I grew up outside the two-party system in the United States. As early as sixth grade, I rejected both political parties so I could support a third-party presidential candidate. Like most children, I followed my father’s direction who struggled with his own political identification. But for over a decade a large part of my identity was as an outsider within the American political system. This was a period which encompassed my college years and my early career. My first few jobs were for a Presidential campaign and a state political party. Both were for a nontraditional third-party where funding was scarce.
The nature and role of political parties was not theoretical for me. I spent a lot of my early years reflecting on the necessity of parties as an institution. But I was never committed to the need for two political parties. Or rather I was not content with the brands they represented. My views have matured since my youth. I have had a few existential political crises since then which have greatly transformed my own ideas about politics and governance. But the past is never completely escaped so any thoughts on political parties capture my interest. Because my experience is drawn entirely from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about political parties from other democracies.
Rosenbluth and Shapiro have delivered an extensive examination of different political parties from a comparative perspective. Their ideal party system is composed of two large, but strong parties exemplified within the British Westminster system. Their book begins with an examination of the Westminster system but offers analysis of different party systems. The aims of the book are large so some of its analysis is abbreviated. After an analysis of Britain, the United States, the Scandinavian countries, France, and Germany, they begin to group countries together to complete their tour of different party systems. As a result, their analysis of Eastern Europe is incomplete. For example, the Hungarian political system is given credit for political fragmentation without recognizing the consolidation between Fidesz and the Socialists over nearly two decades. It was the collapse of the Socialists which fragmented the left and gave Fidesz electoral dominance for the next decade. It does not seem appropriate to blame the party system which seems to naturally converge into two dominant political parties.
In many ways this work is written in the shadow of Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy. He also began his work with a description of the Westminster system before he explained the consensus model of democracy which he favored. Rosenbluth and Shapiro, of course, favor the Westminster system and go to lengths to defend it. But their preoccupation with the Westminster Model distracts from their larger theoretical message. Their commitment is not to the Westminster political system but the party system it offers. They are not focused on the strengths or weaknesses of the system as a whole. Their aim is focused on the parties it developed. They see value in large parties which squeeze out divergent views which can undermine democracy. But the American system has demonstrated large, weak parties can deliver a populist candidate like Donald Trump despite the efforts of party elites. Indeed, the British system has faced its own populist insurgencies. Yet the authors believe it is the recent reforms which have weakened political parties and given momentum to these populist movements in Britain.
It is difficult for me to accept that any institution can become the solution to democracy’s challenges. Political parties cannot afford to ignore unmet demands from their voters. New parties emerge when they remain unresponsive. I cannot envision a scenario where political elites can control the forces of populism without some concessions. An elitist model of democracy produces political inefficiencies which are easily exploited through the calculations of political leaders who set aside traditional political norms. Institutions are important but their role evolves with the social and political culture of the time.
Nonetheless, Rosenbluth and Shapiro offer some critical insights with sharp critiques. They point to democratic reforms which strengthen the role of activists but make parties less representative to the general public. Indeed, the polarization of politics today does not necessarily reflect a shift in the political views of the general public but the influence of radical activists who set the agenda and platforms of parties. The authors contend some reforms meant to expand democracy within political parties have undermined democracy in the aggregate. This book challenges many of our expectations about democracy and governance. It forces readers to question whether the answer to democracy’s ills requires the introduction of more democracy. And I do not believe it is necessary to ask anything more from a pair of gifted academics.