For a long time now, the death of the political party has been widely heralded. If the political party is a product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century conditions of its generation, and those conditions have now been irrevocably transformed, it stands to reason that its demise is imminent. When Robert Michels published his hugely influential book Political Parties in 1911, he revealed the structure and logic of the organisation: a dedicated bureaucratic elite lay at its centre committed to the goal of winning votes and elections. Mass democracy, as Max Weber famously put it, was ‘plebiscitary’ in character. Voters sanctioned government by party, but were called on only in the act of voting and remained otherwise detached from the pursuit of politics.
Yet Weber also recognised that competitive party politics was essential to offset the tendency of modern societies towards domination by large-scale bureaucratic organisations, and thus to provide some protection for the expression of individuality and plurality in social life. Extensive participatory democracy in large states was a pipe dream, but political parties were a vehicle for the recruitment of substantial numbers of citizens into the profession and vocation of politics. To be sure, it was the case that the lure of professionalisation threatened the corruption of politics, but the political party alone provided the means for both the temperance and realisation of the passionate convictions of responsible citizen-politicians
Today, in a ‘post-ideological’ age, politics pays only lip service to passionate commitment. Politics has been thoroughly professionalised; the manager, not the prophet, is the model for the politician; and the permanent election campaign makes a mockery of the notion of a programme to change the world. A steady decline in party membership, a growing mistrust of politicians and the business of politics, and a widely held view of the impotence and ineptitude of mainstream political actors, have contributed to the impression that parties are increasingly marginal to people’s lives.
The socio-economic reasons for the descent of the party have been well charted: the increasing fragmentation of class, religious, ethnic, and national identities; increased geographical mobility and the breakdown of traditional communities; the rise of consumerism and privatised lifestyles; mass media and then, increasingly, social media, as the main sources of public information. The trace of these transformations on the character of political activity has also long been recognised. The politics of pressure groups and social movements has become increasingly oriented around single-issues, and substantive matters concerning personal identity and autonomy. The onward march of individuation and pluralisation make it impossible for parties to shape permanent coalitions of social interests that are stable and extensive enough to carry them to electoral success. In pitching themselves as catch-all parties – or at least as parties that must appeal to the median voter – political parties risk losing their distinctive identities and ideological moorings. Combined with the domination of political information by mass media, this means that the projection of the image of managerial competence and a neo-clientelism targeting key voters have become the main means of mobilising electoral support.
Thus the problems that political parties today face concerning their ability to promote political participation and act as the guardians of a democratic civil politics, rather than the servants of powerful interests, are deep-rooted and unlikely to disappear. But what, then, if any, is the future of the political party and what realizable alternatives to it are there? Answering these questions is the task that this series sets itself. By way of an introduction, I want to highlight three possible kinds of responses, and their problems, though this is of course intended as a prompt to rather than a limitation of the discussion.
1. Adaptation. Parties have always had to adapt to survive. In the twentieth century, they had to respond to the changing social composition of electorates, including the introduction of the franchise for women, and the role of the mass media, particularly television, in the shaping of political conversation and events. Yet contemporary changes in social life and communications technology seem to signal the need for a step-change in party organisation and activity. Those who seek adaptation through party reform tend to emphasise the need for a reengagement with citizens through, for example, activists playing a more substantial role in community organising. The significance of social media for party campaigning, witnessed most notably in Barack Obama’s campaign for the Presidency in 2008, has been grasped by many reform-minded party activists. But the use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is seen as needing to go beyond fund raising and the mobilisation of the vote on polling day. It also has a role to play in encouraging greater deliberation and participation by party members, and others perhaps only partially involved in the party. The great hopes of deliberative democrats for the internet and social media in the public sphere is here projected onto the party itself as a public, encouraging civil participation and engagement in party decision-making and reducing the influence of the permanent party bureaucracy.
The difficulty with these kinds of strategies of adaptation is that they may not be consistent with maintaining the unity of a political party with a clear programme for government. ‘Community organizing’ of the kind associated with Saul Alinsky in the US was never supposed to be party-political, but rather a movement of the grass-roots that was primarily concerned with identifying and contesting injustice. The emphasis was very much on the local and the marginal, not on the development of a programme for central government. Social media is a similarly centrifugal force. It may mobilise large numbers well for particular ends, but in a more deliberative mode it is as likely to promote difference and disagreement over how to govern as it is consensus. Thus parties face a dilemma. If they promote grass-roots activism and social media in order to improve their chances of winning election, they encourage the very forces that bring into question the need for their continued existence.
2. Abolition. For many political activists, the resources and opportunities provided by these forces have made political parties redundant or at least a lesser site of political action. On this view, the movements that have risen up over the last few decades provide the model for the future of political education and participation. Whether these be movements of protest and radical change, such as Occupy, or of greater citizen participation in politics through communication technology, such as 38 Degrees, they indicate the potential of new forms of direct and participatory democracy. This is not a phenomenon confined to developed democracies: the Arab Spring shows the possibility of the mass mobilisation of populations against non-democratic regimes by means of the same technologies and strategies of political change in the West. Political parties are forced either to adopt these means in order to survive – facing the problem of rationale noted above – or to be condemned as the refuge of elites resisting popular change.
But abolitionists who seek a more democratic politics face a number of difficulties. Behind their belief in the efficacy of ad hoc, horizontally organized movements and the power of participatory democracy lies assumptions concerning the character of contemporary societies that are highly questionable. The much vaunted ‘network society’ points to a variety of evanescent associations that not only react against, but are often dependent on and subordinate to the continued power of vertically organised and durable institutions that are unlikely to disappear in the near future. The most obvious such institution is the state itself. One of the central purposes of the political party as the arrangement of organised interests was to allow for the more-or-less permanent representation of those interests in and to the state. Without them, there is the possibility that state power becomes even more remote from citizens, more easily captured by the interests of big corporations or entrenched elites. The charge that networked movements organised through social media are very effective at opposing power, but cannot provide a model for the democratic government of the state, is one that is hard to rebut.
3. Reimagination. A third possible direction for the political party lies in its reimagination, or more precisely a rethinking of its role in politics, by returning to its genesis in the late eighteenth century. The emphasis here is less on the idea of the party as an aggregator of socio-economic interests and an election-winning machine, which does not clearly emerge until the mid-nineteenth century, and more on its character as a public domain with an ideological orientation. The party in this sense appears as a discursive forum for citizens and their representatives, and its aims are legislative rather than executive. In other words, the party seeks to secure laws in line with its broad ideological objectives. Winning executive office in the state for its members is not, on this view, the primary concern of political parties. Parties would focus on the mobilisation and articulation of citizens’ opinions concerning the character of such conditions, acting as a conduit between civil society and the state. In practice, such a relationship would require the recasting of constitutional arrangements, perhaps limiting legislative office holding to elected individuals who are not at the same time officers or even members of political parties. Parties could support or even propose candidates, but their energies would not be channelled, as they are at present, into the permanent election campaign. They could come to stand for the accountability of laws and office-holders to citizens, but only if they give up their ambition to directly control the public power.
Such a reformulation of the role of parties in representative democracy could be supplemented by much greater citizen self-government. Indeed, the reform of representative democracy as the domain of parties can be regarded a means of fostering wider participatory and associational democracy in civil society. Whether such reforms are achievable in current conditions is highly questionable. But if we are to imagine a future for the political party beyond being a vehicle for established political elites or the vested interests that they serve, the conjunction of their roles in expressing citizens’ voices and in maintaining the democratic conditions in which citizens can express their voices must be more fully explored.
This series, hosted jointly by Open Democracy and Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, sets out to explore the future of the party and alternative movements for political socialisation and participation. It welcomes contributions that deal with concrete empirical examples of movements and parties, as well as broader theoretical, historical, and sociological considerations concerning the trajectory of the party. Pieces that focus on non-Western contexts are particularly welcome.
This article is one of a series entitled After the party? produced as a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, Birkbeck, and OurKingdom, openDemocracy.