No definition of democracy includes a requirement for political parties – just freedom of expression and association – but virtually every contemporary democracy chooses to organize itself in part through political parties.
There are two main functions political parties are supposed to serve in democracies – incorporation and legislation. Parties are meant to aggregate and express public opinion as well as organize representatives into groups in parliament that can negotiate with each other about passing laws. Parties in dictatorships tend to just perform the latter function – they are legislative parties, not popular parties. Here, I am just going to focus on the first function – the different ways that parties organize and express public opinion – because it leads to the greatest variation among parties in democracies.
There are a bunch of different ways to categorize political parties – here, Larry Diamond, one of the best-known scholars of democracy, describes 15 categories based on what issues parties organize around and how organized they are. I’m going to talk about these two dimensions, but only talk about five types of party.
Since social class is no longer a reliable indicator of political party membership or platform, parties are now distinguished along a variety of dimensions. Traditional parties on the left and right have tended to become “catch-all” parties that seek to appeal to the widest number of voters. They have shifted their platforms to the center while still trying to distinguish themselves from the other parties doing the same. Single-issue parties have also arisen in many countries. Parties organized around non-economic issues have always existed – nationalist parties seeking to represent a particular ethnic or religious group have been around since the 1850s. But In recent years we have seen the rise of parties such as Green parties as well as anti-immigrant parties like the Front National in France or the Alternative for Germany. While there is ongoing debate between the extent to which parties reflect or shape public opinion, the platforms of European parties will now always include a second dimension on one of these “valence” issues, even if there is no consensus as to which social issue or orientation is the most important.
In most of the world, however, the most important aspect of a political party is not its political platform, but its degree of organization (or institutionalization). The main distinction here is between personalist and programmatic political parties.
Programmatic political parties center around an ideology or party platform. This isn’t just a platform (usually called a program outside the United States) that a few people sat down and wrote, but one that provides the guiding principles behind why people join or vote for the party. Programmatic parties often also have strong internal organizations – they have clear procedures for electing their leaders, offices outside the capitol city, and the ability to conduct campaigns both door-to-door and through mass media. The traditional political parties of Europe as well as parties like the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan and the Worker’s Party in Brazil are programmatic parties.
Personalist parties are much more common around the world. These are parties that center on an individual leader. Rather than have party programs, they have brand, often centered on the personality or accomplishments of their leaders. Personalist parties often conduct strong media campaigns, but do not usually have grass-roots organizations to conduct traditional campaign activities. Examples include the Thai Rak Thai party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand in the 2000s, and the Union for the New Republic, a French party in the 1960s that was organized to support Charles De Gaulle as president.
The line between personalist and programmatic parties is often blurred. For example, the Congress Party in India has a long history as the leading party of India’s independence movement and then later as the main center-left party in Indian politics. But it is also closely associated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as half of its leaders have come from one family.
Conventional wisdom is that programmatic parties are better for democracy than personalist parties because they do a better job of expressing popular opinion. They can facilitate actual debate on the issues by presenting clear policy alternatives. While that may be true, it is equally true that the current media environment pushes all parties more toward branding and personalist tactics. Programmatic parties will need to adapt to maintain relevance and find new ways to make their platforms both distinct and appealing.