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Schlesinger: On the theory of party organization

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Schlesinger. 1984. On the theory of party organization. JOP 46 369-400.


Schlesinger asserts that despite the existence of many theories of parties that explain most of the phenomenon by focusing on its different parts (piecemeal approach), there is still a need for a comprehensive theory of party organisation. He develops such a "coherent" theory by drawing on the Downsian model of party competition (the rational choice model) and Olson's logic of collective action. He creates a model according to which the party is a unique structure that must be understood in its own terms. A party can thus be described as a 'market-exchange' mechanism, which produces collective goods as its output and which provides indirect compensations to its participants.

  • Research Question: How can we link together the theory of party competition with that of party organisation in the democratic realm?
  • Answer: Through an analytical model based upon the Downsian theory of party competition and the economic assumptions of rationality, maximisation and efficiency (on which the former also builds upon) as well as the logic of collective action (Mancur Olson's version of it).
  • Analogy: Following Downs, parties as teams seeking control of the governing apparatus by gaining office in a duly constituted election. Also, parties as a form of organised trial and error.


  • Y: Political Parties (as opposed to business firms, public agencies or bureaus and interest groups).
  • Xs: Three dichotomous variables:
    1. Mode of organisation (Market vs non-market)
    2. Output (collective vs private goods)
    3. Mode of compensation for participants (indirect vs direct).


The party constitutes a market-based organisation: elections are a type of political market in which parties offer their candidates and their policies in exchange for the votes they need to gain office. A quid pro quo relationship between parties and voters. The key resource in this market is none other than control of public office. Nevertheless, there is an imbalance in the political market since, unlike what happens at the level of the economic market, the party offers collective benefits (as opposed to private ones). Thus, the major impact of the market on the party is that market goals dominate its decisions. In other words, winning an election is the party's only concern and consequently, the party is not free to shape its goals but rather must respond to the electoral market in order to survive. Moreover, the market also affects the pattern of influence within the party. Given that the most clearly defined product of the party is the candidate, influence within this type of organisation will follow closely individual success and failure in the electoral market.

Regarding the output (type of organisational goal), the party produces collective goods. On this rubric, Mancur Olson's theory of collective action is particularly well suited to explain the phenomenon: only through the provision of side-payments or private benefits will rational individuals contribute to the achievement of the collective good. Since this participation entails a certain level of information (about the costs of participating and about the marginal effects of one's contribution), Olson predicts that those who do participate will be the ones with relatively little information (the young and the inexperienced, basically). Schlesinger also discusses the complexity of the incentive system in a party to argue that the kinds of private incentives will range from material rewards of patronage to sense of satisfaction from involvement in public office. Moreover, the logic of collective action corroborates the existence of an oligarchic control in political parties: the people who have the best defined personal stake are those with ambitions for office and consequently, office-seekers will also be the party's entrepreneurs. Finally, Schlesinger points out that the political party depends primarily on people whom it cannot pay directly. Indirect compensation, however, recruits people from either the leisure market or a flexible occupation.