Political Parties: Images and Policy Reputations

What are party images? What is a policy reputation?

In the course of their lives, political parties acquire policy reputations. That is, individuals and groups evaluate a party’s position on the issues of the day. The totality of these perceptions is referred to as their “party image”.

Distinct issues fragment party images, such that a party may have the reputation of being a defender of women’s interests, while its reputation as proponent of the poor may be different. At the same time, social groups may disagree on party image; for example, women may view a party’s reputation as representing women differently than men.

Many party image studies focus on how party images influence who people vote for, but I am interested in the relationship between party image and other aspects of democracy, including the health of the party system, attitude toward democracy, and democratic engagement.

That voters have images of the available political parties is sometimes taken as a sign that parties continue to be relevant actors, a positive indicator of the health of the party system. As an indicator of how well the party system works, party images are associated with attitude toward democracy and democratic engagement.

The relationship works in the following way. Beyond establishing formal universal political rights, the political inclusion of the disadvantaged is required to enhance the quality of democracy. The party system is therefore central to democratic functioning.

No matter how slow the democratic inclusion of the disadvantaged, at the very least the disadvantaged and the public at large should believe that the major political parties in the government care about women, the poor, and the elderly.

At the same time, social and economic marginalization can adversely affect democratic engagement. In countries such as Poland, where acceptance of democracy as the ideal form of government is not a given and propensity to vote is relatively low, a belief that the party system fails the disadvantaged is psychologically demobilizing, both for disadvantaged groups and the public at large. Those who believe that the party system is a failure would be more likely to be noncommittal toward democracy and less willing to participate in politics.

Do Political Parties Represent Women, the Poor, and the Elderly?

I used a subsample of POLPAN 2008 to examine the reputations of ten Polish political parties for representing women, the poor, and the elderly. I reconceptualized party image as an individual-level subjective evaluation of the party system. Evaluation of the party system is measured by whether an individual believes that at least one of the ten parties represents the disadvantaged to either a high or moderate degree.

The key finding in this article is that nonpositive evaluations of the party system, in terms of refusing to definitively endorse any party as representing the disadvantaged, are negatively associated with attitude toward democracy and democratic engagement. The effect of nonpositive evaluations is not specific to disadvantaged groups’ evaluation of their own representation; rather, it is a general condition that strikes a sizable portion of the entire social structure.

Three major conclusions of this study

  1. First, people differentiate the reputation of parties with respect to parties’ representing disadvantaged groups of women, poor, and old. Different parties are seen as representing different disadvantaged groups. A full fifth of the population does not know where the four major parties stand on policies toward women, the poor, and the elderly.
  2. Second, belonging to disadvantaged groups has only a small impact on the view as to whether a given party represents the interest of these groups.
  3. Third, the overall image of the party system with respect to representing disadvantaged groups has a sizable impact on political attitudes, view of democracy, and intention of voting. The significant few who have a nonpositive evaluation of the party system are less likely to think that democracy is always the best form of government and are less likely to want to vote.

This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2012. “Do Political Parties Represent Women, the Poor and the Old? Party Image, Party System and Democracy.” International Journal of Sociology 42(1): 78 – 86.