Cleavages Research Paper

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In political science, cleavages explain the underlying dimensions of contestation in countries as well as the formation and persistence of political party systems. But cleavages are more than just political divisions. In their seminal article “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments” (1967), Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan defined cleavages as having three main characteristics. First, a cleavage involves a social division that separates people by sociocultural or socioeconomic characteristics. Second, people involved in the division must be aware of their collective identity and must be willing to act on the basis of that identity. Finally, a cleavage must be expressed in organizational terms, such as political parties or interest groups. These characteristics not only distinguish a cleavage from a temporary issue-based conflict but also allow researchers to consider the persistence or decay of cleavages.

In Western Europe, four main cleavages defined the party systems of the post–World War II period (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). The national revolution yielded two potential cleavages: the religious and the center/periphery. Historians and political scientists alike recognize the significance of religious conflict in the formation of party systems. It pitted state builders against the church, especially in Catholic countries. The religious cleavage is unevenly distributed across Europe, being especially significant in those countries with a substantial Catholic minority or majority, such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands (Lijphart 1999). In political terms, this cleavage contributes to the social left-right dimension in many countries on contested issues such as divorce, abortion, and gay rights. In the early twenty-first century a new religious cleavage may be emerging in European countries with significant Muslim minorities.

The center/periphery cleavage also arose during nation-building times, between centralizing forces and the peripheral peoples who sought to retain independence or autonomy. In almost all countries in Western Europe, there are organizational manifestations of regionalist or ethnic groups. The social characteristics that define this cleavage can be linguistic or ethnic differences. The center/periphery or cultural-ethnic cleavage is contested in all the societies that Arend Lijphart, in Patterns of Democracy (1999), considers plural, that is, having substantial cultural or ethnic diversity.

In plural societies, especially beyond the developed world, contestation over this cleavage may be associated with ethnic violence. But, as Robert Dahl, in Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), argues, plural societies, like the United States, can achieve a level of democratic success if cleavages are cross-cutting rather than reinforcing. In other words, most individuals belong to more than one group and, so long as the memberships do not overlap, a coherent and tyrannical majority is unlikely to form.

In addition to the national revolution, the industrial revolution created or strengthened two additional cleavages. First, the national revolutions in Europe often pitted rural and agrarian interests against industrial entrepreneurs. Second, the industrial revolution crystallized the class conflict between workers and owners in many European countries. Politically, this cleavage manifests itself as the political-economic left-right dimension. As Lipset and Rokkan note (1967), the worker/owner cleavage is “the expression of the democratic class struggle.” This cleavage remains the main dimension of political contestation in almost all advanced industrial democracies (Lijphart 1999).

In retrospect, party systems institutionalized the existing cleavages in European society. Thus, the Conservative party in Britain represented the owners against Labour, while elsewhere in Europe, Christian Democratic parties represented Catholic social doctrine. In the late twentieth century, many political scientists considered whether European party systems remained frozen around these underlying cleavages, or whether new cleavages had emerged, such as a postindustrial or postmaterialist cleavage. The concept of cleavage thus retains its significance in both theoretical and empirical research.


  1. Dahl, Robert. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Lijphart, Arend. 1999. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Stein Rokkan. 1967. Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments. In Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives, ed. Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan, 1–64. New York: Free Press.

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