Life in the political parties

An unprecedented study in Brazil reveals who party activists are and what they think

Activist members of the largest Brazilian political parties are older, more educated, and earn higher incomes than the average population. Despite their positive beliefs and attitudes toward political participation and institutions, they are dissatisfied with intraparty democracy. The data are the result of the first survey conducted with party affiliates in Brazil, and are part of the thematic research project Organização e funcionamento da política representativa no estado de São Paulo (1994 e 2014) (Organization and operation of representative politics in the state of São Paulo [1994 and 2014]). It was developed over the last five years under the supervision of Rachel Meneguello, tenured professor at the Department of Political Science of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (DCP-IFCH-UNICAMP).

The survey was conducted in the state of São Paulo with 445 members of the 10 largest Brazilian parties (DEM, PDT, PMDB, PP, PPS, PR, PSB, PSDB, PT and PTB), which taken together account for about 80% of the country’s total political affiliation. These parties were responsible for the election of 86% of federal representatives in 2010 and 72% in 2014. They account for 2.4 million of the 3 million registered party members in the most economically developed state in the country, comprised of 32 million total voters, or approximately 20% of the national electorate. The number of respondents, all with self-declared party affiliations, conformed to the proportion of members in each of the ten selected parties. Data was collected between October and December 2013 across 22 municipalities in every region of São Paulo State, including the capital, chosen at random. The project has broken new ground by doing an internal study of party life. “This is the first academic research in the country that has heard directly from members of the political parties,” says Meneguello.

The unprecedented nature of the research is understandable in light of the difficulty of accessing data on activism. In Brazil, partisan membership is regulated and controlled by the electoral judicial system and is a mandatory requirement for anyone who wants to run for an elective position. However, the information that would allow locating party affiliates is kept secret, and most parties don’t have an accurate record of their members. “All this makes it difficult to carry out surveys with a representative sampling across the entire spectrum of political parties,” observes political scientist Oswaldo do Amaral, a professor at DCP-UNICAMP, who, along with political scientist Pedro Floriano Ribeiro from the Department of Social Sciences of the Federal University of São Carlos (DCS-UFSCAR), was responsible for analyzing the data. In order to overcome this obstacle, it was decided to focus the data collection on activist gathering places, such as city halls and public buildings, in addition to central squares and avenues.

The result of this campaign allowed the researchers to outline the sociodemographic profile of the activists and compare it with the characteristics of the general population. While the electorate of the state of São Paulo is predominantly female, with 52.4% women voters, political activists are mostly male, accounting for 67.2% of the membership. A majority of 68% of activists is in the 35–59 age group, as opposed to 45% of the state’s general electorate, while 71.7% of the activists self-identified as white. As with the general population, the predominant religion is Catholic, accounting for 58% of political party affiliates. The majority of the activists surveyed, 59.3%, have some university education. Regarding family income, 27.4% reported earning from two to five times the minimum wage. An almost identical number stated they earned from five to ten times the minimum wage, and about 10% of the activists earned more than twenty times the minimum wage.

The profile did not surprise the researchers. “Both the general surveys and the interviews conducted exclusively with party members outline the same profile as contemporary activists in other traditional democracies: male, older than the average population, and with higher socioeconomic status, in terms of income and education,” Amaral explains. The predominant occupation of the activists interviewed is public sector work; 58.9% are employees of government-run companies or government agencies. Of the interviewees, 45% reported that they had in the past, or were currently, engaged in some paid activity related to the party. The predominance of public servants among political activists can be understood, in Amaral’s assessment, because of the importance of state resources to the functioning of the parties. “More and more, parties depend on state resources, as much for campaigns and elections as to make their political machines work. Politicians appoint people linked to their own parties as their advisors and to assume positions of trust. These advisors carry out both government and partisan activities, such as campaigns, and meetings with activists, for example,” he says. According to the researcher, this phenomenon is common to all political parties, the world over.

Moved by their political convictions, 37.1% of activists decided to join a party, while 28.5% decided to register for the possibility of partisan social interaction. The largest percentage of activists (29.2%) were recruited by the party itself, including at electoral rallies, or were influenced to join by friends and relatives (27.6%). Another 9.2% opted to join a party after being sought out by elected politicians, while 8.8% registered as a result of union participation. About a quarter of the activists make periodic financial contributions to the party with which they’re affiliated—monthly or annually. An almost identical percentage made donations for the 2010 or 2012 election campaigns.

The majority of party affiliates can be considered active. A full 89% said they dedicate some time each month to their party and 81% claimed they had engaged in some type of party activity in 2013, the year of the survey, when there were no elections in the country. Some 26% reported allocating more than 30 hours per month to the party. That same year more than 50% attended local chapter meetings, 44% met with elected representatives, and 33% were active in recruiting new members. When questioned about the principal functions that a party should perform, the majority of the activists indicated roles the researchers considered “representative democracy classics,” such as articulating and expressing their demands: 47% cited the promotion of ideas and ideologies, and 42% the representation of social groups. “It is an idealized vision of the party, as a bridge between civil society and the government,” Ribeiro observes.

To understand the intensity of political participation, Amaral and Ribeiro used an analytical model derived from the “general incentive model.” Developed by British researchers Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley in 1992, the model brings together sociopsychological motivations and incentive theory, and is considered the most complete available for understanding the participation of individuals. Amaral and Ribeiro state that the dependent variable for the study was constructed based on the number of hours that the members dedicate to their party per month. This was due to three factors: the existence of recent comparative studies that use the same criterion to measure the level of affiliate activism, the fact that the activities most commonly performed are very similar to each other, and the finding that each activist performs, on average, 3.38 different activities. Given the existing categories in the questionnaires applied, activists were placed into three groups: those who dedicate up to 10 hours a month, those who dedicate between 10 and 30 hours a month, and those who dedicate more than 30 hours per month.

The researchers found that the three types of political efficacy assessed—the efficacy of voting, of the party, and the party performance—were statistically significant. The results of the model’s application will be made public soon, in an international periodical on the subject. “The greater the belief in the importance of political action by the individual or the party, the greater the chance of devoting more hours to party activities,” they note, in a joint article. Confirming the researchers’ expectations, education and gender have an impact on the level of activism. “Having attended college increases the probability of higher levels of participation in party activities by about 70%; being male, by more than 50%.” Amaral and Ribeiro observe that the variable “incentive types” was statistically insignificant. “The principal motives for party affiliation cannot explain higher levels of participation, contradicting part of our hypothesis and the literature, which credits the importance of collective incentives as the principal motivation for activism.” The only variable that presented a result different from that predicted was occupational status: “The activists who have formal employment participate less in party activities. Since the variable “education” continued to work in the expected direction, it is difficult to make more definitive considerations regarding this outcome,” the researchers wrote.

Regarding the efficacy of political participation itself, to 68% of the activists the individual vote has a lot of influence on the country’s direction. The parties’ level of influence on national politics in turn received an average score of 5.4 from their respective members, on a scale ranging from 1 (very little) to 7 (a lot). Most of the activists, however, pointed out that they considered their influence was reduced when they evaluated individual participation in the decision-making process of the party itself. The general average of 3.76 can be interpreted, the article’s authors explain, as a symptom of a negative assessment regarding the internal democracy of the parties themselves, and suggest that the activists don’t see many avenues for participation. “This dissatisfaction with intraparty democracy is also found among party members in more established democracies,” they note.

According to Amaral and Ribeiro, the results of their research reinforce what has been indicated by some of the recent literature on Brazilian parties, and would contradict the argument promoted by those who insist on considering them mere “legal fictions.” They also deconstruct the notion suggested by common sense: political parties have an inner life even outside electoral periods and there is a “hard core” of activists that doesn’t differ much in number and profile from that found in other countries’ political parties. Considering their relatively shallow roots, Brazilian parties are not as fragile as one might suppose. There is a belief in the efficacy of political action, but in contradiction to one of the researcher’s initial hypotheses, the type of benefit activists expect does not impact on their level of activism within the party. “The search for collective incentives, an important explanatory factor for high levels of participation in other contexts, is not significant among Brazilian activists,” they write. In addition, belief in institutions is higher than in the general population.

About 17 million Brazilians, or more than 11% of the national electorate, are affiliated with one of the country’s 35 political parties. According to Amaral and Ribeiro, this percentage is higher than that found in older European democracies, whose average rate is 5%, and also higher than that observed in countries such as Spain and Portugal, and post-Communist nations. One possible explanation for this phenomenon, whose understanding will depend on deeper analyses, could be in the large number of Brazilian municipalities and in the vast field for competition that they represent. In addition, official registries and party records often overestimate. “This occurs in every country and is recognized by the international literature. In the case of the state of São Paulo, in addition to indicating the entry of new members a few months before the municipal elections, and the continued affiliation of those who were already party members, it must be observed that the parties don’t usually register when their activists leave the party,” explains Amaral. Ribeiro says that the research findings done in the state can conceivably be extrapolated to represent the entire country. “I believe we’ll find committed activists in the principal parties in the other states of the federation. But it will only be possible to state with certainty that the results of the survey are valid for the entire country when a national survey is carried out in the same manner,” he observes.

Initiated to analyze the organization and functioning of representative politics in the state of São Paulo from 1994 to 2014, the profile of party activism in São Paulo is only one of the aspects developed as part of the thematic research project coordinated by Rachel Meneguello, with collaboration from six other professors and twenty-five students from four state higher education and research institutions. Besides UFSCAR and UNICAMP, São Paulo State University (UNESP) and the University of São Paulo (USP) also participated. “Our pursuit of an affiliates profile is part of a broader analysis of the characteristics of party politics and how they reflect social changes,” Meneguello observes. “Political parties have always been a male domain, and despite the initiatives for greater incorporation of women—with the quotas policy, for example—the organizations replicate the predominance of men in their internal organization, including within the scope of membership and activism. The parties have very limited policies for encouraging female participation, and none of the political groups studied included more than 40% women in the group of respondents,” she points out. In addition to identifying the organizational structures of political parties and understanding how they function, the project also examined the competitive and representative dimensions of state policy. With its emphasis on empirical research, it generated a significant database, with data regarding competition and voting patterns throughout the state, the foundations of political powers and their electoral and organizational strategies, the operational characteristics of local lawmaker elites, and the quality of relationships between voters and the system of representation in São Paulo.

Much of this data, including numerous maps showing the distribution of local voter preferences since 1994, is already available on the project’s website or at the Center For Studies On Public Opinion (CESOP), a locus for interdisciplinary research established by UNICAMP in 1992. “The survey questionnaire on party activism, for example, can be used to replicate our research in other states,” Meneguello notes. A student of political parties and elections, she has observed a growing interest in the subject, and says that the discussion around party representativeness has today become “a global challenge.” “One of the principal motivations for the project was to confront the crisis in the political parties, and the institutional crisis, which affect the entire representative system,” explains Meneguello, noting that both crises are found in contemporary party democracies. “Political parties around the world have had difficulty adjusting to the structural transformations of politics. The political scene in general is one of strong dissatisfaction with institutions and with the solutions they present. But this is less a problem with the parties themselves and more about contemporary representative governments,” she concludes. If we consider that there are at least three essential functions of a political party—to organize political competition, to govern, and to conduct the activities of the legislature—the researchers’ work is just beginning.

Organization and operation of representative politics in the state of São Paulo (1994 and 2014) (no. 12/19330-8); Grant Mechanism Thematic Research Grant; Principal Investigator Rachel Meneguello (UNICAMP); Investment R$793,416.55.