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Is it true that party elites are unrepresentative of party voters? Would it matter if they were?

Is it true that party elites are unrepresentative of party voters? Would it matter if they were?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Mikaela Kotschack. Originally submitted for Political Parties at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Michael Gallagher in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Mikaela Kotschack. Originally submitted for Political Parties at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Michael Gallagher in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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05/03/2014

 
Is it true that party elites are unrepresentative of party voters?Would it matter if they were?
The questions on which this essay is based hide much complexity and theoretical controversy.Defining the
 party elite
, for instance,
 
has been the object of many a political scientist. Elitisttheorists, such as Michels, Pareto and Mosca, argue that party elite is exclusive, small andexceedingly powerful. Ostrogorski argues that the true elite consists of hard-to-distinguish wire- pullers. In order to define the party elite
 
one must in essence define the party itself; differing partystructures create diverse dynamics of political power. Simplistically, Putnam states that:
“some people have more political power than others; they are the political elite”
(Putnam 1976:5). Herewe will define the party elite as the active party membership; hierarchically structured within the party.The question of the representativeness of parties is intimately linked to the role parties perform as
agencies of linkage
between a population and its government. Jupp argues that the
“aggregation of interest is one of the most important functions of parties, because it reduces the strain on society by giving the aggrieved an outlet through which the amelioration of the condition can be attained”
(Jupp 1968: 33). Thus parties in representative democracies are agencies that link interests; but alsoagencies of participatory linkage that manage information flows, encourage participation and offer heuristics. Finally, parties act as agencies of electoral linkage, linking citizens with governmentthrough the appointment of representatives (Widfeldt 1995).
Are party elites unrepresentative of party voters?
The scope of this essay does not allow for Ostrogorskian micro-analyses of parties but will onlyextend to that limited segment of parties that display a certain degree of internal democracy. Theassumptions on which our definition of an internally democratic party rests state that members havea voice in the candidate selection process, in policy formulation (usually through the partyconference) and in interest aggregation through the transmission of constituency claims to the partyleadership. Finally one might also add the role of members as transmitters of party policy to the broader electorate.Membership representativeness can be measured on two axes; the relationship between which isone of fierce theoretical debate. Firstly, we will investigate the social representativeness of parties interms of the representation of certain demographic and social characteristics. Secondly, we will inthe next section look at the ideological representativeness of the party membership and the extent to
 
which it converges towards social representativeness.A socially representative sample reflects the composition of a population with regard to somedemographic and socially salient cleavages. The salience of these cleavages varies across countriesand may display electoral divides in language (Belgium and Canada), ethnicity (USA), religion(Northern Ireland) and more general issues such as gender, age, education and class (Norris andLovenduski 1995:209). These divides are of greatest concern with regard to the composition of Parliament; an individual party need not be a microcosm of the whole population. A sociallyrepresentative party does, however, display a membership that reflects its voters. Research carriedout comparing party voters with party members display a distinct pattern of social divergence between the two; across both countries and time. A survey carried out across Europe in the 1980sshowed that
“relative to a party's voters members were more likely to be male, middle-class and middle-aged”
(Widfeldt 1995:165). This is confirmed by studies carried out on the Irish Labour Party (Kennedy et al. 2005)
 
and the Fine Gael Party as well as the British Labour and Conservative parties (Gallagher & Marsh 2002:72). Members also tend to be better educated than voters and arealso more likely to be professionals in high-paid occupations (Gordon and Whiteley 1979). Widfeldtshows that workers tend to be under-represented compared to middle-class professionals, even insocialist and labour parties, and that members tend to be older, male and better-educated (Widfeldt1995). There is remarkable consistency in the studies and we might conclude that there is evidencethat the membership of political parties are not perfectly representative of the population of voterswho cast their votes for the party.A second aspect that needs to be considered with regard to the social representativeness of parties isthe social stratification within the party hierarchy. Widfeldt claims that party members display aremarkable similarity to party elites (Widfeldt 1995) but other authors such as Robert Putnam arguethat social stratification is increasing the higher up in the party hierarchy one ventures. Histheoretical
agglutination model 
hypothesises that there is perfect correlation between socialhierarchy and place in the political elite (Putnam 1976). This is an interesting thought experimentwhich leads on to his
law of increasing disproportion
which turns out to be supported by the data.Putnam shows in a cross-country comparison that political leaders tend to be drawndisproportionately from upper status occupations and privileged background; thus reiterating andemphasising the characteristics of the membership. These trends he argues are due to gate-keeping by parties (which is dependent on the selectorates), voter preference and the conversion of economic and social capital to political capital. The elite tends to perpetuate itself and mayconsciously or not favour candidates with similar characteristics as themselves. Studies on Social
 
Democratic parties confirms this, displaying a disproportionate prevalence of middle-class leaders,compared to both party voters and party members. Marsh attributes this to the increasingcomplexity of political issues, increasing professionalism and social changes in the population(Marsh 1980). The evidence thus seems to suggest a second conclusion; the social stratification of the party membership tends to increase the further up in party hierarchy we venture.
Does it matter if party elites are different from party voters?
More important than social representativeness might be the presence of ideological representationof party voters. If one contends, as is claimed by some authors, that social characteristics are perfectly ideologically deterministic this section does not merit the reader's attention. Ideologicalrepresentation will simply be equal to the outcomes of social representation. This view takes theopinion that early childhood socialization creates frameworks of stable values which can be used to predict preferences and is consistent with the Michigan school of voter choice. The consequence of unequal social representation will in this view be policy outcomes that approximate the preferencesof the represented; well-educated, older, male and middle-class. This view is theoretically contested,however, and in the words of Mills
“we cannot infer the direction of policy merely from the social origins and careers of policy makers”
(quote Mills in Putnam 1995:42). Norris and Lovenduskiempirically investigates this controversy using data for British MPs and find that most measures of social class fail to have a substantive impact and that
“the occupational class of politicians was not  strongly associated with their social values, policy priorities, or legislative roles”
(Norris andLovenduski 1995: 224). Likewise they conclude that in the British case the impact of race seems to be limited (although so is the sample). On the other hand, gender is found to be statisticallysignificant on all three dimensions; although party-belonging proved by far the most important predictor of values and policy priorities. Marsh investigates the impact of middle-class leaders onSocial Democratic parties and find that
“interest representation is unrelated to social representation”
(Marsh 1980:66) and Widfeldt claims that “
a party's degree of social representativeness says little of its opinion representativeness and vice versa”
(Widfeldt 1995:171)this stance is also confirmed for German parties over history by Beyme (Beyme 1982).The evidence is thus mixed on the issue of the convergence between social and ideologicalrepresentativeness. We may conclude, however, that social characteristics is not perfectly correlatedwith ideological representation. The point must be made though that even in the hypothetical presence of perfect ideological representation there is reason to believe that social representation isstill important. Social representation is related to the legitimacy of parties
“it is scarcely debatablethat agglutination is a prima facie violation of justice and equality of opportunity”
(Putnam

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