How would you account for changes in political cleavage structures and how does this impact on party systems?
The fundamental nature of this essay is to look at the different explanations of the emergence and development of political cleavage structures and its impact on party systems in Western Europe. The party systems of the Western European states reflect both common lines of development of Western European history and country-specific characteristics of the progress of state and nation. Hence, I conclude that apart from social structure, institutional characteristics of the political system (e.g. the voting system) exercises influence on the configuration of party systems. The most respected theory that clarifies the connection between social contrasts and its translation in politics comes from Stein Rokkan and is exemplarily described in the introduction to Lipset and Rokkan (1967). According to their theory current and also historical social conflicts, which successfully overcame a row of barriers at the time of the introduction of the general right to vote, successfully found its political representation in national parliaments. "Cleavage structures" - the clash of interests and value contrasts in the society - could thus assist in explaining "voter alignments" - the electoral behaviour of the citizens. The central cleavages were identified: the class conflict between capital and work and the religious conflict between church and state. The electoral connections of social groups seem to have hardened; the party systems of Europe appeared to Lipset and Rokkan in the middle of the 1960s as if they had "frozen" since the First World War. From the comparative politics point of view this is rather apolitical. Important variables like party connections, the attraction of candidates, and the confidence in the problem solution competence of the parties or their present role as a government party or opposition party do not seem to be considered at all. But, as a discussion by Russell J. Dalton, Scott Flanagan, and Paul Beck (1984) notes: "Although the Lipset-Rokkan model emphasized the
institutionalization and freezing of cleavage alignments,
the model also has dynamic properties. It
views social alignments as emerging from the historical
process of social and economic developments.
New alignments develop in response to major
social transformations such as the National and Industrial
revolutions. While the structure of cleavages
is considered to be relatively fixed, the political salience of the various cleavages and patterns of party
coalitions may fluctuate in reaction to contemporary
Table 1: social bases of parties
The national revolution
The industrial revolution
The post-industrial revolution
Centre vs. periphery
National and linguistic divisions
Source: M. Harrop and W. Miller Elections and Voters: A Comparative introduction (London: Macmillan, 1987)
Therefore, Giovanni Sartori (1968) criticises this representation model (cf. figure 1, 1. box) as a result of "sociology of politics". Instead of this a "Political sociology" is necessary which does not understand the connection between society and politics as a one-way street and also does not overlook political causes of social contrasts and political behaviour should be approached. In his interdependence model politics influences social contrasts as well as vice versa the society causes political contrasts (cf. figure 1, 2. box). Nevertheless, modern societies are not static, but are understood to be in permanent change. The old conflict oppositions, which stamp the basic structure of the European party systems up to this day, have weakened. This already interprets itself in the changing relative importance of social conflict parties. The postindustrial society, from Huntington (1974) prophesied, has become a reality. The cohesion...
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