How relevant and vital are political parties in contemporary democracies? Do they fulfil the functions that any stable and effective democracy might expect of them? Do they represent citizens effectively? Do they help translate wants and needs into effective governmental outputs? Do they foster democratic involvement and support on the part of the citizen body? Or are they little more than moribund anachronisms, relics of a past age of political life, now superseded by other mechanisms of linkage between state and society? These are the central questions which this book aims to address through a rigorous comparative analysis of political parties operating in the world's advanced industrial democracies.
Parties have long since figured prominently in the canon of Western political science. Sartori (1976 : 23) sees Max Weber as founder of the modern tradition of party scholarship, though reviews of the literature on parties generally tend to cite a well-known litany of studies which go back to the classic works of Ostrogorski (1902) and Michels (1915). It is equally evident that, while scholars have often expressed high hopes for the central roles played in democratic society by parties, they have just as frequently been perplexed by the realities of party politics. Indeed, this is apparent in the work of both Ostrogorski and Michels. More than half a century ago, the American Political Science Association felt parties were so vital to the US political system that a special committee was established to investigate and make recommendations on (the lack of) 'responsible' two-party politics in the country. Taking their cue from the well-known claims of previous authors like Bryce (1921 : 119) and Schattschneider (1942 : 1) that the operation of modern democracy was virtually inconceivable without parties, this committee emphasized the need for more clearly defined party programmes which would confront voters with clear choices (American Political Science Association 1950 : 22-3).
Concern about the performance and popular standing of parties grew in the 1960s; for instance, a landmark review of individual-level attitudes towards parties