence we distinguished among the party in public office (PPO), which included the party both in parliament and in government; the party in central office, which was constituted by the permanent bureaucracy, national executive organs, and so on; and the party on the ground—the organized membership. We had expected that the balance among these might shift, and this is indeed what we found. This led to our second uncontested finding: in those long-established democracies for which we gathered data, the weight of power within the party, as measured by changes in the locus of decision making, as well as by the distribution of internal resources—finance, staff, etc.—has moved much more firmly into the hands of the party in public office.

This finding then led to additional hypotheses that subsequently fed into the general cartel thesis and which, of course, proved more disputable. The first of these emphasized the sheer self-interest of those actors who actually occupy the public offices in the name of the parties and who, like the politicians and administrators observed by Skocpol (1992: 40), “have ideas and organizational and career interests of their own, and they devise and work for policies that will further those ideas and interests, or at least not harm them.” Our hypothesis was and is simply this: that as the party in public office gains ascendancy within the party as a whole, its particular interests will be treated as being the interests of the party writ large. We discuss this at greater length in Chapter 3. Moreover, although it might seem at first sight that the interests of the PPO could be summarized simply to lie in winning, in our view it made more sense to see those interests as lying equally in having the possible costs of losing reduced as much as possible. After all, always winning is unlikely, either for parties as organizations or for many of their candidates as individuals.4 We also further hypothesized that this would be true for the PPOs in all (mainstream) parties. And this, in turn, would be likely to encourage a system (p.13) of mutual cooperation that should, under normal circumstances, lead to the emergence of a Nash equilibrium: an equilibrium or compromise from which no one participant will have an incentive to defect.

Putting these two sets of findings and their related hypotheses together leads to the following conclusions. First, parties are increasingly part of the state, and increasingly removed from society, and this new situation encourages them, or even forces them, to cooperate with one another. They can write their own checks, but only if there is general agreement to do so. Second, these parties increasingly resemble one another; in terms of their electorates, policies, goals, styles, there is less and less dividing them—their interests are now much more shared, and this also facilitates cooperation. A very important part of their shared interest is to contain the costs of losing, and in this sense to find an equilibrium that suits all of their own “private” interests. This also means cooperation, even if this cooperation need not be overt or conscious. That is, even if parties might be disinclined to rely heavily on overt deals with one another, their mutual awareness of shared interests, and their sense of all being in the same boat and relying on the same sorts of resources, means that we can conclude by hypothesizing collusion (or its functional equivalent) and cartel-like behavior.

Cartel Parties and a Party Cartel

Although the idea of a cartel implies concerted action, when translated into the cartel party model the term was not intended to imply or depend on an actual conspiracy and it is particularly in this respect that the choice of denomination may have been less than perfect (Chapter 6). Rather, as anyone involved with regulations or legislation concerning anti-competitive practices in the economy is well aware, it is possible to produce the effects of collusion without any illicit communication or covert coordination (e.g., Werden 2004). In an oligopolistic market, which the electoral market with only a handful of parties receiving nearly all of the votes certainly approximates, overt signaling can produce virtually the same result as covert conspiracy.

The denomination “cartel” also implies attention to interparty or system-level dynamics, and in particular to a distinction between those players that are “within” the cartel and those that are excluded from it. Indeed, part of the original argument was that participation in a cartel-like pattern of constrained competition with other parties would both facilitate and, at least to a certain extent, require many of the changes in internal party arrangements that we identified with the cartel party as an organizational form. Thus even if analytically separable, the idea of a party cartel as a system-level (p.14) characteristic and the idea of a cartel party as a type analogous to the mass party or the catch-all party are closely intertwined.

Attention to the system-level or interparty side of the argument requires that a further point be clarified, and that is the specification of the set of parties that are expected to be “in” the cartel. We have sometimes identified this as the set of “governing” parties (Katz 2002, 2003). Unfortunately in practice this phrase has proven to be slightly ambiguous, but what it clearly is not intended to denote is simply those parties that are in government (holding ministerial portfolios, or the equivalent) at any particular time. While it does not necessarily extend to all parties that might in theory be considered as potential coalition partners (i.e., that are not excluded from government on a priori grounds)—indeed, one of the hypothesized characteristics of a cartel system is to minimize the importance of the distinction between being in and being out of office at any particular time—or that play a governing role in any subnational government, it does extend to all parties that have a reasonable expectation that they might be included in a national governing coalition or in a significant share (defined jointly by number, size, and range of competences) of subnational governments within the reasonably foreseeable future. Moreover, while a cartel does imply constrained competition, this refers to the nature of the competition rather than to an absence of electoral turnover—to the question of whether it makes any difference who wins, not to the frequency with which different parties win. Indeed, the absence of an expectation of turnover would be a factor strongly militating against the formation of a cartel. Thus, that the American Republicans in the House of Representatives appeared in the early 1990s to be condemned to permanent opposition status was a major contributor to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” as a way to fracture a cartel that arguably included both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and in presidential politics.

Making Sense of Cartelization

Given this background and these clarifications, our argument can be summarized relatively briefly. At least by the 1970s, the dominant form of party organization in most democratic countries approximated what Kirchheimer (1966) had identified as the catch-all party. While there were still obvious connections, both in terms of formal organization and affective ties, between particular parties and particular social groupings, these had noticeably weakened. Increasingly, parties were seen, and saw themselves, as brokers among social groups and between social groups and the state, rather than as the political arms of specific groups. Ideological conflicts and deep social (p.15) cleavages had been transformed into amorphous differences in general left-right orientation. A significant component of electoral competition involved the provision of public services, with parties in effect bidding for support from voters by promising more services (especially on the left) and lower taxes (especially on the right), and for support from potential contributors by offering specially tailored legislation that often resulted in subsidies to special interests, the weakening of otherwise desirable regulation, or the collection of less revenue.

This situation confronted the parties with three interrelated classes of problems, some of which might be characterized as largely exogenous, but others of which were largely the result of actions taken by the parties themselves in the past. First, the moderation of class and other subcultural conflicts, and the increasing homogeneity of experiences and expectations of the vast majority of citizens associated with the rise of mass society and the welfare state (mass media and mass culture, mass education, near universal provision for health care, unemployment, and old age insurance) reduced the value of appeals to class or cultural solidarity. Concurrently, the process identified by Inglehart (1970, 1990) and Dalton (1984) as “cognitive mobilization” contributed to a general decline in affective attachment to parties per se as part of a process of partisan dealignment. Not only party psychological identification, but formal party membership, declined. As the other side of the same coin, electoral supporters (party members, party voters, organizational contributors) became less reliable.

Second, with the increasing reliance on mass media as the most effective mode of campaigning, and with the attendant increase in the need for professional expertise (pollsters, advertising consultants, direct-mail fundraisers and marketers), the economic costs of remaining competitive were rising more rapidly than the ability or willingness to pay on the part of the party on the ground. The initial response of turning to a range of interest organizations (primarily unions) and corporations also began to reach the limits of willingness to pay, at least without quid pro quos bordering on, or entering, the realm of the corrupt. These changes also meant that the non-monetary resources that the party on the ground could bring to the table (e.g., volunteer labor for campaigning; knowledge of local opinion) were becoming relatively less valuable to the party in public office (in comparison to mass media space or information gathered by professional pollsters).

Third, at least if one accepts the idea that there is a real limit beyond which the provision of public goods cannot be expanded without creating a fiscal crisis, then the governments of many welfare states appeared to have backed themselves into a corner from which the only escape without, and potentially even with, untenable tax increases was equally untenable service cuts. Moreover, servicing the public debts that accumulated while deferring addressing this dilemma ultimately made even that “strategy” increasingly untenable.

(p.16) Although of a different type, one additional development can be added to this list. As politics has become an increasingly specialized profession, the potential personal costs for politicians and party functionaries of electoral defeat or organizational contraction have increased. Further, the separation of parties from ancillary and other interest organizations that was characteristic of the catch-all party has proceeded even further, and has reduced the availability of jobs in those organizations for politicians who are (to use the theatrical euphemism) “resting” between engagements. This loss of “out-of-office” employment possibilities has only been partially mitigated—and mitigated only for particular types of politicians—by the possibility of post-politics careers in journalism or lobbying and, at the very top, making public speeches for large fees. Simply put, when politics is a person’s primary source of income, the stakes are higher (Borchert 2000; see also Chapter 3). One implication of this is to reorient the meaning of party rationality away from maximizing the expected (average) pay-off or probability of victory, and toward maximizing the reasonably anticipated minimum pay-off (“maximin”) even in defeat. Significantly, this is something that all the mainstream parties can do simultaneously.

These problems are shared by all governing and would-be governing parties, and set up the conditions for the formation of what is effectively a cartel, in which participating parties serve their joint interest in providing for their own security and survival. In terms of relations among parties, this has two primary aspects. The first is restriction of policy competition, with policy promises effectively playing the role of quantity offers in an economic cartel. This is evident in the increasingly common moves to take issues out of the realm of party competition by delegating them to non-partisan agencies like independent central banks, courts, or the EU Commission, by privatizing previously public functions (e.g., pension reform or health-care reform), and by the increasingly common acceptance of various models of governance, new public management (Hood 1991), and the regulatory state (Majone 1994, 1997), all of which privilege questions of technical and managerial expertise over those of values or political preference (see Chapter 4). Even in the case of issues that have not explicitly been removed from the realm of partisan debate, cartel parties limit the degree to which they attempt to “out-bid” one another. The result is that many issues are simply avoided by the mainstream parties as demagogic or populist, and the range of proposals offered for those issues that remain is often limited in the name of “realism” or “responsibility.”

The second aspect involves attempting to solve the problem that internally generated funds prove inadequate to the exigencies of modern politics, and to mitigate the risks of electoral misfortune by reducing the disparity of resources available to those in and out of government at any particular moment, in both respects by turning to the coffers of the state. In the first (p.17) respect, state subventions become significant—in some cases helping to fill the gap between traditional sources of party income and perceived needs, and in others largely replacing private contributions. In the second respect, a system in which the parties of the ruling coalition enjoyed the resources of the state (the power to appoint to office (and perhaps to “tax” the appointees), the research capacities of the civil service, etc.) while the other parties were left to their own devices is supplanted by arrangements that allow all of the cartel parties to share in the bounty, and thus to reduce the pecuniary difference between being in office and out of office.

Cartel Parties

Cartels face two potential threats. One, as Kitschelt (2000) has pointed out, is defection. The other is challenge from new entrants. Thus an additional aspect of the cartel is the structuring of institutions such as the financial subvention regime, ballot access requirements, and media access in ways that disadvantage challengers from outside (Bischoff 2005). Moreover, because parties are not unitary actors, the leaders of the party in public office (from whose perspective this model has been developed) face not only the threat of defection or challenge by new party entrants, but also pressures or threats from within their own party. It is in responding to these challenges that parties tend to become cartel parties with respect to their internal structures.

One aspect of this has already been mentioned: by turning to state subventions, parties—that is, their leaders—become less dependent on members and other contributors.

A second aspect is the disempowering of the activists in the party on the ground, who are the ones most likely to make policy demands inconsistent with the “restraint of trade” in policy that is implied by the cartel model. Although the objective is a kind of party oligarchy, the means ironically (or not, depending on one’s reading of Michels (1962 [1911]) and the “iron law of oligarchy”) may be the apparent democratization of the party through the introduction of such devices as postal ballots or mass membership meetings at which large numbers of marginally committed members or supporters—with their silence, their lack of capacity for prior independent (of the leadership) organization, and their tendency to be oriented more toward particular leaders rather than to underlying policies—can be expected to drown out the activists.

A third aspect is the centralization and professionalization of the party central office (in particular, emphasizing the cash nexus of an employment contract instead of partisan loyalty or ideology as the basis for commitment), (p.18) or ultimately even the outsourcing of campaigning and of the other functions of the central office and the traditional party on the ground, again with the result of freeing the leadership of constraints from below.

One consequence of all this is that while it may be appropriate to attribute functions to parties, for example to provide a linkage between citizens or social groups and the state, within the context of a theory about how democratic governments should work, it is not necessarily appropriate to assume that parties (or more accurately their leaders) do give the performance of these functions the highest, or even high, priority over such other potential goals as personal power or economic/job security. In particular with regard to party finance, the claim is not that state subvention makes it more difficult for parties to provide this linkage (e.g., “extensive reliance on the state for funding contributes to an erosion of parties’ capacity to link society and the state”—Young et al. 2005), but rather that it reduces the parties’ need or desire to do so, and thus is likely to reduce the degree to which parties actually provide linkage, even if their hypothetical capacity to do so were increased by access to additional funds.

The cartel party model also further cements the relationship between parties and the state. With significant policy competition largely precluded, whether as part of cartelization, or because of domestic fiscal and political constraints, or because of the ever more powerful international constraints, party spokesmen tend to become apologists for and defenders of policies that they have inherited from their predecessors (Rose and Davies 1994) or, more recently, have been imposed from outside, for example by the European Commission (“Brussels made me do it!”—Smith 1997) or by the “troika” of the Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and that have thus become more generically policies of the state than they are the policies of any particular party or coalition. Moreover, as part of the price for state funding, parties have also accepted that there will be a significant body of regulations limiting both their activities and their structures, regulations which they themselves then developed. In this way, parties move beyond the public utility model of regulation discussed by van Biezen (2004; see also Epstein 1986) to approximate, in effect, full-grown institutions of the state.

Constraints on Cartelization

It is important to emphasize that the cartel party remains an ideal type, which may be approximated or approached but which will not be fully realized—just as there never were any parties that fully met the ideal type definitions of the (p.19) mass party or the catch-all party (Katz 2017). Even with that said, however, two forces restraining the cartelization of parties must be recognized.

The first restraint is that although the process of cartelization may be seen as anti-democratic, parties, even in the cartel model—or perhaps particularly in the cartel model—justify their own existence and their claim on state resources on the basis of their contribution to democracy, and it is in this respect that they are often open to challenge. On the one hand, cartelization has clearly contributed to the rise of populist anti-party-system parties that appeal directly to public perceptions that the mainstream parties are indifferent to the desires of ordinary citizens. Such parties have grown substantially in both prominence and support in the last decade, and serve to underline the dangers to cartel parties of excessive, or excessively overt, cartelization (see Chapter 7). On the other hand, cartel parties also have to be attentive to the potential backlash of being perceived to have excessively violated norms of democratic fairness. While one would expect a certain level of disingenuous rhetoric attempting to justify regulations that are in the parties’ interest as actually being in the public interest, particularly with an aggressive free press there will be real limits to the degree to which parties can construct institutional biases in their favor without incurring even greater political costs.5

A second restraining factor is that although parties through their parliamentary majorities make the rules that govern their own behavior and structures, govern entry to the political marketplace, and allocate state resources, they do not do so with complete autonomy. Most obviously, and only exacerbated by the increased role of courts, they are bound by constitutional restrictions. Thus, although the basic logic of a cartel might lead one to expect the ruling parties to restrict access to public finance to themselves (as to a great extent they have done in American presidential elections6), German parties were forced by the Bundesverfassungsgericht to provide public funding not just to parties that clear the 5 percent threshold for representation in the Bundestag, but to all parties that achieve one tenth of that result. Similarly, (p.20) in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General) the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the provision of the Canada Elections Act that required a party to have candidates in at least fifty ridings in order to reap the benefits of party registration, a requirement that would either have denied those benefits to most small parties or forced them to bear the burden of nominating candidates in many ridings that they did not intend seriously to contest.7


Although the cartel party thesis has become an important point of reference for studies of political parties, it has not been without criticism. Ruud Koole, one of the original collaborators in our data-collection project, and later (2001–5) chairman of the Dutch Labor Party, raised a number of significant points (Koole 1996), to which we responded at the time (Katz and Mair 1996); the substance of those responses is reflected in the chapters that follow. Perhaps the most elaborate critique was advanced by Herbert Kitschelt (2000). He raises three basic objections, to which we respond briefly here (see also Blyth and Katz 2005), although our real purpose now is to use Kitschelt’s critique to call attention to basic disjunctures between our argument and the way it has been interpreted by some of its critics.

Kitschelt’s first complaint is with our claim (put in the terms of principal-agent models, as exemplified by Figures 1.1 through 1.3) that parties and their leaders have become less faithful agents of their electoral principals. He asks, for example (p. 155), “[w]hy do parties wish to abandon their voters’ preferences…Would not vote- and office-seeking politicians attempt to realize their goals by being more responsive to a greater share of the electorate than their competitors?”8 But this, along with his doubts about the “state” (p.21) as an alternative principal, means accepting the principal-agent model as appropriate in the first place—contrary to our observations above. Moreover, even if one were to accept in part the principal-agent framework for its heuristic value, the answer to Kitschelt’s question just quoted would be that one cause of cartelization is the desire of professional politicians to lessen the force of the electoral incentive—making vote and office seeking less important to the realization of their goals.

Kitschelt’s second complaint (p. 149) is that “inter-party cooperation generates a prisoner’s dilemma in the competitive arena that ultimately prevents the emergence of cartels. Ideological convergence of rival parties has causes external to the competitive arena, not internal to it.” This actually comprises two claims: that cartels will not form, and that the causes of policy convergence are exogenous to party politics. With regard to the latter, we appear to disagree with regard to the meaning of exogeneity, our position being that many of the causes that appear to be currently external to the competitive arena (e.g., debt crises and globalized economies) are actually the effects of prior policy decisions.

The claim that cartels will not form is directly related to Kitschelt’s third complaint, that cartels are vulnerable to new entrants into the market (we agree, see Chapter 7) and that it is not true that (p. 170) “party cartels manage to prevent entry and, failing to do so, are able to coopt new parties into the existing cartel, except those that make the new party cartels themselves the critical point of attack.” As noted above, the capacity of cartel parties to prevent entry (or to handicap new entrants) is limited by the fact that they are not all powerful. Likewise, the capacity of a cartel to coopt new entrants depends on the willingness of the cooptee as well as the desires of the coopter.

This points, however, to three more fundamental misunderstandings that affect many of the criticisms of the cartel thesis. First, we never claimed that a cartel of cartel parties would be stable; indeed, we argued exactly the opposite, that the self-protective mechanisms of a party cartel would be unable

to prevent the emergence of challenges from outside the cartel…Thus in much the same way as the elite parties created the social and political conditions for the emergence and success of mass parties, and as the mass parties, in turn, created the conditions for the emergence and success of catch-all parties, and as the catch-all party led to the conditions that generated the cartel party, so the more recent success of the cartel inevitably generates its own opposition.

(Katz and Mair 1995: 23–4)

Second, although we identified the cartel party with a particular time period (Katz and Mair 1995: 18), we did not mean to imply that all parties in all countries should be expected to be cartel parties in any full sense of the term. Rather, for each of the models of party organization, we were suggesting that (p.22) there was/is a kind of “Zeitgeist” that would be especially conducive to one model or another in a particular period, but that in each period other party forms from earlier periods would continue to exist, and that new forms would be in the process of emerging. Third, there is confusion of claims that parties will pursue strategies with claims either that those strategies will be mutually consistent or that they will be successful.


In the years subsequent to the publication of our original paper, the trends to which we drew attention have become more easily seen, and serve to bolster rather than weaken the overall argument. This is particularly so when we look at the behavior of the established parties, which seems to come closer and closer to the pattern we sketched, both in terms of party organizational styles and patterns of competition. Moreover, regardless of whether one accepts the cartel thesis in its entirety, it is evident that the growing incorporation of parties within the state, their increasingly shared purpose and identity, and the ever more visible gap that separates them from the wider society, have contributed to provoking a degree of popular mistrust and disaffection that is without precedent in the post-war experiences of the long-established democracies. One may dispute the interpretation of cartelization, but what is beyond dispute is the popularity of what is now often identified as a populist, anti-cartel rhetoric. We will look at this issue in Chapter 7.

One question that remains is where this leaves the concepts of party and of party government—concepts that have been at the core of the understanding of European democracy in particular and that we explore throughout this volume. As suggested above, there are restraining factors that may limit the degree to which parties follow the path we have identified. At the same time, however, it seems unlikely that the parties would—or could—reverse their drift towards the state, or that they could all somehow reinvigorate their organizational presence on the ground.

It also seems unlikely that the parties—at least within the mainstream—will discover some great issue divide or a new basis for policy polarization, and when one remembers the bloodshed frequently associated with polarizing questions of class or religion, it is not clear that it would be desirable if they did. The neoliberal economic consensus is now well established in the minds of mainstream political leaders, and on many of the issues that might offer the basis for polarization in left-right terms the room for maneuver is either limited, or the capacity to decide has been delegated elsewhere. This also (p.23) seems to be the case even when parties have had to confront the worst effects of the financial crisis after 2008. Beyond the economy and welfare, and beyond the heavily constrained options available in fiscal and monetary policy, there lie other issue dimensions that might serve to organize opposition and that cut across the traditional class-based left-right divide. The environment offers one set of issues; immigration offers another; the international order offers a third. But whether meaningful choices might be meaningfully politicized in any of these issue areas, or whether, even if politicized, they might offer the basis for widespread popular re-engagement in the electoral process, is very much open to question. Moreover, even if such issues were politicized and proved capable of stimulating popular re-engagement with electoral politics, it is virtually unthinkable in modern societies that they would be rooted in the kind of social cleavages that were a necessary condition for the mass party model. For example, although Kriesi and his colleagues (2008) are very emphatic in claiming to identify a new cleavage in European politics shaped by the division between the winners and losers of globalization, it is not at all clear that this conflict has found a consistent party political expression, except perhaps in the support for new populist parties, or that it can endure in the form of a stable alignment.

Much of contemporary debate concerning, and criticism of, parties and party government, and much of the advice for building strong democracies in the “third-wave” countries, and for addressing the “crisis of democracy” in first- and second-wave countries, remains strongly informed by the mass party model of ideologically/programmatically distinctive parties, each supported by strong roots in society and governed internally by bottom-up democratic practices. But at the same time, it is undeniable that for all practical purposes the mass party is dead.

For now, it seems, we remain with a reality that is defined by a set of mainstream parties that many perceive to be largely indistinguishable from one another in terms of their main policy proposals, and that are closer to one another in terms of their styles, location, and organizational culture than any one of them is to the voters in the wider society. Elsewhere (Mair 2009), this new configuration of party politics has been discussed in terms of the erosion of the parties’ representative roles and the retention of their procedural roles, and it has also been argued that in the absence of a capacity to combine both roles, parties risk losing their legitimacy. That is, unless parties can represent as well as govern, it may turn out to be more and more difficult for them to legitimize their command of governmental institutions and appropriation of public resources.

More immediately, however, these developments also raise the issue of future models of party organization. To adopt Katz’s (1986) terms, the current situation is characterized by an enhancement of the partyness of government—as reflected in enhanced levels of party recruitment, nominations, and office (p.24) holding—but by a reduction of the partyness of society and party governmentness—that is, reduction in the degree to which parties penetrate the broader society and in the degree to which party government characterizes the overall regulation of society. Within the institutions of government, party organizations often dominate; within the wider society, the party presence has been transformed into a professional electoral campaigning machine. The party as campaigner attempts to reach out to as wide a range of voters as possible, but the links that it establishes to these voters are at best contingent, instrumental, and short term. They are also very direct, in the sense that the waning of the party on the ground has left little or nothing in-between the competing sets of leaders, on the one hand, and the available and often indifferent body of voters, on the other. In this version of post-party democracy, there is little or no mediation, and hence little or no role for traditional party organizations. What lies between the elector and the elected is all but disappearing, rejected by the disengaged voters, on the one hand, and by campaigning politicians, on the other.

Whether this constitutes cause for alarm, or merely identifies a need to adjust expectations and criteria for evaluation, is a matter of subjective judgment. As Whiteley and his associates (2001: 786) observed—before using the term themselves to describe the dramatic drop in voter turnout in the 2000 British General Election—“[t]he word crisis is often abused in contemporary accounts of politics.” Is a “crisis of democracy” that has been going on for more than forty years (to date it from 1975, the publication of the Crozier et al. book of that title) really a crisis? At the same time, popular disenchantment with democratic governments and with political parties as the central actors in those governments, if not necessarily with the abstract idea of “democracy,” is undeniably growing. To some extent, disenchantment now is the result of unrealistic expectations (in part created by the parties themselves) in the past, but whether or not prior expectations were realistic, their disappointment has real consequences for the future. The possible consequence on which most attention has focused is the rise of populist, anti-party-system parties, and the danger that they will undermine the liberal rights on which modern democracy rests. There is certainly adequate precedent in the red scares of the 1950s, and the rise of fascist regimes in the interwar period, to make this threat credible. But there is another, and perhaps more insidious possible outcome. Rather than being replaced by some kind of authoritarian, or perhaps initially authoritarian-lite, regime, democracy might instead be hollowed out, becoming what Walter Bagehot might have described as a “dignified part of the constitution”—a revered legitimizing myth, but with little practical consequence in the actual governance of society. But if the sphere in which the parties, including the populist parties work, is marginalized, what power will move in to fill the resulting void?

(p.25) Plan of the Book

These developments then raise three important questions, or research agenda, for scholars of political parties, and we seek to address—if not always to answer—these questions in the present volume. Our first agenda, and the major focus of this book, is to address more directly and fully the range of empirical questions that have been raised with regard to the cartel thesis itself.

In Chapter 2, we trace the evolution of parties and party systems from the mid-nineteenth century development of the mass party through the era of the catch-all party in the last third of the twentieth century. Although the developments that together have led to the “crisis of party democracy” may be of fairly recent origin, both the developments themselves and the set of expectations that led to the diagnosis of crisis have much deeper roots.

Chapter 2 has two main objectives. The first is to emphasize the evolutionary nature of party change and that, in particular, the evolution is driven by the rational adaptation of parties to social change, but also to the adaptive behavior of other parties. As Marx (1852) observed, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” If we are to understand party and party system change going forward, we must first examine the processes through which such changes have occurred in the past.

The second objective is to highlight the interconnection between party and party system organization, on the one hand, and understandings of democracy (including understandings of the nature of the demos), on the other. Although it is tempting, and not entirely without truth, to assert that the democratic theories articulated by political parties are little more than rationalizations for their own self-interested practices, once a democratic theory has been claimed by a party to justify itself, that theory becomes a constraint on future adaptation. In particular, because the appeal of the theory often outlives the circumstances that made the party behavior that the theory justifies attractive in the first place, the result can be a serious disjuncture between expectations and practice that leads to widespread dissatisfaction. One of the recurring themes of this book is that this is precisely what has happened with the democratic theory of the mass party; although the mass party form may have passed into history, the democratic theory that developed to justify it continues to influence both political science and quotidian political discussion, to the detriment of current parties.

Although they are often treated as unitary actors, each political party is actually a small political system in its own right. In Chapter 3 we develop this point further, elaborating on the relations among “the three faces of party organization”: the party on the ground, the party central office, and the party (p.26) in public office. The main themes in this chapter are the increasing dominance of the party in public office and the increasing professionalization of the party in public office and the party in central office—both the development of a separate vocation of politics and the replacement of people who “live for politics” with people who “live off politics” (Weber 1919).

Chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with relations among parties (Chapter 4) and between parties and the state (Chapter 5). In both cases, this is a story about moving together. On the one hand, the parties have tended to become more similar to one another. There is less differentiation among their policy proposals in elections and the policies they pursue in office; their methodologies in electoral competition have become more similar, as have their organizational structures. On the other hand, the distinction between the parties as tools of civil society attempting to secure temporary control over the state, and the state itself, has become increasingly difficult to maintain; rather than being private actors attempting to control the state apparatus, the parties increasingly have become part of it.

The joint result of these processes has been the gradual and partial evolution of a new model of party organization, a new pattern of “normal” relations among parties, and a new set of legitimizing principles, that come together to define what we have identified as the “cartel party.” In Chapter 6 we both develop these ideas and, building on the evidence presented in earlier chapters, advance the claim that parties are in fact evolving organizationally and behaving in ways that reasonably approximate the cartel ideal type.9 Given the two-pronged nature of the cartel party argument—that is, a cartelized party system and individual cartel parties within that system—this requires us to confront two sets of questions. On the one hand, we develop and assess indicators of the cartelization of the party system, for example, addressing whether we see a constriction of competition among cartel members and increasing rules that advantage cartel members over those outside the cartel. Whether or not there is evidence of actual collusion among the parties, do we find evidence of the behavior that we would expect if there were collusion? On the other hand, we look inside parties for evidence that their organizations and practices are coming into line with the predictions of the cartel model: more dependence on state resources; greater emphasis on improved management rather than reformed policy; more formal but less substantive internal democracy.

Finally, in Chapter 7 we address the question of what difference this all makes for the future of democracy. As we have already observed, there (p.27) is—and has been for at least forty years—widespread talk of a “crisis of [party] democracy.” Two of the contemporary manifestations of this crisis are the increasing withdrawal of citizens from involvement with the mainstream parties, and the concurrent rise in support for radical populist parties, generally but not exclusively of the right. The cartelization of mainstream party politics is clearly implicated in these processes, both as cause (mainstream parties failing adequately to represent the perceived interests of citizens) and as effect (all the mainstream parties “circling the wagons” and turning to the state for support in the face of declining support from their erstwhile base). The overall result is a growing disjuncture between popular expectations regarding parties and their actual performance.

One clear danger, which fortunately does not yet appear to have materialized, is disenchantment with democracy tout court. While it may be excessively alarmist to see the populists as harbingers of a return to fascism, the possibility that liberal democracy will be supplanted by some fundamentalist (whether religious or not) ideology that promises to protect the interests of the people against the corrupt and corrupting elite cannot be entirely discounted. If the gap between performance and expectations continues to grow, the danger of reaching the breaking point will grow as well.

One strategy suggested for closing the gap between performance and expectations lies in the emphasis in the “New Public Management” school for improved “customer service,” taking the supposed “customer responsiveness” of the private sector as its point of reference (Osborne and Gaebler 1992: Barzelay 1992). In this scenario, citizens as active participants in their own government are transformed into consumers of government services. While initially this idea was advanced as a prescription, more recently it has also been suggested as a description of what governments actually are doing—whether by intent or as an unintended, but nonetheless real, consequence (e.g., Mosse and Whitley 2009). But as many critics have pointed out, the relationship of citizen to state is not the same as the relationship of customer to firm. The state is a monopoly supplier with the power of compulsion, in both respects denying to the citizen the option of exit that is characteristic of most private-sector transactions. The relationship of consumer to firm is individual and concerned with private goods, while that of citizen to the state is often collective and concerned with public goods (whether policies or material goods). The private sector is characterized by a direct connection between delivery of services and payment for those services; the public sector is not (Pegnato 1997). Thus, even if the goals of the New Public Management were achieved, this would likely only reduce the gap between expectations and performance with regard to individual interactions with the state and the delivery of personal services. It would be far less likely to ameliorate dissatisfaction concerning the content of policy, the constriction of the range of options offered to voters, or the general quality of democracy.

(p.28) Although it is possible that the gap between performance and expectations will be reduced by improved performance, the trends that we document in this book are all in the opposite direction. Eurobarometer data show a substantial (11 percent), and nearly monotonic, drop in the proportion of respondents “satisfied with the way democracy works” in their country between Autumn 2004 and Autumn 2013, albeit with a 4 percent recovery in Spring 2014 (EB81 Report). There is, however, an alternative way in which the gap can be reduced: that is, by lowering expectations of what governments can achieve or be held accountable for. A not-always-successful attempt to do this is already evident in the offloading of responsibilities to independent central banks, the EU, or the WTO. Although generally proposed as ways of improving performance, the parties also can hope that they will lower expectations for the parties themselves—because they are at worst indirectly responsible for the outcomes, and at best not held responsible at all. In this case, we have an evolution of liberal democracy in which the liberalism is heightened and the democracy is hollowed out. Rather than government by the people, it becomes government for the people by civil servants and technocrats. The role of elections is reduced (in the words of British satirists Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (1988)) to “deciding which bunch of buffoons will try to interfere with our [the technocrats’] policies.”

Notwithstanding obvious differences, the result would bear many resemblances to the practices of earlier centuries in which the monarch (now replaced by bureaucrats and associated experts) ruled, and the people’s representatives voiced grievances but did not exercise substantial power. As Schattschneider observed in the passage quoted in the introduction to this chapter, political parties played a crucial role in the transition from monarchic government to democratic parliamentary government. We now turn to the question of how parties evolved after they became the central players in liberal, and then in liberal democratic, government.


(1) “[A]fter ‘the voice of the country had spoken,’ people did not know exactly what it had said” (Ostrogorski 1903: vol. II, 618–19).

(2) While Huntington’s (1966) struggle between Muslim and Western worlds may have an equivalent existential import, it does not represent a cleavage within the Western democracies with which we are concerned, because unlike the cleavage between socialism and capitalism, there have been no significant Islamist parties in the Western democracies.

(3) The claim that the political class is the only elite sector that determines its own income is probably a bit exaggerated, as the compensation packages of corporate CEOs, often determined by “compensation committees” made up of the CEOs of other corporations, illustrate. And both have led to complaints of self-serving behavior in which the interests of constituents (voters in the case of politicians; shareholders in the case of CEOs) are sacrificed to benefit those making the decisions.

(4) The exceptions include candidates nominated for safe seats or to the top of closed PR lists.

(5) With specific regard to reforming electoral laws to advantage those writing the reforms, see Katz (2005).

(6) “Major” parties, defined as those that received at least 25 percent of the vote in the previous presidential election, are eligible for a subsidy; “minor” parties (those that received between 5 and 25 percent in the previous election) can receive a proportionately reduced subsidy; new parties or those that received less than 5 percent of the vote in the last election can receive a similarly proportionate subsidy—but only if they clear the 5 percent threshold in the current election, and only after the fact. In 2000 (the last time a party other than the Democrats and Republicans received a general election campaign grant), the campaign of Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan received $12,613,452—in contrast to the $67,560,000 received by each of the major party campaigns. In 1996, Ross Perot received $29,000,000 (the major parties each received $61,820,000). Because acceptance of the general election campaign grants requires acceptance of overall limits, the last major party candidate to accept the grant was John McCain in 2008.

(7) One of the costs was a requirement that each candidate post a deposit of CAD$1000. Prior to 2000, CAD$500 would be refunded only if the candidate received at least 15 percent of the vote; after 2000, the full deposit would be returned upon satisfaction of reporting requirements, but a small party might still be forced to borrow (presumably at interest) much of the $50,000 required for fifty candidates.

(8) Another complaint (p. 158) is that our “hypothesis asserting the empowerment of (generally passive) members at the expense of local party activists is inconsistent with their claim that even contemporary parties value activists and therefore permit greater participation in strategic decision making.” But while we would not deny the utility of active members both as a source of “free” labor and for increasing the apparent democratic legitimacy of the party, our suggestion is that participation is broadened precisely to dilute the influence of activists, and thus to render the leadership more, rather than less, independent in strategic decision making.

(9) Again, approximation to an ideal type is all that can be claimed for the real-world mass parties or catch-all parties. Indeed, because each step in the evolution of party types has stimulated the development of a countervailing form, failure of real parties fully to conform to any of these ideal types is actually part of the model.