The survival of the mass party: Evaluating activism and participation among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: POLSIS


It is often claimed that political parties in Europe are losing their traditional function of bridging the gap between citizens and the political elites. Whereas the 20th century saw the rise of political parties characterised by large memberships organised in local branches, it is now widely assumed that the era of the 'mass parties' is over. In a well-known article, for instance, Katz and Mair (1995) argued that political parties are converging towards a new organisational model: the 'cartel party'. In essence, this model entails that parties become increasingly intertwined with the state, whilst ties with their grass-root membership, or what is left of it, weaken. Parties, in other words, become actors of the state rather than society.

We argue, however, that it may be too soon to speak of the end of the mass party. Particularly among certain parties challenging the traditional political establishment (or 'cartel'), this party model is ostensibly still popular. In our study we focus in particular on parties of the populist radical right (PRR), which currently pose the most serious electoral threat to mainstream parties and which, despite several prominent exceptions, have also been shown to often adopt mass organisations and create communities of loyal partisans activists (Heinisch and Mazzoleni, 2016). PRR parties, then, do not only pose a challenge to established politics, but also to the theory that the age of mass parties is over.

In our research we aim to understand why the mass party is still a popular model among the PRR, from the perspective of both the party members and party elites. On the one hand, we seek to understand why different groups of people become activists of these parties and what different typologies of party activists contribute to their parties. On the other, we want to understand why the leaderships of populist parties go against the 'tide of disengagement' characterising their competitors: what are, in their eyes, the advantages of adopting rooted models of party organisation. Crucially, answering these questions will allow us to build a more nuanced conceptual framework for assessing differential party development; rather than converging around a similar model of organisation, political parties are likely to organise their party in a way that best suits their aims and ideology.

We take a comparative case study approach, and investigate the 'life of the party' within four seasoned PRR parties which are well established within their party systems: the Italian Northern League, the Flemish Interest in Belgium, The Finns Party in Finland, and the Swiss People's Party. To map the parties' formal and informal organisational structures, and shed light on party members' and elites' motivations, our study combines a variety of methods: it involves a study of secondary and party literature, an original survey conducted among party members, life-history interviews with party activists, and semi-structured elite interviews with party representatives and executives. We have received confirmation from the parties that they are willing to participate in the research.

Our research, first of all, benefits the academic community: there is still a serious gap in our knowledge of how party organisations operate, in particular regarding the role of members and activists (Gauja and Van Haute, 2015). By advancing our knowledge of what happens inside PRRPs, we seek to address the serious shortage of comparative party research on this topic. The project will also have benefits beyond academia, as we will listen to the activists of populist parties themselves, and capture in detail the individual, cultural, social and organisational drivers of populist sentiment at a highly critical juncture in the life of the EU. Our findings thus have implications not only for political parties more generally, but also for organisations interested in the quality of Western democracy.

Planned Impact

Beyond generating knowledge about PRRP organisations, our research findings have important implications for discussions surrounding political participation and party organisation at large, and are relevant to a variety of stakeholders. The project significantly contributes to understanding causes of the widespread perception of a 'democratic deficit' affecting both national and EU institutions, by listening to the activists of populist radical right parties themselves, mapping their motivations and convictions, and understanding how PRRPs work. Beneficiaries of the research can be grouped into the following categories (see "Pathways to Impact" for a list of specific organisations that will be targeted):

1) Policy makers, including ministries, branches of government and EU institutions. These organisations follow the rise of PRRPs often out of concern for the legitimacy of contemporary democratic systems, and some of them are in a position to design policies countering citizen disengagement.
2) Institutions responsible for the management, communication and promotion of the European Union's image at national levels. PRRPs are arguably the most vehement and electorally successful opponents of the EU, and their Eurosceptic arguments resonate with a considerable share of European citizens, also affecting the rhetoric and policy positions of mainstream parties across the continent. If the EU is to improve its democratic legitimacy - which seems imperative - it needs to understand what drives the discontent of PRRP supporters.
3) Think-tanks and NGOs, as well as organisations facilitating debate and the exchange of information among policy makers and diplomats at the highest levels, or running capacity building programmes, as these have a particular interest in the quality of democracy and civil society.
4) Media organisations, as they report on the successes and setbacks of PRRPs across Europe, but often lack the time and means to explore the motivations of PRRP activists in any depth, as well as whatever makes PRRPs' organisations effective.
5) The informed observer of political events (i.e. citizens/voters).

To reach these stakeholders the project team utilises Knowledge Exchange opportunities (relying in particular on the expertise of CI Lucas), as well as traditional impact generation activities, including reports and briefs, the organisation of workshops and the deployment of an already high profile website. These activities aim to increase understanding of the following areas:

- The causes of the widespread perception of a "democratic deficit" affecting both national and EU institutions - thereby capturing the political, social and cultural drivers of populist sentiment (and ressentiment) at a highly critical juncture in the life of the EU.
- Linked to the above, the motivations of people who engage in political activities, by asking what draws them to different kinds of activism, including within PRRPs.
- The workings of party organisations, by identifying and exploring the advantage accrued by a selection of PRRPs as they commit themselves to maintaining costly and complex mass organisations. This knowledge will help challenge the assumption that the strength of PRRPs in Europe is due merely to "charismatic leadership" and allow us to draw lessons that can be applied to party organisations more generally.
- The nature and features of political participation in post-industrial societies, including the survival of more "traditional" means of participation, alongside new ones made possible by new technologies.

The project's findings will be relevant for, and factored into the work of, the different categories of beneficiaries and stakeholders listed above. They have the potential to beneficially influence the further evolution of policies aimed at fostering political participation.


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