Representative democracy is unimaginable without political parties. They are a unique political institution because they are independent of the government, but incomprehensible without it. Americans have long felt it fashionable to remain independent of political parties, yet political party remains the defining characteristic of voter behavior. Samuel Huntington writing in Political Order and Changing Societies said political parties were the most important development of the American political experience. In fact, he said they were the only unique political development. The rest was borrowed from older traditions. But it is impossible to understand political parties without looking beyond the United States. It is impossible to understand democracy without a comparative perspective. The American party system is highly institutionalized, but other parts of the world have experienced decay and collapse.
Party Systems in Latin America is a series of articles about the theory of Party System Institutionalization or PSI. The work develops and updates the ideas of the earlier Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America. Both books focus on Latin America, but the larger theories are applicable in any democracy. Nonetheless, it is important to note this latest book has assembled the greatest writers of Latin American political theory. Scott Mainwaring is the editor and has contributed to five of the fifteen articles plus the introduction. Kenneth Greene contributed to the case study on Mexico. Steven Levitsky wrote the case study on Peru. Levitsky is the author of Competitive Authoritarianism and more recently How Demcoracies Die.
Latin American political parties have proven highly vulnerable in recent years. The parties of the past have diminished or disappeared. The key to PSI is party stability. Latin America has had little stability within their party structure. The authors link the decay or collapse of political party systems to the rise of populism. Mainwaring recognizes a highly institutionalized party system may have different problems. Large parts of the public may feel alienated from the political process because their political ideas are not represented in the current party system. But Latin America has swung the opposite direction. Long established political parties have collapsed. The relationship between politicians and voters is no longer conducted through a party infrastructure. Instead, popular politicians establish political parties as vehicles to organize their supporters.
Sometimes the case studies are already dated even though the book was published in 2018. Brazil and Mexico are described as institutionalized party systems. Yet the Brazilian party system was literally collapsing during the publication of the book. Jair Bolsonaro represented a relatively unknown political party who had won a single seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 2014 to win the Presidency. The authors did recognize Brazil was in trouble. But I do not believe Brazil was as institutionalized as the authors believed. The Workers’ Party (PT) campaigned on just two political from 1989 through 2014. Lula represented the party as their Presidential candidate for five consecutive elections. And remains popular among Brazilians today. Perhaps the success of the PT came down to the personalistic appeal of a single politician. The recent Mexican elections say AMLO finally win election when he abandoned the PRD to organize his own party, MORENA.
The final chapter reflects on the inconsistency of the authors to explain the relationship between the decay of the traditional party system and the rise of populism. Did populist sentiment lead to the decay of traditional party systems? Or did the decay of established political parties open a window for populist politicians? Either way the relationship between politicians and voters has been redefined. The role of the political party has become reimagined. But it is unclear whether the party system in Latin America will be redesigned or whether it will remain inconsequential.
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