Products of strategic action

Are political parties better understood as reflections of 'social cleavages', or products of strategic action? As famously expressed by the 19th century French politician and writer Tocqueville, political parties in democratic countries are "the only powerful persons who aspire to rule the state"i. Thus, political scientists and politicians have been keen on examining patterns of support that political parties receive from significant social groupings. The concept of cleavages has become a vital concept in political science when trying to understand voting behaviour and party systems.

Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967) described the development of European party systems in terms of the historical conditions of national and socio-economic developmentii. According to Lipset and Rokkan's work, party preferences are strongly influenced by the social groups to which voters belong. Parties arise, then, in response to the demands of these voters. On the other hand, the changes that took place in the European party systems since the Second World War have led many political scientists such as Kirchheimer, Dalton to view political parties as products of an interaction of social base and strategic action.

Kirchheimer's 'catch-all party model' aimed to show the new intention of European political parties to attract as many voters as they can, giving less importance to the hitherto decisive social structuresiii. This essay will argue that although political parties across Western Europe were formed on the basis of social cleavages, in time strategic action has become a crucial factor in understanding political parties. Before looking at these arguments more in depth, one needs to look at what 'social cleavage' means in political science. Rae and Taylor define cleavages as

"The criteria which divide the members of a community or sub community into groups, and the relevant cleavages are those which divide members into groups with important political differences at specific times and placesiv. Furthermore, Lane and Ersson identified three relevant dimensions of cleavages in Western Europe; religion, ethnicity and classv. Moreover, Lipset and Rokkan maintained that two successive revolutions in the modernization of Western societies–the National Revolution and the Industrial Revolution–created social divisions that still structure partisan competition today.

The National Revolution, which involved the process of nation building that transformed the map of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought about two kinds of social cleavage. The centre-periphery cleavage pitted the dominant national culture against ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities in the provinces and the peripheral sectors of society. The church-state conflict cast the centralizing, standardizing, and mobilizing forces of the national government against the traditional influence of the Catholic Churchvi.

In the face of a growing secular government, the church sought to protect its established corporate privileges. The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century also generated two new social cleavages. The land-industry cleavage aligned the rural and agrarian interests against the economic concerns of the rising class of industrial entrepreneurs. The second cleavage developed between owners and workers. The struggle for the legitimisation and representation of working-class interests by labour unions often generated intense political conflict in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesvii.

These historical events may seem far removed from contemporary party systems, but Lipset and Rokkan (1967) demonstrated that a linkage exists. These four dimensions of cleavage defined the potential major bases of social conflict. As social groups related to these cleavages developed, they won access to the political process before the extension of the voting franchise. When mass voting rights were granted to most Europeans around the turn of the century, this political structure was already in place.

The Conservative Party in Britain, for example, became the representative of the middle-class establishment, and the Labour Party catered to the interests of the working classviii. The working class in Franceix and Germanyx supported the Communist and Socialist parties. The formation of mass political parties thus tended to institutionalise the existing elite coalitions, creating the framework for modern party systems. In one of the most often cited conclusions of comparative politics, Lipset and Rokkan (1967) stated: "the party systems of the 1960s reflect, with but few significant exceptions, the cleavage structures of the 1920s"xi.

These four conflicts may or may not to arise in the political arena, but once a cleavage has made its political appearance, these authors maintain, it tends to remain stable over time even when the original conflict has subsided. This is the well-known "freezing hypothesis", which has been the dominant approach to the study of citizens' preference formation and the study of party systems in Western Europexii. Early electoral research supported Lipset and Rokkan's claims. Also, survey research found that social cleavages, especially class and religious differences, exerted a potent effect on voting.

Richard Rose and Derek Urwin's comparative studies of post-war party systems found striking stability in electoral resultsxiii. As this theme of partisan stability became the conventional wisdom, dramatic changes began to affect these same party systems. The established parties were presented with new demands and challenges, and the evidence of partisan change became obvious. In their comparative study of Western democracies, Mark Franklin (1992) and his colleagues found broad evidence that traditional social cleavages were losing their ability to predict voting choicesxiv.

Because of this erosion in traditional social-based voting, party systems became more fractionalised. Higher levels of partisan volatility now characterize voting. Many political scientists claim that the Second World War, which changed the class structure across Europe, was the turning point for European countries. Later, with women entering the work place and the expansion of the welfare state and education, a new political and social era in Europe with a strong emphasis on social equality came about.

Party systems faced the issues of environmental protection, social equality, nuclear energy, sexual equality, and alternative lifestyles. Citizens demanded more opportunities for participation in the decisions affecting their lives and pressed for a further democratisation of society and politics. Once these trends began, they evoked a conservative counterattack that opposed the liberalization of social norms, women's rights, environmentalism, and related issues.