The death of political parties

This article is more than 12 months old

At the mercy of vast global movements, they are finding it hard to adapt

There is little difficulty in showing that some of the most venerable political parties of the democratic world may be facing terminal crises. The difficulty is in determining if government by a party or parties can last.

On most material measures, the world is getting better, but not for the established political parties that often helped make it so. That is because they are at the mercy of a series of vast movements, global rather than bounded by the nation state.

In the US, the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln has been seized by President Donald Trump, who often seems to prefer autocracy to democracy.

The shift is driven by forces as disparate as an increasingly precarious and resentful workforce, a white backlash against Mr Barack Obama's presidency and a corporate world that rejoices in a new tax plan that richly rewards the rich.

Voters may turn against the Republicans in the mid-term elections, but the Democrats have not yet found either a leader or a unified message.

In Germany, the narrow victors in September's federal election - the centre-right CDU/CSU - embark this month on talks with the centre-left Social Democrats, coalition partners in the previous government.

Both parties, with decades of often-distinguished political struggle and governance behind them, do so with reluctance - both fear the growth of new parties, sign of a de-alignment from the establishment, winning support from around 40 per cent of the electorate.

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government seeks an exit from the European Union while a barely suppressed civil war rages within it.

In France, the established parties have been marginalised in the national assembly by a wave of political neophytes in the newly-created En Marche movement - a support group for presently all-powerful President Emmanuel Macron.

Spain's conservative ruling party is stalemated by a vote in Catalonia for separatist parties. In Central Europe, Poland and Hungary are ruled by authoritarian (and popular) parties.

All of this goes on while in China and Russia, Egypt and Turkey, autocrats not subject to public or institutional accountability enjoy popularity.

Liberal values were and are themselves part of globalisation - indeed, were and still are aggressively promoted globally.

These included freedom of speech, gender equality, an end to racism and expanded acceptance of all sexual orientations.

They were developed by parties mainly on the liberal or left end of the spectrum, but quite quickly adopted by parties of the centre right.

Since the centrist parties often broadly agreed on economic policies and were in favour of the market, the differences among them declined, even disappeared, making them less centres of activism, more of policy development by specialists.

Activism instead has shifted to non-governmental organisations, parliamentary lawmaking to global institutions, while wages and working conditions deteriorated due to competition from the developing world's lower-paid working millions.

Among the lower-income earners of the developed world, globalisation's effects are felt as oppression, and governments usually cannot help.

Most mainstream parties were founded to promote, or oppose, issues that have nothing to do with today's world. They adapt, but with ever-greater difficulty and in most cases ever-declining membership.

It may be that the upstart parties, presently filling niches, will expand and take their place.

Or it may be that, as historian Jill Lepore has suggested, the "party of one" that is the social media-empowered citizen, will take over in an unimaginably complex digitalised version of Athenian democracy.

Either way, parties - once centres of power, policy and hope - will be hard put to carry on. - REUTERS

The writer co-founded 
the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at 
the University of Oxford.