Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


An Introduction to How Party Activism Survives

Verónica Pérez Bentancur, Rafael Piñeiro Rodríguez, Fernando Rosenblatt

Party activism, understood as individuals voluntarily and regularly participating in party-related activities (i.e. not simply for electoral campaigns), seems to be a thing of the past. In the best-case scenario, activism in contemporary politics generally entails little more than paying party membership dues or sporadically taking part in internal party elections. In the worst-case scenario, party activism has been reduced to a clientelistic machine. Therefore, parties qua organizations have been reduced to an elite cadre of leaders who seek office and participate in the candidate selection processes. Under such circumstances, party democracy is understood simply as the degree to which competition between leaders is more or less open.

New technologies have significantly decreased the costs of disseminating a political message and of incorporating voters’ needs in party platforms. Political parties in high- or middle-income societies no longer need activists to win elections. Given that having a large and complex organization is costly and harder to manage and control, party leaders have no interest in maintaining activists and a large organizational structure. However, recent scholarship concerning different democracies has highlighted the fact that activism still matters for representation. How Party Activism Survives contributes to this literature by analyzing a unique case, the Uruguayan Frente Amplio (FA). It is a case of successful party reproduction, successful both in electoral terms and in its persistence as a vibrant organization. Within the FA, organizational rules grant activists a significant voice, which imbues activists´ participation with a strong sense of efficacy. The efficacy operates as a selective incentive because FA rules empower activists to influence party decision- making. This explains the existence and reproduction of activists who are not involved in the candidate selection process and are willing to invest time and effort in the party, as grassroots activists in civil society organizations.

Since FA grassroots activists participate in defining party strategies and positions, activists perceive that they exert real influence in party decision-making. In this vein, rules generate both selective incentives (associated with individual’s perceived efficacy) and collective incentives (associated with individuals’ role in maintaining the party’s identity and programmatic stance). The existence of these organizational structures generates the necessary incentives for those who participate in it to remain engaged and to maintain the organization’s vitality.

The crucial difference between the FA and other parties is the presence of activists throughout the territory who play an active role in the party’s decision-making. These activists differ from adherents or members, both in their willingness to engage in volunteer activism and in the elasticity of their engagement behavior based on individuals’ perceptions of efficacy within the organization.

The FA shows that the disappearance of party activism or its transformation into less participatory engagement is not inevitable and it is not completely determined by historical processes. The importance for contemporary democracies of having parties with activists, as opposed to having only professional-electoral parties, deserves wider appreciation. Even though activists are less necessary than they once were for mobilizing voters, the existence of democratic organizations is critical, especially for democracies whose citizens are more demanding. If it is true that modern democracies must face the challenge of more demanding citizens, the FA´s organizational structure is well-suited to meet to the challenge. An organizational structure that promotes activists´ voice is critical for modern democracies, because this structure limits leaders´ discretion and enables a demanding citizenry to have a say, thus making the citizenry more willing to engage with a party organization.

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