Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy

Understanding how political parties function is an area where recent research in political science has contributed major insights. Political parties are a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 19th century, there were factions and loose groupings – the Optimates and Populares in Republican Rome, Tories and Whigs in late 17th century England, and Girondins and Jacobins in the French Revolution – but not organized parties. They were looser groupings that centered around dominant individuals – a Marius or Sulla, a Lord Shaftsbury, or a Brissot or Robespierre; but not parties with structured platforms and a deep well of local support.

I recently reviewed Daniel Ziblatt‘s recent book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy for the Journal of Economic History (gated and ungated). Ziblatt provides new insights into the key role played by conservative parties in the formation and stabilization of democracy in Western Europe. Ziblatt’s thesis is that where conservative parties were able to become entrenched and organized political forces, the prospects for liberal democracy were fairly good. But where conservative parties remained weak, democracy was likely to remain poorly institutionalized. Under these circumstances, elites simply had too much to lose from acquiescing in universal suffrage.

Ziblatt contrasts the fate of England where a popular conservative party did take on solid roots in the late 19th century with that of Germany. As I write in my review:

“The central insight Ziblatt emphasizes throughout is game theoretic: the absence of a party to organize around meant that economic elites lacked the ability to strategically defend their interests and hence became willing to ally with any forces that might help them protect their property. While in Britain, the well-institutionalized Parliamentary Conservative party moderated and sidelined the more reactionary and xenophobic elements in British life, the absence of such a strong party meant that in Germany, the right tended towards antisemitism and other forms of extremism . . . “

“. .  . Stable and lasting democratization required “buy-in” from old regime elites and this buy-in can only occur if there are institutional mechanisms in place that are capable of assuaging their fears and moderating the influence of extremists. In late 19th and early 20th century Europe, strong professional conservative parties served this purpose. In the absence of such a party the transition to democracy will likely be temporary and unstable.”

Do read the full review.

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