The paper lays the theoretical and methodological foundations of a new historically-minded approach to the comparative study of democratization, centered on the analysis of the creation, development and interaction of democratic institutions. Historically, democracy did not emerge as a singular coherent whole but rather as a set of different institutions, which resulted from conflicts across multiple lines of social and political cleavage that took place at different moments in time. The theoretical advantage of this approach is illustrated by highlighting the range of new variables that come into focus in explaining democracyâ€™s emergence. Rather than class being the single variable that explains how and why democracy came about, we can see how religious conflict, ethnic cleavages, and the diffusion of ideas played a much greater role in Europeâ€™s democratization than has typically been appreciated. Above all, we argue that political parties were decisive players in how and why democracy emerged in Europe and should be at the center of future analyses.