Political Cleavages Research Paper

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‘Political cleavages’ are political divisions among citizens rooted in the structure of a given social system. However, although cleavages are political divisions, not all political divisions among citizens spring from structural cleavages. For one to talk of ‘cleavages’ such divisions must be permanent and noncontingent. They must orient people’s behavior and sense of belonging stably and constantly. Political cleavages are the partisan expression of an underlying division among the members of a given society (whether national, subnational, or supranational).

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1. The Lipset–Rokkan Model

The concept of ‘cleavage’ has been current in the social sciences for some time, although it was given full development only in the 1960s by Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan. Both of them political sociologists by training, Lipset and Rokkan (1967) sought to redefine and specify the ‘social bases of politics.’ Writing when structural-functionalism was at its height—and, therefore, influenced by the Parsonian theory which assigned to the political parties the function of encapsulating social conflicts and stabilizing the social system—they set out to explain the persistence of party systems in the European democracies. In the 1960s, in fact, those systems still displayed features similar to those that had been institutionalized at the beginning of the century. Not surprisingly, their explanation was called the theory of the ‘freezing’ of the European party systems.

Their method was primarily historical–sociological in so far as it connected existing political divisions in the European countries with the principal cleavages that had opened up in the course of their development, from the birth of the nation-state in the sixteenth century to its full democratic maturation in the twentieth. The specific political cleavages that gave rise to the modern party systems accordingly were seen to be the result of two great historical processes: the one that had bred national revolutions (and, therefore, the formation of the modern European nation-states), and the one that had engendered the industrial revolution (and, therefore, the formation of modern European capitalist systems).

National revolutions had created two structural divisions: (a) between the center and the periphery, or between the groups and areas that sought to impose a single public authority on a given territory and the groups and areas which asserted their traditional autonomy against such centralizing pressures; (b) between the lay state and the church, or between groups which sought to separate temporal from religious authority and groups intent on preserving the intimate connection between them. The industrial revolution in its turn created two further structural divisions: (a) between agriculture and industry, or between groups and areas whose survival depended on traditional activities and groups and areas which endeavored to remove traditional constraints in order to foster the growth of new activities and production methods; (b) between capital and labor, or between the groups that dominated the new industrial structure and the workers, whose only possession was their capacity to perform labor.

In Europe, only the parties that reflected these cleavages were able to survive, that is, reproduce themselves electorally and institutionally. The institutionalized interaction among these parties gave rise to the modern party systems which, in individual European countries, and in forms that differed from one country to another, still conserved in the mid-twentieth century the cleavages that had arisen in previous ones.

2. Subsequent Debate

The Lipset–Rokkan model heavily influenced the debate conducted during the 1960s on the political parties. The discussion started from the premise that political parties were necessary to make democracy safe (i.e., stable), as Schattschneider (1948) had already argued. However, the model was not endorsed universally, at least in its entirety. In a study of a small Scandinavian democracy, Eckstein (1966) pointed out the existence of multiple political divisions, identifying ones due to specific disagreements on particular public policies, others due to cultural divergences on interpretations of political life, and yet others arising from segmental cleavages caused by objective social differences. Again in 1966, Daalder examined the small democracies of continental Europe and pointed out the existence of political divisions due to factors (for instance, the nature of the political regime or the concept of nationality) other than those envisaged by the Lipset–Rokkan model.

But it was Sartori (1969) who challenged most radically the Lipset–Rokkan model, by reversing its causal logic. For Sartori, it was not social divisions that encouraged the birth of parties; rather, it was the parties that gave visibility and identity to a particular structure of social divisions. In short, Sartori argued, political sociology (and political science) should take the place of sociology of politics if partisan politics in the European democracies were to be understood properly. Lipset (1970) himself acknowledged the ability of parties to exacerbate politically a cleavage that might socially be in decline. Nonetheless, he reiterated that a social basis was necessary for a party to exist. Thus, while for Lipset and Rokkan social cleavages were necessary, though not sufficient, for the formation of parties and of party systems, for Sartori they were neither necessary nor sufficient because politics can only be conducted independently of other social spheres. This autonomy of the parties from society had already been shown by Kirchheimer (1966) in his celebrated study in which he investigated the transition from the ‘party of social integration’ to the ‘catch-all party,’ that is, a party able to represent diverse classes and social groups electorally.

From the 1970s onwards, partly due to the development of more sophisticated techniques of social research, the debate moved in a more microempirical and less macrohistorical direction. The decade saw numerous studies of electoral behavior, although their results were equivocal. While early studies like Rose (1974) showed the relative decline of politics based on social cleavages (or ‘cleavage politics,’ as it came to be called), the magnitude and implications of this decline were given various interpretations by scholars. The 1992 study by Franklin suggested that the decline of cleavage politics was ineluctable, those of Inglehart (1977), Dalton et al. (1984) and subsequent studies until seemingly showed that cleavage politics were evolving in a new direction so that ‘cultural’ cleavages were now taking the place of fading social cleavages and reorienting electoral and political behavior.

For these authors, the new structure of divisions might indeed have a ‘social basis,’ but it was manifest in a clash of values: between industrial values (in favor of the quantitative growth of affluence) on the one hand, and postindustrial ones (which gave priority to the quality of life and the protection of the environment) on the other. Associated with each side were socioeconomic groups and geographical areas, but the clash involved distinct (and opposed) cultural conceptions and lifestyles. Of course, there was no lack of criticism of this approach—especially by Bartolini and Mair (1990)—given that it emptied Lipset and Rokkan’s original concept of cleavage of much of its meaning. For this reason, Bartolini and Mair proposed the following redefinition of the notion: (a) empirically, a cleavage must be definable in terms of social structure; (b) normatively, a cleavage is a system of values which gives a sense of collective identity to a social group; (c) behaviorally, a cleavage is manifest in the interaction among political actors. Thus redefined, the concept of cleavage is broader in its compass and becomes a means to order social relations.

3. The Freezing Of Cleavages

Sociologists and economists also joined the debate. Goldthorpe (1996), for example, found that traditional social divisions were still conditioning political allegiances and electoral choices at the end of the twentieth century. Other studies appeared which, although they extended the concept of social cleavage, continued to frame it in structural terms. Lijphart (1977), in his study of the small consociative democracies of continental Europe, and then in his analyses of the established democracies (Lijphart 1999), showed that ethnic divisions performed the same function in structuring identity and behavior as did the other social divisions of the Lipset–Rokkan model. These divisions, too, sprang from the long historical process that had led to the formation of the nation-state. Thereafter, they had continued to predominate despite the divisions created by the process of industrialization. In the nation-states, the divisions between agriculture and industry, and between capital and labor were absorbed by more basic ethnic linguistic cleavages. According to Lijphart, the diverse nature of these cleavages lay at the origin of the two principal models of democracy (what he called ‘consensual’ and ‘majoritarian’) that developed in the West after the World War II.

The model of consensual democracy based on the inclusion in the executive of all the country’s main ethnic groups proved highly effective (in stabilizing democracy). It was accordingly used by authors (starting from Sartori and his studies of party systems in the 1970s) to investigate the workings of national societies connoted by identity divisions, albeit based on ideology rather than ethnicity or language. The reference here is to the postwar European democracies distinguished by the presence of powerful communist parties. Even these democracies were consensual in nature, although their operation was sustained, not by inclusive coalitions in the executive (access to which was barred to communist parties, owing to the geopolitical cleavages created by the Cold War), but by consensual practices in parliament. However, while these ideological cleavages proved unstable with the passage of time, this was not the case of ethnic ones. It seemed, indeed, that the model of consensual democracy had ended up by ‘freezing’ ethnic allegiances, though managing to cushion their impact.

The reasons why party systems were frozen in the postwar European democracies were expressly investigated by Mair and Bartolini (1990). These two authors examined three different hypotheses with regard to the freezing process. First, it may involve the freezing of social cleavages, that is, the stabilization of the social structure from which the parties draw legitimation for their political action. Second, the freezing may be due to the institutionalization of the political parties, albeit accompanied by the fading of the social divisions that had prompted their formation (here by ‘institutionalization’ is meant the parties’ ability to stand as the only practicable electoral choices). Third, the freezing may be due to the stabilization of the party system as such, or put otherwise, the institutionalization of the system of interactions among the main political actors. Mair and Bartolini seem to suggest that the third of these hypotheses is the most plausible, given that both the hypothesis of the freezing of social cleavages and that of the freezing of political parties must admit to so many exceptions that they are not falsifiable. In short, for both authors a distinction must be drawn between the freezing of party systems and the freezing of individual parties.

The freezing hypothesis has also been discussed in terms of voting behavior. Several surveys have sought—using different indicators—to collect reliable data on the stability and instability of voting choices. Many scholars, from Pederson (1983) to Maguire (1983) and especially Bartolini (2000), have shown that rates of aggregate electoral volatility were relatively low until the 1980s: which corroborated Lipset and Rokkan’s original contention that continuity rather than change was the distinguishing feature of partisan politics in Europe. These studies came in for criticism, of course, mainly on the grounds that electoral stability does not necessarily coincide with stable interaction among the political parties, and that stability may conceal processes of dealignment and realignment sufficient to gainsay the logic of the Lipset–Rokkan model.

4. Between Europe And America

The theory of cleavages has been developed on the basis of the experiences of the Western European countries, with no reference to the other great model of democracy: that of the United States. And yet it was precisely in the United States that modern political parties and party systems were invented. Indeed, the myth of American exceptionalism has been fostered by this European neglect; a neglect motivated by the belief that American society, unlike those of European countries, is based on cross-cutting cleavages which— as Lipset maintained as early as 1963—are unable to produce stable divisions among citizens. This absence of cleavage politics, the argument ran, gave rise to the depolarization of partisan conflict in the United States that underpinned the stability of ‘American democracy.’ In short, the more cleavages multiply and interweave, the more numerous the divisions among citizens become, and the safer democracy grows.

And yet, as Bensel (1987) showed, the situation in the United States was not so clear-cut, for that country, too, displayed, and still does, a stable political cleavage; sectional rather than social and cultural, although it has latterly acquired these features as well. This is the political cleavage between states and regional areas expressed in two radically different conceptions of the balance of powers to be struck between the states and the center of the federation. And it should not be forgotten that this fracture provoked one of the most violent and bloody civil wars of the modern age. It is around this cleavage that the various party systems that have arisen since the foundation of American republic have structured themselves.

In the light of the post-national experience of Europe at the end of the twentieth century, the case of the United States appears less exceptional than it did in the past. This is because the process of European integration has generated a sectional divide among geo-economic areas of the continent which cuts across the traditional (in Europe) party-political axis ranging from right to left. And in this case, too, the new contraposition has taken the form of a different interpretation of the balance of powers that should be established between the European and national institutions. Can European integration be regarded as a further historical cleavage—in addition to those singled out by the Lipset–Rokkan model—destined to produce another political structural cleavage? If so, the cleavage theory might be updated, this time bridging the European and American experiences.


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