Karvonen : the personalization of politics

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The Personalization of Politics
What does research tell us so far, and what further research is in order? Lauri Karvonen Department of Political Science Åbo Akademi FI-20500 Åbo, Finland lauri.karvonen@abo.fi Paper prepared for the 4th ECPR Conference, Pisa 6-8 September 2007 Section: The Quality of European Political Elites Panel: Elite Success and Failure Appraised

Introduction:objective and scope

While most authors would argue that the personalization of politics is a typical feature of contemporary democracies, the phenomenon itself is anything but new. Quite the contrary: in his studies of the historical development of social and political orders, Max Weber identified “charismatic authority” as one of the three main forms of political legitimacy (1957). Moreover,studies of the early phases of representative democracy have emphasized that political representation largely centered on local notables rather than nationally identifiable collective interests and loyalties (Manin 1997, 202-203). In fact, it may very well be argued that politics in its pre-democratic forms was much more personalized than it is today. Those who point to an increased personalization ofcontemporary politics naturally do not use these broad historical perspectives as points of comparison. Rather, the argument is based on a comparison with the heyday of class-based, collective political organization. The industrial society that peaked something like half a century ago in the West was characterized by parties based on the divisions between clearly identifiable socio-economic orcultural groups in society. Parties and ideologies were an expression of the perceived interests of these social segments, and political identities, preferences and choices were largely a function of citizens’ affiliation to such groups. With the transformation and weakening of these fundamental social structures, forces other than collective loyalties and identities have increasingly come tocondition the political

2 behavior and preferences of citizens. One of the factors that have gained in importance is the role of individual politicians and of politicians as individuals in determining how people view politics and how they express their political preferences. This is how the gist of the personalization thesis might be formulated. The aim of this paper is to summarize thesystematic empirical evidence that research hitherto has produced concerning the personalization of politics. Ultimately, the ambition is to point to lacunae and unsolved puzzles in this research and to propose further research that may help provide clearer answers. The limited scope of the analysis must be emphasized at the outset. The paper has no ambition to cover possible cases of politicalpersonalization before the establishment of mass-based representative democracy. In a similar vein, newer democracies among which numerous cases of highly personalized politics can surely be identified, fall outside the scope of the present study. For instance, the former communist states in Europe never produced the kind of cleavage-based party system which forms the ideal-typical point of comparison forthe personalization thesis. In fact, not even all cases of stable Western democracy can be viewed as equally relevant for this account. In its core, the personalization hypothesis is primarily based on a notion about parliamentary democracy with its traditional emphasis on the role of parties and collective identities. Although not immune to the same forces of change that have affectedparliamentary systems, presidential democracies have due to their nature always placed a stronger emphasis on individual leaders and candidates. Thus, evidence of personalization from presidential systems, although by no means irrelevant to the purposes of this study, does not constitute as strong a proof in favor of the personalization hypothesis as similar evidence in parliamentary systems.

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