Why are political parties important for liberal democracy? Which institutional reforms can alleviate the burdens of globalisation on the working class? Join us on this episode of the Governance Podcast for a conversation between Steven Klein (King’s College London) and Ian Shapiro (Yale) on the major governance challenges facing advanced democracies and how they might be solved.

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Read the Books

The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It by Ian Shapiro and Michael J. Graetz

Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy From Itself by Ian Shapiro and Frances McCall Rosenbluth

The Guest

Ian Shapiro is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He has written widely and influentially on democracy, justice, and the methods of social inquiry. A native of South Africa, he received his J.D. from the Yale Law School and his Ph.D from the Yale Political Science Department where he has taught since 1984 and served as chair from 1999 to 2004. Shapiro also served as Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies from 2004-2019.

He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Shapiro is a past fellow of the Carnegie Corporation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He has held visiting appointments at the University of Cape Town, Keio University in Tokyo, and Nuffield College, Oxford.

His most recent books are The Real World of Democratic Theory (Princeton University Press, 2012) Politics Against Domination (Harvard University Press, 2016), and, with Frances Rosenbluth, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself (Yale University Press, 2018). His current research concerns the relations between democracy and the distribution of income and wealth.

Skip Ahead

0:42: I wanted to begin with your 2018 book on Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy From Itself, which you co-authored with Frances McCall Rosenbluth. It’s a spirited defence of the importance of parties for democracy. Before we get into your argument, I wanted to see if you could say a little about why you think political parties are so vital for democracy, as well as why you think their value tends to be overlooked or neglected in popular debates.

5:33: This is a question of democracy bypassing elections altogether. Another issue you deal with in the book is debates about democratising political parties themselves. So some people say that political parties are necessary evils, or they have these positive effects but they can also lead to capture by elites within the party, and so what we need is good democracy within the parties. And in the book you’re also sceptical of that—could you tell us more about your worry?

9:24: This raises a really interesting puzzle which you don’t entirely address in the book, which is, if this is so harmful to parties, why do they do it?

13:30: I think another interesting aspect is the decline of the traditional sources of mobilisation for political parties. So one thing I wanted to ask is, there are two dimensions to political parties—one is the coordination function, which is bundling issues together, building those compromises, integrating various interest groups—but parties also exist to get people to vote and to mobilise their constituencies. If you look at the debate in the last two primaries in the Democratic party and in the UK, it seems like one of the issues is how you balance the coordination function while ensuring that the core constituencies of the party will viably vote. And it seems like one of the big stories has been the gradual decline of some of these reliable sources of mobilisation.

17:57: So the book is a defence of parties and you’re trying to push back against a lot of scepticism towards political parties—you defend large scale, catch all political parties—your ideal, it seems, is the Westminster, British model where you have large catch all parties who can come into power and govern on their own. You also say some interesting things about coalitions… But there is a worry about political parties in general that I feel doesn’t come through in the book… which is that when you have this sort of system, parties have an incentive to take controversial or particularly challenging issues off the political agenda.

28:08: I’m probably slightly more sympathetic to referendums than you because there’s an interesting democratic theory puzzle that comes in—so if it’s a basic constitutional issue, what other mechanism is there for altering the debate? Would a better designed referendum worked better in the UK?

33:25: This brings us back to what you said earlier and is a theme of your new book, which is that a lot of these changes in the party system are being driven by larger structural changes in the political economy of advanced capitalist societies.

39:16: This is something you mentioned earlier but I wanted to reiterate- there is the insecurity but there is the decline of institutions that would buffer some of that insecurity like labour unions… and you have a lot of disaffected people who have an understandable distrust and distaste for politics in general… they don’t have institutions that can connect them with political parties and make them feel like their voice is represented. Then you get the elites trying to figure out how to re-engage those people and they don’t have a lot of tools.