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Party Families and Political Ideologies

Summary and Keywords

Conceptions of party family serve as signals to political actors, but also as analytical categories for scholars to classify parties with the purpose of developing theoretical arguments about their origins, electoral and executive government trajectory, and policy impact. Historically, political “brands” and scholars’ efforts to distinguish party “families” originate in the mobilization of mass parties following the introduction of universal suffrage and pinnacle in the literature on political cleavage formation. For contemporary research, party families may be classified by at least three analytical dimensions indicating principles according to which they generate policy positions on questions of economic distribution (greed), political and social governance (grid), and delineation of polity membership status (group). The configuration of positions on the three dimensions constitutes a party’s ideology, which may be grouped into a party family. In any particular polity, only a subset of the conceivable ideological positions is empirically present. Moreover, there are parties that change their party family affiliation over time, if not their brand names. Finally, many party classifications do not meet the criteria of party family as introduced here. This applies to the characterization of parties according to whether they are based on personalism, clientelism, cartel formation, catch-all politics, or niche strategy.

Keywords: political parties, partisan ideology, party brands, party families, political alignments, niche parties


Political actors may ascribe a generic party “family” label to a set of parties as a matter of descriptive convenience. These parties share certain observable traits that qualify them as “brands.” When scholars create party family labels, they typically have greater aspirations. Parties assigned to a family set should emerge under specific, generalizable conditions (upstream causality) and display a distinctive set of programmatic appeals that generate specific partisan constituencies and possibly partisan impact on policymaking, contingent upon institutional context and competition from other parties (downstream causality). The definition of a party family is not right or wrong in some fundamental, essentialist sense, but it is more or less useful in a pragmatic, constructivist sense: Scholars assembles parties under the same family label that share features of upstream and downstream causal origins, dynamics, and consequences. Politicians’, journalists’, and citizens’ notion of party brand, therefore, may or may not coincide with that of scholars’ definition of party family.

Historically, with the advent of mass politics in the late 19th century, party brands become important as informational signals for mass publics (see the section entitled “Historical and Analytical Conceptualization of Party Families”). While party brands and analytical conceptions of families may be identical in terms of historical origin, changing party strategies and constituencies may compel scholars to reassign some parties to different families later, while political actors continue to talk about the same brands. For scholarly purposes, therefore, party families should be identified exclusively by analytical criteria, not the historical genealogy of party brands (see the section entitled “Analytics of Party Families”). In actual political life, parties with different brand names may belong to the same family, or parties with the same brand may shift toward different families (see the section entitled “Strategic Shifts Into and Out of Party Families”). Some parties may never qualify for classification as a member of a family, while others may have been originally, but then drop out of families entirely (see the section entitled “Beyond Programmatic Party Families?”).

Historical and Analytical Conceptualization of Party Families

Historically, social scientists of the mid-19th century—like Karl Marx or John Stuart Mill—used party family names to attribute broad political-economic interests to various clusters of politicians coordinating in legislatures. But parties were not yet sufficiently crystallized as collective actors with common purpose and organization to deserve rigorous family classification. Either they were small networks, clubs, or cabals of intellectuals and politicians coordinating internally under informal labels such as “Whigs” and “Tories”; or they were fluid and unsteady attempts to organize mass publics that quickly flamed out, as in the French Revolution of 1848; or party organizations emerged as rather persistent entities, but without expressing broad common ideas of programmatic purpose, as they were preoccupied with the delivery of direct services to individuals or groups supporting them.

The age of party branding and family classification arrived with the institutional innovation of near-universal male, white enfranchisement in national legislative elections, as well as the new communications and transportation systems (railroads, telegraph, mass newspapers, telephone, and ultimately radio/TV) that made national parties possible (Cox, 1987; Stokes, Dunning, Nazareno, & Brusco, 2013). Politicians and voters began to coordinate around party brands conveying simple, parsimonious signals that indicated some common policy purpose pursued persistently and communicated across large territories, often promoting a “nationalization” of party politics (Caramani, 2004). Thus, parties as brands operated not only as collective action machines to put politicians into elected offices under the same label, but also as agents of aggregating individual interests into joint social choice functions (programs) and screening and selecting candidates for legislative or executive office who would act reliably upon these objectives. This made it possible to sort them into families.1

For students of late 19th- to mid-20th-century European party formation—above all, Lipset and Rokkan’s (1967) classic analysis of West European party formation—the difference between political actors’ brand-building process and political scientists’ categorization of party families was not yet problematic. Bundles of party policy objectives, sociodemographic characterizations of parties’ electoral constituencies, and party brand labels were closely intertwined. Often, the international diffusion of party labels facilitated this process. Scholarly classifications could draw on the actors’ labels.

Farmers’ parties defended the economic interests of rural smallholders and their traditional social norms. Socialist or social democratic parties primarily attracted blue-collar industrial workers with the objective of achieving universal suffrage, legislative cabinet responsibility, freedom of association for unions, and ultimately economic redistribution, if not the nationalization of private companies (Bartolini, 2000). Confessional Christian parties rallied religious believers in pursuit of religious control of education and other institutions of culture and social policy, calling for the Christian community to bridge the economic class divide (Kalyvas, 1996). Liberals inspired urban professionals and self-employed businesspeople around a market-liberal and socially individualist, anticommunitarian agenda. Conservatives—opposed to land reform, agrarian tariff protection, and defending traditional sociocultural institutions, if not authoritarian government—appealed to large landowners and their dependent peasantry, to military, bureaucratic, and judicial elites associated with agrarian political power, and to diverse social demographics based on national identity (cf. Ziblatt, 2017).

Lipset and Rokkan (1967) employed this conception of programmatic party families in their upstream causal analysis of party system formation across Europe. Specific conditions of nation building and industrialization shaped the relative electoral success of distinct party families. For example, where secular rulers established Protestant state churches, politicians had little leverage to establish religious cross-class parties, but such parties flourished where the Counter-Reformation led to a resurgence of Catholicism or where religious wars divided political territories into multiple Christian confessions. With regard to urban/rural divides, where agriculture combined large landowners with landless sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or wage laborers, politicians had no chance to build genuine agrarian parties.

With the rise of industrial capitalism, socialist working-class parties appeared almost invariably across Western polities, with the one persistent exception of the United States (Lipset & Marks, 2000). But many institutional, political-economic, and cultural conditions and historical events (especially the Russian Revolution of 1917) induced a great deal of programmatic, organizational, and electoral diversity, even among parties within the broad socialist family (Bartolini, 2000; Przeworski & Sprague, 1986).

The broad conceptualization of party families also has proved useful for causally downstream analysis of policy formation in 20th-century industrial capitalism. Depending on the strength of socialist, Christian, and liberal-conservative party families and their alliances, countries realized different social policies and welfare states in terms of insurance coverage and redistributive impact.2 The relative strength of party families also influenced regime change in interwar Europe (Luebbert, 1991).

Lipset and Rokkan inspired party family classifications that appeared to work best for an industrial capitalism with a relatively simple social structure and political economy: a large share of manual blue-collar workers, white-collar clerical employees, self-employed business, farmers and professionals, and a managerial salariat.3 With the dynamic change of postindustrial occupational structure and the explosion of higher education accelerating since the 1960s, however, rapidly expanding high-skilled jobs in social, medical, educational, and cultural services, as well as a growing business-finance-technical intelligentsia in private companies, the ground began to shift under the feet of the established parties, and many lost their moorings. New constituencies, unclaimed by existing party families, became electorally relevant, while old constituencies withered away (Kitschelt, 1994; Kriesi et al., 2008).

Social democratic, Christian, agrarian, and liberal party families certainly tried to extend their electorates and modify their programmatic bundles to attract new electorates (e.g., Kitschelt, 1994). But their efforts met with rather varied success and often failed. The farmers’/peasant party family is mostly gone. Who would still think of the Swiss People’s Party as a member of that family? Christian confessional and ecumenical parties shrank dramatically, with the partial German exception of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but the Christian brand no longer may deserve categorization as a family separate from what now has been reconfiguring as a broader, general, liberal-conservative party family.

With the increasing complexity of the relationship between party families and political brands, it is not surprising that transnational party federations and coordinating bodies, such as the caucuses of the European parliament, do not give accurate guidance as to which parties may belong to a distinct party family (Mair & Mudde, 1998). All of this confirms that the scholarly conception of party family, formed with an eye toward maintaining some analytical parsimony and generality and promoting upstream and downstream causal analysis, should be kept separate from the everyday use of party brands and labels by political actors and citizens.

Analytics of Party Families

Analytics of party formation may start by defining the bundles of policy goods that parties offer to their electorates (known as programs). Each family occupies a range (or profile) of programmatic appeals. When an empirical party label moves beyond a party family’s predefined range, it changes its party family. Parties express their policy commitments in issue positions, but the notion of issue is one of the most undertheorized concepts in the literature on party competition. Issues may be operational legislative proposals or fields of government activity, often configured around bureaus and cabinet portfolios (such as “health” or “environment”), but this identification results in an analytically arbitrary laundry list of subjects. What does it mean, for example, for a party to take a position on “education”? A whole range of disparate policy problems falls under the authority of an education agency.

For a parsimonious classification of party families, a more abstract, general frame of reference is needed to characterize how programmatic appeals qualify a party for membership in a particular family. But the analytical criteria to specify party families also should be more specific than the basic left-right division among parties that politicians and voters use as a first orientation but fill with very different content, depending on the context (Jou & Dalton, 2017). The party family concept must be built on a parsimonious set of ideological building blocs (principles, dimensions) underlying parties’ concrete policy positions and their left-right placements. The broad interdisciplinary field of studying political ideology, drawing on the disciplines of political psychology, public opinion, comparative party analysis, political theory, and political philosophy, has supplied a range of such building blocs (for a comprehensive review, see Leader Maynard & Mildenberger, 2016). It employs public opinion surveys, expert surveys, and quantitative and qualitative text analysis to uncover principal dimensions of political judgment and appeal.

This article proposes to treat three principal dimensions of political judgment as the coordinates to distinguish party families. Individual policy agenda issues of the day are assimilated into such broad normative ideological dimensions over time (Carmines & Stimson, 1989). Behavioral research usually identifies two or three dimensions of political preference formation that inform how actors make political choices over operational issues. Where the lists are longer, dimensions are typically not independent from each other, but rather are correlated.4 The three-dimensional setup has the advantage of nicely relating to theories of political institutions and democratic theory. I introduce this theoretical intuition first, then specify the dimensions, and finally apply the framework to the identification of party families in postindustrial democracies. Within the constraints of this article, methodological questions of how to establish the empirical membership of parties in party families will be bracketed.

Consider what it takes to play a game (Tsebelis, 1990). The game allocates rewards, penalties, victory, and defeat contingent upon the players’ strategies. Actors make moves and allocate distributive payoffs. But to play a game involves prior decisions about the rules of the game (What moves are permissible in the game?) and eligibility of actors to play (Who can be a player?). Actors deal with three classes of choice—membership in the game (citizenship), governance of the game (rules, institutions, or constitutions), and player strategies under the auspices of the rules (resource allocation).

Likewise, Robert Dahl (1989) argued that democratic politics involves three levels of choices. Participants in democracy vote over alternatives to allocate scarce resources and symbolic advantages (who gets what . . .). But engaging in such strategies already presupposes the participants’ choice of a political governance structure of decision rules: How should individuals’ preferences be counted in collective decisions? And procedural rules presuppose a decision about the nature of citizenship: Who should be included in making political choices? Choices of citizenship and political governance are constitutive of democracy and thereby cannot be made under democratic auspices.

Behavioral opinion research, therefore, often finds two or three opinion dimensions that deal with resource allocation, rules of the game (decision procedures, governance), and membership (citizenship). Adopting the alliteration group/grid/greed, the three analytical dimensions allow us to sort configurations of fundamental partisan positions and then translate them into concrete policy issue positions that identify distinctive party families, as follows.5

  • Who qualifies as a fully competent citizen: the question of “group” boundaries or citizenship? This fundamental dimension of distinguishing friend from foe (Schmitt, 1932) has the potential of deeply dividing parties where politically salient. At the extremes, a universalistic, humanistic, and cosmopolitan-inclusive conception of membership confronts a particularistic, parochial, exclusive alternative. Social identity theory shows how simple divisions of humans into competing groups create positive in-group and negative out-group sentiments (Taijfel, 1982). High density of social interaction, by contrast, breaks down group barriers and differential valuation of individuals based on group adherence (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Group divisions may be orthogonal to divisions over the internal governance of a polity (below “grid”) and distributive conflict (below “greed”), or they may reinforce each other mutually such that differentials in power and asset control prioritize conflict over citizenship. Ethnicity, religion, language, and residence may be contentious issues in struggles over inclusive/exclusive citizenship. Policy choices over immigration/emigration, international trade, national identity, multiculturalism, supranational integration, defense, and use of interstate violence may be framed in terms of inclusive or exclusive citizenship.

  • What should be the “grid” of procedures (norms, rules, laws: governance) that govern where and how members of a polity are subject to and participants in collective decision-making procedures? This generative principle concerns the scope of autonomy and self-governance of the individual vis-à-vis group norms and obligations. Positions on this dimension range from libertarian (individualist preferences for broad individual autonomy combined with participation rights in collective governance) to authoritarian (collectivist prerogatives commanding individual compliance with uniform obligatory norms and deference to a hierarchical structure of political governance). Policy subjects that most commonly involve libertarian/authoritarian divides include civil liberties (speech, assembly, publicity, etc.), the rule of law, the judicial and penal system, religious freedom and authority, gender relations, the nature and scope of political participation, and the internal organization of primary groups (families).

  • How should collective policies affect the allocation of scarce resources among citizens: the question of redistribution or “greed”? At the market-liberal extreme, individuals are free to give up personal ownership of resources only through voluntary exchange. At the redistributive-statist extreme, politics reassigns ownership in scarce resources, regardless of how individuals’ (undeserved, accidental) talents, luck, efforts, ambitions, skills, family ties, and other resources enabled them to generate assets and take initial possession of them. While redistributive conflict pervades most policy issues and fields, such considerations are especially salient in taxation and social transfers, compulsory social insurance schemes, means-tested income maintenance policies, social investments (education, active labor market policy), public services, financial regulation, and macroeconomic fiscal and monetary policy.

To map a parties’ family affiliation, then, requires measuring where parties position themselves in the three-dimensional space to resolve conflicts over resource allocation (G1: greed), political governance (G2: grid) and citizenship/group boundaries (G3: group). Members of a party family, then, inhabit the same bounded area in the 3G space.

Political expert surveys sometimes ask experts to assess the generic mechanisms underlying parties’ policy choices, although more detailed and direct questions would be welcome. Content analysis of party manifestoes, as practiced in the Comparative Party Manifesto (CMP) Project coding, however, often measures area salience (e.g., “environment”), but not party position in terms of the three generic questions (membership, governance, and distribution). Qualitative content analysis of parties’ positions are comparatively rare but sometimes come close to characterizing party positions in terms of underlying generative principles of issue positions (e.g., Carter, 2005; Mudde, 2007).

In contrast to some existing approaches to defining party families, however, the distinctiveness of a party family should be conceived as the result of the configuration of its position on all three dimensions. A set of parties’ unique position on one dimension may be neither necessary nor sufficient to constitute a party family, but a unique configuration does. Parties, therefore, must be characterized on all dimensions to determine their family membership. To give an example: Many scholars characterize “radical right” parties in postindustrial democracies by their G3 exclusionary nationalist, ethnocentric group positions, and possibly by their G2 authoritarian collectivist governance positions, but not by their G1 distributive greed positions, because the latter may vary and are not uniquely different from other party families. It may be empirically adequate and theoretically useful, however, to separate redistributive radical right from market-liberal radical right parties, as they thrive under different socioeconomic and political-strategic conditions. This configurative approach has at least three implications:

  • Some regions in the three-dimensional space may lack parties. Some preference configurations may be uncommon and lack corresponding party families. Conversely, citizens may inhabit certain areas of the three-dimensional programmatic space but not find a party family that expresses their preference configuration.

  • Empirical parties may move across the 3G space in search of areas in which to attract voters. Parties thus change their family affiliation even though they choose to keep their actual brand label.

  • There may be some parties that cannot be assigned to an analytical party family in the 3G space. This applies to so-called niche parties in the specific sense discussed in the section entitled “Strategic Shifts Into and Out of Party Families,” as well as to a vast range of parties that do not compete programmatically in a measurable fashion.

Table 1 highlights eight profiles of 3G-specified party configurations that are likely to be sufficiently common, as well as mutually distinctive, in postindustrial democracies to merit the semantic shortcut of a party family label. For the sake of simplicity, the table identifies positions on each dimension with the spatial left-right notation and a five-point ordinal metric ranging from left (L) through center-left (CL), center (C), and center-right (C) to right (R). “Left” party positions, then, indicate support for inclusive, universalistic citizenship, libertarian governance, and luck egalitarian redistributive politics. “Right” party positions incorporate an exclusive, particularistic conception of citizenship, an authoritarian conception of governance, and a market-liberal view of distribution.6 Gray-shaded fields indicate that a dimension carries particularly high salience for a party family. This is the case especially for radical positions on a dimension, thus revealing that dimensional position and salience are related. A family’s position on its most salient dimension is often, but not always, unique. Some party families take no extreme positions on any dimension.

Table 1. Analytical Party Families

Greed (G1)

(left = redistributive)

(right = market-liberal)

Grid (G2)

(left = libertarian) (right = authoritarian)

Group (G3)

(left = inclusive) (right = exclusive)

Illustrative Brand/Label Characterization

A. Postcommunist Left




Communist, Left Socialist

B. Left-Libertarians




Left-Socialist, Green, Green-Red, Alternative, Radical

C. Social Democrats




Social Democratic, Socialist, Labour

D. Radical Libertarians




Democrats, Radicals, Center Democrats, Center

E. Cross-Class National Rally




People’s, Christian Democrats, National, Republican,

F. Liberals




Liberal, Freedom, Free

G. Conservatives




National, Conservative, Country, Moderate,

H. Radical Right




People’s, National Front, Progress, National Democrats, National Alliance

Party set A comprises mostly communist legacy parties with radical redistributive principles, but generally centrist positions on governance and citizenship (perhaps for fear of dividing their electorates?). They are distinct from group B, consisting of left-libertarian parties with a more moderate redistributive stance (G1) but radical-libertarian positions on political governance (G2) and inclusive positions on citizenship (G3). Conventional social democracy also underwrites moderate redistributive principles, but combined with a mild center-left position on governance (G2) and citizenship (G3). It is not radical on any dimension of politics. A further move to the right on distribution (G1), but emphasizing libertarian commitment on governance (G2) and inclusive citizenship (G3), yields a recent and electorally quite feeble party family that one might call “radical libertarians” (group D). They are different from market liberals (group F), who commit to a more uncompromising, right-wing-liberal stance on distribution and moderate center-left-to-centrist positions on governance and citizenship. There is an archetype of centrist cross-class parties that takes center-to-center-right positions on all three dimensions (group E). They are set apart from conservative parties (group G), which endorse moderate-to-extreme-right-wing positions on all dimensions, particularly market liberalism, while also embracing center-right positions on traditional/authoritarian political governance and exclusionary conceptions of citizenship. Finally, there is a radical-right party formation that is militant on exclusionary citizenship (G3), strongly inclined to authoritarian governance (G2), and centrist to rightist on questions of economic redistribution (G1).

The proposed typology intentionally leaves out several common and widely employed party families. “Christian Democracy” may remain a electorally quite successful partisan label in a number of postindustrial democracies, but such parties have shed almost their entire genuinely Christian conservative baggage on the political governance dimension. They are no perfect fit for a centrist cross-class party family that also includes parties such as the French Gaullists (under diverse labels), the Japanese Liberal Democrats, or the Spanish Popular Party. No separate party family label is needed, as all the center-right parties also tend to share a similar profile of electoral supporters.

There is no “Green party” label in the typology either. Greens essentially lack ideological positions that would distinguish them clearly from either left-libertarian parties (some of which run under “ecologist” or “Green” labels) in some countries, or from radical-libertarians in others. Finally, the table also makes no provisions for peasants’ or farmers’ parties. Scandinavian and Swiss agrarians of the first two-thirds of the 20th century eventually saw the writing on the wall concerning the coming demise of the family farmer. Duly, political entrepreneurs took over the parties and moved them toward the radical-libertarian, center-right, or radical-right party family configuration.

If each of the 3G dimensions accommodates five positions from left to right, party families can cover a maximum total of 125 n-tuple positions (5 x 5 x 5). In practice, however, the designated positions of the eight party families in Table 1 fill only a few more than 50 configurations. What about the remaining empty positional coordinates? On the political demand side, these preference n-tuples may contain too few voters to be attractive to office-seeking political entrepreneurs. And on the supply side, configurations of party competition and democratic institutions might make it difficult to engineer the successful entry of parties targeting voters in the requisite fields.

Table 2 considers some of these missing combinations. Many of the empty cells involve one or another kind of extremism. How many left-libertarians (G1–G2) are there who would support an exclusionary, particularistic conception of citizenship (Party I)? And would there be support for socialists striving for authoritarian governance paired with extreme conceptions of citizenship? Finally, is there a space for authoritarian market liberals with an internationalist free-trade and flow of citizens bent (perhaps filled by Pinochet in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s?), but would they be sufficiently popular in postindustrial democracies to attract a critical partisan constituency?

Table 2. Empty Spaces Without Substantial Party Families in Postindustrial Democracies?

Greed (G1)

(left = redistributive)

(right = market-liberal)

Grid (G2)

(left = libertarian) (right = authoritarian)

Group (G3)

(left = inclusive) (right = exclusive)

Illustrative Brand/Label Characterization

I. Left-Libertarian Nationalists




Militantly exclusionary-particularistic position on collective identity, but extreme redistributive positions on economic redistribution and political governance. Left-libertarian cultural closure?

J. Left-Authoritarian Nationalists




Authoritarian governance with particularistic closure on citizenship, yet redistributive-socialist economic policy? Left fascism/national socialism?

K. Left- Authoritarian Internationalists




A form of internationalist-socialist authoritarianism?

L. Right-Libertarian Internationalists




Authoritarian market liberals with internationalist bent: Maybe v Hayek (1960)?

To visualize the distribution of parties—albeit without providing explicit party family labels—consider Figure 1. It is based on the party positions that experts in the Democratic Accountability and Linkage Project (DALP) assign to 138 political parties in advanced industrial democracies on questions of economic distribution (D1), political governance/traditional norms (D5), and national identity (D4) on a scale of 1–10. The lowest scores indicate redistributive G1 greed, libertarian G2 grid, and inclusionary G3 group positions, and the highest scores indicate market-liberal G1 greed, authoritarian G2 grid, and exclusionary group G3 positions. Only expert mean scores are depicted, not standard deviations.7

Party Families and Political IdeologiesClick to view larger

Figure 1. The distribution of parties in the ideological-programmatic space; advanced Western democracies.

What is immediately obvious is that not the entire space of conceivable positions is filled with parties. There is some correlation among 3G positions, but it is stronger between G2 and G3 than G1 and either G2 or G3. Nevertheless, there are distinctive spaces with clusters reflecting the eight party families listed in Table 1, while the voids are in the areas with configurations listed in Table 2. For example, there are really no parties that would combine a highly redistributive G1 greed position with authoritarian G2 grid and exclusionary G3 group positions.

The usefulness of constructing party families through 3G positions may show up in distinctive voter profiles associated with party families. Party families rally distinctive sociodemographic and political-economic electoral support coalitions. Against the rich backdrop of survey research about parties’ sociodemographic support profiles, consider Table 3 as a simple, roundabout generalization about likely patterns of support for various party families encountered across postindustrial democracies. Two variables take precedence—education and occupation. In postindustrial democracies, highly educated citizens tend to oppose redistribution but support libertarian governance and inclusive conceptions of citizenship, while citizens with less education tend to endorse economic redistribution, more authoritarian governance, and more selective, exclusionary conceptions of citizenship.

In more specific occupational terms, within the low-education camp, there is a sharp divide over the G1 dimension of economic redistribution between manual and clerical wage earners on one side and small independent business owners on the other. Both groups, however, exhibit similar dispositions toward embracing more authoritarian political governance and more exclusionary concepts of citizenship. Likewise, the category of the highly educated is divided over policy preferences according to differences in occupational experience and training. High skilled individuals employed in sociocultural professions tend to be more receptive to redistributive policy principles (G1), libertarian governance (G2), and inclusive citizenship (G3).

Table 3. Sociodemographic Profile of Party Families in Early 21st-Century Postindustrialism

Education: Low

Intermediate Levels of Education and Professional Skill

Education: High

Partisan Interest-Group Linkage

Manual and Clerical Wage Labor

Independent Small Business Owners

Sociocultural Professions

Business-Finance-Technology Professions

Postcommunist Left






Public-interest groups

Social Democrats




Labor unions

Radical Libertarians




Cross-Class National Rally




Religious and business associations

Market Liberals




Professions, business associations





Churches and professions

Radical Right




The main message of Table 3 is that each party family has a somewhat different profile of electoral support, but no party can claim anything approaching monopoly representation of a socioeconomic category. Postcommunists, social democrats, and radical-right parties fight over the support of low-skilled white- and blue-collar wage earners. The petty bourgeoisie is spread out over market liberal, cross-class, conservative, and radical right parties. Sociocultural professionals prefer left-libertarian or radical-libertarian parties but are not averse to the postcommunist left or social democracy. Finally, the business-finance-technical category divides its political affections between radical libertarians, market liberals, cross-class parties, and conservatives. The table also includes a residual “middle mass” of semiprofessionals and intermediate-level general managerial and administrative salariat that still overproportionally may opt for the old inclusive parties of the center-left (social democracy) and the center-right (cross-class parties).

The analytical usefulness of the concept of party family would gain credibility if families were associated not only with differential sociodemographic support coalitions, but also with differential public policy outputs, contingent upon the parties’ relative electoral strength, legislative bargaining power, and inclusion in legislative majorities, government cabinets, or both. The political economy and public policy literature certainly recognizes the obvious constraints on partisan policymaking set by labor-saving technological changes, demographic transitions, and global trade and migration in postindustrial democracies. Nevertheless, there is substantial empirical evidence that responsible partisan governance continues to play a role, whether in the case of bread-and-butter issues of social insurance and social investment policies or a variety of other policy areas (e.g., Naurin, Royed, & Thomson, forthcoming; Wenzelburger, 2015). Demographic and international conditions exercise pressure on welfare states to cut social policy entitlements, but the way that these policies are devised and implemented depends very much on partisan government (cf. Van Kersbergen & Vis, 2014; Huber & Stephens, 2015).

To highlight one specific example, the emergence of left-libertarian and radical-right parties has given rise to novel trajectories of social policy reform. Left-libertarian politics has made possible the inclusion of social insurance claims by non-full-time workers in social policy reform (cf. Häusermann, 2010; Gingrich & Häusermann, 2015). Conversely, where radical-right parties gain policy-bargaining power, evidence is mounting that they influence the restriction of means-tested income support programs, such as social assistance and unemployment benefits that radical-right supporters blame for overproportionally benefiting immigrants. The rise of radical right parties, however, has not negatively affected benefit schemes that overwhelmingly accrue to the native population, such as pensions and health care (Arndt, 2016).

Overall, then, an analytical classification of party families still may be theoretically useful to explain the democratic politics of postindustrial societies. Distinct electoral constituencies promote different party families (upstream causality), although the precise conditions and strength of such families depend not just on sociological demand-side factors, but also supply-side conditions of political institutions and parties’ strategies of competition. The political leverage of party families, in turn, is one factor shaping public policy outputs and outcomes (downstream causality).

Not all eight party families that are plausible in postindustrial democracies actually will empirically appear and/or be equally strong in electoral terms, even in polities with similar political-economic parameters. Here, supply-side factors and the agency of political strategists play decisive roles. For one thing, institutional arrangements—such as electoral laws—facilitate or restrict the differentiation of the party spectrum (see Cox, 1997). Certainly, first-past-the-post plurality-formula, single-member-district systems restrict the number of parties that appear. Instead, they may displace differentiation of the party spectrum into the restricted existing spectrum of parties, where it shows up as factionalism and internal divides. Who would dare to assign party family status to the U.S. Republicans in the new millennium? They have incorporated radical right wing, conservative, right-libertarian, and center-right elements, all of which fight each other, with radical right and right-libertarian currently dominant at this time.

In addition to institutions, the strategic history of party interaction and the reputations that parties and their leaders acquire matter to opportunities faced by political entrepreneurs to build new parties. The actual differentiation of the party spectrum is thus a matter of historical contingency and varies by countries, if not by subnational jurisdictions. Nevertheless, certain broad, general tendencies assert themselves over the course of a generation or two: Almost everywhere, Christian Democrats have shrunk dramatically, and social democrats moderately to dramatically. And there are few postindustrial polities remaining without electorally significant left-libertarian and right-authoritarian parties, even though their combined share rarely ever exceeds one-fifth to one-quarter of the electorate.

Strategic Shifts Into and Out of Party Families

Parties may run under the same label, but their generative 3G mechanisms of policy positions may place in one party family at time t, yet in another family at time t + 1. Some of these shifts may happen in the formative stages of political parties, as they are still searching for a stable match between programmatic appeal and a reliable electoral constituency, as well as through institutionalization of intraparty coalitions beyond the formative dominant coalition (Panebianco, 1988). More interestingly, these shifts may occur long after parties have established brand names and reputations within a party family if its major electoral constituency erodes in size, forcing a party to attract new voter groups with an altered programmatic appeal. Empirically, it is difficult to determine exactly when a party shifts out of one party family and enters another. Of course, voter uncertainty about a party’s message may not be entirely unwelcome, actually allowing the party to attract more support, as ambiguity allows voters to project their own favorite positions to be those of the party (Somer-Topcu, 2015).

For new parties searching for a stable party family appeal, consider the trial-and-error process of left-libertarian and radical right parties. A number of Green parties initially refused to position themselves with regard to distributive policy principles (G1) and declared that they were neither “left” nor “right,” but “up front.” But as the example of the French Ecologists in the 1970s and the Swedish Miljöpartiet in the early 1990s showed, the parties could not thrive electorally without adopting a leftist position in favor of economic redistribution.

Also, radical-right parties underwent an evolution of their generic programmatic principles. In the 1970s and 1980s, when large portions of working-class voters remained unavailable to other than social democratic parties, radical-right parties began to thrive on neoliberal market principles (G1) that pleased their growing constituency of small, self-employed business owners averse to taxation and regulation. To be sure, the parties already drew on a modicum of working-class support with appeals to authoritarian governance (G2) and xenophobia (G3) (Kitschelt & McGann, 1995). But by the 1990s, when deindustrialization, rising blue-collar unemployment, and declining unionization made more workers available to the appeals of radical-right parties, they changed their perspective on the distributive (G1) dimension to embrace a “welfare chauvinist” defense of social protection for native citizens (De Lange, 2007; Rydgren, 2013).

For an example of established parties that are exposed to pressures to change their appeal beyond what the ideological parameters of the established party family would anticipate, consider Christian religious parties in Europe. Up to the 1960s, such parties clearly distinguished themselves from secular, center-right party families by a strongly authoritarian-traditionalist religious profile on the G2-governance dimension, demanding public prerogatives and finance for church-run schools, church control over marriage and divorce, and restrictive laws on questions of abortion or the legal recognition of homosexuality. In a sense, Christian confessional parties already had begun to lose their programmatic distinctiveness, where they converted into ecumenical Catholic-Protestant joint projects (e.g., Germany in the 1940s or the Netherlands in the 1970s). But with their defeats on struggles over the school question, marriage and divorce, and the imploding flock of churchgoing faithful, the Christian Democratic political agenda eroded and sustained only pale residues of cultural traditionalism, often no longer wedded to a genuinely Christian agenda. In the new millennium, Christian Democratic parties had not only shrunk electorally, but also joined a family of generic center-right parties without a distinctly religious agenda.

A similar fate may befall social democratic parties. As their erstwhile core blue-collar, manual labor, working-class electorates have shrunk as a share of the labor force and social democratic electorate, vote-seeking social democratic politicians may rather appeal to sociocultural professionals and intermediate skill/managerial white-collar people. What is left of working-class voters, then, may choose to move on to new and smaller socialist/postcommunist parties that reclaim the ancient 3G social democratic programmatic formulas. Other working-class voters may embrace radical-right parties that are more congenial to their orientations on authoritarian governance and exclusionary citizenship/immigration policies, even if such parties are only meekly gesturing toward their working-class constituency’s redistributive economic preferences.

Overall, then, empirical party brands may not always be associated with the same analytical party family, as a party may alter its programmatic appeals and electoral support coalition without changing its brand name. This may occur both in the initial stage of party formation and in later episodes of strategic change, as parties’ existing electoral base weakens or is invaded by political competitors.

Beyond Programmatic Party Families?

Most empirical political parties in competitive democracies around the world do not lend themselves to classification under the rubric of party families because they lack the kind of programmatic crystallization that would enable observers to assign them to a distinctive family. Programmatic parties that qualify for party family classification tend to appear mostly in contemporary, postindustrial democracies and some middle-income countries of central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia.8 Beyond advanced democracies, it is primarily parties of the socialist left that meet party family criteria.

The final section of this article provides an incomplete inventory of the types of parties that do not meet party family criteria. Parties may emphasize other than programmatic linkage strategies to citizens, mostly in party systems where structural conditions make it difficult to develop programmatic appeals (described in the section entitled “Parties with Weak Programmatic Linkages”). Parties may be situated in party systems with competitors belonging to party families, but strategically evade family membership (see the section entitled “Programmatic Parties Evading Party Family Conceptualization”). Scholars may use what are seemingly party family concepts for parties that may or may not belong to a family (see the section entitled “Seemingly Programmatic Party Families: Populist and Ethnocultural Parties”).

Parties With Weak Programmatic Linkages

Programmatic partisan competition requires rather sophisticated communication between politicians and at least a minority of information-processing voters. Since most citizens process preciously little political information, this requires a great deal of time and repetition for parties to spread their signals and develop a reputation for policy commitments, political socialization of citizens, social networks of political communication, and cognitive capacities on the part of the electoral recipients. Competition among programmatic party families, therefore, requires time, resources, institutions, and experiential preparation that is absent in many polities around the world. Short of that, politicians tend to settle for personalistic/dynastic and/or clientelistic political parties.

Personalistic and Dynastic Parties

Kinship ties and webs of personal networks with friends and business acquaintances are the stuff that creates bonds between aspiring political leaders and their supporters, particularly when new parties take off. Unique leadership qualities may augment the chances of success, but what is regarded as leadership charisma is often endogenous to the situation and the constituency that is mobilized. Dynastic kinship party organization helps to institutionalize personalistic partisan appeal over time. Most important, however, personalistic leadership will endure over time only if it supplements affective networks with tangible, targeted material resource provision to party followers.

Clientelistic Parties

Electoral clientelism involves an exchange between politicians running for election (patrons) and constituencies advancing leaders’ political fortunes by contributing finance, labor, and votes (clients). Clients receive material or symbolic benefits from patrons in exchange for their services. This may occur in decentralized, dyadic patron-client relationships or in large, encompassing clientelistic party machines. Both solve problems of monitoring and contract enforcement in different ways. To a large extent, a clientelistic exchange is not spot-market vote buying, but rather a relational exchange that is iterative and durable, thus reducing patron and client opportunistic defection (cf. Kitschelt & Wilkinson, 2007; Hicken, 2011; Nichter, 2014).

In some instances, programmatic parties that have clear party family memberships deploy clientelistic linkages as well, thus becoming “diversified linkage parties” (Kitschelt & Singer, 2016). Historically, this applies to a number of Christian-religious parties, and even some socialist parties (such as the Austrian Socialist Party) as well as various conservative parties. A contemporary example would be the conservative Muslim ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP).

Clientelistic and programmatic linkage strategies are often depicted as zero-sum alternatives, but many parties combine both linkage strategies (i.e., diversified linkage parties). As a consequence, some programmatic parties that can be affiliated with party families also cultivate strong clientelistic networks. Historically, this applies to some Christian confessional parties and even some social democratic working-class parties in Western Europe. Also, in contemporary, middle-income countries with a history of electoral partisan competition, parties that can be affiliated with programmatic party families often rely on clientelistic exchange as well. This applies, for example, to some communist successor parties in Eastern Europe and religious parties such as the AKP.

Programmatic Parties Evading Party Family Conceptualization

After World War II, scholars of advanced Western democracies noticed that some parties refused to qualify for party family membership or deliberately dropped out of families to maximize their vote. Three types of strategies have been particularly important: catch-all, cartel, and niche parties.

Catch-All Parties

Kirchheimer’s (1966) famous notion of catch-all parties depicts parties that abandon programmatic profiles to maximize their vote shares by adjusting their appeal to whatever mass public opinion of the moment is most promising, but this strategy essentially relinquishes any grasp of the fundamental conflicts that divide citizens in democratic polities. It is unclear, however, how many parties in industrial and postindustrial democracies ever became catch-all parties in the sense of appealing to amorphous and ever-changing constituencies. If anything, the trend has been toward more specific “boutique” rather than “department store” kinds of parties, with more fine-grained, distinctive political appeals.

Cartel Parties

Katz and Mair (1995) present cartel parties as the logical successor of catch-all parties. Here, politicians of different parties converge in vague appeals, abandoning programmatic contours in favor of valence appeals to competence and effectiveness to govern, and colluding to prevent voters from defecting to programmatically distinctive parties. Public party finance is said to insulate parties’ from voters’ wrath, and exogenous constraints on policymaking (globalization, European integration, etc.) are excuses that politicians deploy to evade accountability to voters’ preferences.

All these claims are debatable, however. Parties may have not detached their appeals from voter preferences; they lose votes when they do not represent voters on salient issue dimensions; and there is room for maneuvering, such that parties of different family stripes deal with exogenous constraints (globalization, economic and social change induced by technology and demographics) in ways that have different implications for economic distribution, political governance, and citizenship in the democratic polity.

Niche Parties

Scholars have used the concept of the niche party with three separate and empirically almost uncorrelated meanings. First, it denotes extreme parties on one or more issue dimensions (or on an issue-neutral left-right superdimension). Second, a niche party emphasizes noneconomic policy dimensions. Third, party nicheness—a continuous variable—is a measure of divergence of the average salience that all parties in a polity attribute to a range of issues from the profile of salience exhibited by the focal party (Meyer & Miller, 2015).

Niche parties defy party family membership in any of the familiar family categories only if they refuse to take positions on dimensions. Such nicheness may have an advantage for a new party, in that it can focus on salient, but unrepresented issue positions while evading taking positions on other issue dimensions where established parties have staked out positions. But nicheness is hard to maintain in a system of competition that involves territorial representation. Legislators cannot restrict the issue agenda to their parties’ favorite subjects. The parliamentary budget process highlights the interconnectedness of issues. Hence, with party age, size, and possibly government status, parties move from niche status to general programmatic status, but never in the opposite direction (cf. Meyer & Wagner, 2013). Whether niche parties are anything but a transitional form for emerging parties remains an open question. In highly fragmented systems, such as those of the European low countries and Scandinavia, it well may be possible that some niche parties survive.

Seemingly Programmatic Party Families: Populist and Ethnocultural Parties

Populist and ethnocultural identity appeals target electoral constituencies through specific rhetorical frames. But they may be compatible with diverse programmatic party content, understood in 3G terms (citizenship, governance, and distribution). While populist and ethnocultural identity parties do not constitute distinctive party family categories, specific programmatic party families may adopt populist or ethnocultural frames.

Populist Parties

Populism does not embody a substantive program to reorganize society. Rather, it depicts politics as a conflict between a morally decent but socially aggrieved and/or economically deprived and exploited “people” and a self-serving, corrupt, morally decadent, and exploitative “elite,” composed of politicians, business, and cultural opinion-makers (Singer, 2018). It offers a “thin-centered” ideology (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017, p. 6; Müller, 2016) or just an organizational mode and style of political mobilization (Weyland, 2001). Politics, then, is a zero-sum struggle to wrest power away from the elite, a quantitatively small, but resourceful group, and empower the political tribunes of the people. For populists, the people is not simply the numerical aggregate of all nonelite citizens, but a morally dignified bedrock of society whose life chances and aspirations are said to have been thwarted and perverted by the elites.

As a struggle between elites and masses, populist rhetoric can serve parties belonging to many family strands. Left-socialists and communists often have deployed populist rhetoric, as have peasant parties and the contemporary radical right. Populism is an attribute to characterize the tactical style and framing used by diverse party families, not a party family by itself. The populist appeal may predispose parties to take an authoritarian stance on governance issues (G2), particularly when it comes to due process, the rule of law, and civil liberties, but it is compatible with all sorts of conceivable positions on economic distribution (G1) and citizenship (G3).

Ethnocultural Parties

These parties use ascriptive markers (e.g., race, ethnicity, language, region, or cultural/religious practice) to identify a social group in whose names political leaders make claims. But these ascriptive markers are too thin to base a single party family upon, as ethnic identities are compatible with a diversity of programmatic principles. Ethnic groups may favor redistributive or market liberal economic principles, contingent upon the economic leverage of their constituency in an ethnic division of labor. Likewise, they may favor libertarian or authoritarian governance or inclusive or exclusive citizenship, depending on the multiethnic configuration in which they find themselves. Often enough, ethnic parties may develop no set of policy positions beyond a vague assurance of support for coethnic causes. Where ethnic networks are strong, and where there is a stark, interethnic economic inequality, ethnocultural parties in fact experience an almost irresistible lure to organize support through clientelistic linkages (Kolev & Wang, 2014). For all these reasons, it is conceptually misleading to conceive of ethnocultural or ethnic parties as a party family.


This article has argued for a narrow, austere conceptualization of party families based on a party’s programmatic appeals over a range of generative normative principles that allow parties to choose policy positions. This definition removes most parties around the world that operate with personalistic-kinship, clientelistic linkage mechanisms, or both out of consideration as members of partisan families. But it also puts into sharp relief the idea that even in advanced postindustrial democracies, the concept of party family may be applicable only to a subset of empirically observable parties.

A narrow definition of party family, however, has analytical advantages. For one thing, it compels observers to be specific when describing party families and determining which empirical parties belong to the family now and at some historical reference in time. It creates an analytical language to characterize the change and turnover of political parties in postindustrial democracies over the past several generations. And it takes away the option to talk about broad and amorphous baskets, such as populist or ethnic parties as party families.

For another thing, a restrictive definition of party families brings into focus the possible presence of parties that no longer programmatically bundle policy positions into family configurations, but rather operate as niche or even catch-all parties beyond the boundaries of conventional family party language. While most parties in postindustrial democracies still can be conceptually associated with a party family, a further fragmentation of the spectrum of parties, particularly in northern Europe, may alter this state of affairs.


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                                                                                                                            (1.) On the conceptualization of parties as simultaneous solutions to collective action and social choice problems, see Aldrich (2011). Empirically, of course, parties may do one without the other.

                                                                                                                            (2.) On partisan family politics and the welfare state, see Wilensky (1975), Korpi (1983), and the magisterial Esping-Andersen (1990).

                                                                                                                            (3.) For empirical evidence of the stickiness of such configurations in the industrial era, see Bartolini and Mair (1990).

                                                                                                                            (4.) This applies, for example, to the prominent multidimensional proposals advanced by Schwartz (e.g., Schwartz, 1992; Schwartz et al., 2014) and Haidt (2012).

                                                                                                                            (5.) The “grid/group” language is explicitly adopted from the anthropologist/political science team of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky (1982), which was further developed by Thompson, Ellis, and Wildavsky (1990). However, it is presented here with the supplement of a “greed” (distributive) dimension. Thompson et al. (1990), in fact, thought that they could derive distributive positions from grid/group positions alone.

                                                                                                                            (6.) Note that spatial left-right assignments are made here by policy dimension separately, and a party’s spatial position on one dimension does not necessarily predict its position on other dimensions. This may be different from the summary left-right spatial locations discussed in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia article “Left-Right Orientations and Voting Choice” by Willy Jou and Russell Dalton. These unidimensional left-right orientations attributed to parties may result from a summary assessment of a party over all relevant programmatic policy dimensions, with weights for each dimension varying across voters, parties, countries, and political eras.

                                                                                                                            (7.) High standard deviations would indicate programmatic diffuseness of the parties. This is reasonably limited among parties in advanced postindustrial countries, but it is much greater elsewhere. Only a minority of 370 parties in developing countries scored in DALP reaches even modest levels of programmatic structuration (see Kitschelt & Freeze, 2010).

                                                                                                                            (8.) Measures of programmatic party structuration can be derived for more than 500 parties in 88 democracies from the Democratic Accountability and Linkages Project data set. The measures of Kitschelt and Freeze (2010) are continuous, so a cutoff is arbitrary. But the regional concentration of programmatic parties is evident. See also Kitschelt, Hawkins, Luna, Rosas, and Zechmeister (2010) for a more detailed study of the sharp differences among Latin American party systems that make most parties difficult, if not impossible, to assign to families.