Political Cleavages: Issues, Parties, and the Consolidation of Democracy

By Alejandro Moreno | Go to book overview
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Democracy, Democratization, and
Political Cleavages

Party competition generally centers on a dominant dimension or dimensions of conflict that reflect the most salient political cleavages in a given society during a given period of time. The most common dimension of political conflict has traditionally been the left-right polarization of economic issues, which tends to reflect a class antagonism. In the late 1950s, Seymour M. Lipset summed up a huge body of findings that showed the correspondence between class interests and party support in established democracies. "The party struggle," he said, "is a conflict among classes, and the most impressive fact about party support is that in virtually every developed country the lower-income groups vote mainly for parties of the left, while the higher income groups vote mainly for parties of the right" ( Lipset 1960:234).

The rise of new political issues and groups in West European societies in the 1960s and 1970s generated a wide revision of Lipset's theory. Parties of the so-called new left drew a broader support from middle-class constituencies, and new right parties became more popular among working-class voters. Part of the explanation for this apparent paradox lies in the new meanings of "left" and "right." The new left embraced issues such as environmental protection and gender relations; the new right adopted messages of racism and xenophobia.

The classic left-right ideological dimension refers to specific economic issues, such as the level of state intervention in the economy, public versus private ownership of the means of production, the extent of social and welfare policies, and economic freedom and equality. The major conflict among political parties in most advanced industrial democracies centered on the question Who gets what? Although political elites and parties disagreed on policles of redistribution, they generally agreed with the idea that democratic politics and procedures were the best way to achieve their programmatic goals.


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Political Cleavages: Issues, Parties, and the Consolidation of Democracy


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