Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges

By Richard Gunther; Jose Ramon Montero et al. | Go to book overview
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7 Party Organization and Party Performance: The Case of the French Socialist Party

Serenella Sferza

Much of the literature on parties centres on decline and failure. Since the appearance of mass parties, observers have suggested that parties should be best seen as a by-product of tradition, rather than modernity; lamented their inability to perform their alleged functions; and questioned the viability of party-based forms of representation. The virtual absence of political parties from most influential theories of interest representation in the 1970s and 1980s is a telling sign of how widespread the belief in the irrelevance of parties had become. 1 The alleged advent of 'post-materialism' raised further doubts about the viability of established parties in advanced industrial societies (Inglehart 1990).

Recently, however, the decline hypothesis has come under attack on both empirical and theoretical grounds. As Hans Daalder shows in Chapter 2 , this literature has strong normative undertones, and it collapses different and not necessarily complementary explanations for decline. Most important, it is now apparent that the crisis of parties had gone further in the literature than in reality (Webb 1995). Commonly used indicators of decline, such as increased voter volatility, have been seriously contested, while party failure is both elusive and rare (Bartolini and Mair 1990 ; but see Gunther and Hopkin, Chapter 8 below). As remarked by Rose and Mackie (1988), parties are composite organizations with multiple purposes—ranging from organizational self-preservation to the pursuit of power and the realization of policy preferences. Since the relative ranking of these purposes shifts depending on external challenges and intra-party politics, there is no uncontroversial yardstick for failure, short of full bankrupcy and disappearance. Even when this happens, the failing of a party may spell success for another one. Further, as indicated by the unexpected success of the European left, even established parties which are viewed as obsolete may be revitalized. At the same time, the functional equivalents, be they interest groups, social movements, or state bureaucracies, which were expected to displace parties have failed to do so.

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