A. Brian Tanguay
It has been more than thirty years since Anthony King published his sceptical reflections on the role of political parties in Western democracies (King 1977). At that time, King concluded that the importance of political parties in fulfilling the functions commonly ascribed to them in the political science literature - structuring the vote, mobilizing the mass public, recruiting leaders, organizing government, formulating public policy and aggregating interests - had been vastly overrated. Parties certainly played some role in performing many of these functions, he acknowledged, but they were not necessarily any more important or visible in these processes than their competitors, such as interest groups, social movements, bureaucracies, the media and individual political entrepreneurs.
In the three decades since the publication of King's article, the scepticism about the effectiveness of political parties in interest aggregation - the translation of societal demands, which are numerous and conflicting, into a limited number of policy alternatives - has only grown. In a survey of the state of party politics in the early 1990s, the Canadian Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (RCERPF) 1 worried that 'we seem to be in an era of anti-politics … Whatever the cause, there is little doubt that Canadian political parties are held in low public esteem, and that their standing has declined steadily over the past decade' (Canada, RCERPF 1991, vol. I: 223; see Tanguay 1999). The commissioners speculated that one of the principal causes of party stress in Canada was the growing attractiveness of interest groups and social movements as channels for political participation by ordinary citizens. Unlike political parties, which must attempt to reconcile the demands of widely divergent sections of society, interest groups and social movements can focus on a single issue and ignore the need to balance competing objectives within their organizations. In Canada's increasingly rights-based political culture, where interest group pressure on the courts and bureaucrats offers a more realistic hope of immediate success than do the compromises and negoti-