The development of political elites in Europe

Authored by: Luca Verzichelli , Maurizio Cotta

Routledge Handbook of European Politics

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415626750
eBook ISBN: 9781315755830
Adobe ISBN: 9781317628361


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The history of European democracies is, to a large extent, a history of political elites. Between the last decades of the nineteenth century and World War I (WWI), when most of the European nation-states slowly began to experiment with pluralistic representation, the role played by political elites was crucial. According to Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and Robert Michels – the three scholars generally associated with classic elite theory – the process of political modernization was accomplished thanks to the formation of stable groups of national political elites whose awareness and capabilities enabled them to unify pre-existing scattered groups of local notables, thus dramatically redefining the profiles and the mission of European ruling classes. As has been extensively debated (e.g. Parry 1969: Ch. 2), classic elite scholars focused their attention on the explanation of the ‘necessary gap’ between the minority of the population taking the important political decisions and the rest of the ruled subjects. Whereas Mosca and Pareto were somewhat vague about the democratic nature of this process, Michels (the first elite scholar to envisage the crucial role of political parties in the selection and articulation of political leadership) stressed the fact that democratization could restrain but not oppose oligarchic tendencies, conceiving the democratic process as a compromise between oligarchies.

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