Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Western democracy and the crumbling party system

After the election of Donald Trump I argued that populism may not be the right lens through which to view recent political trends in Western democracies.

Western democracy and the crumbling party system
Published 27 Jan 2017   Follow @SamRoggeveen

After the election of Donald Trump I argued that populism may not be the right lens through which to view recent political trends in Western democracies ('Is there a global wave of populism?'). Instead what we have seen in the Euro crisis, Brexit, the Trump election and to a lesser extent in Australian election trends is a crisis in our major political parties, all of which are suffering declining membership and support.

Call this rampant selection bias, but here are a few articles I have read in recent times which reinforce that conclusion. First, Henry Farrell on Brexit:

Party membership figures across Western Europe have shrunk by more than half in a generation. In the UK, parties shrunk by two-thirds between 1980 and 2009, losing more than a million members, although Labour has recently reversed the trend. Parties have changed at the top too. Party leaders don’t have the same incentive to listen to their base as they used to, because their base is now diffuse and ever-changing. This leads prominent politicians such as the former British Labour leaders and prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to try to build their own brand by escaping or rejecting party politics. Blair famously claimed that he was never really a politician, while Brown told a party conference in 2000 that his job was to listen to the country, not the party. Party leaders tend instead to look to their peers, or business or interest groups (which provide them with money) more than to activists, supporters, or even sometimes elected representatives. Most importantly, senior party figures are increasingly embedded in the state, which provides them with government jobs when they win elections and financial support even when they lose. In most European countries, the state gives money to political parties that have passed a certain threshold of support, while some parties are able to apply for European Union funds too. For example, in Germany, parties that receive more than .5 percent support nationally are entitled to apply for funds. Parties that “respect European values” and have at least one member of the European Parliament are entitled to apply for EU funds too. Once, parties represented ordinary voters to the state. Now, parties represent the state to ordinary voters.

Here's Jacob Levy on the state of America's major parties:

The 2016 election exposed grave vulnerability and fragility in the American party system. One major party was successfully hijacked by an extremist outsider in the face of initial opposition from a huge portion of the party’s elites and elected leaders. The other party came surprisingly close (if still not objectively very close) to meeting the same fate—and if Bernie Sanders had the advantage over Donald Trump of long experience in the Senate, his relationship to the Democratic Party was even more attenuated than Trump’s relationship to the Republican Party. (Sanders formally became a Democrat for the first time only in order to run in the primaries, and in the Senate he still identifies as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.)

And here's an interview with journalist Seymour Hersh:

While expressing fears about Trump’s agenda, Hersh also called Trump a potential “circuit breaker” of the two-party political system in the U.S. “The idea of somebody breaking things away, and raising grave doubts about the viability of the party system, particularly the Democratic Party, is not a bad idea,” Hersh said. “That’s something we could build on in the future. But we have to figure out what to do in the next few years.” He added: “I don’t think the notion of democracy is ever going to be as tested as it’s going to be now.”

Related Content

The mendacity of Milosevic (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

You may also be interested in