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Political Studies (1998), Vol. 46, pp. 61l-632
Effects of Party Organization on Performance during the 'Golden Age' of Parties

The study of parties and party systems has always been central to the study of politics, but the study of party organization per se has had its ups and downs. Party organization as a field owes much to the foundations laid by Ostogorski and Michels early in this century.[1] Nevertheless, contemporary scholars hold that the 'dearth' of recent empirical studies of party organization has formed 'lacunae' in modern party research.[2] Much contemporary research focuses on the party system level, notably on questions of change and stability overtime.[3] Other recent studies examine the sociological bases of party support.[4] Currently, there is renewed interest in the study of party organization-- most impressively demonstrated with the publication by Katz and Mair of a 'data handbook' on party organization in twelve countries from 1960 to 1990.[5] Indeed, after a long period only occasionally punctuated by the study of party structure, the 1980s and 1990s produced a spate of works that range from models of party organization, to the study of comparative organization in advanced industrial democracies, and even to organization in emergent party systems, such as Eastern Europe.[6]

Mair contends that thinking about party organization 'remains caught' within concepts 'established almost a generation ago'.[7] He mainly meant Duverger's distinction between 'old' cadre parties, based on informal groupings of a few political notables, and 'modern' mass parties, that recruit large numbers of formal members.[8] This distinction still figures prominently in a recent, comprehensive text on comparative political parties.[9] According to Mair, the mass party model defines party organizations with reference to their relationships with civil society; party organizational strength is measured primarily with reference to the size of the membership and the capacity of the party to close off (often predefined) sectors of the electorate; and party structures are understood and assessed primarily in terms of modes of internal representation and accountability.[10] If any of these elements are attenuated, it 'involves also the attenuation, and decline, of party per se'.

In the first two decades after World War II, European politics was shaped by mass membership parties. But from the 1960s to the 1980s, all but two of eleven European countries experienced a decline in party membership as measured by the percent of the electorate.[11] Mair says, 'the period of the mass party can therefore be seen to coincide with the "golden age" of parties, and since then everything has been downhill'.[12] The shift away from the mass party has led to hypotheses of party 'decline' or even party 'failure'.[13] However, other models of party that de-emphasize relations with civil society have emerged to replace the mass-party model and to underscore the continued importance of vitality of parties in general terms.[14] They have led to a more explicit focus on the study of party organization to determine the extent and nature of party change and whether such change can be interpreted as party decline.

As it has become acceptable to study party organization for organization's sake, recent studies have examined specific aspects of organization, such as changes in the size and role of membership.[15] In this article, we study party organization to assess its effect on party performance. Although some other studies have focused on party organization and party performance, this literature is relatively sparse and its findings often inconclusive.[16] Moreover, virtually all previous research on organizational effects on party performance has been micro-analytical, using data from local electoral districts. This is perhaps the first macro-analytical study that uses national-level data to assess party performance.

The data for this analysis come from the International Comparative Political Parties Project data.[17] The ICPP Project collected data on 158 parties operating in 53 randomly selected countries from 1950 to 1962. Parties were scored on approximately 100 variables--separately for the first half of the period (1950Ð1956) and the second half (1957-62). We selected a small set of variables from that dataset and studied only the subset of 95 parties operating in 28 'democratic' countries that held free (or mostly free) elections during 1957-62. The counties and the parties are reported in Table 1.

TABLE 1. List of 28 Countries and 95 Parties in the Analysis*



United States

Democratic, Republican


Labour, Conservative


Labor, Liberal, Country

New Zealand

National, Labor


Progressive Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Social Credit


Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour


Congress, Communist


Peoples, Socialist, VDU-FPO


MRP, Radical Socialist, SF10, Gaullist, Communist

West Germany



Liberal, EPEK, ERE, EDA


Social Democrat, Venstre, Conservative, Radical Venstre


Independence, Progressive, Peoples Alliance, Social Democrat


Social Democrat, Center, Liberal, Conservative


Catholic Peoples, Labor, Liberal, ARP, CHU, Communist


Christian Social, Socialist Labor, Democratic, Communist


Velasquistas, Conservative, Radical Liberal, Socialist, CFP


Ordiistas, Christian Democrat, APRA, Popular Action, MDP


Colorados, Blancos




MDN, Christian Democrat, Revolutionary, PRDN


Stable AFPFL, Clean SEPEL, NUF




Progressive Socialist, Constitutionalist, Phalanges, National Bloc


Republican, Democratic




African National Union, African Democratic Union


Peoples Congress, Democratic, Kabaka Yekka

*During 1957-62, only these 28 countries from the larger set of 53 countries in the ICPP Project demonstrated some degree of democracy. Whether a country was 'democratic' was first determined by consulting Ted Gurr's Polity Persistence and Change data, ICPSR Study 5010. Polities neither clearly democratic nor autocratic by those data were included only if they held at least one competitive election during 1957-62. Two subversive parties in Guatemala and Malaya in the full data set were also omitted from this set of 95 parties, which is the same set used in R. Harmel and K. Janda, Parties and Their Environments: Limits to Reform? (New York, Longman, 1982).

We readily admit that the data are dated, involving parties--and in some cases, even countries--that no longer exist. However troubling this may be, this study is valuable for several reasons. First, because structuring of current party systems and the organization of current parties depends on paths taken in their past, the history of causal relationships among a random sample of the world's parties during their 'golden age' is relevant to understanding party politics today. In the words of Panebianco, 'a party's organizational characteristics depend more on its history, i.e. on how the organization originated and how it consolidated, than on any other factor'.[18] Second, we unite two literatures which have grown independently of one another but have much to share. Work on various aspects of party performance such as electoral fortunes and legislative success has been overly separated from work on party organizational variables such as organization and financing.[19] Finally, this study is important now because it will serve as precursor to a subsequent study with an updated data set.

This article analyses the effects of party organization on party performance. It is organized along the following lines: first, we present variables that measure three aspects of party performance; second, we introduce the variables on party organization; third, we assess organizational effects on each aspect of performance: fourth, we assess organizational effects on all three aspects taken together; finally, we conclude with a general discussion.

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