Commentary: Once centers of hope, political parties are dying

There’s 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 – the sustaining base of administrations the democratic world over – can last.

A session of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of Parliament, in Berlin, November 21, 2017. Talks on forming a new coalition government are due to resume in January. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

On most material measures, the world is getting better – less poverty, more education and literacy, healthier people (though few believe it). But not for the established political parties which often helped make it so. That is because the parties are at the mercy of a series of vast movements, global rather than bounded by the nation state.

In the United States, the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln has been seized by Donald Trump, a man who often seems to prefer autocracy to democracy. The shift is driven by forces as disparate as an increasingly precarious and resentful workforce (nearly 60 percent of American workers are paid by the hour), a white backlash against the Obama presidency and a corporate world which rejoices in a new tax plan that richly rewards the rich. Voters may turn against the Republicans in the 2018 mid-term elections, but the Democrats, having lost a presidential election they expected to win, have not yet found either a leader or a unified message.

In Europe’s leading state, Germany, the narrow victors in the September federal election – the center-right CDU/CSU – embark in January on talks with the center-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 percent of the electorate.

In the UK, the Conservative government seeks an exit from the European Union while a barely suppressed civil war rages within it. The far-left commands the Labour opposition. In France, all of the established parties have been marginalized 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.

In Italy, elections in early March could see a revived right wing, with a substantial far-right component come to power – as it has in Austria. 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; in Poland’s case the governing Law and Justice Party is set to be sanctioned by the European Union for departing from agreed liberal-democratic norms.

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

Less than three decades ago the triumph of liberalism and democratic governance was celebrated as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell apart. Now the dystopian critiques are the bestsellers – as, from the right, Eric Zemmour’s indictment of contemporary France in “Le Suicide Francais” (2014), and from the liberal side, Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Liberalism” (2017).

Beyond the local phenomena, there are larger forces afflicting the most storied parties.

Globalism is made up of interlinked factors. Many of them – the spread of medical know-how and techniques, the enforcing of human rights through such organizations as the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, the rapid diffusion of communications technology and the containment of some of the world’s conflicts through the actions of NGOs, the UN and the richer national governments –seem to be, largely uncontroversially, good. (Not, however, for Trump, whose administration announced cuts of more than $285 million in its 2018-2019 budget for the UN after member states voted to reject his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.)

But other factors – the increased pressure on the environment through the effects of higher growth, the increase in inequality as, everywhere in the world, the highly-educated cosmopolitans benefit while the unqualified get left behind and the familiar institutions of the nation state are replaced, shrunk or bought by foreign companies or governments – are felt by millions as a loss to their self respect and their quality of life.

Liberal values were and are themselves part of globalization – indeed, were and still are aggressively promoted globally, since the end of the Cold War seemed to open up the globe to an appreciation of the values of freedom. These included freedom of speech and publication, equality between men and women, an end to racial discrimination 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 center right. Since the centrist parties often broadly agreed on economic policies, and were in favor of the market, the differences among them declined, even disappeared, making them less centers of activism, more of policy development by specialists.

Activism instead has shifted to NGOs, parliamentary lawmaking to global institutions, while wages and working conditions deteriorated because of competition from the developing world’s lower-paid working millions. Among the lower-income earners of the developed world, globalization’s effects are felt as oppression, and governments usually can’t help. In many countries, especially in authoritarian states, rulers consider the liberal program of greater freedom as immoral, even obscene.

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 Jill Lepore has suggested, the “party of one” which is the internet and social media-empowered citizen, will take over in an unimaginably complex digitalized version of Athenian democracy. Either way, parties – once centers of power, policy and hope – will be hard put to carry on.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.