Monday, September 21, 2009

Cartels, democracy, equality

... are the key words in my new project, a book with Mark Blyth and Riccardo Pelizzo about party democracy in advanced countries (New is about the least appropriate way of describing it, since the project was dreamt up 8 years ago).
It aspires to piece together three recognized trends over the past half century and understand the links between them.

The three trends are:

The rise and retrenchment (or at least freezing) of the egalitarian capitalism (aka the welfare state)

The rise and decline in popular political participation through formal electoral politics, the recent growth in dissatisfaction with elected politicians, and a recent shift towards less partisan modes of decision-making (decentralization, non-majoritarian agencies, depoliticization of key economic decisions)

The shift from ideological, mass parties to pragmatic, strategic and state-absorbed 'cartel' parties

The neat thing about this project is that these three things undoubtedly happened roughly in the temporal order indicated above, and we can document that reasonably well.
The tricky thing about the project is making the purported causal relationships between them stick, and, trickier still, establishing the direction of causality (I think we might go easy on that one).

But since egalitarian capitalism was all about representative mass parties mobilizing the less wealthy to establish redistributive institutions, it wouldn't be that surprising if change in the nature of political parties had had some effect on these institutions. And no-one denies party politics has changed. So, I'm pretty sure we're onto something, but it's a difficult task making sense of two-three big literatures and bringing them together in this way.

The key to our argument is that parties are not simply reflections of social interests, filtered through electoral systems. Parties can be very successful and rather hopeless at mobilizing social interests, thus complicating the relationship between voter preferences and policy outcomes. Our project tries to get inside the blackbox of party activity, and understand how and why parties have become more distant from voters. Unlike most of the relevant literature, we tie these developments to the decline of welfare capitalism and the growth of inequality.
More soon....