Decline or Change? Party Types and the Crisis of Representative Democracy

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Giebler, Heiko
Lacewell, Onawa
Regel, Sven
Werner, Annika
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Wolfgang Merkel, Sascha Kneip

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2018
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Much has been written about the decline and transformation of political parties and the more or less devastating effects of these developments for the functioning of representative democracies. It is common knowledge to party scholars, reflected in a long-standing debate concerning party-type classification, that political parties come in differing shapes. However, as there is no standard measurement strategy allowing for the objective classification of parties, core assumptions of the literature cannot be tested—including a crisis of democracy as the result of changes in the realm of political parties.

To close this gap, we deduce such a measure from the classical literature on party types, utilizing party membership, and a new measure of parties’ programmatic clarity. We provide empirical party-type classifications for 16 Western European countries from 1960s to 2010s and use them to assess the validity of the “catch-all party” hypothesis. The results show that, although mass parties are indeed declining, catch-all parties are not nearly as prevalent and successful as widely claimed. In fact, programmatic parties are by far the most common party type. Finally, we show that disappearance and emergence of certain party types have an effect on the three key functions parties fulfill in democracy: mobilization, representation, and government stability. Our findings suggest that there is no crisis of democracy provoked by general developments of political parties.

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Democracy and Crisis: Challenges in Turbulent Times

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Comparative Government and Politics

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