Christian Democratic Parties in Europe since the End of the Cold War

By Cary, Noel D. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Christian Democratic Parties in Europe since the End of the Cold War


Cary, Noel D., The Catholic Historical Review


Christian Democratic Parties in Europe since the End of the Cold War. Edited by Steven Van Hecke and Emmanuel Gerard. [KADOC Studies on Religion, Culture and Society, Volume 1.] (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press. 2004. Pp. 343. euro29 paperback.)

Among the most important phenomena of the postwar period, Christian Democracy continues to remain relatively under-researched. Perhaps that is the price of its prosaic success. A pillar of European integration, political moderation, and democratic stability, the movement has seldom been flashy; and the diverse national fortunes and profiles of Christian Democratic parties defy easy categorization. Even defining what parties ought to count as Christian Democratic causes dispute.

This volume grew out of a conference held in Belgium in 2003 on Christian Democracy in Europe since the end of the Cold War. National case studies are augmented here by papers that evaluate transnational trends. The case studies focus on Christian Democracy -where it has historically been strongest-Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Benelux countries-but also where its fortunes have been more mixed, including France, Spain, and Scandinavia. For the stronger Christian Democratic parties, this period has been marked by electoral crisis. Yet, most of these parties have recently bounced back, while some of the weaker parties have actually become more prominent than in the past.

Two salient features contexualize the period: a softening in the anticommunist electoral solidarity that had underpinned Christian Democracy's earlier success; and a postindustrial, media-aided reconfiguration of the social landscape. By weakening the coherence and institutional loyalties of formerly reliable Christian Democratic voting blocks, the latter phenomenon has led to the "depillarization"(pp. 160-161 and elsewhere) of Christian Democratic parties. In the volatile post-Cold War electoral climate, depillarization has represented both a crisis and an opportunity for reform. While the stronger parties have lost institutional allies that formerly delivered the voters, this loosening has also opened spaces for discourse between "realists" and "purists" (p. 292) about the philosophical meaning of "Christian Democracy." Both postcommunist neoliberalism and a Christian version of postmaterial critique have figured in that discourse. While the Austrian party (for example) has effectively employed the former in order to win back support, it is the latter that has helped some weaker Christian Democratic parties to profile themselves. It has also allowed some remnants of the crisis-torn Italian movement to begin to overcome the legacy of identification with horse-trading and corruption. The varying fortunes of Christian Democratic parties since 1989 reflect both local structural peculiarities and differing degrees of astuteness among party leaders from country to country as they tried to gauge how the new challenge meshed with the new opportunities.

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