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American Parties in Comparative Perspective

What can we learn from looking at American parties in comparative perspective? Viewed by scholars from abroad, American political parties have always been puzzling phenomena. Analyzing politics in the U.S. Congress around the turn of the century, Bryce "kept to the last the feature of the House which Europeans find the strangest."

It has parties, but they are headless. There is neither Government nor Opposition. There can hardly be said to be leaders. . . . That the majority may be and often is opposed to the President and his cabinet, does not strike Americans as odd, because they proceed on the theory that the legislative ought to be distinct from the executive authority (1912, V.I, 151).

Writing just after World War II, Maurice Duverger, the most influential European writer on political parties in this half of the century, remarked that "American parties have a very archaic structure" (1963, 22; originally published in 1951). Nearly twenty years later, he still described American parties as "traditional" and largely excluded them from his analysis of modern mass (European) parties (1972, 8-9).

U.S. scholars have also noted the peculiar character of the Democratic and Republican parties compared with parties in other countries. In his comprehensive U.S. parties textbook, Eldersveld (1982) devoted a chapter to "The Special Nature of American Party Organizations." He described their structure as a "stratarchy"--a nonhierarchical system of layers of control with diffused power and limited lines of accountability (pp.97-99). Leon Epstein, who had compared parties in Western democracies (1980) in a major work two decades earlier, titled his own text on U.S. parties, Political Parties in the American Mold (1986), implying that the "mold" was unique:

The distinctiveness of American parties is old and well established. It is not mainly the product of the last few decades of widely perceived decline. As governing agencies, American parties have nearly always been less cohesive in national policy making than parties in parliamentary regimes. And as extragovernmental agencies, their strength, where it existed, was traditionally state and local rather than national. Moreover, American parties have ordinarily been without the dues-paying mass memberships characteristic of European parties (p. 4).

Similarly, Keefe (1991), in the sixth edition of his popular textbook, characterized American parties as being dispersed in power, consisting of coalitions of groups, displaying ideological heterogeneity, emphasizing inclusivity, and lacking a clear notion of membership.

In describing American parties, all these authors made explicit or implicit references to parties in other countries. They engaged in comparative analysis to explain the nature of the Democrats and Republicans. If such comparisons help us understand parties in the United States, we can understand even them better by expanding our comparative knowledge of political parties. One needs to know how scholars have defined and measured generalized concepts of party structure, cohesion, factionalism, ideology, strategy, and so on in order to make intelligent comparisons across parties and party systems. One also needs to know the results of comparative research on what causes these party properties, how they interrelate, and what effects they have on politics and government. Entering this literature on comparative political parties, one soon learns that it has a rich theoretical tradition, and it has maintained that tradition in developing party theory.

Party Theory and Party Definitions

In his sweeping review of the American parties literature, Crotty also indicted writings on comparative parties for lacking "any one approach or model to supply an adequate perspective for relevant analysis" (1991, 182). But in an earlier essay (1969), Crotty recounted the history of theoretical integration in European scholarship, notably in the work of Ostrogorski, Michels, and Duverger. Ostrogorski (1964, originally 1902) attributed the rise of parties to the industrial revolution and the extension of the franchise. Michels' famous Iron Law of Oligarchy (1962, originally 1911) accounted for the tendency of leaders to maintain power at the expense of their members' interests. Duverger's rich contribution (1963) linked party ideology to party structure and explained the nature of a nation's party system by the nature of its electoral system.

Contemporary European scholarship has maintained its leadership in the development of party theory. Of course, some important party theorists have been American, but most of the stimulating theorists have a European appointment or origin (e.g., Budge, Charlot, Duverger, Laver, Mair, Panebianco, Rokkan, Sartori, Schofield, and Strom). There are reasons for this European influence in party theory. Some might cite the juxtaposition of party systems in nearby countries. To interpret politics across common borders (the argument goes), scholars are encouraged to conceptualize more broadly about party politics, which spurs the development of party theory.

Unfortunately, an explanation of common boundaries does not travel well to the United States. Only a few party scholars--e.g., Epstein (1964) and Schwartz (1991a and 1991b)--have compared American with Canadian parties, much less with Mexican parties.

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