Explaining A Party System by Looking at the Alternatives to Parties

The most recent issue of Party Politics (July 2014) includes my article on why political activists choose to form different types of political organizations (you can find the version of record and abstract here). This work was a core part of my dissertation, and so I’d like to take this opportunity to give an informal overview of it, and particularly some of the more general implications. I think this work is most relevant to people interested in party system size, emerging issues such as environmentalism, and activist behaviour. The basic idea is about how different political organizations can substitute for each other: forming new political parties can give small communities a political voice, but it is not the only way to make your voice heard: indeed, it is not even always the best way. Sometimes it can be better to form a different type of political organization that can have a strong impact but via another path.

This has a couple of key implications. This first point is important for comparative political scientists studying parties in industrialized democracies, and the second point is of more general interest:

  1. Different institutions make “interest groups” more or less useful than “parties”. So predictions about new party entry and about overall party system size can be improved by looking at the institutions that incentivize or dis-incentivize interest group entry.
  2. Activists tend to make organizational choices that are ‘rational’ in the sense of influencing the outcomes they care about.

In the article, I use survey data to show that even in industrialized democracies with electoral rules that are generous to new parties, environmental activists have not formed new political parties unless other institutions are in place that restrict the influence of new interest groups. Interest groups can be used to open some of the same doors to policy influence, and are often easier to form. New parties, then, are not always the inevitable choice of organization to spearhead a new cause. This brings up a slightly more general point about activism, which isn’t addressed directly in the article but which I think is an interesting implication.

Activists, especially those trumpeting a new cause, are often criticised as ‘irrational’ in the colloquial sense because their cause isn’t seen as a popular or viable one. However, these criticisms pale in comparison to the insults that activists will level at each other, over the issue of organizational choice. If you vote for a candidate you like, compromise with those less sympathetic to your cause, or refuse to attend a demonstration that’s been declared illegal, then you’re a coward and a sell-out. If you choose not to vote, if you’re willing to take action without jumping through endless administrative hoops first, if you refuse to compromise on your core beliefs, then you’re selfish, an extremists, and you are refusing to face reality (on a related note, there’s an interesting discussion of similar issues here)

This article is a reminder that lots of different types of activism can have an important impact. Perhaps you are a Gryffindor who wants to hold the bullhorn and make speeches on barricades. Perhaps you’re a Hufflepuff who is more comfortable keeping track of the spreadsheets and making sure everyone has housing to go to after the protest ends. I think one of the interesting and more general implications of this article is that there’s no one way right to organize activism. There are different ways to reach the same goal. I like to think of this as a sort of ‘oranges are not the only fruit’ argument. As political scientists, we tend to focus on parties as the default political organization, but parties are not the only option or even always the best option for political activism. I think this can be best summarized in this quote:

“There is a long and incredible rich history of people who couldn’t vote or don’t vote being engaged in political movements that shape the political landscape and promote self determination and liberation. these include communicating with our families, friends, and coworkers; analyzing issues; doing political education in our communities; and finding ways and spaces to pressure elected officials after the elections are over. I find it really disheartening when people privilege the act of the voting in a booth over these longer term and more meaningful political acts, especially because they are more accessible to many disenfranchised people and people whose ancestors experience disenfranchisement and other forms of oppression.”

– Reina Gossett, ‘On Voting or Not’, November 5th 2012 http://thespiritwas.tumblr.com/post/35069375618/on-voting-or-not

About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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