Cleavage (politics)

In political science and sociology, a cleavage is a historically determined social or cultural line which divides citizens within a society into groups with differing political interests, resulting in political conflict among these groups.[1] Social or cultural cleavages thus become political cleavages once they get politicized as such.[2] Cleavage theory accordingly argues that political cleavages predominantly determine a country's party system as well as the individual voting behavior of citizens, dividing them into voting blocs.[3] It is distinct from other common political theories on voting behavior in the sense that it focuses on aggregate and structural patterns instead of individual voting behaviors.[4]

Cleavages in West European societies according to Lipset & Rokkan

Classical cleavage theories have generally been focused on the persistence of dominant conflicts within national political systems over the course of history. Political sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967) for example used the term in their often cited essay on cleavage structures in West European politics.[5] In their essay, the authors argue how the European party systems at their time of writing were still largely based on the social and cultural cleavages that characterized European societies a century earlier. They therefore argue that these 'frozen party systems' can be seen as political expressions of historically determined societal divisions.[5]

Although some authors have claimed that the cleavages in Lipset and Rokkan's theory are still dominant for contemporary voting behaviors in Western Europe, others have argued that these traditional cleavages have become less important and new conflict lines have emerged.[6] Conflicts that have emerged around several new political cleavages are for example cultural, such as conflicts over integration and multiculturalism, or environmental, such as ongoing politics over climate change.


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