Political parties form the bedrock of political life in Western nation-states, but just what are political parties? This essay’s scope is to define what political parties are and present a classification system for distinguishing some political parties from other political parties. After establishing what a political party is, this essay will examine the historical cadre party and mass party, then offer additional classifications for the kinds of parties found within the modern Western political system.
Political parties are organizations that seek to promote their policies and ideas, particularly through the election of their members into political offices. Political parties differ significantly in the number of members they have, the adherence to their policies, and the objectives of the party, among other things. It is on the basis of these differences that parties can be classified differently. Political parties are distinguished from other organizations which attempt to affect political change, such as social movements or non-profit organizations, in that they are official organizations whose primary method of change is through electing party members to office.
The two major kinds of political parties are cadre parties and mass parties, emerging as the first parties in the 1800s. Cadre parties were loose coalitions of societal elites who attempted to become elected in order to push mutually beneficial policies. These parties were small, consisted primarily of elected officials, and focused usually on the interest of the very wealthy. Mass parties arose out of labor movements as a contrast to these cadre parties. They developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s and had the primary objective of securing the right to vote. After that, they became a party that largely advocated for workers’ rights and served the interests of the common people. Due to the lack of wealth of the party, they attempted to establish large membership bases in which members would pay fees to belong to the party. These fees would be used to support the party and its election efforts. The mass parties would carefully select candidates for elections and, if they candidates were elected, they were expected to abide fully by the party’s wishes and doctrines. Most types of parties today can either be traced back to cadre parties or to mass parties.
Additional kinds of parties can be distinguished as programmatic/doctrinal, brokerage, personalistic, or electoral-professional. Programmatic/doctrinal parties stem from mass parties and emphasize strict adherence to party doctrines. These parties typically do not wish to compromise with their policy positions and are often specific in detailing those positions. Due to the lack of compromise and the specific interests that they represent, they often have a difficult time gaining widespread popularity. In the West, socialist and environmental parties often are classified in this nature. Brokerage parties are the opposite as they compromise with their policies in order to approximately meet as many interests as possible. They take more general approaches with their policy positions and interests and, as a result, typically gain greater popularity. Liberals and conservatives in Canada and the United States often fall within this scope. Programmatic/doctrinal parties often accuse brokerage parties of pandering and not sticking to their principles while brokerage parties often accuse programmatic/doctrinal parties of being too narrowly focused and exclusive in their interests. In addition to these parties, another type of party should be mentioned: personalistic parties. Personalistic parties are parties whose popularity depends upon the cult of personality garnered by the party’s leader. In the current United States elections, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can be classified as belonging to a personalistic party because their following either largely results from or is greatly enhanced by their force of personality. Their respective parties can additionally be classified as either programmatic/doctrinal or brokerage, but the personalistic classification highlights the significant role that the party’s leader or candidate plays in their popularity. Finally, a newly emerging type of party is the electoral-professional party. With the complexity of the political landscape, advertising, finances, and all other aspects that go into running a successful party, party leaders are looking to professionals in order to manage various aspects of their campaign who may not be affiliated with the party itself. These professionals are hired for their experience in managing particular aspects of an electoral campaign and this is where this type gets its name from. Electoral-professional parties are parties which rely on the expertise of hired professionals in order to manage their electoral campaigns. Most parties now fall under this typology. Depending on the nature and objectives of the party in the modern era, they may now additionally be categorized as a programmatic/doctrinal, brokerage, personalistic, or electoral-professional party.
A classification system for political parties can be useful in discerning just what the nature of certain political parties is. This may facilitate a more accurate understanding of the parties and their policies and this will be useful in assessing these parties, whether it be the parties themselves, their role in politics, or their particular policies. There are, of course, more ways that political parties can be classified, but these are some of the core descriptions. While not an exhaustive list of classifications, this typology can be a useful tool in evaluating political parties.