The cartelization thesis

A paper by Richard Katz and Peter Mair called “Changing models of party organization and party democracy: The emergence of the cartel party” published in Party Politics Journal in 1995 (and based on a 1992 workshop presentation by the same authors) spurred a body of academic work in political science dealing with the “cartelization” of party politics. In the abstract of a 2009 paper by the same authors (“The Cartel Party Thesis: A Restatement”) Katz and Mair write:

The cartel party thesis holds that political parties increasingly function like cartels, employing the resources of the state to limit political competition and ensure their own electoral success.

The thesis sees this cartelization as a phase in the evolution of party dynamics. Earlier phases were the “cadre party” (19th c.), the “mass party” (first half of 20th c.), and the “catch-all party” (second half of the 20th c.). While the mass parties and the catch-all parties competed for votes by presenting competing policies, the thesis asserts, the cartel parties do not. They huddle around a neo-liberal consensus and offer the public no alternatives.

In their 2005 paper “From Catch-all Politics to Cartelisation: The Political Economy of the Cartel Party”, Mark Blythe and Richard Katz explain the cartelization phenomenon as follows:

We argue that two key changes have occurred that have effectively turned parties from maximising competitors into risk averse colluders: the limits of catch-all politics, and the rhetoric and reality of globalisation.

The first factor, according to Blythe and Katz, is that by the 1970’s the policy competition between parties has produced welfare policy that was at the maximum capacity of the state to provide. Supposedly this was the dominant dimension along which parties were competing, and it has now become impossible to compete along this dimension any longer.

The second factor is a reduction in the ability of states to control the economy due to globalization:

In brief, catch-all parties were creatures of the Keynesian era. States were assumed to have primary responsibility for ensuring jobs and growth and were also assumed to be able to marshal fiscal instruments to those ends.


In addition to these materialist factors, Blythe and Katz invoke ideological changes. Policy makers and their advisors came to believe that “systematic mistakes by markets are impossible”. They continue:

In such a world, catch-all parties and their attendant policies become counter-productive. For if they accept this logic, as governing ‘left of centre’ parties increasingly did during the 1990s, then any intervention into the market, whether for the private interest of controlling their coalition or for the public interest of boosting the economy with the public good of growth, can only end in disaster. States, and by extension parties, should then abandon such strategies. Given such an unfriendly environment, catch-all parties engaged in three survival strategies: downsizing constituent expectations, externalising policy commitments, and separating themselves ever further from any defined constituency. The end result of this was to ‘reform’ catch-all politics: or, more appropriately, to cartelise it

While it is hard to deny that political parties do behave in a cartelistic fashion, the explanations offered by Blythe and Katz are far from convincing. In terms of the material constraints, Blyth and Katz seem to largely accept the same TINA (there is no alternative) logic that they identify as a rhetorical device deployed by the parties as a response to those constraints. Rhetoric aside, the fact that there is large variation in the level of welfare provided by different states of comparable wealth indicates that there is a lot of maneuvering room in welfare policy making.

On the other hand, the ideological factor – the rise neoliberal ideology among the elite – cannot be considered a primary cause of party behavior or of policy changes, since it begs the question of what would be the underlying factors causing such a uniform change across all governing parties.

The cartelization thesis and the related academic work are therefore of interest due to their acknowledgement that a lack of meaningful policy alternatives is a systemic characteristic of elections in the contemporary Western world. This acknowledgement is unusual for the political science discipline. However, the work on cartelization is deficient in terms of its causal analysis of this important phenomenon. The underlying reason for this deficiency may an idea implied by the cartelization thesis: that the electoral cartel is a newly created phenomenon, i.e., that historically electoral competition through policy competition was the rule. The implicit adoption of this background assumption sets a research agenda of searching in which reasons for cartelization are to be sought. If, conversely, it is accepted that the electoral cartel is the natural and prevalent mode of electoral politics, then the question becomes not why cartelization occurs but rather: how does the electoral system manage to produce non-elitist policy at all?

It is interesting that Blythe and Katz do quote approvingly an early statement of the principle of distinction:

There is less difference between two deputies, of whom one is a revolutionary and the other is not, than between two rev-
olutionaries, of whom one is a deputy and the other is not. — Robert de Jouvenel, 1914, La Republique des Camarades

They state that this situation is “reinforced” by the causes of cartelization which they enumerate. However, they do not seem to recognize that if this principle holds as a rule, then cartel-like behavior of parties would be the norm, and it is rather situations where substantive policy is being determined by electoral competition, if any such situations in fact exist, that need to be considered as anomalies whose reasons have to be explored.

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