Political Entrepreneurship and Civil Society

Book Review: Catherine E. De Vries and Sara B. Hobolt. Political Entrepreneurs: The Rise of Challenger Parties in Europe. Princeton, United States: Princeton University Press, 2020. 

The European Union brings together 27 democratic member states, which all have individual domestic political arrangements. Issues that divide politics in one nation-state can lead to divisions in supranational decision-making and the increasing fragmentation of political discourse on a national level, therefore, represents challenges for the bloc as a whole. There is a need to study issue emergence on an European level in order to better understand the mechanisms that drive contemporary political debate. Catherine De Vries’ and Sara Hobolt’s work Political Entrepreneurs: The Rise of Challenger Parties aims to advance the academic debate in this field with a quantitative study about political issue emergence. While the work provides valuable insights into why certain parties choose to mobilise certain issues in their programmes, the book does not demonstrate why these issues become important in our society and how they are legitimised in our discourse. 

De Vries and Hobolt provide an innovative approach to European party politics. They root their argument in the belief that “in order to understand change in European politics, we need to account for the drivers of both the political upheavals we have observed recently and the decades of relative stability and dominance of the traditional mainstream parties.”1 Basing their approach on industrial organisation theory, the political arena for them becomes comparable to an oligopolistic market. An oligopoly is a concentrated market that is controlled by few firms, which shape the character of the industry and the product it supplies. Similarly to economic oligopolies, De Vries and Hobolt characterise the political realm as oligopolistic, where there are high barriers to entry for new parties and a dominance of established parties. This means that parties without experience in government, or Challenger Parties, evolve into issue entrepreneurs, which “introduce issues that can drive a wedge between coalitions of and within dominant parties.”2 As such, the parties explicitly follow Schumpeter’s logic of ‘Creative Destruction,’ to explain why Challenger Parties must innovate in order to gain votes in a political environment that is controlled by Dominant Parties. 

Issue innovation centres around topics that are not easily subsumed into the left-right spectrum of conventional politics. For example, the political discourses around the environment, immigration, and European integration are said to have emerged out of Challenger Party mobilisation. De Vries and Hobolt present two principal factors that drive modern party politics: dominance and innovation, where innovation “is the process through which political parties introduce a new or previously ignored issue.”3 This approach sheds new light on how parties can contribute to the political debate by foregrounding certain issues in their programmes, while at the same time ignoring issues that do not fit into their vote-share calculations. In fact, their exploration of voter appeal in later parts of the book seems to confirm their argument that Challenger Parties have been successful in mobilising voters. 

For De Vries and Hobolt it is clear that this rise in Challenger Party participation is the core reason for the fragmentation in national politics in Europe. They devise a theory of party competition that moves away from traditional cleavage theory (which sorts parties and voters into categories according to societal rifts on certain issues) and create an approach that convincingly describes why certain parties choose to mobilise certain issues. 

While De Vries and Hobolt acknowledge that issue entrepreneurs need to have an in-depth understanding of their market in order to be able to maximise the voter appeal of their innovation, the role of domestic and international advocacy groups in bringing issues to the forefront of political debate is largely ignored. Comparing the political market to a model for industrial markets perpetuates the idea that voters have little say about which issues are debated. In short, an issue is only discussed if a political party deems it beneficial to its voter appeal. This reflects a certain ignorance towards the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other advocacy groups in rendering issues ‘important’. 

In fact, Margaret Keck et al. explicitly argue that “network members [of advocacy groups] actively seek ways to bring issues to the public agenda by framing them in innovative ways and by seeking hospitable venues.”4. For example, as Nina Hall points out, digital advocacy groups responded swiftly to the European migration crisis in 2015 and advocated for higher refugee quotas within their nation-states.5 Thus, Gesine Foljanty-Jost establishes a direct link between the integration of green interest groups in the policy-making process and the quality of environmental policies.6 While De Vries and Hobolt explain how political parties decide to mobilise issues, they fail to mention that bottom-up movements can also significantly shape political debate.

Additionally, there have been extensive anthropological studies on the effect of micro-practices in legitimising political discourse. Issues are thus removed from the sphere of politics and brought into the realm of civil society. De Vries and Hobolt seem to suggest that issues have to be raised to political relevance by a political party and that the framing of an issue by the political establishment affects voting behaviour. Emma McCluskey, however, roots voting behaviour and societal discourse in everyday practices. Exploring an anthropological approach to Far Right voting behaviour in Sweden she argues that “these [everyday] practices […] actually serve to push at the very limits of […] governmentality.”7 

In short, McCluskey sees a gradual expansion of acceptable discourse in everyday life, which eventually translates into increased voter shares for Far Right parties. This is relevant because the Far Right has innovated the issue of Immigration and, as such, falls into the study around political entrepreneurs. A slow process involving many micro-adaptations, according to McCluskey, allowed voters to feel confident in voting for Far Right parties.  De Vries and Hobolt, however, fail to recognise that society’s image of a party shapes voting behaviour. When considering the mechanisms that render Challenger Parties more popular, an analysis of everyday practices and societal influence on their voting decisions must be included. 

In conclusion, De Vries and Hobolt provide an intriguing account of European national party politics. Their innovative theory around dominance and innovation can shed light on the reasoning of Challenger Parties in choosing the focus of their programmes. By selecting issues that stand outside the left-right dimension, Challenger parties can gain access to the political market and hope to become a Dominant Party. However, De Vries and Hobolt do not account for the influence of advocacy groups and NGOs in the ‘making’ of political issues and their participation in effective policy-making. Equally, De Vries and Hobolt do not consider the micro-processes that shape societal acceptability of certain parties (as for example the Far Right, which has innovated the Immigration issue). Overall, a study that seeks to explain political upheavals in modern Europe must consider not only the role of political parties, but also the role of societal pressure and advocacy groups in shaping political discourse. This study makes a compelling argument to explain the first, but lacks attention to the latter.

By Jonas Decker

Jonas Decker is the Director of the Policy Centre for European Affairs. His research interests include European and national identity formation, as well as democratisation processes in Eastern and Central Europe.


  1. De Vries, Catherine E., and Sara B. Hobolt. Political Entrepreneurs: The Rise of Challenger Parties in Europe. Princeton, United States: Princeton University Press, 2020, p3.
  2. Ibid., p6.
  3. Ibid, p53
  4. Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press, 1998. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh13f, p17.
  5. Hall, Nina. “When Do Refugees Matter? The Importance of Issue Salience for Digital Advocacy Organizations.” Interest Groups & Advocacy 8, no. 3 (2019/09/01 2019): 333-55. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-019-00054-z. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-019-00054-z.
  6. Foljanty-Jost, G. “Ngos in Environmental Networks in Germany and Japan: The Question of Power and Influence.” Social Science Japan Journal 8, no. 1 (2005-04-01 2005): 103-17. https://doi.org/10.1093/ssjj/jyi019, p115.
  7. McCluskey, Emma. From Righteousness to Far Right – an Anthropological Rethinking of Critical Security Studies. Montreal; London; Chicago: McGill-Queen‘s University Press, 2019, p137.

The featured image is by pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/innovation-business-information-561388/

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