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8 - The Transformation of Political Parties

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Summary

Introduction

For more than 120 years, political parties have dominated politics in democratic countries. In public debate, however, they have often come in for criticism in recent decades. They are old-fashioned and non-representative, and have a whiff of nepotism about them. It is not for nothing that citizens say they believe political parties are among the most discredited institutions in modern democracy. This observation is certainly not new. Political thinkers such as the Florentine Machiavelli (1469-1527), the French aristocrat Montesquieu (1689-1755) and the American James Madison (1751-1836) warned of the dangers posed by the emergence of factions. These factions were later referred to as political parties. The Irish-English politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797), defined a political party as a group of men who stand for election to promote the public interest based on a shared principle. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) formulated an alternative definition: political parties are groups of men who stand for office in order to acquire political power. We will return later to this distinction between engaging in politics for the sake of principles (policy-seeking) and engaging in it for the sake of power (office-seeking). These definitions of political parties assume a motive to engage in politics. We can also give a minimum definition of political parties: ‘a political group, identified by a label, which competes in elections and puts candidates forward for public office’. (Sartori 1976: 63)

Political parties have been so fully anchored in modern democracy that we also refer to the current system as party democracy. Political parties are the linchpin of this system, and they are supposed to perform a number of functions. This chapter considers the various criticisms of political parties in relation to the functions they are supposed to fulfil in a democratic system. The broader question is: Do parties still succeed in carrying out their functions? Finally, we will look at whether the various experiments with party organisations can fix existing problems.

The functions of political parties

The functions of political parties in democratic systems can be grouped into three broad categories (see table 1):

1 They recruit, train and select people to be politically active. Parties scout for political talent and offer opportunities to become politically active (recruitment).

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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