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  • Are Strong Parties the Answer?
  • Didi Kuo (bio)
Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself By Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Who, or what, is responsible for the crisis of liberal democracy today? Voters have expressed growing levels of dissatisfaction with their governments, culminating in the election of populist and illiberal leaders. This dissatisfaction is rooted in many trends—economic policies that have produced inequality and economic insecurity; the increased movement of people across borders; and shifts in international and supranational centers of power. Citizens report feeling that their governments are unable or unwilling to make decisions that benefit the public.

Antipathy toward political parties is both a symptom and a cause of this broader democratic discontent. Party membership in Western Europe has been on the decline for years; in the United States, the number of self-identified "independents" has been on the rise. Politicians can easily mobilize voters outside the traditional party system, resulting in new forms of party organization (such as Italy's internet-based Five Star Movement), new centrist parties (such as France's "En Marche" party), and insurgent politicians on both the right and left.

Frances Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro begin Responsible Parties with a warning: "This is a contrarian book" (p. ix). In some ways, it is. The authors argue that parties are weak, and that this weakness is the result of plebiscitary trends across the advanced democracies that have led to the sacrificing of "good public policy" for an elusive, and unattainable, internal democracy. They contend that what is needed instead is "big, responsible [End Page 173] parties," the kind that can build consensus over policies. The contrarianism of this argument lies in blaming popular decision making rather than political elites or economic trends for eroding democratic institutions. The book is also a full-throated defense of the Westminster system, which the authors concede does not exist in any country today—not even in Britain.

Less contrarian are the positions that Rosenbluth and Shapiro take when diagnosing the problems with parties. There is evidence that governments are not responsive to the preferences of average citizens, and that parties are no longer the robust vehicles for promoting citizens' interests that they once were. While Responsible Parties joins the chorus of democracy-in-crisis literature that has taken off with the Trump presidency, it does so by refocusing attention on the electoral system and the institutions that shape the incentives of party leaders. It takes up debates from the period after the Cold War when scholars—many in these pages—debated which configuration of electoral institutions could produce the best outcomes in democratizing societies.

Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue that two strong, centralized parties—strong being somewhat loosely defined—allow for a politics that "aims for the political middle" (p. 12). Their focus is on policy outcomes, and they argue that majority rule allows politicians to implement programs that serve most voters' interests, while limiting the costs to people whom the policies harm. Weak parties are not able to do this because they can be coopted by narrow interests who offload the cost of their policies on to the majority of voters. To achieve this system of two big, strong parties, Rosenbluth and Shapiro recommend a host of accompanying institutions: plurality elections in large and heterogeneous, single-member district districts; parliamentary leadership that enforces party discipline; and an institutionalized role for the loyal opposition. Their approach, like the one advocated by Donald Horowitz, is meant to strengthen the political center—but unlike Horowitz's, this approach includes no role for ranked-preference voting.

Responsible Parties uses the Westminster system as a baseline for evaluating electoral systems elsewhere, and the book takes us on a jaunty trip across the world. The authors critique the weak parties and federal structure in the United States, the proportional systems in small European countries, France's majority-runoff system, Germany's mixed-member system, and presidential systems with weak parties in Latin America. In discussing how the electoral systems of these countries have changed over time, Rosenbluth and Shapiro provide brief but helpful histories. Further, they trace the way in which plebiscitary pressures—a heading under...