Examing Almond and Sartori on Political Culture and Stability

By Dominykas Broga
2012, Vol. 4 No. 02 | pg. 1/1
"There is a wealth of ignorance and a poverty of knowledge about the symptoms and origins of political instability" – Smith.1

Gabriel Almond and Giovanni Sartori provided fruitful insights into the approaches to political stability. Almond focused on socio-anthropological aspects of societal relations and argued that fragmentation of political cultures – a set of values, attitudes, meanings, and ideologies within which a political system is embedded, determines the extent of political instability.2 On the other hand, Sartori made a distinction between stable and unstable political party systems.3 He disputed that segmentation and polarization of the system depends on the number of relevant political parties engaged in the political battles. In turn, this essay examines the cases of Weimar Republic, French Third and Fourth Republics and post-war Italy to determine if the conceptual validity of Almond’s and Sartori’s theories persists. It is argued that both theories seem to capture important sets of causes of instability, however, they overemphasize their sets of factors over no less important aspects, such as constitutional arrangements, electoral systems or external disturbances. Moreover, both theories provide overgeneralistic approaches and miss crucial cross-country differences.

According to Gabriel Almond’s model, France, Germany and Italy are classified as Continental European Systems that suffer from inherent fragmentation of political culture that result from uneven patterning of historical development of socio-economic relations.4 According to him, such patterning contributed to the rise of three different subcultures, namely, the pre-industrial Catholic, the secular bourgeois, and the industrial modernized sub-culture,5 which secluded potentials for party cooperation and exhibited conflicting, mutually exclusive designs for political system. Such affinity leads to further fragmentation of existing sub-cultures at the ideological level, creating conservative wings, semi-secular factions and movements – so-called cleavages.6 Therefore, Almond argues, political actors ‘preach the political system in place contributing to immobilism of forma-legal institutions’7, and a lack of consensus on political and social values is the basis for political instability.8As a result, the load upon the system has a potential to result in distorted development and authoritarian rule.9

Almond is right to claim that all three case-study countries featured three different subcultures which contributed to instability to some extent. France under Third and Fourth Republics was challenged by profound division over the legitimacy of the regime by the supporters of the monarchy against supporters of the Republic.10 The Catholic Church was opposed by Republicans who sought to base the system’s neutrality of secular state.11 Yet, as a result of the historical socio-political instability of previous regimes, the secular sub-culture failed to facilitate a through-going secularization failing to outcrop the existing Catholic pre-industrial culture. Moreover, the failures of industrialization lead to a hostile industrial sub-culture operating under the umbrella of the Communist Party.12 Also, political disputes over the role of the state in French public life, the relations with Germany, and differing views on continuing colonization eroded sub-cultural cohesion and were translated into multiple cleavages, escalating political conflict.13

Similarly, in the Weimar Republic, the divide between the supporters of hierarchical organization of the society clashed with the advocates of the ideals of the French revolution.14 Both major sub-cultures were present in Germany, the old-system subculture being divided between the Catholics and the Protestants. Moreover, the rapid industrialization at the end of the 19th Century led to the emergence of a cohesive industrial sub-culture that aimed to re-draft the status-quo.15 Having to accommodate conflicting interests of all German cleavages, the Weimar Republic often failed to deliver satisfactory policies on the most alarming issues.

Whereas Italy locked at differing levels of socio-economic development. The most profound divide of industrial North and the economically backward South seems to correlate with the industrial sub-culture, namely, industrial North and agricultural South.16 The divide led to the rise of all three sub-cultures identified by Almond – the Northern bourgeois sub-culture, the Southern old-regime Catholic sub-culture, and the industrial sub-culture of the North, all themselves divided into a myriad of mutually-reinforcing cleavages.17 In the effort to keep the popular Communist Party out of the government, the Christian Democrats had to rely on fragile coalitions of four-five partners, unable to bring about significant changes, but contain the Communist threat.

Although it seems that Almond’s model explains instability in all three case- studies, it could be disputed that instability and party politics might not be read as a straightforward translation of cleavage issues on the political stage.18 After all, not only left-wing parties, but also conservative parties, such as French Gaulists, the German or Italian Christian Democrats, or even far-right- wing ones, like France’s Front National, benefited from working-class support. Or in Italy, the subcultures which underpinned electoral support for the Communist Party and the secular parties of the Centre were always one step removed from direct class-voting correlations: the DC had large pockets of working-class support in the South, while the PCI counted small entrepreneurs as well as workers among its supporters in its heartlands of North-Central Italy.19

Also, Almond’s model seems to be unresponsive to possible changes within the systems. Although political instability of the Weimar Republic did indeed lead to a totalitarian regime as predicted by the theory, France, and more profoundly Italy, has followed very different routes. The decades of unchanging status-quo in Italian politics eroded sub-cultural lines of the Italian populace.20 Desperate for change, large segments of the Italian population shifted their support from the parties they once faithfully followed to newly emerging anti-system parties – leading to a final break-down of the post-war status-quo and a more stable – yet democratic, political system.21

Giovanni Sartori, on the other hand, tried to classify three case-countries under polarized pluralistic model, which tends to be most unstable due to the party-systems dominated by a strong ideological polarization.22 He argued that the existence of five relevant parties and a wide ideological gap between them assures a broad fragmentation of party-politics and rules out the possibility for a consensus.23 Also, three or more poles of the political spectrum are occupied – the far left and the far right being identified as anti-system parties, working to undermine the legitimacy of the system.24 Whereas the occupation of the centre and the existence of bipolar oppositions discourage centripetal competition and lead to rapid polarization of party-politics broadening their ideological distance between the poles.25 Moreover, the permanent occupation of the centre gives rise to irresponsible oppositions – parties on the poles engage in the politics of outbidding making strong appeals and promises which they will not have to fulfill. That in turn leads to instability in the political system.

France under the Fourth Republic seems to fit Sartori’s model well. The polarisation was worsened by the existence of multiple anti-system parties (the Gaullists, the Monarchists, and the Communists – taking roughly 50% of the vote).26 The centre-parties had to create fragile alliances to prevent a further loss of votes to one of the extremes. Furthermore, the system was dominated by centrifugal drives making the coalitions hard to maintain. Multiple ideological cleavages were translated to a myriad of political parties all trying to negotiate benefits for their segment of the populace and refusing the step down from their ideological goals, thus immobilizing the parliament.27

However, the case of Germany shows that Sartori ignores country-specific features. It is true, that Weimar Republic experienced high fragmentation. Political debate was marked by irresponsible politics with political parties putting their interests and policies first, rather than trying to negotiate a mutually acceptable consensus. It also experienced high degree of centrifugal drives within the system until the 1928 elections. However, this trend found a reverse in 1928 with the electorate shifting back to centre parties. Although the system still faced anti-system oppositions from both poles of the political spectrum, there was an unquestionable sign that centripetal drives would become dominant after all, which gives a reasonable thought if the party system faced collapse due to the high fragmentation and polarisation rooted in social cleavages, or it was caused by other forces like the economic crisis of 1929-1931 that brought back old tensions and distrust of the electorate.

Moreover, the case of Italy seems to visualize some inconsistencies in Sartori’s theory as well. Italy was perceived by Sartori as the best contemporary example of polarized pluralism. Indeed, between 1945 and 1988 there were 48 governments - “an average of one new government approximately every eleven months.”28 Given the relative electoral strength of anti-system parties – the CPI and the MSI-DN, the perpetuation of the system rested on the permanent occupation of the centre by the DC depriving the Republic of an alternative government. Receiving no more than 35% of the vote, the DC had to form fragile coalitions with minor parties that had no incentive in pursuing moderate policies, and preferred to maintain their electoral identities.29 The system was thus dominated by centrifugal drives with minor parties becoming more and more extreme in their manifestos, and with both extremes gaining votes at the expense of the centre.30 Governing coalitions were dominated by internal disputes over the role of religion, the Church, and distribution of resources. Nevertheless, Paollo Farneti argued that in the course of the 1970s, ideological polarisation in Italy became less acute, and PCI ceased to be an anti-system party.31 Thus, Italy seems to be constituted as a polarized pluralist system only from 1944 to 1961, but as from 1965 it seems to fall into centripetal category. Hence, Sartori’s model seems to lack flexibility to accommodate to the changing features of Italian political-system.

In addition, although Giovanni Sartori and Gabriel Almond provide compelling cases for political stability, their overemphasis on political parties and sociological aspects tend to be unresponsive to other factors that may contribute to governmental instability. Firstly, classical political scientists such as Finer, Hermens and Duvenger blamed proportional representation for the lack of ideological moderation which eventually led to the breakdown of democracy in Weimar Republic.32 Proportional representation did not hinder small anti-system parties from addressing small segments of electorate, sometimes through extreme ideologies. It meant increased differentiation and coalition making that were proved to be highly unstable. Also, both theories neglected the role of constitutions. The French Constitution placed the fragmented parliament above the government contributing to profound governmental instabilities.33 Moreover, under the Fourth Republic, General de Gaulle found fault with the ‘system’ that led to the end of the Republic. 34 Similarly, the constitution of the Weimar Republic granted presidential emergency powers which were used to deliver an end to the Republic itself.35 On the other hand, the Italian constitution did not bring the regime to an end, however established a ‘regional devolution’36 which reinforced socio-political cleavages. In turn, these contributed to the instability of the regime. Finally, both Almond and Sartori excluded the fact that stability of a society may be threatened by sources external to society,37 such as external shocks that shape party systems and their behavior. In the end, it was the economic crisis of 1929 that brought back all the old tensions and undermined fragile political stability of the Weimar Republic.38 Moreover, the Algerian Crisis accelerated centrifugal tendencies in the french system, whereas it was the role of USA and Vatican that protected the post-war status-quo in Italy.39

To conclude, although compelling, models of Almond and Sartori do not provide an adequate explanation of political instability in all three case-study countries. It has been argued that all three countries had been inherently divided by three different subcultures, namely, the pre-industrial Catholic, the secular bourgeois, and the industrial modernized sub-culture. However it has been shown that socio-cultural cleavages do not necessarily follow a straightforward translation of cleavage issues on the political stage and depend on the country’s individual specificities. In addition, it could be seen that Sartori’s typology correctly identifies certain aspects of instability that depend on the dynamics of party-politics, however, similarly to Almond’s model, cannot provide a fully adequate explanation of political instability. Neither of the theories accounts for factors, such as constitutional arrangements, electoral systems and external disturbances and both overemphasize their set of factors over other no less important aspects of political instability.


Almond, G. A. (1956). Comparative Political Systems. The Journal of Politics , 391-409.

Bell, D. S. (2002). French Politics Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bull, M. J., & Newel, J. (1993). Italian Politics and the 1992 Elections: From 'Stable Instability' to Instability and Change. Parliamentary Affairs , 203-227.

Caramani, D. (2008). Comparative Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daalder, I. H. (1983). The Italian Party System in Transition: The End of Polarized Pluralism? West European Politics , 216-236.

Dahl, R. A. (1968). Political Oppositions in Western Democracies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Davies, C. J. (1969). Political Stability and Instability: Some Manifestations and Causes. The Journal of Conflict Resolution , 1-17 .

Furlong, P. (1991). Government Stability and Electoral Systems: the Italian Example. Parliamentary Affairs , 50-59.

Hancock, D. M. (2002). Politics in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keating, M. (1999). The Politics of Modern Europe. Cheltenham: Edward ElgarPublishing Limited.

Lane, J.-E., & Ersson, S. O. (1987). Politics and Society in Western Europe. London: SAGE Publications.

Meny, Y., & Knapp, A. (1987). Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy, Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rothman, S., Scarrow, H., & Schain, M. (1976). European Society and Politics: Britain, France and Germany. New York: West Publishing Co.

Sartori, G. (1990). A Typology of Party Systems. In P. Mair, The West European Party System (pp. 316-349). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, G. (1986). Democracy in Western Germany: Parties and Politics in the Federal Republic. Aldershot: Gower.

Smith, G. (1989). Politics in Western Europe. Aldershot: Gower.

1.) Davies, C. J., ‘Political Stability and Instability: Some Manifestations and Causes’ page 1

2.) Almond, G. A., ‘Comparative Political Systems’ page 396

3.) Government and politics in Estern Europe by Meny page 106

4.) Almond, G. A., ‘Comparative Political Systems’ page 406

5.) Ibid. page 406

6.) Ibid. page 407

7.) Ibid. page 408

8.) Davies, C. J., ‘Political Stability and Instability: Some Manifestations and Causes’ page 2

9.) Caramani, D. ‘Comparative Politics’ page 322

10.) Bell, D. S. ‘French Politics Today’ page 4

11.) Ibid. page 5

12.) Ibid. page 6

13.) Bell, D. S. ‘French Politics Today’ page 10-11

14.) Smith, G., ‘Democracy in Western Germany: Parties and Politics in the Federal Republic’ page 3

15.) Ibid., page 6

16.) Bull, M. J., & Newel, J. ‘Italian Politics and the 1992 Elections: From 'Stable Instability' to Instability and Change’ page 210

17.) Ibid., pages 215-217

18.) Smith, G. ‘Politics in Western Europe’ page 33

19.) Meny, Y., & Knapp, A., ‘Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy, Germany’ page 22

20.) Bull, M. J., & Newel, J. ‘Italian Politics and the 1992 Elections: From 'Stable Instability' to Instability and Change pages 212-213

21.) Ibid., pages 217-218

22.) Meny, Y., & Knapp, A., ‘Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy, Germany’ page 106

23.) Sartori, G. ‘A Typology of Party Systems’ in P. Mair, ‘The West European Party System’ page 329

24.) Ibid., page 329

25.) Ibid., pages 330-331

26.) Bell, D. S. ‘French Politics Today’ page 9

27.) Ibid., page 9

28.) Furlong, P., ‘Government Stability and Electoral Systems: the Italian Example’ page 50

29.) Ibid., page 52

30.) Daalder, I. H., ‘The Italian Party System in Transition: The End of Polarised Pluralism?’ page 211

31.) Meny, Y., & Knapp, A., ‘Government and Politics in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy, Germany’ page 107

32.) Caramani, D. ‘Comparative Politics’ page 330

33.) Bell, D. S. ‘French Politics Today’ page 13

34.) Dahl, R. A., ‘Political Oppositions in Western Democracies’ page 290

35.) Smith, G., ‘Democracy in Western Germany: Parties and Politics in the Federal Republic’ pages 18-20

36.) Hancock, D. M., ‘Politics in Europe’ page 257

37.) Lane, J.-E., & Ersson, S. O. ‘Politics and Society in Western Europe’ page 5

38.) Keating, M., ‘The Politics of Modern Europe’ page 303

39.) Bell, D. S. ‘French Politics Today’ page 9; Smith, G., ‘Democracy in Western Germany: Parties and Politics in the Federal Republic’ page 32; Daalder, I. H., ‘The Italian Party System in Transition: The End of Polarised Pluralism?’ page 224

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