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Patterns and Sources of Party Detachment in European Democracies

Sun, September 2, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hynes, 301


Can populist parties in advanced democracies deliver on their promise to overcome the alleged “detachment” of mainstream parties from electorates? To what extend do mainstream parties merit this criticism in the first place? These question are all the more important because the alleged detachment of mainstream parties not only concerns the policy level—especially cultural issues like migration, integration, and identity—but also the stylistic level that involves fundamental questions about how citizens and voters interact. Thus, the “anti-establishment” appeal of populist parties arises as much by claims about a novel “style” of politics as by the articulation of new issues. While we know much about the kinds of policies that populist parties advance in opposition to mainstream parties, we know less about the stylistic dimension of their “anti-establishment” appeal between mainstream and populist parties. In this paper, we examine this issue, using a unique survey of over 18,000 candidates in national elections in advanced industrial democracies.

To make conceptual headway in understanding the stylistic dimension of parties’ “detachment”, we argue (based on prior research) that parties send important cues to voters via the recruitment of national candidates. Candidates not only communicate parties’ programmatic stances but their characteristics and preferences also convey messages to voters on the preferred policy style of their parties. Seen from this perspective, we conceptualize the alleged detachment of mainstream parties to suggest that their candidate pools predominantly consist of career politicians, who share few experiences with electorates, and who support the institutional status quo. In turn, we envision “populist” parties to predominantly recruit political novices, whose biographies are socially rooted, and who criticize the institutional status quo. By assessing the political cues candidates send on the basis of their career backgrounds, their social linkages, and their institutional preferences, we examine the extent to which mainstream parties are “detached” from electorates and whether populist parties are more attuned with voters in this regard.

To make theoretical headway in understanding party behavior, our goal is to test whether the “mainstream-populism” divide is the major influence on the policy styles of parties, when we control for other factors. Specifically, we argue, that the extent of parties’ regime access significantly affects their proclivity to being “attached” or “detached” from electorates. Thus, once we account for the competitive situation of parties, along with controls such as organizational age, we expect the candidates of populists not to remain unique stylistically.

We will examine the political styles of parties across diverse parties using data that result from the Comparative Candidate Survey Network (CCS). This data set includes over 18,000 candidates running for office in national elections between 2006 and 2013 in older and newer democracies. The data set provides information about the attitudes and backgrounds of respondents, covering most mainstream parties in advanced democracies and many left and right-wing populist parties. We supplement this data with information about party characteristics (e.g., party age and ideology) as well as country characteristics (e.g., democratic longevity) in order to estimate multivariate models. Together, the analyses assess whether differences in styles remain between mainstream and populist parties when other candidate, party-level and country traits are controlled for.

Generally, our study has both practical and theoretical implications. Practically, it contributes information about what kind of political styles parties prefer on the basis of the candidate pools they run, and how mainstream and populist parties differ in this regard. Theoretically, we hope to contribute to theories of party behavior and to their understanding on the linkage function of political parties.