5. A New Age of Party Democracy?
‘The age of party democracy has passed,’ Peter Mair wrote in the early 2000s. ‘Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.’ When Mair was writing, political parties seemed to be in chronic decline. But more recently, there has been something of a turnaround as new parties have emerged – often using digital technology in innovative ways. Though the emergence of these parties has not reduced political volatility, it suggests a possible reinvention of political parties that could refill what Mair called the ‘void’ in democracy in Europe.
The rise and fall of party democracy
Political parties emerged along with representative democracy in the late 18th century. In fact, the development of parties was so closely intertwined with the development of this form of democracy that it seemed impossible to imagine one without the other. As the American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider put it: ‘The political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.’ The function of parties was to simultaneously divide and unite citizens by aggregating voter preferences. Parties represented the interests of particular groups in society. At the same time, they also governed – or at least sought to. As Schattschneider put it, a political party is ‘an organized attempt to get control of the government’.
There was initially much resistance to organizing citizens in this way. Many liberals opposed the idea of political parties. For example, the founding fathers of the United States saw them as dangerous. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote of his opposition to ‘factions’, by which he understood ‘a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’. Nevertheless, parties became increasingly central to democracy in both Europe and the US, though scepticism towards them continues in the idea of ‘special interests’ that are perceived to undermine democracy.
However, although political parties have accompanied representative democracy since its emergence in the 18th century, there has been an evolution in the role they have played – in particular in the 20th century. As the franchise was expanded in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mass parties emerged. These were ‘interest parties’ or ‘milieu parties’ based on class identities (like the German Social Democrats) or confessional identities (like the Zentrumspartei, or Centre Party, which represented Catholics in Germany). Such parties strove to create what Mair calls ‘closed political communities’ based on ‘closed social communities, in which large collectivities of citizens shared distinct social experiences’.
Following the Second World War, these parties sought to appeal to voters beyond their original milieux and consolidated into what Otto Kirchheimer called Allerweltsparteien or ‘catch-all parties’. Thus the German Social Democrats sought to expand their base beyond the urban working class, while the Christian Democratic Union was founded in 1945 as an inter-denominational party that would go beyond the Centre Party’s Catholic base. These post-war parties took ‘a more aggressive approach to elections, attempting to win often short-term and contingent support far beyond the limits of their once pre-defined constituencies’. In other words, they became ‘primarily office-seeking parties’ that exchanged ‘representational integrity’ for electoral success.
Some political scientists have identified a further, more recent transition in the final decades of the 20th century, in which catch-all parties turned into so-called ‘cartel parties’. As they sought to compete for the same voters, parties converged ideologically and increasingly colluded with each other – hence coming to resemble a cartel. In part as a response to declining participation, parties also turned increasingly to the resources of the state to sustain themselves, for example by relying more on state funding. Thus meaningful differences between parties shrank, and the gap between parties and voters widened, as parties withdrew further from their role in civil society and into the realm of government and the state. In short, parties went from being ‘social actors’ to ‘state actors’.
As they sought to compete for the same voters, parties converged ideologically and increasingly colluded with each other – hence coming to resemble a cartel.
Membership of political parties has clearly declined across Europe, particularly since the 1980s and 1990s. The percentage of voters who were members of a political party in Europe halved from an average of just under 10 per cent in 1980 to under 5 per cent in 2009. A particularly interesting example of this haemorrhaging of members is the British Labour Party. Its membership went from several million during the 1950s to under 200,000 during the era of Tony Blair. More broadly across Europe, even those who remained members of parties seemed to be less active and engaged, and many were members on paper only. Political parties were, as Mair put it, ‘rapidly losing their capacity to engage citizens’. It was against this background that he declared the end of the age of party democracy.
Given the centrality of parties in the history of representative democracy, this process of what political scientists call ‘de-alignment’ – that is, the weakening of citizens’ identification with parties – was extremely worrying. If Schattschneider was right that democracy was unthinkable without parties, their decline seemed to suggest the end of democracy altogether. At a minimum, the decline of parties seemed to be leading to a redefinition of liberal democracy away from its ‘popular’ element (that is, popular sovereignty, or government by the people) and towards its ‘constitutional’ element (that is, a system of basic rights and checks and balances, or government for the people). As Mair put it: ‘As parties fail, so too fails popular democracy.’
The emergence of ‘digital parties’
Some continue to believe that political parties are doomed and imagine a kind of ‘post-party democracy’. But recently there have been some signs of a reversal of the decline of political parties in Europe – in other words, signs of a possible ‘re-alignment’. In particular, there has been a proliferation of new parties – many widely seen as populist – that have been remarkably successful both in terms of membership and elections. Part of what makes these new parties interesting is the innovative ways in which they have used technology. This may in part explain their success. Whatever their ideologies and positions on specific policy issues, they may have hit upon a way of reconnecting citizens to political parties and thus refilling the ‘void’.
As we saw in Chapter 3, much attention has focused on how political figures, movements and parties use social media as a campaigning and mobilizing tool – i.e. to address external imperatives. This has been especially associated with populism, though nearly all mainstream parties now use social media in this way. But in terms of making democracy more responsive, the more interesting development may be the way in which some parties, mainly but not exclusively those usually categorized as populist, have used digital technology for internal purposes – as part or even as the basis of their own structure. In particular, they have created online platforms to consult members and take decisions, including determining policy choices and electing party officials.
Paolo Gerbaudo sees these parties as representing a new paradigm which he calls the ‘digital party’ or ‘platform party’. The digital party, as he defines it, ‘mimics the logic of companies such as Facebook and Amazon of integrating the data-driven logic of social networks into its very decision-making structure’. It is constantly ‘eliciting feedback from its member/user base, crowdsourcing ideas from it, balloting on issues, measuring the response of the public and modifying its strategy and messaging accordingly’. By reinventing the relationship of parties with their members, these parties ‘present themselves as the solution to the democratic deficit that has turned political institutions into the preserve of technocrats and self-serving politicians’.
The first digital parties were the so-called Pirate parties that emerged in various northern European countries in the mid-2000s. They did not just integrate technology into their internal structures but also mostly focused on issues specifically related to technology – in particular, digital copyright issues. (The original Pirate Party, in Sweden, was created in response to the Antipiratbyran, or Anti-Piracy Bureau, an entertainment industry pressure group that pushed for stricter copyright policy – hence its name.) What might be called the second wave of digital parties – like the Five-Star Movement (M5S) in Italy and Podemos in Spain, both of which came to prominence in the 2010s – have used a similar organizational template to that pioneered by the Pirates. However, they have stood on broader platforms and have had even greater success.
No party arguably exemplifies the effectiveness of the approach more than M5S, which was created in 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo and the web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. The party’s name is a reference to the five issues on which it originally focused: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access, and environmentalism. From the beginning its activities took place mainly online – initially through Grillo’s blog and then through its portal, Rousseau. The latter can be understood as the party’s ‘operating system’, through which decisions are taken on policy positions. In the 2018 Italian general election, M5S won 33 per cent of the votes to become the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies; it then formed a coalition government with the far-right Lega.
Podemos was created in 2014 by a group of young Madrid-based academics around Pablo Iglesias, who had become a regular guest on political talk shows in Spain. It is a more traditional left-wing party than M5S, having grown out of the anti-austerity Indignados movement. But like M5S it has embraced digital technology as a way to meet demand for ‘real democracy’. It has its own portal, Participa, through which important decisions, including policy choices and elections to party office, are supposed to take place. In the 2015 election, Podemos became the third-largest party in the Spanish parliament with 21 per cent of the vote.
Although the new digital parties promote a ‘participationist utopia of leaderlessness and horizontalism’, they actually function in a much more centralized and top-down way than this rhetoric suggests.
However, there are a number of reasons to be sceptical of the promise of digital parties to ‘deliver a new politics supported by digital technology’ that is ‘more democratic, more open to ordinary people, more immediate and direct, more authentic and transparent’. Digital parties are obsessive about participation, or what Gerbaudo calls ‘participationism’. But in practice relatively few of their members take part in online deliberation and decision-making. For example, only 4 per cent of Podemos’s 380,000 members contributed to the collaborative drafting of the party’s platform in 2015. Larger numbers of members tend to take part in online votes. But these often produce a supermajority in favour of the party leadership.
Thus although the new digital parties promote a ‘participationist utopia of leaderlessness and horizontalism’, they actually function in a much more centralized and top-down way than this rhetoric suggests. Internal party democracy tends to be plebiscitary in practice. The party base mainly reacts to initiatives by the leadership rather than making proposals itself, and often simply endorses the position or mandate of the leadership. In fact, Gerbaudo writes, participation often simply functions to empower a ‘hyper-leader’ such as Grillo or Iglesias (though it is unclear how much this is a function of the use of technology rather than other factors). In short, the digital party has a ‘problematic underside’.
‘Populist’ parties as a model?
Nevertheless, despite this gap between rhetoric and reality, experiments by digital parties that are often categorized as populist may ‘prefigure the shape of a future democracy to come’. In particular, given the centrality of parties in the history of representative democracy, the use of digital technology by parties themselves may have more potential than online voting to reinvigorate democracy. Digital technology could help parties recover the role they once played in making government more responsive to the interests of particular groups, which in turn might help bridge the gap between ‘responsive’ and ‘responsible’ government. Thus, mainstream parties should carefully examine the ways in which digital parties have used technology to see if they can learn from them.
One mainstream party that has done this is the British Labour party, which has in some ways managed to buck the trend of decline among social democratic parties in Europe. After declining, as mentioned, from several million in the 1950s to under 200,000 in the Blair era, the party’s membership has increased again to over 500,000 (though of course this did not translate into success at the 2019 general election). While the revival in membership may partly be because of Labour’s shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, the party has also used methods similar to those of M5S and Podemos. In particular, Momentum, the campaign group established after Corbyn’s election as party leader in 2015, set up its own online ‘participation portal’, My Momentum, through which members can participate in discussions and take decisions. The German Social Democrats have also begun to experiment with online voting.
Many of the new digital parties have demanded reform of democratic institutions and processes to create a more participatory democracy – one in which citizens are engaged in decision-making in a deeper way.
However, while mainstream parties may benefit from applying some of the techniques used by their digital counterparts, there remain a number of challenges that need to be addressed. One is around who exactly participates in new forms of online engagement. For example, the German Greens, long known for their Streitkultur, or ‘debate culture’, have introduced online surveys and petitions to stimulate discussion among members. But research shows that engagement via these tools has been disproportionately higher among members who are better off, better educated and already more active in the party. Guillaume Royer, the participation coordinator of La France Insoumise, has suggested that participatory platforms can create a ‘tyranny of people with time’.
As well as innovating in terms of their internal structures, many of the new digital parties have demanded reform of democratic institutions and processes to create a more participatory democracy – one in which citizens are engaged in decision-making in a deeper way than is currently the case. For many of them, alternative forms of democracy, particularly direct democracy, offer a way of moving beyond representative democracy. For example, Davide Casaleggio (Gianroberto’s son), who manages M5S’s Rousseau platform, wrote that ‘representative democracy – politics by proxy – is gradually losing meaning’. The next chapter explores the potential of these alternative forms of democracy.