Building Blocs
How Parties Organize Society
Edited by Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal




The Structured Creativity of Parties

Cedric de Leon, Manali Desai, and Cihan Tuğal

Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin was an unlikely leader of the Revolution of 1848 in France. His political allegiance shifted with the wind: from the Socialist Party on the left to the right-wing Party of Order. Rollin’s indecision was so complete that it became the stuff of legend. Rollin, or so the story goes, saw a mass of workers marching through the streets of Paris and said, “I am their chief; I must follow them” (Calman 1922, 374). The story, however humorous, advances a serious analytical claim, one reminiscent of the so-called sociological approach to political behavior: that party politicians follow the lead of society and that society, furthermore, is the principal agent of social change.

Though this approach has become more sophisticated over time, its bedrock assumption has remained largely unchanged since the 1940s. Many scholars (and members of the educated public) assume that social cleavages like class and ethnicity best explain “individual vote choice” (that is, why a person votes for one party but not another) and, in turn, the behavior of political parties seeking to mobilize the sum of such choices to their electoral advantage. Thus, parties above all express social divisions in the electorate.

That view is broadly in line with the notion that parties are democratic organizations that represent the will of the electorate. Some critical scholarship, by contrast, envisions parties and indeed politics as a whole as an extension of the state or of the individual careers of politicians. On this account, leaders are thieves or usurpers of popular power. They form an oligarchy that serves only them and other elites and enhances the power of the state. The historical figures that come to mind are leaders like Jospin and Stalin, not Ledru-Rollin.

This book is the result of our growing dissatisfaction with both mainstream and critical approaches because, in our own work, we have found that parties do more than simply reflect social divisions or extend the influence of political leaders and the state. How would our perception of the state and society change, we came to ask, if we took politics as constitutive (rather than derivative) of both? As we pursued this question, we realized that such a perspective had even broader implications for how we understand history, social and political structure, and human action.

This book offers an alternative programmatic statement for a new generation of scholars, one that does not define political parties as the organizational reflection of voters, states, or ambitious politicians but as usually the most influential agencies that structure social cleavages. Parties politicize or “articulate” such divisions to build powerful blocs of supporters in whose name they attempt to remake states and societies. A key assumption of our approach, which we call “political articulation,” is that ethnoreligious, economic, and gender differences, among others, have no natural political valence of their own and thus do not, on their own steam, predispose mass electorates to do anything. Nor do certain kinds of crisis (such as economic) have an elective affinity for certain parties (for example, socialist, fascist, or religious). Whether variation in religious affiliation becomes politically salient in times of war or recession, for instance, depends in part on whether parties articulate it as a matter of contention. Moreover, crises are themselves articulated politically: A war does not become a “quagmire” without it being framed in those terms, and likewise “an economic crisis” may be the result of too much social spending according to some and too little such spending according to others.

By this we are not suggesting that parties articulate social cleavages through rhetoric alone. Nor do we suggest that parties can articulate cleavages at will; as we discuss later, some parties are simply unable to carry out articulation projects, whereas others may experience failure at one time and success at another. Our broad claim is that we cannot understand cleavages without parties.

We define political articulation as the process by which parties “suture” together coherent blocs and cleavages from a disparate set of constituencies and individuals, who, even by virtue of sharing circumstances, may not necessarily share the same political identity. Articulation is both a process and a mechanism of bringing together the constituents of the social through specific tools that we call the “means of articulation.” It is the creative potential of parties that is crucial to understanding the political articulation approach, for though parties have many tools at their disposal, these tools have to prompt individuals to “nominate”1 themselves as members of social groups. Party politics is thus more than just a chess game or, in journalistic parlance, a matter of arithmetic; to succeed at articulation, target constituents must identify, say, as workers and therefore socialist, as Muslims and therefore Islamist, or as ethnic Russians and therefore nationalist. There is nothing automatic about this process of self-identification or about the process by which self-identification builds to bloc or cleavage formation.

It follows that not all attempts at articulation are successful. As Dan Slater discusses in Chapter 4 of this volume, the two major cleavages in Indonesian politics from the 1990s, regime and religious, have been disarticulated, and in the vacuum the major parties have sought to collude in promiscuous power-sharing. Disarticulation occurs when there is a deterioration in the ideological linkages between parties and their social base and a consequent collapse in existing political blocs. Likewise, articulations may be weak—as Manali Desai shows in Chapter 5, the articulations attempted by Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as regional ethnic articulations have been marked by their inability to take hold and become hegemonic. Such articulations are vulnerable to instability and perpetual challenge, blocking any real attempt at the transformation of the political economy toward development. In both cases parties are constrained by factors external to them, but, as we show in this volume, some parties can be very creative in turning existing circumstances into opportunities for transformation.

The “means of articulation” that parties employ in their projects consist of state and nonstate mechanisms that they uniquely possess to politicize social differences that might not otherwise be politically salient. These include rhetoric; public policy; official state and paramilitary violence; co-optation (for example, appointing the head of an insurgent movement to high office or incorporating professional politicians from competing camps via shifts in policy and rhetoric); the provision of social services and infrastructure (as in patronage or public works projects); constitutional rules (for example, granting or changing voting, linguistic, worship, broadcasting, and other rights, or the structure of representation); peace commissions and other civic groups that mediate between different factions of the state, a divided society, and military and paramilitary groups; and electoral mobilization, including the recruitment (and possibly transformation) of powerful civil society organizations (for example, church, union, and newspaper endorsements).2 We will clarify further in the following discussion why many of these means have usually been conceptualized simply (and reductively) as activities of the state.

These means are available primarily to parties, because in both democratic and nondemocratic societies alike parties usually control the system of nominations, appointments, and elections to political office and, as a consequence, control the resources and prerogatives of state power (for example, the right to make war, tax, allocate public moneys). Few other institutions are better positioned to structure social cleavages and usher new social orders into being.

Thus, an emphasis on the socially creative role of parties does not just clarify the relationship between political elites and their constituents. The implications of political articulation are more sweeping than that. As Talcott Parsons once wrote, sociology aims to solve the original “Hobbesian” puzzle, namely, how is social order possible (1951, 36)? Parsons, however, like Emile Durkheim before him, misperceived society as a self-propelling “system” or organism instead of an effect of political articulation, a suturing together of heterogeneous demands, people, and institutions into a seemingly integrated whole (in Parsons’s case, the Cold War Keynesian order). Conversely, we hold that the state of purposelessness and unbridled heterogeneity envisioned by the classical concept of “anomie” obtains in the absence of an articulating agent. In such instances, previously revered (and reified) social categories such as “the common man,” “the welfare state,” and “the nation” threaten to come apart. Undoubtedly, the social is not merely the reflection of the political: We are not interested in replacing one form of reductionism with another. Nevertheless, we propose to examine the partisan sources of social organization, focusing first on the ways in which parties integrate collective identities, coalitions, and institutions into taken-for-granted social orders, and second on the ways in which the social thus constituted threatens to come apart when parties fail to do the work of articulation or when formerly dominant articulations are supplanted by others.

As such, our focus is not on “traditional” parties that orient toward minor questions, the resolution of which tends to maintain the existing social order (for example, “Which of us has the expertise to manage the government?” and “Will we extend conditional cash transfers to the next income bracket that is not covered under the prevailing welfare legislation?”). Rather, our focus here is on what we call “integral” parties that orient to transformational questions (for example, “Shall we prohibit slavery?” and “Are we a secular or a religious society?”).

The distinction between traditional and integral parties requires clarification up front before we delve into greater theoretical detail. First, the term integral does not carry a positive valuation. The parties we examine in this volume are not necessarily or even typically parties whose politics we endorse. We employ this term with a critical edge. Second, one might ask whether integralness is a categorical variable (that is, either a party is integral or it isn’t) or a continuous variable (for instance, 0 = traditional, 1 = somewhat traditional, . . . 6 = integral). For us, integralness is a categorical variable, but integral parties have (a) different capacities for realizing their transformational goals (for example, smaller or larger memberships) and (b) different orientations to transformational questions (for example, immediatist versus gradualist, electoral versus revolutionary). These variations are a function of several factors, including the origins of parties, degrees of monopolization of the political field, the influence of founding intellectuals and thinkers, and degrees of professionalism, among others. Finally, as we stated earlier, integral parties cannot transform social orders at will. Some conditions help bloc building, whereas others hinder it. Success depends on conditions that greatly enhance the ability of parties to take advantage of their unique resources, the means of articulation, whereas failure is caused by conditions that drastically curtail such ability. Parties that seek to employ means of articulation based on state resources may find it difficult to sustain during economic downturns—think of welfare programs, for instance. On the other hand, success for one party may mean failure for another. Thus, economic depressions increase an integral party’s chances of success (especially if it is in the opposition), because the depression badly compromises the incumbent party’s ability to maintain their blocs through, say, tax cuts or patronage. Wars can also cut both ways. A governing party’s access to military power places at its disposal war making as a means of politicizing social divisions such as nationality or religion. On the other hand, depending on the length and conduct of the war, a putative defense of national sovereignty can greatly tax a country’s economy, turn off the spigot of government largesse, and, in turn, undermine the idealistic rhetoric that helped to hold the party’s bloc together.

This last point clarifies the position of parties vis-à-vis the state in our theoretical framework. Broadly speaking, the present volume aligns itself with studies of the state in arguing for the relative autonomy of the political, where politics are not reducible to social relations like competing class interests. Unlike some sociologists of the state, however, we do not see the state as the prime mover of social organization. Nor do we see parties as agents or residues of the state. Instead we envision a more collaborative relationship. For example, if we assume as Carl Schmitt ([1922] 2005) does that the most conspicuous feature of state power is the ability to declare an exception to the rules, then it bears mentioning that a party, once in power, assumes the prerogative to suspend civil liberties and, in an atmosphere of paranoia, further expand their base by ostentatiously routing out an alleged fifth column in their midst. The Nazi Party is the classic example of this, but there are many others, some of them contemporary to our time. Beyond deploying state power, parties may also give coherence and identity to the state. Characterizations such as the “totalitarian,” “nanny,” “socialist,” or “bourgeois” state are not exclusively the work of government bureaucrats or other state managers; they may also be artifacts of the struggle among parties to interpret state actions for political advantage, expand and divert state power, or occasionally create new states.

Traditional parties also engage in many of the activities we call the means of articulation. What differentiates the integral party is that it subordinates these activities to its overall mission. For instance, a traditional party might pay lip service to social justice rhetoric if there are serious challenges to, say, the inegalitarian structures of the polity. An integral party, by contrast, revamps its policy orientations when the polity is faced by such challenges and thereby not only changes its rhetoric and policy but also draws to itself many cadres otherwise suspicious of party politics. It also seeks to reshape civil society organizations under its control along the lines of its new policies and rhetoric, even though the degree to which it can do this should be taken as a variable.

Institutional tools, too, can be turned into means of articulation. For instance, patronage is one of the core tools of traditional party building. But in the hands of a political party with integral orientations, it can go beyond simply serving a means–ends calculation (based on exchange of votes for benefits) and become the basis of a mobilizing identity. That is, some parties distribute coal and clothing not simply to get votes but to breed deeper identification with the ideological stance of the party. This orientation to politics, then, is what occasionally renders patronage and other activities (which some scholars have classified as state formation tools) means of articulation.

The rest of this introductory essay will press the foregoing claims in four parts. The first is a brief, critical assessment of the existing literature, much of which tends to view political parties as expressing or at most mediating other supposedly more important social actors and processes (for a more elaborate discussion of the theories discussed in this section, see de Leon 2014). In the second part, we review theoretical traditions similar to our own, acknowledging our shared intellectual debts but also clarifying where we depart from our predecessors. Next, we explain the political articulation framework in greater detail, with special attention to the analytical gaps identified by our colleagues in the years since we introduced the approach. Finally, we end by explaining our case selection rationale, outlining the chapter structure of the book and identifying the ways in which each piece contributes to a fresh party-centered approach to social organization.


The three dominant approaches to individual vote choice and political behavior more generally are the sociological or Columbia model, the social psychological or Michigan model, and the rational choice model. Though these are competing approaches, we read them as making a similar analytical move, namely, to employ metaphors (for example, interests, preferences, predispositions) for relating cleavages to parties at specific historical conjunctures. Metaphors are not causal mechanisms, however. If individual survey respondents appeared to be motivated by class during the New Deal, party identification in the 1950s, issues in the 1960s, and values in the 1980s, as these successive models suggest, then it remains unclear why this is so. Is it because one model is better than the other? Have we developed better survey techniques over time that reveal previously undiscovered voter motivations? Are different generations of voters simply motivated by different things: one by class, another by party, and still others by injustice or values? After our critical review of the literature, we will submit that these incommensurate findings are artifacts of successive political projects to remake society, or, in more theoretical language, competing modes of political articulation.

The Social Voter

Intellectual histories of the field (for example, Bartels 2008; Carmines and Huckfeldt 1996; Converse 2006; de Leon 2014) tend to begin with the first modern voting studies, which were conducted at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research under the direction of sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld.

Lazarsfeld’s research design was a “panel study” of vote choice in Erie County, Pennsylvania, in which he and his team interviewed individual voters at regular intervals leading up to, and immediately after, the 1940 U.S. presidential election. The entire study, including the questionnaire, was designed to capture campaign effects on the voter. Lazarsfeld found little support for his hypothesis. First, the overwhelming majority of voters did not change their minds from the first interview (when they identified their preferred candidate) to the last (when the respondents reported their vote). Evidently, the campaign had minimal effect. Second, the “background questions,” asked routinely at the beginning of surveys to establish the respondent’s basic biographical information, turned out to have the highest correlation with vote choice.3

Having found that campaigns had minimal impact on vote choice, Columbia sociologists resolved to do a follow-up study (this time under the leadership of Bernard Berelson and in Elmira, New York, for the 1948 U.S. presidential election) to uncover the reasons that social relations had been so decisive in explaining political differences. Their data confirmed once again that class, ethnic, and ecological (that is, residential) divisions continued to provide “the most durable social bases for political cleavage” (Berelson et al. 1954, 75). The reason that class, ethnicity, and residence were so important, however, was not that they could trigger an automatic response in the voter’s psyche.4 Concrete social relations guide vote choice by way of three mechanisms. First, social differences in the population such as religious affiliation are a condition for disagreement in a community, but they are not sufficient to maintain political differences. So, second, the “transmission” of those differences through the generations via the family and other social groups (such as churches, unions, and social clubs) is a condition for the persistence of political loyalties. Finally, there must be physical “contact” among people who are socially and politically alike to maintain consensus within the group (Berelson et al. 1954, 74). Because these conditions are best met in class (for example, workplace), ethnic (such as church), and residential (such as neighborhood) settings, they account for most of the variation in vote choice.

Lipset and the Functionalist Turn

Although the Bureau’s work was avant garde for the time, it was nevertheless quickly eclipsed by four waves of scholars. The first was a new generation of sociologists led by a former Columbia graduate student, Seymour Martin Lipset. As Lipset himself wrote (Lipset [1959] 1965), because the unit of analysis in The People’s Choice and Voting was the individual voter instead of society as a whole, the early voting studies were social psychological rather than sociological per se. To correct for this, Lipset sought to infuse the early interest in electoral politics with a “functionalist” sensibility. His central preoccupation in those early years was to identify the conditions enabling a stable democracy. His more mature work in this direction, however, and undoubtedly the last truly original programmatic statement in the sociology of political behavior, was his introduction (with Stein Rokkan) to an edited volume called Party Systems and Voter Alignments (1967). In a work of grand comparative and historical sweep, Lipset and Rokkan delineated the functions of political parties in a democratic order and theorized the social origins of party systems in Western Europe. Parties, they wrote, serve an “expressive function” in that “they develop a rhetoric for the translation of contrasts in the social and the cultural structure into demands and pressures for action or inaction.” They also possess “instrumental and representative functions” in that parties force the leaders of competing interest groups to bargain with each other, stagger their demands over time, and occasionally join forces to exert the maximum pressure on the state (1967, 5) [emphasis in original]. Lipset and Rokkan traced the origins of these competing interest groups to two types of “critical juncture” in Western Europe: national revolution and industrial revolution.

Borrowing Parson’s method for analyzing societies with conceptual polarities, they identified four types of partisan cleavage: majority versus minority ethnic groups, nation-state versus church, land owning versus industrial elites, and eventually the overriding one, elites versus nonelites (1967, 14–15). Linked to this account of European cleavage formation is Lipset and Rokkan’s “freezing hypothesis,” according to which revolutionary era cleavages became institutionalized in the party system beginning in the 1920s. Thus, they write, “the party systems of the 1960s reflect, with few but significant exceptions, the cleavage structures of the 1920s . . . the party alternatives, and in remarkably many cases the party organizations, are older than the majorities of the national electorates” (1967, 50) [emphasis in original]. The idea is that cleavages, once entrenched in the party system, narrow the electoral “support market” so much that no other causes or issues can gain traction (1967, 51).5 It is important for Lipset that this is a desirable result, for it checks the emergence of extreme left- and right-wing parties seeking to undermine the democratic order.

Partisan Voter, Issue Voter, and Values Voter

But Lipset and his associates were not the only ones to distance themselves from the Columbia model. A group of social psychologists (Angus Campbell and Gerald Gurin) and political scientists (Warren Miller, Donald Stokes, and Philip Converse) at the University of Michigan would found the “social psychological” approach to vote choice. The canonical work in this literature is Campbell et al.’s (1960) The American Voter. Briefly, the latter held (and contemporary practitioners reassert) that social cleavages such as class and ethnicity do not correlate well with individual vote choice. A superior explanatory variable, which they gleaned from national surveys of voting behavior (Columbia’s were community studies), was party identification, or “party ID.” The variable is a misnomer in that it has little to do with parties; it is a political identity transmitted through family socialization. Rather than loyalty to social group, the Michigan model privileged loyalty to political group, a loyalty anchored in affective attachments to one’s parents’ or grandparents’ partisan commitments.6

A challenge to the social psychological approach, which thereby opened up a second front against the Columbia model, was the body of work on “issue voting.” This literature might meaningfully be divided into two camps: those who borrowed heavily from the Michigan tradition and those who did not. The former consists of the so-called revisionist and realignment traditions. Revisionists held that although uncritical adherence to one’s partisan identity may have accurately described American voters during the New Deal era, it did not hold true for new voters who came of age during the 1960s as the issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War came to the fore. This new cohort of voters, whose parents were the children of Depression-era voters, were not only emotionally removed from the cleavages of the past but also more educated than the previous two cohorts of voters. They were, in other words, more open to political persuasion in the context of short-term “stimuli” such as events and new issues (Beck 1974; Carmines et al. 1987; Key 1966; Nie et al. [1976] 1979). Closely tied to revisionism is the realignment tradition, which holds that the advent of new issues among the mass electorate has the power to disrupt existing patterns of party dominance (see, for example, Abramson et al. 2010; Brady 1988; Burnham 1970; Carmines and Stimson 1989; Key 1955, 1959; Sundquist 1983).

Rational choice theory incited a clearer break with the Michigan tradition. Unlike the revisionists, proponents of “spatial theory” (Black [1958] 1963; Downs 1957; Hotelling 1929; Smithies 1941) assume that voters are always rational actors. They are not blind partisans or oversocialized voters for a generation only to become rational in the next, as the revisionists imply. Voters have issue preferences or interests (for example, prochoice or prolife) and choose the candidates whose own stated preferences are closest to their own.

A related set of literatures on what might be called “values voting” cast further doubt on the sociological approach, which was seen as privileging the effect of social class on political behavior. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 occasioned a raft of fresh postmortems on the New Deal, centered on the conservative racial and moral values of white working- and middle-class American voters (see, for example, Frank 2004; Fraser and Gerstle 1989; Wattenberg 1995). Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy spurred similar studies in Britain (Franklin 1985; McAllister and Rose 1986), wheras Inglehart (1990) provided the empirical support for this “culture shift” in much of the Western industrialized world. With few exceptions, the decline of class voting is attributed to bottom-up socioeconomic processes. Inglehart’s thesis is typical of these accounts: The narrative begins with the claim that the welfare state blunted the cruelest dislocations of laissez-faire capitalism; the resulting physical and economic security, in turn, allowed voters to turn to quality-of-life or “postmaterialist” issues like environmentalism.

Reasserting the Sociological Approach

It was in the context of the foregoing critiques that the two major restatements of the sociological approach emerged. The first was David Knoke’s (1976) Change and Continuity in American Politics. In that piece, Knoke conceded the importance of party ID and the declining significance of class but insisted that religion, race, and residence remained important determinants of vote choice (1976, 36, 58, 89, 109). The reason for the persistence of social cleavages in general, he argued, was that political parties are diffuse “secondary” groups with whom voters have very little contact; it is only through the “penetration” of political sentiment in nonpolitical primary (family) and secondary social groups (for example, unions) that party loyalties can become and remain viable (1976, 11).

The second restatement was Manza and Brooks’s (1999) Social Cleavages and Political Change. Like Knoke, they found that race, religion, and region remain important cleavages in American politics but add that gender and class are also decisive. Their theoretical framework, which they adapt from Bartolini and Mair (1990), aims to account for not only long-term shifts in voter loyalties but also short-term shifts, which sociology’s attention to stable social characteristics is famously hard pressed to explain. Like Berelson et al. (1954), Manza and Brooks argue that cleavages must operate at three levels for them to have significant effects on vote choice and party-voter alignment. The first is voters’ objective structural position (for example, immigrant status) because cleavage has an “‘empirical’ component rooted in social structure.” But one’s objective position is not enough to exert a political impact, so the second level, “group identification and conflict,” suggests that “social groups making up a cleavage field” must “adopt conflicting forms of consciousness.” People must, in other words, think differently about a given issue, say, immigration reform, such that poorer native-born white voters oppose such reform, for example, whereas more affluent whites and foreign-born voters of color favor it. But conflicting consciousness cannot lurk beneath the surface if a cleavage is to shape political behavior—it must be “expressed” through “individual interactions, institutions, and organizations, such as political parties, which develop as part of the cleavage” (1999, 33–35).


1. Here we are inspired by Jacques Lacan’s discussion of “interpellation,” though our debts to and differences from his followers (who are mostly concentrated in the humanities) will be discussed elsewhere in order not to divert attention away from our social scientific interventions.

2. This list is not exhaustive. Chapter 3, on Turkey and Egypt, demonstrates that even a court case and naturalization of new lifestyles can be turned into means of articulation, but further research is necessary to conclude whether these are typical means of articulation.

3. The resulting “index of political predisposition” consisted of three variables—socioeconomic status, religion, and rural versus urban residence—which accounted for most of the variation in vote choice. They wrote, “A person thinks, politically, as he is, socially. Social characteristics determine political preference” (Lazarsfeld et al. [1944] 1948, 27).

4. This is a caricature too often employed against the sociological approach and is, in any case, unnecessary (see, for example, Przeworski and Sprague 1986, 7–8).

5. The freezing hypothesis has been refuted many times over by scholars and observers of neoconservative and environmental parties, among others.

6. For a more comprehensive review of the social psychological approach, see Bartels (2008), Carmines and Huckfledt (1996), and Converse (2006). The landmarks in the social psychological approach are Campbell et al. (1954), Campbell et al. (1960), Converse (1964, 1966) and Stokes (1963). More contemporary applications include Green et al. (2002), Miller and Shanks (1996), and Smith (1989).