Political parties remind me of religious denominations. I was born a Catholic and have found it difficult to identify with other religions even when their theological principles are a closer fit to my beliefs. Indeed, it is impossible for me to reconcile every tenet of the Catholic faith with my personal philosophy. But it is also impossible to remove Catholicism from my sense of personal identity. People are also born and raised into political parties. It takes a conscious choice to reshape a person’s political identity and to change to a new political party.
It is easier to makes these changes in early adulthood. This is a period when people reshape their sense of self as they become an independent person. Religious faith is often questioned. And political opinions are transformed. I have questioned my faith many times throughout my life, but never completely left Catholicism. I always came back. Politics have sadly been more important to me than religion. But it took me longer to question my political beliefs. And the crises in my political thought were far more consequential than any doubts in religious faith. Twice I have completely reconsidered how I thought about politics. And both times marked significant turning points in my life.
Political parties and religions merge intellectual ideas with a sense of belonging. Personal identity is shaped through the union of ideas and community. Intellectuals are distinct because they place a greater value on beliefs than community. The intellectual will accept social isolation as the price for individuality and freedom. This is abnormal. Most people find their sense of identity in their community. Their ideas are more likely to conform to match an established sense of their identity.
But this is all an oversimplification. It is better to understand our sense of religious and political identity as defined by a continuum between ideas and community. Few belong to the absolute extremes. Most people will lean toward one side or the other but still fall somewhere between the two. Some people find it easy to change religion or political parties, but for most people it is a difficult transformation. Because the world has become more polarized, it may appear more difficult for people to change their political affiliations. But reality has shown it has brought about a massive realignment in political identities around the world.
The polarization of politics in the United States is well documented. Nonetheless, the 2016 election saw the industrial Midwest help elect Trump due to the transformation of Union Democrats into Protectionist Republicans. The 2018 Midterm elections showcased a new political shift in the suburbs from small government Republicans to moderate Democrats. It is unclear what the 2020 elections will bring in terms of a new political map, but it is evident how polarization has brought about a surprising degree of destabilization in partisan politics.
The United Kingdom has faced an even greater degree of partisan change and instability. Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti offer an in-depth examination of political parties in their book Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century. It is remarkable how the Westminster system has fostered an opportunity to examine a broad range of partisan diversity. The book examines the six largest political parties in the United Kingdom which include the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and UKIP.
The diversity of political parties in the United Kingdom reflect the complexities in what has been described as the Westminster Model. Laurence Whitehead has reflected on the differences between the The Westminster Model and the Westminster System. And scholars Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro have praised the virtues of the Westminster Model and attributed the problems of British politics to the discrepancies of the current Westminster System. Because the Westminster Model relies upon single member districts, it encourages a natural convergence towards two dominant political parties. Jonathan Rodden has gone further to explain how single member districts in a first past the post system establishes a natural polarization between urban and rural interests reflected in the dominant political parties. But the realities of the actual Westminster System are complex. Consequently, there is far greater diversity among British political parties than in the United States.
I recommend reading Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World as a companion to Footsoldiers. Both use the British political system for their research, but their findings are applicable beyond the United Kingdom. Electoral Shocks provides historical context of the macro conditions for recent British political parties while Footsoldiers examines the internal changes within these parties at a micro level. American readers who are unfamiliar with the British political system will find the combination of the two books helpful because they look at different aspects of similar phenomena. The causal observer might expect Brexit to redefine the Consrvatives and Labour. And it does. But they will fail to recognize how many different events have reshaped the entire political landscape of the British party system. Electoral Shocks highlights how the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had a disastrous effect on the performance of the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 Parliamentary Election. But Footsoldiers shows how their membership rebounded partly due to their poor performance. The Scottish Referendum is another electoral shock that redefined perceptions of the Labour Party in Scotland which led not just to its displacement by the SNP but surprisingly made space for the Conservative Party.
Footsoldiers is a political scientist’s book of political science. It examines the institution of political parties through extensive survey data of political party members. The authors provide plenty of charts and graphs to allow academics to examine not just their analysis but also their data. Two appendices share the results of their regression models. The book examines their data on political party members from multiple perspectives and dimensions. It considers not just how political party members differ between one another, but how they differ between casual supporters and voters. For example, the authors examine how political party members are distinct from partisan supporters through demographic data. It is true that there are important demographic distinctions between members of the Conservatives and Labour, but there are also many shared characteristics among all members of political parties. The authors find political party membership attracts the middle classes disproportionately. The working classes are underrepresented in all political parties.
Bale, Webb and Poletti, of course, go beyond basic demographic data to examine the behavior, beliefs and attitudes of party members. In many ways, their book is more sociological than political as it examines party membership less as a political expression than an institutional phenomenon. Their research acknowledges the disproportionate impact of political leadership and its ideological direction on party membership, but also emphasizes the importance of the social aspect of partisan membership. The challenge for political parties is not so much to attract new members but to keep them engaged and involved. The authors find party ideology and leadership will attract members to the cause (and drive others away), but it is the social aspects that largely determine the engagement and activism of its membership.
I began this review with a comparison of political parties to religious denominations. Both political parties and religious denominations are largely defined by the structure of their beliefs. Identification in a specific faith or political party becomes a statement of beliefs. And yet religious denominations and political parties have the capacity to incorporate a diversity of ideas and opinions under their umbrella. Change is inconceivable without some flexibility. Rigid belief structures make it impossible for organizations and institutions to evolve over time. Footsoldiers helps students understand the complex interplay between the ideological diversity found in parties despite their tendencies toward ideological conformity. And it helps understand why members leave despite their past involvement and engagement. It offers a deep analysis into the British party system but allows the reader to extrapolate these concepts into their own political experiences. And it allows the theorist to reflect upon how democracy works in practice rather than how it might work if the electorate would just behave less like people and more like an assemblage of philosopher kings.
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