Comparative Political Parties: Research and Theory
This essay reviews the state of research on comparative political parties, which I define as the analysis of parties across nations. If your field is comparative politics, my focus should suit you. If you are primarily interested in American party politics, please continue reading. I intend to demonstrate that even students of American parties can benefit from a comparative perspective on their research.
This essay covers only publications since 1980 that take an explicitly comparative approach to the analysis of political parties. Although it refers to earlier writings and to some single-country studies, it does so only to make certain points. This essay does not pretend to cover all important articles before 1980 nor all examples of outstanding research on parties in individual countries. With two exceptions, every citation is in English, which distinctly limits the scope of this review. It does not consider the rich literature on comparative political parties that exists in other languages -- especially in the works of French, German, and Italian scholars. Fortunately, some important works in other languages have been translated into English, and -- even more fortunately for us mono-lingual Americans -- many foreign parties scholars (thankfully most of the Scandinavians) write and publish in English. In fact, more than half the citations herein were written by European scholars and about half were originally published outside the United States.
Because of scholarly ethnocentricity, much of the comparative parties literature escapes the attention of American academics. Consider the findings of Giles, Mizell, and Patterson ( 1989), who surveyed faculty in departments with graduate programs about professional journals. About half of American political scientists were familiar with Comparative Politics (55%) and Comparative Political Studies (46%), the leading U.S. journals in the comparative field. 1 Less than 7%, however, were familiar with the European Journal of Political Research -- a major source of articles on comparative political parties -- or even with The British Journal of Political Science -- another important source. Presumably, even fewer knew about the International Political Science Review, Journal of Theoretical Politics, and West European Politics -- all foreign publications and all frequently cited herein. LaPonce ( 1980) conducted an "import-export" analysis of citations in the American Political Science Review [APSR] compared with the official journals of the other four oldest political science associations (Canadian, Indian, French, and British). He found that all national journals are ethnocentric, but the APSR was particularly so. This supports McKay's statement, "Rarely do American scholars read, and therefore rarely do they cite, European journals" ( 1988, 1052). 2
With some notable exceptions to be discussed below, the parties literature in the U.S. is not strong on comparative analysis. In contrast, the European parties literature reflects the great strength of European political science in structural comparative politics, which McKay defines as "the systematic study of political institutions and processes across several and sometimes many countries" ( 1988, 1054). The American literature deals mainly with home-grown political parties and makes relatively few comparisons with parties in other countries. Of course, the United States is a large country, arguably the world's oldest democracy, and a true superpower -- all of which support the case for studying American parties per se. I argue, however, that limiting focus to American parties limits understanding as well. It is the familiar problem of missing the forest for the trees. The best way to understand the peculiar nature of American parties (and they are peculiar) is to study them in a comparative framework -- which means reading more works of foreign scholars who do such analyses.
This essay on the field adjusts for this imbalance in scholarship in the United States by reviewing recent writings on the comparative analysis of political parties, emphasizing the conceptual bases of the research and theory. Readers are directed to two excellent reviews of writings on American parties -- one by Leon Epstein in 1983 and the other by William Crotty in 1991 -- for coverage of the American literature.