Theories about Voters and Political Parties

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Updated: Mar 31, 2023
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Although political parties are scarcely mentioned in constitutions, there is not a single modern democracy that does not have them. Scholars have long noted political parties are indispensable to a mass representative democracy (Schattschneider 1942). Given the many dimensions of political parties and electoral systems, the discussion of political parties was highly normative. Many of the early questions revolved around how parties should behave with little regard for the underlying mechanisms. However, the normative approach raises an empirical question – does democracy function best when parties attempt to appear indistinguishable, or is the practice of democracy limited by party similarities to the extent that voters are given no real choice between platforms?

By the 1950s, the leading political scientists perceived that voters and parties were best to be considered as two distinct entities.

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E. E. Schattschneider argued that democracy exists among parties but not within them. Parties, however, as he mentions, still have a duty to “frame political questions” for consumption and, therefore, were driven by forces of the political “market” to create a product that reflects public opinion, even without direct input in framing the issues from the public.

To a large extent, Downs’s An Economic Theory Democracy put an end to this normative debate. Downs was less concerned with Schattschneider’s ‘responsible parties’ debate and focused on the inconsistencies between pairing a market theory of political parties with normative calls for equivalences. Downs determined, through the theory of economic competition, that a rational political party would seek out an ideological position in the middle of the electorate’s preference distribution. The two parties would then mimic each other and support voters to make decisions not based on policy but rather on non-issue characteristics. Hence, the parties would be indefinite about their positions on controversial issues and include incompatible positions into their platforms to avoid long-run solutions to problems and maximize their present electoral fortunes.

In such a scenario, there is a broad separation between the party and the voter. The party, operating in an oligarchical manner, functions as the producer through policy, and the voter, having to accept take what the party offers, functions as the consumer. Thus, by this line of reasoning, E.E. Schattschneider’s normative arguments were rendered debatable.

Downs’s theory suggestions are positive rather than normative, which shifts the debate over political parties to his understanding. However, it is important to point out, Downs’s work tolerates an uneasy relationship: he adopts numerous principles of pluralism. Downs directly quotes from Dahl and Lindblom in defining both “governments” and “political equality,” giving way to a normative perception. The development of pluralism, responsible party theories, formal models, and the inherent conflict among them created a normative context for Downs, of which he himself may have been unaware.

Generally, the debate about the median voter theorem is about empirical accuracy. For example, as Schlesinger points out, the Downsian party is composed solely of officeholders and office-seekers. The Downsian parties undeniably do not include the electorate. Yet, this exclusion of the electorate is necessary to maintain the relationship between parties as producers and voters as consumers. Voters control parties by making their preferences known and choosing between two products. However, they are unable to act to allow themselves differentiated products.

Additionally, Downs believes voters are not driven by the same concerns as politicians. Downs believes that all voters are sincere voters, and thus, they vote for a party whose policies they broadly prefer. This means that the voter’s benefit is derived from policies being ratified rather than who is holding office. Therefore, voters have much less to benefit from having their preferred party hold office than the party itself.
The assumptions of the median voter model are akin to a set of dominos. If one is knocked down, the rest will follow. That is not to say that the median voter model holds internal contradictions, nor that it should be disregarded, but rather it has been beneficial in its own sense. The model’s basic assumptions that candidates will adopt similar ideological positions have contributed greatly to the analysis of party behavior. It has also been a useful tool for examining elections, but not enough to pass demanding empirical tests.

This is most likely because one or more of the initial assumptions contained in the model rarely hold. However, within political science, a model cannot be proven or disproven if its failure requires testing its assumptions. Even if you were to change the initial assumptions of the median voter model, you would be reintroducing normative questions which have a different understanding than they took during the model’s development. It does seem rather unproductive to argue whether political parties should give voters divergent yet responsible agendas. Yet, a new question may do political parties have ‘real’ agendas which diverge? Particularly in the age where an overwhelming majority of incumbents are reelected, Schattschneider’s responsible parties and electoral choice are certainly not within the campaigns of incumbents. However, it would be interesting to see if it is available when considering nonincumbent campaigns.

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Theories about Voters and Political Parties. (2023, Mar 28). Retrieved from