The Changing Nature of Political Party Membership
Abstract and Keywords
Party membership has long been an important channel for political participation in many countries. Strong membership organizations have helped parties win elections and stay connected with voters between elections, and membership opportunities have helped to mobilize some citizens who might otherwise have stayed out of politics. Yet in the last quarter-century, long-established political parties in parliamentary democracies have, with a few notable exceptions, experienced sharp enrollment declines, while newer parties have developed modest memberships at best. This has led many observers to question the continued viability of membership-based political parties.
However, that is not the whole story. While some signs point to the obsolescence of party membership, there are other indications that parties are trying to reinvent the form, whether as a passport to individual political empowerment or as a pathway to digital citizenship. Most strikingly, many parties are experimenting with new procedures that give members a direct say in important party decisions. In this sense, the paradoxical story of party membership in the early 21st century is one of numerical decline accompanied by a possible increase in political relevance.
In many democracies, parties’ membership organizations traditionally have served as two-way linkage mechanisms, strengthening the ties between party officeholders and the citizens who support them. These membership organizations have been particularly valuable at election times, helping parties reach and mobilize supporters in ways that go beyond impersonal media messages. In turn, political parties’ voluntary organizations can stimulate individual political participation, including by some citizens who might otherwise be less engaged with politics.
Political parties have adopted a variety of approaches to membership-based organizing, ranging from informal to highly regimented. Parties in parliamentary democracies traditionally congregated toward the more structured end of this spectrum, whereas there was much more variation among parties in presidential democracies. By the second half of the 20th century, most parties in Western parliamentary democracies had formal membership criteria and statutorily recognized popular membership organizations. Supporters paid dues to join and, in some cases, had to pass other tests as well. Membership dues were an important revenue source for some parties. In many of these parties, delegates from local party branches met regularly in national party congresses that had formal responsibility for important party decisions, such as selecting the executive leadership or ratifying the parties’ electoral programs. Some countries adopted laws that required legally recognized parties to have a minimum number of members, or that required parties to give party members a say in party affairs. In all these senses, membership-based party organizing became the norm for parliamentary democracies in the second half of the 20th century.
Yet by the beginning of the 21st century, the future of this model seemed increasingly uncertain, primarily because citizens were turning away from traditional forms of partisan activity. Today party membership numbers in established parliamentary democracies are in the third decade of a slow and steady aggregate decline. “Going, Going, Gone?” is the title of one much-cited article that documents this decline (van Biezen, Mair, & Poguntke, 2012). Journalists looked at the same numbers and echoed the refrain (e.g., Nardelli, 2014, writing in the U.K. Guardian newspaper). However, other developments hint that the story is more complex than mere decline. For instance, less than a year after that newspaper article, party membership numbers in the U.K. showed an unprecedented—and unexpected—upsurge. The U.K. Greens and Scottish Nationalist Party hit new membership highs, and Labour Party membership reached new highs for the 21st century (Keen, 2015). In recent years, some established parties in other countries have witnessed similar surges in membership, with the change often sparked by elections or leadership selection events. Moreover, some new parties successfully established at least modest membership bases, and membership remained relatively strong in a few countries (most notably Austria). In short, while some signs point to the obsolescence of membership-based party organizing in the countries where this model once flourished, there are other indications that the institution of party membership may be experiencing at least a limited revival. Some of this may be due to parties’ efforts to reinvent the form, whether as a passport to political empowerment or as a pathway to digital citizenship. In this sense, the paradoxical story of party membership in established democracies is one of numerical decline accompanied by a possible increase in political relevance.
In newer democracies, situations are somewhat different. For instance, many new parties in post-communist countries adopted loose and personalistic styles, and presented themselves as “movements” rather than as parties, purposely distancing themselves from the membership-based and very hierarchical communist parties. Yet while such anti-organizational rhetoric may have been popular, even in this region, parties have reaped electoral benefits from having relatively strong grassroots organizations (Tavits, 2012; Gherghina, 2014). In some East Asian democracies (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan), parties may have statutes that echo the membership-based forms of European parties, but in practice, members play only a minor role in their funding or internal affairs (Hellmann, 2011). In many Latin American democracies, party membership organizations are weaker or even nonexistent, but informal grassroots networks sometimes provide strong support for these parties’ campaigns and help to mobilize and organize partisan participation by individuals who belong to groups that play partisan roles, but are not formally affiliated with any party (Friedenberg & Levitsky, 2006). In short, party membership is a feature of partisan organization across established and newer democracies, but parties vary widely in terms of how and how well they organize these memberships, and in terms of the importance of party membership compared with parties’ other organizational resources.
This chapter explores these differences and changes in the construction of party membership in both parliamentary and presidential democracies, and in established and developing democracies. It then investigates who joins contemporary political parties, and what motivates them. Finally, it considers the evidence about how party members make a difference in politics, whether by influencing election outcomes or the substance of what is decided in those elections.
Varieties of Party Membership
One challenge in studying party membership is that the term itself can mean many things. For instance, there is a fundamental difference between membership as an identity and membership as an organizational category. In the latter sense, the one that is emphasized in this article, membership is a formal status within a party’s voluntary organization. Individuals must actively acquire this status (for instance, by applying for membership and paying dues). This type of membership differs from the idea of membership as a psychological identity, one that is closely linked to party loyalty or party voting (see “Party Identification and Its Implications” by Russ Dalton in ORE Politics).
Somewhere on the boundary between these two notions of membership is the idea of party primary election participation as a form of party membership. This border can be especially fuzzy when parties conduct “open” primaries, ones that invite nonmembers to participate in candidate selection processes. The distinction can also be obscured when membership registration for party primaries is conducted by public authorities, not by the parties themselves. In addition, the notion of membership may be further complicated when parties recognize multiple types of affiliation, including collective membership (parties affiliate members of a legally separate organization, such as a trade union) and auxiliary membership (parties count individuals as party members if they join partisan sub-organizations, such as farmers’ organizations) (Heidar, 2006, p. 302).
Even when looking exclusively at parties’ formal rules for organizational membership, we find wide differences in what individuals need to do to enroll, what privileges the parties grant to their members, and what they expect from those who join. These different approaches to membership are likely to affect the types of people who are recruited, and the extent to which members contribute to parties’ electoral success (Scarrow, 2015; Gauja, 2015). The roles that parties ascribe to their members can be roughly divided into five categories: adherents, fans, community members, stakeholders, and consumers. Although these categories are not comprehensive, they do cover a wide range of constructions of party membership. Each category has distinct assumptions about the proper roles of members within their parties, and about the relationship between members and other party supporters. As Table 1 shows, each of these membership modes is associated with one or more classic party types.
Table 1. Roles for Party Members.
Party Members’ Roles
Relation between Party Members and Party Identity
Characteristics of Membership Rules
None: Party aims are defined by ideology.
Exclusive membership. Members must pass ideological tests.
None: Party defined by the leader’s political vision or by the social order embodied by its leaders.
Loose membership rules.
Limited: Party represents the interests of a defined group.
Membership (if any) primarily for cleavage group members. Members may be vetted prior to joining.
Strong: Party is a club representing members’ interests.
Well-defined membership rules.
Strong: Having democratic internal processes is an important part of the party’s identity.
Membership rules balance boosting participation and protecting party brand.
Limited: Party represents political consumers (i.e., all voters).
Expansive membership boundaries.
Source: Based on table 2.1 in Scarrow (2015).
Ideological parties tend to view members as adherents. They restrict membership to those who accept the ideology, and they expect members to show loyalty to those who are authorized to interpret the ideology. In the 1960s, the French and Italian communist parties followed this pattern; parties of this sort are quite rare in contemporary democracies.
Personalistic parties and parties of notables do not necessarily recruit formal memberships, but if they do, they tend to treat their members as fans. Fans are members who join an organization (party, football club, rock star fan group, etc.) to show their enthusiasm for the product and join with others who share their passion. Such political parties (like football clubs) have less need to impose ideological tests for members, or to tightly control who joins, because they do not grant member fans de facto control over the organization. Examples include the Italian People of Freedom party (associated with Silvio Berlusconi) and the French National Front (now associated with Marine Le Pen, and before that associated with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.)
Cleavage-based mass parties, like ideological parties, have a stated purpose: the welfare of a particular group. These general tenets are not open to question, though there may be fierce debates about how to realize specific aims. Mass parties use party membership as a vehicle for reinforcing group identity and socialize party members into a political community. Group-based parties generally give members or their delegates a role in party decision-making, but they also reserve the right to expel members who are accused of subverting the party from its fundamental aims. European Social Democratic parties were formed in this tradition.
In contrast, subscriber democracy parties are member-created clubs. Their purposes are defined by the founding members, but current members have the right to modify these goals. Subscriber democracy parties treat members as stakeholders and give them individual representation rights within the party. In classic subscriber democracy parties, most of that representation occurs through delegates participating in regional and national conferences. In turn, these parties proudly portray members’ participation as a source of legitimacy for their decisions. This model was first taken up by European liberal parties in the 19th century, but member-based government through delegate conference was a structure that was widely adopted by other parties in parliamentary democracies. Similarly, political process parties treat members as stakeholders, but these parties put a higher premium on members’ direct participation in party decision-making. At least at the local level, they are more likely to make decisions in town-hall-style assemblies or in internet forums open to all members. Green parties developed in this mode, emphasizing what the German Greens dubbed “basis” democracy. In order to encourage wide participation, such parties sometimes make membership relatively easy to acquire.
Finally, political market parties also treat their members as fans. In contrast to the situation in personalistic parties, however, these parties may grant their member fans important decision-making rights in hopes that fan participation will boost the appeal of the party product. In addition, they may also grant such rights to nonmembers (in contrast to parties that view party members as privileged stakeholders). Political market parties view their voters and potential voters as the main sources of their legitimacy. Because of this, they may attempt to boost their electoral support by inviting nonmembers to share in some of the rights that party members traditionally enjoy, such as allowing them to vote in party primaries. Political parties in the United States exemplify this approach to political organizing, one in which membership formalities are much less important than active contributions to party success, be that participation in a primary election, campaigning, or donating to party candidates.
Of course, the real world is messier than these simple categories suggest. However, these distinctions help to highlight some salient differences in how parties approach membership. They also make clear that even in two parties with very similar rules for membership, joining can have very different implications. Moreover, ideas about members’ roles evolve within a single party over time. For instance, many parties that originated in cleavage conflicts, and that once viewed party membership in terms of group solidarity, have been moving toward a more electoral market approach to political competition. Some parties with stakeholder views of membership have moved in this direction as well.
One sign of change in parties’ approaches to members is that they have been experimenting with new categories of partisan affiliation (registered supporters, party friends, etc.). These are forms of membership “lite,” whose bonds are easier to acquire and are meant to appeal to more casual supporters. Many parties now offer multiple affiliation options, both traditional and “lite” membership, as well as options to sign up to receive electronic communications from the party and its leader and to contribute to online chat rooms and party-sponsored online surveys. Parties encourage supporters to take advantage of an array of partisan connections, both online and in person. In this sense, parties are becoming multispeed membership organizations, with multiple ways for individuals to link to their party.
A main message to take from the above distinctions is that the story of party membership change cannot be told by looking solely at enrollment numbers. In fact, the apparent irony of party membership is that party enrollments have been shrinking at precisely the same time when members of some parties have been gaining more direct roles in determining their parties’ political identities. The following sections explore both sides of this shift.
Party Membership by the Numbers
One way to judge the importance of party membership is by asking how many people join. There are two main ways to answer this question: by looking at enrollment figures maintained by the parties, and by looking at evidence from public opinion polls. Both methods have limitations. For example, party statistics are non-uniform, because parties make different decisions about who counts as a member (e.g., when does unpaid membership lapse?). They have good reasons to use counting methods that overstate enrollment, because party membership growth or decline can be interpreted as an indicator of party popularity. This wishful-thinking bias was probably most prevalent in earlier eras, before parties used centralized electronic membership registries. Indeed, longitudinal enrollment figures often show drops when parties start keeping more accurate records, or when they redefine whether affiliated members or auxiliary members are included in the party membership figures. Moreover, some parties may fail to disclose any membership numbers, leaving big gaps in the data.
One way to get around the inconsistencies in party-reported membership data is to use public opinion surveys. These provide a uniform measure of self-reported party membership. Knowing how many citizens consider themselves to be party members may be more important than knowing what the parties report, particularly if we want to examine the links between membership and individual behaviors and attitudes. This value remains even though surveys have their own measurement problems, namely, that they seem to over-report membership in much the same way that surveys over-report voter turnout. Self-reported membership is almost always slightly higher than party-reported membership, but the difference is consistently modest.
Even if both counting methods have shortcomings, when we are able to compare both types of longitudinal data for specific parties, they tell largely the same stories (van Biezen et al., 2012). In the case of parties in established democracies, they show enrollment decline starting in the 1980s or 1990s. Parties that used to boast about their large memberships now enlist only a small portion of their electorates. Figure 1 shows these numbers for countries in the 2010 European Social Survey (ESS), reporting responses to a question that asked about party membership during the past year. Only three of the 26 countries had more than 7% of respondents who considered themselves to be party members (namely, Croatia, Cyprus, and Norway); in 15 of the countries this figure was under 4%. This contrasts with figures from earlier eras, when the norm for party membership enrollment was well above 5% of the electorate.
Yet while it is certainly significant to witness such a decline in party enrollment, some other indicators suggest that this decline is not leading to complete obsolescence. Thus, most parties created in these democracies since the 1970s have established membership-based organizations. Moreover, even established parties have not experienced monotonic declines. Some have seen dramatic upticks in membership, often motivated by close electoral contests or specific participation opportunities (such as the U.K. parties cited at the beginning of this article). And some countries that experienced steep declines in membership in the 1980s or 1990s saw their enrollments stabilize in recent years, albeit at much lower levels than before (Kölln, 2016; see Scarrow, 2015, for detailed information on party enrollments).
In the newer democracies of East-Central Europe, the picture is more mixed. Most parties in this region have constituted themselves as membership organizations. Some have built volunteer wings that have real presences at the local level. Nevertheless, small memberships remain the norm. As Figure 1 shows, in 2010, only one post-communist regime had self-reported membership over 5% (Croatia). These low numbers are especially striking given that many countries in this region legally require parties to organize on the basis of formal party membership.
Moving to the broader universe covered by the World Values Survey (WVS), Figure 2 presents self-reported party membership figures for 35 democracies from roughly the same period (including 15 countries also covered by the ESS figures). Whereas the ESS asked respondents about their membership in a political party, the WVS asked respondents whether they were an active party member, an inactive party member, or neither. The different wording generates somewhat different responses. Moreover, given longstanding differences in what party membership means in different countries, respondents probably had different concepts in mind when they answered the questions. For instance, in those of the presidential democracies where parties do not have strong traditions of organizing formal memberships, respondents may have interpreted the membership question as referring to a registration status connected with past or future participation in a party primary. In parliamentary democracies with formal membership-based parties, respondents may have been thinking in terms of dues-paying membership. To partly take into account these differences, Figure 2 denotes presidential democracies with an asterisk and semi-presidential regimes with a plus sign. (In this classification, the semi-presidential label is used for all regimes with a directly elected president.)
At first glance, a striking feature of this figure is that regime type does nothing to explain differences in self-reported membership levels: All three types of regimes are found across the spectrum of party membership density. The U.S. (presidential) and India (parliamentary) memberships are at the high end, with over 40% of respondents describing themselves as either active or inactive party members. Of the bottom 10 countries, five are semi-presidential, two are presidential, and three are parliamentary. Multivariate analysis of WVS data confirms this and identifies a few other factors that seem to affect party enrollments. As we would expect, party membership is systematically lower in former communist countries. It also varies inversely with the effective number of parties: Countries with fewer parties are also likely to have more citizens enrolled as party members. The availability of public funding for parties has no effect (Ponce & Scarrow, 2014). Such figures suggest that party competition and party strategies may play at least as much of a role in explaining organizational differences as do institutional constraints.
Whatever respondents are thinking of when they describe themselves as party members, in every country, the number of inactive members far outstrips the number of active members. In most cases, self-described active members make up no more than 7% of all respondents in the WVS data; in several countries, they are fewer than 3%. Even in the countries with the largest self-reported membership, only 10–20% of respondents call themselves active party members. Cross-national surveys and member-only surveys of specific parties sometimes yield slightly different reports on the true activity levels, but they paint a broadly similar picture of parties in which active members are usually in the minority. These figures reinforce the earlier stories of declining enrollments and/or small memberships in contemporary democracies.
By these measures, it may seem strange to consider party members to be a vital link in processes of representative government. Yet numbers alone do not tell the whole story about party membership. In fact, in some countries, rank-and-file party members have an impact on political outcomes that is quite disproportionate to their numbers. This is particularly true in parties that give party members an exclusive say in important political decisions. As will be shown, party members may also play important roles in other ways as well, not because of their numbers, but because parties find them easier to mobilize than other supporters.
In presenting the other side of the story about party members, this article focuses on findings from established and newer parliamentary democracies. These are the countries in which party membership is most developed as a formal organizational category, and also the ones for which we have the most studies about their motives and impacts. Findings from these countries may also apply to self-identified partisans from countries in which parties do not maintain formalized memberships, and on membership “lite” affiliates in countries where parties also offer more formal membership options, but so far, we do not have much research comparing formal party members with other types of partisan activists.
Party Members and Party Decision-Making
The flip side of the story of limited (and often reduced) party membership numbers is that party members are gaining increasingly important roles in party decision-making. This trend has been apparent in many parliamentary democracies in the past two decades, including in new and established European democracies, and in Canada, Mexico, Israel, Iceland, Taiwan, and Japan (Cross & Blais, 2012; Sandri, Seddone, & Venturino, 2015). While the phenomenon is by no means universal, where such changes have occurred, they have radically altered the formal importance of party members. Most importantly, party members have often received a decisive say in the selection of party leaders or in settling questions about disputed party policies. Although sometimes these ballots present members with little real choice, in at least a few cases, the more inclusive procedures have yielded outcomes that would not have occurred under previous rules. Such events underscore the political implications of parties’ moves toward treating members as stakeholders, not just as fans, and toward linking their identity to the inclusiveness of their internal decision processes. Ironically, this elevation of the importance of party-based participation may be occurring both because of, and despite, the waning membership numbers.
Parties may see several advantages in adopting membership ballots. To begin with, the parties that pioneer their use in each country can portray themselves as being more democratic than their competitors. This argument can be especially attractive for new parties whose appeal rests on their break from traditional politics. Second, established parties may move toward membership ballots in response to waning enrollment, with the aim of giving supporters important reasons to join. Third, certain party elites may advocate the use of membership ballots to boost their own careers, hoping to gain a mandate from members that they might not gain from party conferences or party executives (Cross & Blais, 2012; Chiru et al., 2015). Rules to expand member participation may be very modest, leaving a big role for party elites, but still may represent a potentially meaningful expansion in members’ roles (as, for instance, in Taiwan and Japan; Narita et al., 2015).
Elite efforts to control these processes do not always yield the desired results. For instance, when the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) first used a member primary to select its top candidate in 1998, members endorsed a rival to the party secretary who had supported using a primary ballot (Hopkin, 2001, p. 355). Moreover, parties that adopt more inclusive decision procedures have not always reaped an electoral windfall as a result. Indeed, the more parties include members in their decisions, the less likely it is that any one party will gain a comparative advantage by democratizing their decision processes. Nevertheless, even if individual parties may not gain lasting advantages from this shift, their moves to more inclusive decision-making procedures could boost citizens’ regard for their country’s democratic processes (Shomer et al., 2016; but see Kernell, 2015, for an opposite conclusion).
Whatever their impact on general election results, more inclusive procedures often boost party members’ participation in party affairs. Surveys of party members typically find that fewer than half of party members participate in their party in even a minimal way, such as attending a local party meeting once a year (for instance, van Haute & Gauja, 2015). In contrast, participation in member-only ballots to select party leaders has regularly surpassed 50%, even allowing for a wide variation in participation rules. Participation numbers are especially high in parties that encourage nonmembers to participate. For instance, over 2.8 million members and registered supporters participated in the French Socialist Party’s presidential primary in 2011. This was equivalent to 44% of those who voted for the PS in the previous presidential election (Scarrow, 2015, chapter 8). Other parties have also been experimenting with relatively inclusive primary rules, including the British Labour Party in 2015, the Italian Democratic Party in 2007, and the Canadian Liberal Party in 2013. Most of these parties introduced the open participation rules less than two decades after they transferred voting rights to individual members. The newer development is seemingly at odds with the earlier shift toward membership empowerment. Whereas member-only ballots position party members as privileged stakeholders, opening party ballots to all register supporters means that party members must share important privileges with those who cross much lower registration thresholds.
In short, recent experiments with new decision-making procedures have rapidly elevated the political importance of individual members in many parties. But this situation is still in flux and could be undermined if open primaries become the norm. For the moment, however, the spreading use of membership ballots has increased the incentives for supporters to enroll in parties, and for party activists to recruit like-minded citizens as a way of influencing the outcome of intraparty contests.
Who Joins, and Why?
As is clear, few citizens actually decide to join a political party. Yet those who do may have political influence disproportionate to their numbers. This raises the questions of who joins a political party, and why? Perhaps most important, are party members enough like their fellow citizens to help parties and party officeholders stay in touch with popular preferences?
Research in this area shows that party members (like those who participate in other political activities) are an inexact mirror of the population. They tend to be older, better educated, and more affluent than their fellow citizens; they are also disproportionately male. These patterns hold up over time and across a range of countries and party families, although there are some important cross-party differences in the magnitude of these effects. For instance, while women are almost universally underrepresented among party memberships, there is wide cross-party and cross-national variation in the extent of gender differences (van Haute & Gauja, 2015). Individual resources also play a role in decisions about whether to join a party, as traditional models of political participation lead us to expect. However, most people who have strong personal resources do not join, so resources are not determinative. Indeed, from another perspective, the big puzzle is why so many people join parties at all, given that few will derive strong financial or status benefits from doing so.
The General Incentives model developed by Paul Seyd and Patrick Whiteley answers these puzzles by stressing a broader range of considerations that may motivate membership. For some people, these incentives include the hope of personal advancement in politics, but for many others, the membership decision is more connected with a desire to contribute to group welfare and to make a difference (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002, chapter 2). Many of the growing number of membership surveys directly or indirectly support the main argument of the General Incentives model. They show that party members tend to explain membership decisions in terms of specific political considerations (e.g., defeating a different party or backing a particular policy), or the more general desire to make a political difference. In contrast, studies of younger party members have found a greater share of members who link their participation with more specific incentives, such as personal career considerations (Cross & Young, 2008; Bruter & Harrison, 2009).
How do party members compare to other party supporters in terms of their ideological leanings? This question has particular urgency given the increasing tendency to let party members have the final say in party decisions: Does this trend make it more or less likely that party choices will reflect the preferences of the wider electorate? On the face of it, there is some reason for concern. One longstanding assumption is that a party’s most active nonprofessionals (all party members and especially active party members) are more ideologically motivated than either party candidates or most party voters. This conjecture was neatly summarized by John May as the “Special Law of Curvilinear Disparity” (1973). Studies of U.S. primary elections have probed this assumption, finding that party primary voters tend to be more ideological than those who vote in the general election, while debating whether the inclusiveness of the primary electorate affects the ideological extremeness of the selected candidates (a few recent contributions to this long-running debate include McGhee et al., 2014 and Rogowski & Langella, 2015). Experience in parliamentary parties suggests that party members are not necessarily more extreme than other party supporters on all issues (Norris, 1995; Narud & Skare, 1999; van Holsteyn et al., 2015; Baras et al., 2016), or at least that only a subset of members is more extreme (Kitschelt, 1989; Kennedy et al., 2006). Of course, even if members are more ideologically extreme, they still might behave pragmatically when selecting candidates and leaders. Given the newness of the trend toward member-balloting, we do not yet have much evidence of how this will play out in parties with small memberships, or in parties that allow participation by registered sympathizers, as well as by longer-term members.
As shown, many party members say that they join because they hope to make a difference in politics. This raises questions about how party members help their parties’ achieve political goals, and how much of a difference they can make. The next section investigates these questions.
Party Membership as a Resource for Parties: Campaigns and Beyond
Party members used to constitute a labor force that helped parties win elections. In the current era of televised candidate debates and professionalized campaign staff, how much can party members contribute to their parties’ electoral success? Some have posited a direct tradeoff between labor (volunteers) and capital (professional campaigners): As parties become more reliant on full-time staff and campaign-specific marketing agencies, they have less need for volunteers (Katz & Mair, 1995; Farrell & Webb, 2002).
However, other recent scholarship—and some changes in contemporary campaign practices—suggest that there are limits to these kinds of tradeoffs. Most important, there is evidence that volunteer efforts can still make meaningful contributions even in the context of professionalized campaigns. The boost provided by strong grassroots efforts may be small, but in some electoral contexts, that may be enough to provide a decisive edge (Karp, Banducci, & Bowler, 2008; Tavits, 2012; André & Depauw, 2016). Grassroots campaigners can provide assistance regardless of their membership status; for purposes of campaigning, it is the volunteering that is important, not the membership (Fisher, Fieldhouse, & Cutts, 2014; Mjelde, 2015). Even so, parties may still look primarily to their local membership organizations to provide the core of their volunteer campaigns, because enrolled members are more likely to have prior campaign experience, and because members are much more likely to participate than are other supporters. Thus, evidence suggests that strong local membership organizations can and do still provide valuable campaign support for party candidates.
A second important way that members can contribute to parties’ electoral success is through their financial support. It is easy to overlook members’ financial contributions, which generally provide only a small portion of total party income. In most parliamentary democracies, political parties now receive generous public subsidies to support their political work. These subsidies almost always exceed what a party receives from its members, usually many times over. This clearly diminishes the relative value of members’ small contributions (van Biezen & Kopecký, 2001). However, small is not necessarily the same as irrelevant, and party members’ dues and other donations may provide an important financial cushion. For many parties, members now provide 10–20% of reported party revenues; these contributions are more valuable because of their relative stability from year to year. Moreover, in some countries, party finance laws give parties incentives or requirements to raise some of their funds from small donors, be they party members or otherwise. For instance, small donations clearly matter in Canada and Ireland, which both set low limits on donations per capita, prohibit corporate and trade union donations, and give parties relatively low public subsidies. (In Canada, the amount of these subsidies is directly related to how much the parties can raise in the form of small donations.) They also matter in The Netherlands, where parties must have at least 1,000 members to be eligible for public subsidies, and in Germany, where subsidy formulas reward parties for raising funds from dues and other small contributions. Party members are also more likely than other party supporters to give donations, even when they give these on top of their dues (Ponce & Scarrow, 2011). Thus, while few or no contemporary parties rely on members as their major funding source, some realize nontrivial financial advantages linked to their success in recruiting and retaining members.
Party members can contribute to party success in other ways as well. Importantly, party members serve as a reservoir of potential candidates. Such a reservoir is particularly useful for parties that want to contest myriad local government seats, including ones that are not winnable. Party members are self-identified loyal supporters who may be persuaded to stand as candidates and fly the party banner for the sake of their party’s longer-term success. In locales where parties lack such a reservoir, they may fail to contest seats or may nominate candidates who lack a tested commitment to the party.
More generally, party members can serve their parties by helping to influence the political climate in their workplaces and communities. This can take such forms as individuals acknowledging their party membership in a workplace conversation, or party members posting political messages and links on their social media accounts. Many contemporary political parties actively encourage their members and other connected supporters to act as their online ambassadors. Parties and party leaders set up Twitter and Facebook accounts, and they urge their supporters to rebroadcast these messages. For these purposes, “lite” members can be just as valuable to parties as traditional members, which is one reason that parties have been creating new (and cheaper) forms of membership—parties potentially have much to gain if they gather online contact information for their self-identified supporters and if they can mobilize them to help spread party messages.
Conclusion: Rethinking Party Membership
Party membership once seemed to be a powerful, possibly even essential, component of party competition in many representative democracies. Declining party membership and increasing party professionalization have raised questions about the future prospects for this style of partisan organization. Nevertheless, it is clear that the model is not yet dead; moreover, there are signs that many parties are trying to reinvent it, putting less emphasis on the formality of membership and more stress on informal organizing to mobilize supporters. Some common changes involve removing final decision authority from the electoral party, transferring it to members, or even toward nonmember supporters. Many parties are also supplementing membership with looser affiliation options, ones that may be acquired (and dropped) more spontaneously and that carry fewer obligations. Parties are using new social media to connect with these fans and enlist them in distributing party messages.
These changes raise questions of their own. To begin with, we do not yet understand the connection between the strength of formal grassroots party organizations and party system (in)stability. Grassroots organization is usually viewed as a contributor to the success of individual parties and thus to the institutionalization of party systems (Randall & Svåsand, 2002). Yet new parties can also mobilize grassroots support, and some populist parties have been exceedingly successful mobilizers, at least in the short term. Some have made internet-based forums both their organizational backbone and their organizational message, such as the Pirate Party in Germany and the 5-Star Movement in Italy. While these two parties have enjoyed different levels of electoral success, in both cases, their ability to use the internet to quickly build organizational strength sent a strong signal to other parties, as did the internet fundraising success of popular U.S. presidential candidates such as Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016. Political parties and academic researchers are still trying to figure out the scope and limits of these new forms of grassroots organizing.
A second set of questions involves the direct and indirect effects of using party ballots to make decisions that were once reserved for party conference delegates or for a party’s elected officials and central staff. Where does power go when parties adopt these new decision mechanisms? Parties and others usually describe these changes as “democratizing,” but this can be a misleading label. For one thing, the degree of democracy is not necessarily related to the size of the demos. There are strong normative debates about whether party decisions should be made only by those who have some loyalty to the party (for instance, party members who join weeks or months in advance of the vote) or should be open to all eligible voters (who have rights as citizens, but who have no commitment to any party or its traditions). Other questions about these reforms are more open to empirical investigation. For instance, under what circumstances does “democratization” of party decisions actually consolidate the power of party leaders, who may use the reforms to circumvent middle-level elites (cf. Katz & Mair, 1995)? When do open contests to select party leaders help parties win elections (for instance, by “battle-testing” top candidates), and when do they hurt parties (by amplifying internecine quarrels)? And are quasi-open primaries a vehicle for attracting new participants into partisan politics, or are they more likely to undermine party loyalties by contributing to the personalization of politics? These questions are vital for our understanding of how parties’ internal rules can affect the nature and quality of representative democracy. Given the rapidly spreading use of party ballots, and the great variation in the rules and circumstances surrounding their use, researchers have ample new opportunities to investigate these questions.
In short, the old templates for membership organization are being replaced by new forms, ones that are not yet fully developed, and the implications of which have not yet fully emerged. Party membership still matters, but it may matter in different ways. Future research that looks at both party members and nonmember political activists should help us to understand why membership-based political parties have proven to be a resilient organizational form, and whether this form is likely to persist in old soil or take root in new.
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