Can Europe Make It?

Facing the antiestablishment challenge: three remedies, but only one solution

The regeneration of the traditionally mainstream political parties is the only solution.

José Rama Fernando Casal Bértoa
26 January 2021, 3.42pm
Democratic and Republican supporters face off outside the central ballot counting location in Philadelphia, PA, November 5, 2020.
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Bastiaan Slabbers/PA. All rights reserved.

Boosted by President Trump’s claims of electoral fraud during the last presidential elections, thousands of Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol the very same day Joe Biden was ratified as new President of the United States. After hours of tension, including the death of four assailants, the storm passed and normal life resumed, leaving a discredited President and a Republican Party in disarray.

While the image of American democracy will certainly take some time to recover, in reality, Trumpism is only another episode in the drama of traditional political parties. In recent decades, and especially after the Great Recession, the foundations of the democratic system in many European (e.g. Greece, Hungary, Poland, Spain) and North American (e.g. Mexico and US) countries, but also in Ecuador, Israel, Philippines or India, have been shaken by the rise of anti-establishment forces and the crisis of mainstream political parties.

But while the former is just a symptom, the latter constitutes the real cancer of liberal democracy. As recently explained in an article looking at the sources of electoral support for anti-establishment political parties, this distinction is extremely important when searching for a remedy, a cure. Because if, continuing with the medical metaphors, anti-establishment parties are just tumors in a carcinogenic democratic system, characterized by the disenchantment of citizens with mainstream political parties that have not managed to adapt to a new social reality and which therefore have failed to represent their new interests, then the treatment should focus on mainstream, rather than on anti-establishment, parties.

Some recent scholarship has highlighted that whilst many new parties can help re-engage citizens, representing issues and interests that have been overlooked and waking up the mainstream parties from their complacent slumber, there are nevertheless many reasons (e.g. extremism, division, and failures in representation) to view new entrants as posing a threat to democracy.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Democracy, we examined the most important remedies proposed hitherto by scholars, practitioners and commentators to tackle this cancer of representative democracy. These go from the legal banning of such parties to their programmatic inclusion and government incorporation through a process of political discrimination (i.e. a cordon sanitaire). Unfortunately, none of these remedies has been very efficient, especially when they focus on the populist, rather than on the mainstream parties.

Party regeneration

Instead, we propose a fourth remedy: party regeneration. This vaccine, whose inoculation should be especially targeted at traditional political parties, consists of six different doses. First of all, parties need to build strong and institutionalized organizations allowing them to create professional structures capable of resolving internal conflicts, making appropriate decisions and maintaining close links with their voters and supporters.

Secondly, political parties have to be responsive, in the sense of pursuing policies that are consistent with their electoral promises. This will help them not only to regain the trust lost, but also to recover their traditional function as mediators between society and the state.

Thirdly, political parties also need to be responsible. In this sense, mainstream parties, need to avoid the populist trap of “easy solutions to difficult situations”. Parties need to understand that irresponsible promises create a “catch-22” situation in which irresponsibility leads to more irresponsiveness and so on.

The fourth dose is transparency. Given that in many countries corruption is one of the populists’ bones of contention, parties should keep their finances clean as a whistle because voters should always be able to find out where their money comes from and how it is spent.

Fifthly, it is important that political parties adopt a long-term perspective. Parties should not only think in terms of the next poll or the next election. If there is one thing voters hate it is the volatile behavior of political parties based on where the wind comes from.

Finally, parties should understand that political compromise is at the heart of the democratic game. Democracy has a better reputation in precisely those countries where political parties have managed to reach agreements on a series of fundamental issues (e.g. education, immigration).

Like with cancerous tumors, the first reaction to the anti-political-establishment threat has historically been denial (i.e. banning), anger (i.e. cordon sanitaire), bargaining (i.e. accommodation) and finally depression. This seems to be the stage we are currently in. But if the current populist wave is to be defeated, we need to first accept it for what it is: a symptom of the failure of traditional political parties to represent, mobilize and deliver.

If the current populist wave is to be defeated, we need to first accept it for what it is: a symptom of the failure of traditional political parties to represent, mobilize and deliver.

If the battle against the cancer of representative democracy is to be adequately faced, scholars and practitioners would do well to draw some lessons from the Cold War: extirpation (or confrontation), discrimination (or containment), accommodation (or détente) of populist parties will not, as we have seen, solve the problem. Conversely, it will be by regeneration (or rollback), following the lines previously delineated, that traditional political parties will be able to recover citizens’ trust, defeat populism and, as Schattschneider would have said, make democracy “unthinkably safe”.

Returning to the US case, and taking into consideration the fact that Trumpism might well not disappear so easily, the new Republican leadership might want to apply the six doses mentioned above. It is only by regeneration that the Republican Party will be able to recover its place at the centre of the political spectrum and begin to put an end to the polarization that currently characterizes and divides the country.

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