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Political Science Channels of Electoral Representation in Advanced Industrialized Democracies
Marcus Kreuzer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0078


Electoral systems and political parties not only are at the core of a wide range of representational mechanisms (others being lobbying, direct democracy, corporatism) used in modern democracies to project societal interests into the formal, legislative decision-making process, but also they vary greatly in their respective make-ups. Political parties differ in their internal decision making, membership size, funding, links with interest groups, and ideology. Electoral systems, in turn, are differentiated into systems of proportional representation (PR), single-member district (SMD), or first-past-the-post electoral systems (FPTP). Despite all these differences, parties and electoral systems are the two primary mechanisms for aggregating and then translating the preferences of private individual citizens. They also are the oldest, most widely studied, and arguably the most democratic channel of political representation. Parties and electoral systems certainly are important, but they are still only intermediary mechanisms that interact in complex ways with other factors, such as actors’ preferences, resources, other representational mechanisms, and the larger constitutional context. This complex interaction makes it intriguing to study how they affect political representation and explains why they are studied from so many different angles, methodologies, and theoretical perspectives. The following bibliographic suggestions are intended to reflect this diversity in the literature. The literature points out that parties and electoral systems function not just as mechanisms of political expression, through which voter preferences are bundled, articulated, and electorally weighted, but also as mechanisms of social control. The social control function becomes apparent in the ability of parties and electoral systems to contain the risks of overly expressive and potentially anarchic forms of direct and, hence, unorganized participation (i.e., protest, extremism, violence) as well as their potential to integrate individual citizens into the political order by creating political identities crucial for social order. Thus, parties and electoral systems have an as yet little understood but also fascinatingly complex relationship to popular sovereignty because they are indispensable for it while at the same time they give politicians the ability to mute and manipulate that sovereignty. In large part, the literature on parties and electoral systems tries to untangle this complex relationship by studying how their cross-national and historical variations influence the extent to which they have facilitated or distorted political representation.

Introductory Works

How electoral systems and parties express as well as distort public opinion is a theme that is particularly central in democratic theory in the early 18th and 19th centuries as well as the political histories covering this period. Dunn 2005 and Morgan 1988 set the historical stage in showing how elections evolved from instruments of feudal representation to modern tools of popular sovereignty. They chronicle the seemingly endless procedural modifications, the ancillary normative debates, and the changing nature of electoral contests that accompanied this transformation. Mill 1991 picks this story up in the early 19th century. The author discusses which particular institutional electoral arrangements provide the best balance between maximizing popular sovereignty and constraining mob rule. Huntington 2006 touches on the same theme but in the context of newly emerging, postcolonial democracies. Together, these works provide a bold, historically rich, and enjoyably crafted portrait of how elections and parties function—a portrait that oftentimes is missing in the many narrow and more technical contributions on this topic.

  • Dunn, John. Setting People Free: The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic, 2005.

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    Tells the story of the first emergence of democracies, the initially tepid support they received, and the skepticism many expressed that gains in popular sovereignty might be won at the cost of a loss in political stability.

  • Huntington, Samuel. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

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    Chapter 7 masterfully discusses the representative and social control function of political parties. The latter role today is just as pertinent as in the 1960s when Huntington was concerned about the political order of the newly decolonized countries. Today the challenge to political stability comes from the organizational atrophying of parties in established democracies and their disorganization in new democracies. Originally published in 1968.

  • Mill, John Stuart. Considerations on Representative Government. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1991.

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    A true classic that grapples with the issues raised by democracy’s erstwhile skeptics. Chapter 10 also constitutes one of the first articulations of proportional representation and was responsible for its initial popularization. Originally published in 1861.

  • Morgan, Edmund Sears. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

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    Analyzes the invention of the fiction of popular sovereignty and how it both contained and made possible democracy in early modern England and the United States.

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