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Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse

Jana Morgan


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Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse

Jana Morgan

“Jana Morgan takes one of the great enigmas of the recent Latin American political experience—the collapse of Venezuela’s seemingly entrenched two-party system—and makes it comprehensible in this original and insightful book. Morgan places the Venezuelan case in a larger comparative perspective and employs rigorous empirical methods to show how party system collapse is related to the erosion of specific types of societal linkages. By demonstrating the importance of programmatic competition for securing party-society linkages, she makes a major contribution to our understanding of why some party systems respond more effectively than others to the challenges they encounter.”


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Winner, 2012 Van Cott Award, Political Institutions section of the Latin American Studies Association

Honorable Mention, 2014 Fernando Coronil Award, Venezuelan Studies Section of the Latin American Studies Association

In recent decades, Bolivia, Colombia, Italy, and Venezuela have all faced the turmoil and democratic crisis of party system collapse. In Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse, Jana Morgan analyzes the causes of such collapse. She does so through a detailed examination of Venezuela’s traumatic party system decay as well as comparative analysis of seven other countries. Collapse occurs when the party system as a whole is unable to provide adequate linkage between society and the state, failing to furnish programmatic representation, integration of major societal interests, or clientelist exchanges. Linkage decays when party systems face challenges that jeopardize their core strategies at the same time that they are constrained in their ability to adapt and to confront these threats. If this decay is unchecked and linkage of all sorts fails, then the bankrupt party system collapses.
“Jana Morgan takes one of the great enigmas of the recent Latin American political experience—the collapse of Venezuela’s seemingly entrenched two-party system—and makes it comprehensible in this original and insightful book. Morgan places the Venezuelan case in a larger comparative perspective and employs rigorous empirical methods to show how party system collapse is related to the erosion of specific types of societal linkages. By demonstrating the importance of programmatic competition for securing party-society linkages, she makes a major contribution to our understanding of why some party systems respond more effectively than others to the challenges they encounter.”
“Jana Morgan’s Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse offers the most comprehensive account to date of the collapse of the Venezuelan party system. Based on a rigorous study of the Venezuelan case and an impressive comparative analysis of seven additional cases, the book makes several contributions to the literature on party systems. First, it shows not only that party systems are based on diverse linkages to society but also that their fate—whether they survive or collapse—during periods of crisis hinges on how the crisis affects each of those linkages. Morgan also demonstrates how programmatic consensus and cross-party power-sharing arrangements, which are often lauded in the literature on new democracies, can, under some conditions, prove devastating to party systems. Finally, the book offers new insights into the consequences of party system collapse. Drawing on her rich comparative analysis, Morgan highlights the double-edged nature of party system collapse: new political forces offer greater programmatic choice and mobilize previously excluded groups, but they also tend to be personalistic and polarizing, which can pose dangers to democracy. I recommend this book to all students of comparative politics who are interested in the causes and consequences of party system collapse.”
“Jana Morgan nicely blends the broader study of party systems with an analysis of Venezuelan politics; scholars who study either of these will want to read this book. It clarifies the concept of party system collapse and presents us with a definitive way of measuring the phenomenon. It offers a new causal explanation for party system collapse that is nuanced and powerful, emphasizing the multiple ways in which parties represent or provide ‘linkage’ to voters. And it offers a compelling test of these claims with a comparative analysis of several countries. For scholars of Venezuelan politics, Morgan provides a clear account of the party system’s collapse that partly refutes older findings (showing, for example, that economic performance alone is not the key cause of collapse) but that also builds on and reaffirms existing work. Her treatment of the Punto Fijo party system is fair and accurate, bringing to the table a wealth of new data that go beyond the usual public opinion surveys.”
Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse places Venezuela's dramatic party system collapse of the mid-1990s in comparative context. The book addresses a serious gap in the study of party systems at a time when they are changing rapidly, especially in Latin America. Jana Morgan makes a major contribution by examining party system failure at various levels of analysis and with a wide array of tools.”

Jana Morgan is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Social Justice at the University of Tennessee.


List of Figures and Tables


List of Abbreviations

Part 1 Understanding Party System Collapse: Concepts and Theory

1 Introduction: The Catastrophe of Collapse

2 What It Looks Like: System Change, Transformation, and Collapse

3 Theorizing Collapse: Challenges, Constraints, and Decaying Linkage

Part 2 Linkage Failure and Venezuelan Collapse

4 The Party System at Its Peak

5 Policy Unresponsiveness and Ideological Convergence

6 Social Transformation and Failing Group Incorporation

7 Resource Shortages and Clientelist Excesses

8 Linkage Failure and Mass Exodus from the Party System

Part 3 Party System Collapse and Survival in Comparative Perspective

9 A Comparative Approach to Analyzing Party System Collapse

10 Bankrupt Representation in Italy, Colombia, and Bolivia

11 Survival Tactics in Argentina, Belgium, Uruguay, and India

12 Insights into Collapse and Its Consequences






The Catastrophe of Collapse

Political parties created democracy and . . . modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties. As a matter of fact, the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime.

—E. E. Schattschneider, Party government

In the 1970s, prospects for democracy in Venezuela seemed limitless. Competitive elections installed political leaders. Control of government peacefully changed hands from one established political party to another. By 1973, the militant left laid aside its weapons and entered electoral politics, and two parties consolidated their positions as the primary actors linking society and the state. These parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente), and the party system they formed were widely regarded as pivotal for Venezuelan democracy. In the 1970s and 1980s, over half the population identified with AD or COPEI, and nearly 85 percent of voters cast their ballots for them. At the same time, the economy prospered. Oil prices more than tripled in the 1970s, nearing $10 per barrel (OPEC 1999), and government revenue and GDP per capita increased significantly (Karl 1997; Baptista 1997).

Today, however, Venezuela’s political and economic landscape is almost unrecognizable. Virtually no traces of AD or COPEI remain; they do not hold a single seat in the legislature. In their place stands the personalistic, hegemonic government of Hugo Chávez, who has cultivated an impressive following but increasingly disregards democratic norms and practices. Elections are held regularly, but Chávez’s opponents insist that fraud is rampant despite close international scrutiny. The control that Chávez exercises over the National Assembly, Consejo Nacional Electoral, Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, and many other institutions raises concerns about horizontal accountability. The left has gained substantial influence; moreover, some of Chávez’s most loyal supporters, including governors, National Assembly deputies, and cabinet officials, were once members of the militant left, which was supposedly incorporated into the regime decades ago. Rather than relying on support from unions and professional associations, as AD and COPEI had done, Chávez has cultivated support among the historically marginalized.

The economic situation has also changed radically since the 1970s boom. Although oil prices rose in the mid-2000s, they had hovered around $5 per barrel for over a decade (adjusted for inflation; OPEC 2001), and GDP per capita is down over 40 percent from the 1970s. Inflation is in the double digits, although this is an improvement from its 1996 high of 100 percent. Debt service is more than twice what it was thirty years ago. And the portion of the population in poverty has nearly doubled since the 1970s, increasing from 33 to almost 60 percent (CISOR 1975, 2001).

What has happened in Venezuela since the 1970s? Given the institutionalization of the party system and the oil wealth the nation enjoyed, Venezuela seemed to be safely on route to democratic consolidation. But as the economy deteriorated and the parties did little to respond, people began defecting from the party system. A strong signal of mounting frustration came in the 1989 Caracazo, when violent protests erupted in response to President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s neoliberal program. In 1992, factions of the military attempted two unsuccessful coups, and Pérez was impeached in 1993. By the early 1990s, new parties had begun to appear and contested the 1993 elections, which were won by former COPEI leader Rafael Caldera, who ran as an independent supported by a diverse set of parties. But during his presidency, Caldera found his strongest ally in AD—his longtime nemesis. As the traditional parties closed ranks, Venezuelans found no meaningful alternatives in the party system and turned elsewhere for representation. The prolonged crisis also provoked radical social change, which undermined the parties’ bases of support and increased the numbers of the poor and unemployed, who were excluded from the party system. As a result, the parties lost ties to large swaths of society, encumbering stressed clientelist networks with greater pressure to deliver votes. When financial scarcity and political reforms limited the parties’ resources, clientelist capacities contracted, further weakening their draw.

By the end of the 1990s, the party system collapsed. First, a volatile multiparty system emerged, but Hugo Chávez gradually solidified a near-hegemonic hold on power. Chávez’s repeated reelection and his efforts to restructure institutions and society suggest that Venezuela made a complete break with its history as an institutionalized party democracy.

While particularly severe and surprising in Venezuela, the dynamics and traumatic consequences of party system collapse seen there are not unique. In Italy, the Christian Democrats (DC) dominated post–World War II politics, controlling government with their frequent allies, the Socialists, for over four decades. Italy’s postwar economic resurgence was touted as a miracle. But in the 1980s, public debt escalated and unemployment rates reached double digits. International commitments limited the parties’ ability to address these problems, and patterns of coalition government discredited all the viable system alternatives. Class and religious cleavages lost salience, and economic realities and political reforms strained clientelist resources. By the mid-1990s, the DC and the Socialists had almost evaporated, and the permanent opposition party, the Communists, splintered. In the aftermath, uncharacteristic upheaval, even for Italy, plagued politics, and media baron Silvio Berlusconi monopolized power.

The Venezuelan and Italian systems faced challenges from economic crisis, social change, and political reform, while constraints hindered adaptation, causing collapse. Alternatively, other party systems in countries like 1990s Argentina, which was beleaguered by severe crises, and 1970s Belgium, which faced intractable ethnic divisions, managed to adapt and survive. Why do some party systems collapse when faced with considerable pressures while similar systems confronting seemingly insurmountable obstacles endure? Why do people reject not just the incumbent but the entire menu of options in a party system? What are the implications of this rejection for democracy? This book answers these questions, explaining how breakdowns in party politics occur and examining the ramifications of collapse.

Party System Collapse and Democracy

Political parties are pivotal players in contemporary democracies, serving as vehicles for representation, accountability, and governability, and the system of interactions they form (Sartori [1976] 2005) shapes political contestation and government outcomes. A party system collapses when the parties decay and the structure of the system changes. As a result, patterns of representation, accountability, and governability are likely to change, and processes of contestation are prone to restructuring. The collapse of an entire party system, therefore, marks the complete reshuffling of the democratic order. Explaining this phenomenon, then, is crucial not only for illuminating party system dynamics but also for understanding democratic politics.

Parties are the primary agents of representation and often the only actors with access to elected positions in democratic systems (Hagopian 1998). By channeling the pursuit of interests into an institutional structure, parties peacefully frame competitive politics and allow divergent interests in society to participate through democratic means (Morales Paúl 1996; Przeworski et al. 1995). Parties also help voters hold elected officials accountable, providing heuristics at the polls and facilitating identification of those responsible for government outputs (J. Aldrich 1995). Significant changes in parties, especially the deterioration associated with collapse, may threaten the fulfillment of the crucial tasks that parties perform in democracy.

Changes in party systems likewise have important implications. Party systems organize contestation, shape which interests are articulated and how, and direct government outputs. It follows that modifications in party system structure will have important ramifications, reconfiguring contestation and reshaping policy outcomes. The volatility associated with change may also increase conflict and weaken accountability.

The potential impact of party system collapse is even more profound. The rupture in a party system’s structure and the disintegration of its component parties, which together constitute collapse, have substantial consequences. When collapse occurs, the tasks typically performed by parties, such as promoting accountability and governability, may go unfulfilled. Meanwhile, as interparty interactions undergo dramatic restructuring, the regime may be exposed to instability and conflict. Most ominously, collapse may make the democratic regime vulnerable. The instability of the collapse period makes democracy more tenuous, at least in the short run, as citizens are caught in uncertainty. Collapse also opens the door to new and at times unpredictable actors. Although new groups may address previously unanswered clamor for access, their jockeying for position is likely to elevate conflict. Some emergent actors may directly undermine regime survival by disrespecting democratic norms or threatening entrenched interests. Given the significance of collapse for democracy, analyzing the factors that cause this outcome and examining its consequences provide important insight. Moreover, understanding what causes party systems to be susceptible to collapse may allow policy makers and party leaders to avoid some of the pitfalls that precipitate such catastrophe.

Theoretical Foundations

Many have explored the reasons for and implications of changes in parties and party systems. Scholars have examined the emergence of new parties (Kitschelt 1995), adaptation efforts of existing parties (Kitschelt 1994; Levitsky 2003b), electoral shifts between parties (Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck 1984; Miller and Schofield 2003), and party failure (Lawson and Merkl 1988), among other types of change. Despite this plethora of scholarship on party dynamics, it is not clear whether these arguments, which were largely developed to explain individual party performance, may be directly extended to explain party system collapse. While explanations of collapse may draw inspiration from studies of party dynamics, a successful theory must explain why all the system parties fail simultaneously with changes in the system structure. Nevertheless, much of the existing research on party system collapse emphasizes the features and behavior of individual parties without considering how the entire party system is made vulnerable, neglecting theoretical advancements that account for the system-level features of collapse.

To understand the processes that produce disintegration across entire party systems, I develop a theory of collapse. Based on insights from research examining changes in individual parties and party systems and from studies that have theorized about party system structure, I argue that a system will collapse when it fails to fulfill its primary role in democracy—linking society to the state. Such failure is caused when a party system faces challenges to its core linkage strategies and when specific institutional and environmental constraints limit the ability of the system and its component parties to respond appropriately to these challenges. The party system’s resulting inability to perform the critical task of linkage causes its collapse.

Studies on individual party change demonstrate that for parties to survive, they must channel public concerns (Levitsky 2001b; Panebianco 1988b). Research analyzing electoral shifts within stable system structures argues that failed responsiveness leads voters to abandon one party and embrace another (Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck 1984). Studies explaining continuity and change in system structures suggest that for a system to be effective, it should mirror the demands and configuration of society (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). Jointly, then, the literatures on party dynamics and party system structure suggest that the extent to which a party system provides linkage affects its ability to survive.

Building on these literatures, I argue that for party systems to survive, they must channel and respond to public concerns; without linkage, the system will collapse. To explain why party systems cease to provide adequate linkage, I contend that a system is at risk when structural changes challenge its core linkage profile, demanding a response. If the challenges emerge in a context that limits the parties’ ability to maneuver and address them, linkage deteriorates. The theory synthesizes sociostructural and institutional approaches, delineating how conflicting pressures generated by structural changes and by contextual constraints undermine ties between parties and voters. Unlike more deterministic explanations that view collapse as a natural outcome of threats like economic crisis or corruption (Hillman 1994; Molina and Pérez 1998), my focus on decaying linkage acknowledges the pressures that such challenges present but also analyzes the party system’s response. By examining exactly how the ties between voters and politicians deteriorate in the period leading up to collapse, I illuminate the process through which threatening structural changes generate mounting demands for linkage and how specific constraints restrict the system’s ability to respond to these pressures.

As countries change and evolve, party systems face countless challenges to their ability to provide linkage. Economic crisis, social change, and political reform may complicate a party system’s job. But according to their specific linkage portfolios, different party systems are threatened by distinct challenges and find specific constraints especially difficult to overcome. To explore how particular challenges and constraints make different linkage strategies vulnerable to decay, I consider three main avenues through which party systems respond to demands for linkage: programmatic representation, incorporation of major social interests, and clientelism. In chapter 3, I detail the specific challenges and constraints expected to undermine each type.

Explaining Collapse: Research Design

I trace how structural changes amid contextual constraints led to severe linkage decay and produced party system failure across a diverse group of collapse cases. First, I carry out a detailed examination of Venezuela as a least-likely case. Then, I conduct a cross-national analysis, comparing Venezuela and three other instances of collapse with four cases in which party systems survived despite serious threats. Throughout, I employ large-N statistical analysis, quantitative content analysis, qualitative analysis of interviews and documents, and comparative historical analysis. The data include public opinion surveys, legislative archives, news reports, interviews with party elites, election returns, and government and party documents, as well as secondary sources.

I analyze the Venezuelan collapse in greatest depth because the institutionalized nature of its party system made collapse due to failed representation improbable and surprising. Although Venezuela is not the only long-standing party system that has encountered the trial of collapse, the quality and complexity of the linkage mechanisms in Venezuela rendered complete failure more unlikely there than in the other countries that have experienced collapse. Furthermore, collapse has been particularly challenging for the stability and quality of Venezuelan democracy, making it an excellent case for understanding the ramifications of party system failure.

Explaining complex processes like party system collapse requires detailed analysis, and my treatment of Venezuela constitutes such an approach. But collapse is not a distinctively Venezuelan phenomenon. Therefore, I expand the analysis to consider a broader set of cases that includes instances of both collapse and survival. I conduct comparative analysis of other instances of collapse, demonstrating how the patterns present in Venezuela are replicated in other cases. Linkage failure, caused by particular structural challenges in a context of specific constraints, led to collapse in cases as diverse as Bolivia, Colombia, and Italy.

I also show how other at-risk party systems avoided collapse. I pair each of the four cases of collapse with a similar party system that managed to survive serious threats, matching them on linkage profiles, party system features, and important shared pressures on linkage. I contrast Venezuela to Argentina, Bolivia to India, Colombia to Uruguay, and Italy to Belgium. Analyzing these matched cases of survival clarifies how countries facing some similar challenges avoided collapse by providing at least one form of linkage. In these instances of survival, I find that either the challenges facing the party system did not seriously undermine all components of the system’s linkage profile or the context did not impede the system’s capacity to adapt. When systems failed, foundational threats and limits on appropriate accommodation were present. When systems averted disaster, one of these conditions was absent.

Outline of the Book

The book is organized into three parts. In the rest of part 1, I lay the book’s theoretical foundation. Chapter 2 addresses conceptual issues. I distinguish between party system collapse and other sorts of party or party system change, placing collapse within the broader literature and spelling out how collapse is distinct. I conceptualize collapse as involving the concurrent decay of the major parties and a fundamental transformation in the structure of an established system. Operationalizing this idea, I identify all collapse cases in Europe and Latin America from 1975 to 2005. Then, I explain my rationale for focusing the most detailed analysis on Venezuela’s party system collapse. This chapter will be especially useful to scholars concerned with how collapse fits into the broader panorama of party system change and to those interested in classifying cases of collapse.

In chapter 3, I develop the book’s central theoretical argument. Collapse occurs when structural challenges and constraints on adaptation cause entire party systems to fall short of performing their central task of linkage. I specify three major strategies that parties might employ in fulfilling this task: programmatic appeals, interest incorporation, and clientelism. Then, I develop specific expectations concerning the structural changes that threaten each type of linkage and the constraints that limit the system’s response. If all facets of linkage encounter core challenges that the parties are together unable to address, the system collapses. Readers interested in understanding the theoretical foundations of the causal process underlying collapse will find this chapter particularly valuable.

Those who are most interested in deciphering the Venezuelan case may wish to focus on part 2, which presents the empirical analysis of Venezuelan collapse. Throughout this portion of the book, I draw on considerable original data collected during fifteen months of field research in Venezuela. The data include interviews with eighty-nine political elites, thirty years of public opinion surveys, all laws passed from 1974 to 2004 and news coverage for the same period, documents from party and government archives, election returns, and social and economic data. I elaborate on the collection and analysis of these data in chapter 4, other portions of part 2, and the data appendixes.

Chapter 4 sketches the Venezuelan party system’s founding and evolution. I outline the system’s linkage portfolio at its apex in the 1970s, revealing a multifaceted strategy that included programmatic representation, interest incorporation, and clientelism. But by the late 1980s, rising pressures complicated linkage, and support for the traditional parties began to wane. Then, as chapter 4 describes, in 1988 the system collapsed. The subsequent chapters in part 2 explain it, analyzing decay in each linkage type and showing how linkage failure caused the collapse.

In chapter 5, I examine programmatic decay. Economic crisis heightened pressure on the parties to provide a policy response to worsening conditions. However, analysis of an extensive database I compiled, which details the quantity and significance of policy making on important issues, reveals that responsiveness declined considerably in the late 1980s and 1990s. Rather than responding to the crisis, the parties froze, succumbing to constraints imposed by conflicting incentives that pitted historical legacies of state-led growth against international pressures toward neoliberalism. At the same time that responsiveness failed, the major parties ceased to offer meaningful programmatic alternatives. Patterns of interparty agreements produced ideological convergence among the parties and made it impossible for voters to find alternatives to the status quo within the system. The absence of policy responsiveness and lack of ideological differentiation between major parties produced programmatic discrediting across the entire system.

Chapter 6 explores how incorporation deteriorated in the face of dramatic social change. In the 1990s, the formal sectors of the economy, around which the traditional party system had been built, shrank, while the ranks of the poor, unemployed, and informal sector expanded to over half the population. However, the parties’ incorporation strategies were strongly rooted in the decaying social structure, and conflict between the goals and organizational structures of new and entrenched interests made innovation risky. As a result, they did not pursue the political potential of these burgeoning groups, allowing incorporation to wither.

Chapter 7 shows that clientelism likewise crumbled as the parties faced growing demands, resource shortages, and clientelism-constraining reforms. Increased poverty and uncertainty motivated more Venezuelans to seek clientelist benefits. But the economic situation also limited resources available for political distribution, and the party apparatuses were increasingly shut out of patronage opportunities as technocrats took control of the state and fiscal decentralization rerouted resources to smaller, local, or regional networks. At the same time, the introduction of separate, subnational elections increased the number of electoral processes for which clientelist resources were needed and undermined interdependence between the parties’ geographical units, thereby increasing clientelist demand while reducing the gains achieved through each exchange.

By 1998, programmatic representation, interest incorporation, and clientelism were all floundering. Representation was bankrupt. Chapter 8 brings together the components of the previous three chapters to chronicle the system’s collapse in the 1998 elections and provides a summary of the central arguments concerning the Venezuelan case. By using survey data to analyze Venezuelans’ (lack of) support for the traditional parties at the time of these pivotal elections, I show that the absence of programmatic appeals, failure to incorporate new groups, and clientelist decay were together instrumental in producing the exodus from the old party system.

Part 3 extends the analysis beyond Venezuela, comparing instances of collapse and survival and exploring the ramifications of collapse. The material in this part will be especially relevant to those interested in a broader test of the theoretical argument or in the specific dynamics of the seven cases analyzed here. Chapter 9 outlines the rationale behind the selection of the four sets of paired comparisons between cases of collapse and survival: Bolivia-India, Venezuela-Argentina, Italy-Belgium, and Colombia-Uruguay. Chapter 10 examines Italy, Bolivia, and Colombia, assessing how threats and constraints produced system collapse in each. Through these comparisons, I demonstrate how the patterns in Venezuela were replicated in other cases of collapse. Chapter 11 contrasts the collapse cases with the paired survival cases. As opposed to the collapse cases, in which structural changes threatened core linkage strategies and constraints limited the parties’ response, in the survival cases either significant threats were absent or the pattern of constraints did not impede all successful adaptation, and at least one type of linkage was sustained, enabling the systems’ endurance.

Finally, chapter 12 provides a summary of the book’s major insights and explores the aftermath of collapse. Using evidence from the four collapse cases analyzed here, I detail how post-collapse party systems make up for the representational failings of their predecessors, and I discuss how collapse poses a variety of challenges to democracy, including personalism, deinstitutionalization, instability, and conflict. I conclude by suggesting some ways in which future episodes of collapse might be averted.