From Catalunya to Chile, from England to Ecuador and Bolivia, large sectors of citizens have demonstrated their ability and willingness to take to the streets. What do these very distinct situations have in common with regards to history, the composition of political forces, institutional frameworks, and social demands? The lack of capacity of the political establishment to act as an articulator of social debates and a producer of legitimate solutions to public demands.
In modern democracies, the mechanisms designed to carry out this role are political parties. Despite their infamy, and perhaps they have never been a positive thing, political parties are there to act as intermediaries, between citizens and political power. Beyond selecting candidates and seeking to win elections, many also fulfil the role of questioning interests of different sectors of society, of generating inter-subjectivities about the world and social agendas, of educating citizens about complex problems so that they become more accessible for majority consumption, and of territorially organising social sectors with similar ideas.
The reality is that, a large majority of main political parties that dominate political systems have transformed political channels, leaving to one side functions that are necessary for the functioning of our democracies. Of course, the incentives point in this direction, and nor are they a novelty: the centrality of media outlets to establish a political agenda, the scandalous increase in political campaigns that receive financing from sectors to which they later have to owe favours, the growing influence of de facto powers that diminish autonomy of political parties, and the emergence of agendas for which political parties are simply unprepared.
Dominant political parties are increasingly further away from citizens, and are increasingly closer to government institutions, either deliberately or due to weaknesses within the parties
In other words, dominant political parties are increasingly further away from citizens, and are increasingly closer to government institutions, either deliberately or due to weaknesses within the parties. Thus, it is no coincidence that the same political parties find themselves at the bottom of the legitimacy table among public institutions and that citizens sustain that politicians must respond for their interests.
In the current context of global political uncertainty, global economic stagnation (and the collapse of commodity prices which is particularly worrying for Latin America), these shortfalls become even more significant.
There are less capacities to contain and counteract opportunist discourses such as that of Brexit and Catalan independence. Indigenous majorities in Ecuador and popular sectors of Chile lack legitimate electoral channels that represent their interests. The Bolivian party MAS, originally made up of a plethora of organisations, cooperatives, and grassroots parties, gradually lost its territorial capillarity, and began to reinforce itself with state resources.
It shouldn’t be overly surprising that important social sectors can’t find a way to institutionally channel their malaise against unpopular measures such as the judicial humiliation of Catalan political leaders, the refusal to incorporate a climate emergency agenda in the UK, how to resist the draconian neoliberal measures proposed by Chile and Ecuador, or the messiness of the vote count in Bolivia. In other words, political parties have been absent in their “hinge” function that Duverger proposed.
This disconnection helps us to explain why citizens choose to take to the streets to protest. On the other hand, political leaders up against a lack of connections with these social sectors seem detached from territorial demands, completely ignoring important social demands.
It’s curious to note that Argentina has not yet has a similar experience, despite having an extremely difficult economic situation accompanied by dramatic social deterioration
What’s more, when civil society takes to the streets, states have responded in the worst way possible: States of Emergency, repression, and unnecessary violence. Max Weber already mentioned that when there is a lack of ability to create consensus, the only option that remains is coercion.
It’s curious to note that Argentina has not yet has a similar experience, despite having an extremely difficult economic situation accompanied by dramatic social deterioration. On the one hand, the government hasn’t disregarded the poorest, multiplying social programs that seek to contain them. On the other, the Peronist opposition reorganised, providing an electoral alternative which has successfully incorporated trade unions, grass roots organisations, students, entrepreneurs, and many others who are unhappy with the measures of the current government.
Perhaps political parties and the representative democracy model, designed for a different world, are just outdated and we must think about and build new mechanisms to articulate both state and society. However, as we already know, in the realm of politics it is far easier to destroy than to construct new alternatives. For now, I will be content with working to (re) construct the current political party model so that they can become instruments for social dialogue, consensus among the generations, and representation of all social sectors. It shouldn’t be too difficult to create inverse incentives by provoking drastic changes in the financing of politics, the regulation of media outlets and social media, and the increase in citizen participation that would allow for incidence on public policies.
Surely this isn’t the only challenge within current democratic states, but it’s certainly a departure point. If we choose to do nothing, as the 20th century has taught us, the costs could be far too high for us to bear.
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