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On movements and platforms… in defense of political parties

Ahead of the May 2019 European elections, liberal parties should not give in to the empty promises of movement politics, but must adapt to meet the needs of their voters.

lead Screenshot: Steve Bannon, September, 2018. YouTube.

“Movement.”  “Alliance.” “Platform.”  Add the term “Progressive” to these words, and you have the latest trend in politics. Anyone can be a “movement” today. We’ve witnessed the movement by alt-right Steve Bannon, across the center of politics all the way to so-called progressive movements by neo-Marxists such as Yanis Varoufakis, Sarah Wagenknecht or Jean-Luc Mélanchon.

Why are voters – and especially the media – so attracted to the latest “movement of the month?” 

Admittedly, political parties carry the odour of an outdated and worn-out entity no longer useful in our modern society. As opposed to this old school concept, a movement ostensibly carries the notion of a sexy, dynamic and engaging entity reinvigorating politics in the twenty first century .

However, aren’t movements – by design – simply an arbitrary concept, void of any political substance and direction? Movements, rather than offering a holistic vision for organizing state and society, often appear as a thinly-disguised top-down approach serving the vanity of some individuals. Change is promised but substance and policies seem to be optional.   

To their credit, movements are disrupting the established political party system and providing a wake-up call to moribund political parties used to operating as if they’re still in the 1950s. Liberals have the most to gain from this necessary jolt to the political nervous system and should seize this opportunity to adapt to meet the voters’ demands and interests. However, it would be unwise for liberals to entrust their future to the latest trend in “movements” only to discover that the politics of vanity don’t solve the challenges of communicating with better-engaged voters. 

A party (Latin ‘pars’ for share) is part of a polity. It does not raise a claim to represent the totality of people or to represent ‘the will’ of the people. Liberals know that this does not exist. Liberals understand that a party is ‘pars pro toto’ in a liberal democracy, the very foundation of which is the assumption that the will for power is based on democratic competition and compromise alike. Democracy does not stand for the rule of the people without the protection of the other people. 

Liberal parties are created with the ambition to put the individual first and provide equal chances for all. We have seen across the world that liberal policies translate freedom into free market policies to create prosperity for all and advance civil liberties to provide equality before the law for all. We have seen across the world that liberal policies translate freedom into free market policies to create prosperity for all and advance civil liberties to provide equality before the law for all.

Parties form on the basis of common principles and values. They create common ground and a platform for constructive communication to help organize and structure political dialogue. Political parties bear great responsibility for ensuring that they are deeply and durably entrenched in the fabric of society. The longevity and permanence of parties – by design – strengthen public confidence in the democratic process. 

Sadly, too many political parties from all ideological backgrounds have not lived up to this standard. Many citizens feel disenfranchised and have disengaged from the political process. 

This is where political parties must dare to change and adapt to the new realities in our societies. Political parties can even learn from new ways of engagement practiced by movements that must infuse much needed reforms beyond traditional forms of political party membership and engagement.

Onwards and upwards for May 2019 

Ahead of the May 2019 European elections, liberal parties should not give in to the empty promises and media celebrity of movement politics. Movements and their leaders emerge and disappear. Well-organized parties must adapt to meet the needs of their voters. By doing so, parties will win elections and improve the public’s trust in their democratic institutions. For liberals it is a question of course of creating alliances with like-minded forces to drive Europe forward rather than to get stuck in platforms that dilute political differences, prevent democratic competition for the best ideas and assume a one-size-fits-all approach that does not match the diverse challenges of today’s societies. 

The European Parliament has for too long witnessed a common platform of christian democrats and socialists stalling progress. These two outdated political relics have disenfranchised a generation of voters through their unsubstantiated politics and lack of meaningful engagement. The era of christian democrat and socialist dominance no longer exists, and liberals should not fall into the same trap and overshadow policies with power politics.

Voters expect politicians to listen to them. Voters want to engage and debate ideas on how best to improve their communities. If liberal parties rise to these standards, they will return in strength to the European Parliament, remain strong at the national level and forge a Europe that stands strong against its foes from within and abroad.

About the author

Philipp Hansen works as Head of the political unit for the European Liberals (ALDE Party), the umbrella organization of more than 60 liberal member parties across Europe. The ALDE Party supports their work with the aim of up-skilling their campaigns and helping them win elections at any level. 


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