Cleavage (politics)

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Cleavages in society according to Lipset/Rokkan

In political science, cleavage is the division of voters into voting blocs.

The preliminary assumption is that voters do not come in predefined groups of pros and cons for or against a certain subject. Ballot analysis assumes that voters opt for a certain party or decide for the solution or option that comes closest to their own position. Cleavage separates the voters into advocates and adversaries on a certain issue, or voting for a certain party. If you imagine parties on a horizontal line for a certain issue, cleavage is the vertical line that divides the parties into supporters and opponents of the issue.


There are numerous cleavages in society, but Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967) defined four basic cleavages for western civilization after the Industrial Revolution. According to Lipset and Rokkan, these cleavages determined the emergence and the content of all European political parties.

  • Centre versus periphery: between elites in the urban areas and those in more outlying areas. This usually expresses itself in terms of regional nationalism. For example, in Spain many regions have regionalist or separatist parties. This division is, according to Lipset and Rokkan, caused by the creation of modern nation-states, where some states were better than others at assimilating other cultures into the majority nation.
  • State versus church: between religious and secular voters. In the Netherlands until the 1970s there were five major parties: the Catholic People's Party (KVP), the Protestant Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) and Christian Historical Union (CHU), the social democratic Labour Party (PvdA), and the liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the last two being secular.
  • Owner versus worker: a class cleavage, causing the formation of parties of the left and parties of the right. Sometimes it is argued that this cleavage represents a conflict between the rich and poor.[1] Various parties have claimed to represent either interest, though this may or may not be genuine.
  • Land versus industry: continued state exercise of control over tariffs, against freedom of control for industrial enterprise.

Contemporary ballot analysis speaks of the emergence of new cleavages. The traditional opposition between owner and worker (capital and labour) is being differentiated further among those who have work/are employable and those who are not. Further, sex becomes another cleavage, especially in regard to getting and maintaining a paid labour position.[clarification needed]

In some 21st century Western European countries like Austria, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland), a new cultural divide is suggested to have arisen, challenging the old primary political cleavage over economic conflicts.[2] This transformation has occurred since the late 1960s, with the New Left that arose in this period espousing libertarian and universalistic values, and a populist right reaction arising from the 1980s espousing traditionalist and communitarian ones.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gallagher, M., Laver, M., Mair, P. (2006), Representative Government in Modern Europe. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 268-269.
  2. ^ Oesch, Daniel (2012). "The Class Basis of the Cleavage between the New Left and the Radical Right: an analysis for Austria, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland". In Rydgren, Jens (ed.). Class Politics and the Radical Right. Routledge. pp. 31–52.
  3. ^ Bornschier, Simon; Kriesi, Hanspeter (2012). "The populist right, the working class, and the changing face of class politics". In Rydgren, Jens (ed.). Class Politics and the Radical Right. Routledge. pp. 10–29.

Further reading[edit]