Is the Party Over? Spreading Antipathy Toward Political Parties

By Russell J. Dalton and Steven Weldon

This article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Public Opinion Pros and has been posted here with the permission of the publisher. It is the first in a series of planned Public Opinion Pros articles that make use of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES).

One might say that political parties are the Rodney Dangerfields of politics-they don't get any respect. From their formation, political parties have suffered the criticism of political theorists and practitioners. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, called them an evil inherent in free governments. In recent decades, antipathy toward parties has spread markedly among political analysts and the general public alike.

In the United States, these antiparty sentiments are often tied to the specific trials and tribulations of the major political parties, especially the scandals of the past few decades. Watergate was the first in a series of visible national examples that showed parties and leaders at their worst, culminating in the Clinton impeachment and the simultaneous political exits of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston. Moreover, increasing polarization and hostility between Democrats and Republicans are thought to deepen public negativity toward political parties.

Recent international surveys, however, indicate that decreasing affinity toward political parties is not uniquely American-it is a near-universal experience in Western democracies. Regardless of recent political experiences or the institutional structure of government, citizens are shedding their party ties and losing faith in political parties, and this is having direct and significant effects on the functioning of democracy in contemporary states.

Electoral research often begins with the presumption that voters approach each election with standing party identities that were formed early in life and reinforced by repeated support of one's preferred party. These sentiments are as universal as the "Yellow Dog Democrats" of American politics to the Stammwähler of German politics. Such party identifications are widely ascribed as the most important discovery of modern electoral research because they shape citizen images of politics, stimulate electoral participation, and structure voting choice.

Recent decades, however, have seen a marked weakening of partisan ties across Western democracies. This process of partisan "dealignment" first became apparent in the United States. American partisanship was extremely stable from the 1950s to the early 1960s, with party identifiers constituting 70-75 percent of the electorate. But loyalties began to weaken after the 1964 election. By the 1980s, more than a third of the electorate were nonpartisans, and in the 1990s, Ross Perot's third-party candidacy in the two presidential elections pushed the percentage of partisans down still further. The percentage of partisans hit a new low in the 2000 American National Election Study (59 percent), and this pattern continued into the 2004 election (60 percent), despite the highly politicized and partisan nature of the Bush/Kerry campaign.

Moreover, the dealignment trend in America is not unique. A similar erosion of party bonds began to appear in other Western democracies, such as Britain in the 1970s and Sweden in the 1980s. The first compilation of trends from national election studies in the advanced industrial democracies indicates that weakening party ties are nearly universal (see Figure 1).

This dealignment trend decreases popular identification with political parties in all nineteen democracies for which there are long-term opinion poll data. The United States is actually about average (a 17 percent decline in identifiers between 1952 and 2004), and the drop in partisanship is greater in several other nations. A separate measure of the strength of party attachments in eighteen of these nations reveals a downward trend in all of them.

Seldom does such a diverse group of nations reveal so consistent a pattern in public opinion. The only major variation is in the timing of the decline. Overall, the pattern is consistent and striking. Fewer citizens today approach politics with a loyalty to a preferred political party.

Additional evidence suggests a growing general disenchantment with partisan politics across advanced democracies. For example, the American National Election Study finds a decline in the number of American voters who believe that parties and elections are responsive to the public's interests. Gallup Canada found that only 30 percent of Canadians expressed quite a lot of confidence in political parties in 1979-already a fairly low level of support-and this dropped to only 11 percent by 1999. Surveys in Sweden found that in 1968 a full 68 percent of the public rejected the statement that parties were only interested in people's votes, but this dropped to 23 percent by 1998. In 1983, 70 percent of Japanese felt that political parties helped people's voices be heard-by 2001 this had decreased to 21 percent. Similarly, Enmid surveys show that German confidence in political parties decreased by nearly half from the late 1970s to the 1990s.

More generally, the April 2004 Eurobarometer study conducted by the European Union found that confidence in political parties averaged only 16 percent across Western Europe, far below the average confidence in sixteen other major social and political institutions. The Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer 2004 demonstrated that the public around the world perceived political parties as the institution most affected by corruption.

New crossnational data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) expand our understanding of how contemporary publics view political parties. Figure 2 presents opinions on two essential ingredients of party images-whether parties are necessary to democracy, and whether they care what people think. The results reflect the paradox of current opinions. When asked if parties were necessary, about three-quarters of the public in these thirteen democracies responded affirmatively. Americans were exceptionally low in this regard; only 56 percent believed parties were necessary. The overall pattern, however, supports the widely held view that democracy without parties seems unthinkable to most citizens.

Yet contemporary publics are simultaneously skeptical about whether parties care about their interests. On average, fewer than a third of survey respondents were positive toward parties on this question. Often the contrasts were striking. While 80 percent of Swedes said parties were necessary to make the political system work, only 23 percent believed parties cared what ordinary people thought. Similarly, 80 percent of Germans thought parties were necessary, but only 18 percent believed they cared.

In short, contemporary publics appear to view political parties as democracy's necessary evil, needed for running elections and organizing government; but they have doubts about how political parties represent their interests in this process. Moreover, negative sentiments toward political parties have become more common over the past generation. Democracy without parties may be unthinkable, but many citizens today seem to be skeptical about how they perform this democratic role.

If these images of parties are more than just rhetoric and the fashion of the day, they should affect citizen attitudes and behavior in meaningful ways. In a series of analyses we examined the impact of trust in political parties on citizen attitudes and behaviors. Rather than finding merely fashionable expressions of dissatisfaction without effects, our analyses demonstrated a real impact of these opinions in several areas.

One area is electoral involvement. Turnout in elections has generally decreased across the advanced industrial democracies. Even with the spike in turnout in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, voter participation remained significantly below the level of a generation ago. Participation in other forms of campaign activity, such as attending party rallies, working for political parties, or displaying campaign materials, has also been declining.

The erosion of trust in political parties has apparently contributed to these trends. To use the British CSES survey as an example, reported turnout in 1997 was 72 percent among those who doubted that parties cared what people think, compared to 89 percent among the most trustful British. Similarly, participation in campaign activities decreased among those who were skeptical of parties. For example, only 10 percent of distrustful Americans participated beyond voting, compared with 26 percent among the most trustful. This gap in electoral participation occurred across most nations in the CSES.

In summary, erosion of trust in political parties over time has lessened the motivation for citizens to participate in a process that lacks their confidence. If the parties don't care, why should one vote or be involved in campaigns? Moreover, there is some evidence that political distrust is prompting these same individuals to seek access to politics through other, nonpartisan means, such as direct contacting of politicians or protests. Thus, public doubts about parties are reshaping participation patterns.

If citizens do vote, how does distrust of parties affect their electoral choices? Elections, for many, are the defining feature of the modern democratic process. They are critical junctures where individuals take stock of their various political attitudes and preferences and transform them into a single vote choice.

While abstaining is an important manifestation of antiparty sentiment, it is not the only option available to disenchanted citizens. They may also choose to vote for a party that vows to do politics differently. New antiparty parties on both the left and the right have recently emerged in many party systems. Green and left-libertarian parties first made electoral breakthroughs in the 1980s, and, shortly thereafter, the extreme right experienced a surge of support across several European democracies. Third-party challenges have also increased in American elections. Although these new parties hold vastly different ideologies and policy goals, they have echoed a common message: The established parties are self-serving, corrupt, and indifferent to citizen interests.

The mix of parties across the thirteen nations in the CSES makes it difficult to paint a single picture, but our detailed analyses of voting choices uncovered some general patterns. Dissatisfaction clearly stimulates a search for alternatives to the present government, regardless of its political color. Among voters, those who distrusted parties supported incumbent parties only 33 percent of the time, compared to the 49 percent support that incumbents enjoyed from those who trusted parties. In addition, where they existed, far-right parties were much more likely to garner support from the distrustful. In fact, the distrustful were more than two and a half times as likely to vote for a far-right party as those who trusted parties.

Finally, distrust of parties may stimulate increased volatility in voting choices because citizens are skeptical of all parties. Data are only available for five countries, but in each case, we find that distrust in parties stimulates voter volatility. Among Canadians, for example, only 10 percent who said they trust parties voted for a different party in the previous election, compared with 45 percent among the most distrustful respondents. It appears, then, that dissatisfied citizens contribute to the growing segment of floating voters in contemporary democracies. Even when they vote for mainstream parties, these parties cannot depend on them for sustained support.

Cynicism about parties also generalizes to images of the electoral process. The CSES asked if people felt the most recent national election was conducted fairly-sentiments which touch the very legitimacy of representative democracy. Fair and honest elections are the norm in the nations in this study. However, there is a disturbing link between a lack of confidence in parties and the belief that elections are not conducted fairly. To use the United States as an example, a full 90 percent of those who believed parties cared about the public also believed in the integrity of elections, versus a bare majority of 51 percent among those least confident in parties.

It would be premature to write an obituary for political parties. Political theory and contemporary publics agree that political parties are a necessary and important component of the democratic process. The positive contribution of political parties is indisputable, and democracy without parties is still difficult to imagine.

At the same time, citizens today express widespread scepticism about political parties as institutions and the process of representative government based on political parties. Most citizens believe parties do not care what they think, are not sufficiently responsive to public interests, and cannot be trusted to represent the public's interests. Such sentiments have also become more common in the past generation.

Two broad conclusions emerge from these findings. First, American distrust of political parties is not primarily due to the unique events of American politics over the past quarter-century. Rather, growing dissatisfaction with political parties (and other institutions of representative government) is a general pattern across the advanced industrial democracies. In other research, we attribute this to broader changes in citizen values and the nature of contemporary political interests. In short, this problem is not unique to America, and it is likely to endure as part of the new style of citizen politics.

Second, if we accept this conclusion, then we must consider the implications of continuing political distrust. Citizens will relate to government in different ways and try to influence public policy through different, nonpartisan channels. These changes in public opinion are leading to pressures for institutional changes that alter or diminish the role parties play within the democratic process. One set of reforms aims at improving the system of elections and representative democracy to improve the system of party government-for instance, demands for term limits or new electoral systems in several nations. Another set of reforms focuses on expanding nonpartisan aspects of the democratic process and institutional changes to facilitate this access. Thus, increasing use of referenda, citizen hearings, and other forms of direct action allow citizens to bypass partisan politics at least partially. Changes in policy administration also follow, as people demand a direct voice in politics because they distrust parties as their agents.

In summary, this public skepticism about political parties is one piece of a general syndrome of the public's growing doubts about representative democracy, and a search for other democratic forms. Parties are likely to retain their central roles in structuring electoral choices and organizing the working of the parliamentary process, but their broader role in the system of democratic politics is being challenged.

Russell J. Dalton is professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and Steven Weldon is a graduate fellow in the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine.

Additional reading

Dalton, Russell, and Steven Weldon. 2004. L'immagine dei partiti politici nell'opinione pubblica: Un male necessario? [Public images of political parties: A necessary evil?]. Rivista Italiana Di Scienza Politica 3 (December): 381-404.

Dalton, Russell. 2004. Democratic challenges, democratic choices: The erosion of political support in advanced industrial democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dalton, Russell, and Martin Wattenberg (eds.). 2000. Parties without partisans: Political change in advanced industrial democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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