There are a large number of parties in European democracies. Indeed, some individual European states have at least a half-dozen parties that compete on a regular basis, and all of the states have at least three or four parties of varying size and importance that win seats in parliament. According to one famous interpretation offered in the 1960s by Lipset and Rokkan (47), these parties are based on a number of cleavage lines that developed as a result of certain historical events and were ‘frozen’ in place by the 1920s. The first of these cleavages occurred as a result of the reformation and counter-reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The result was a center-periphery cleavage reflected in a national and supranational religious conflict accompanied by a national language versus Latin. The second cleavage followed the French Revolution of 1789, which led to a conflict between state and church and the struggle of secular versus religious control between state and church and the struggle came out of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century that resulted in tensions between landed interests and industry, for example agricultural protectionism and the freedom of industrial enterprises. The fourth cleavage occurred even before but especially as a result of Russian Revolution in 1917, which reflected the conflict between owners (capitalists) and workers and raised questions about the integration of workers into the national political system as opposed to a commitment to an international revolutionary movement (Lipset and Rokkan 47).
Lipset and Rokkan (47) note briefly the relevance of electoral systems in encouraging the growth and persistence of family parties based on these cleavages, and they discuss fascist, national socialist, and other nationalist reactions in ‘fully mobilized polities’. These nationalist elements accept and even “venerate the historically given nation and its culture” and “reject the system of decision-making and control developed through the process of democratic mobilization and bargaining” (Lipset and Rokkan 23). This interpretation emerged before the rise of green parties in the 1980s, anti-immigrant parties in the 1990s, and the often related anti-globalization parties and protest movements that emerged in the 1990s and at the beginning of twenty-first century. In spite of not including these more recent cleavage structures in Europe (and elsewhere) the original Lipset and Rokkan approach is a useful way of thinking about family parties system in Europe.
Another way of looking at the origins of European as well as American parties is to think of major social and economic conditions and change over time that led to the development of certain party families. This approach, as described by Peter Mair (103), posits three general political party families in Europe: conservative, liberal, and socialist. The three European political party families did not have the same impact on the development of the American party system as they had in Europe. In the first place, there was no hereditary aristocracy in the American colonies, although there were large landowners, especially in the south, who also owned many slaved. The political elites in the North were not slave owners but rather entrepreneurs, traders, and professionals, i.e., those associated with typically Liberal occupations. There was no peasantry but rather mostly small, independent farmers. Religion was important, but there was no church in the European sense (although there were more or less established churches in the colonies and states before 1789) (Mair 104).
The American Revolution was to some extent a conflict between the ideas of Liberalism, such as broadly based representative government, civil liberties, and nationalism, against the old ideas of British conservatism, such as monarchy and hierarchy, very limited representative government, and empire. This became especially clear with the writing of American constitution, which reflected many of the ideas being promoted by European Liberals, such as Montesquieu, John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith. The European conservative party family, then, lacked deep roots in America, and these were weakened further after independence was achieved. Liberalism became the core of the American creed, although it differed to some extent from European Liberalism due to different conditions (Gunlicks 92).
The Liberal party family came to dominate political thinking in the United States, but, of course, this did not mean that Americans were or are not divided in their political philosophies. In other words, there were and are many issues that can divide people within even the Liberal philosophical party family, and these can be subsumed in very general terms under a left and a right perspective. Traditional Liberalism is a philosophy that nurtures, sustains, and promotes individualism. Thus freedom of speech, of the press, or of assembly generally means non-interference by the government. A free market of entrepreneurs generally means freedom from government regulation, or laissez faire. Entrepreneurial freedom in the economic arena is perhaps the most important goal of right-of-center American liberals, or conservatives. The bias against government regulations in the economic arena also makes these conservatives skeptical about regulations in other areas – especially if they require more taxes – for example, in policies designed to promote equality. On the other hand, they see the need for government regulations to protect private property, promote fair business practices, open markets, and provide stable currency. The ‘conservative’ Republican Party has also seen the growing influence of fundamentalist religious groups among its supporters that has led to demands for a weakening of the principle of separation of church and state (Gunlicks 98).
The socialist party family never developed deep roots in the United States at the end of nineteenth century and thereafter as it did in Europe. There are numerous reasons for this American ‘exceptionality’, including the broad ownership of private property, the extension of the franchise to all white males by the middle of the nineteenth century before socialist parties made voting rights for workers a major issue, the American frontier and the opportunities it offered to millions of European immigrants, and the ethnic and later racial division of society that served as barriers to the collective solidarity characteristic of socialist movements and parties. Unions did emerge and grow during the first half of the nineteenth century, and they became identified with the Democratic Party by the 1930s; however, their leadership was never influenced strongly by Marxist and socialist ideology (Gunlicks 99).
While the 1960s saw a decline in the socialist mass party in favor of the broadly based ‘catch-all parties’ (Kirchheimer 184), these parties were in turn under increasing pressure to become ‘cartel parties’. Membership was declining – and continues to drop – and ideology was waning even among socialists. With the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, the parties on the far left were severely weakened. Parties on the far right that stressed nationalism and immigration issues generally remained small, even though they often had limited success at the national level (e.g., the French National Front) and at regional and local levels. The parties that had dominated the political scene in Europe since the 1950s were increasingly characterized by an interpretation of party and state and by collusion and cooperation among the formally competing parties. The emerging ‘cartel party model’ is characterized by groups of professional party leaders who compete for the opportunity to occupy government offices. Policy making is the responsibility of the professional who seeks to satisfy public wishes rather than to promote public involvement. No major party is every really out of office; rather, elections determine the degree of influence and government actions. Generous public party financing and party patronage at all levels are good examples of this influence.
Gunlicks, Arthur B. Comparing Liberal Democracies: The United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union. iUniverse, 2011. Print.
Kirchheimer, Otto. “The Transformation of the Western European Party Systems”, in ed. Joseph LaPalombara and Myron Weiner (Eds), Political Parties and Political Development. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. Print.
Lipset, Seymour Martin and Rokkan, Stein. “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments: An Introduction”, in Seymor M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan (eds), Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives. New York: The Free Press, 1967. Print.
Mair, Peter. Party System Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.