Organisations, too, need Love – Social Democracy ought to be more than just a Policy Choice

By Gabor Gyori

In analysing a key organisational challenge for social democracy,  I recently wrote that “[s]ocial democratic parties are for the most part unable to engage the identities of citizens; they are perceived as campaign vehicles and administrators of certain ideas rather than core institutions of an extended ideological community.” I promised to follow up on this idea in a later article, which you’ll find below.

A friend in Germany once told me the story how her son, always committed to social democracy, had spent much of his youth looking forward to turning 18 and becoming a full-fledged member of the SPD. Because at that point he did not live at home but nevertheless chose to become a member of his local organisation in his hometown, his membership booklet was sent to him.

For some reason not by mail, but by way of a fellow party member, a lorry driver headed that way on a job. When he arrived, the driver rather unceremoniously pulled out a worn booklet from his back-pocket and handed it over: “Bam, you’re in the SPD now!” (Okay, I actually made that quote up).

While I think sending an SPD membership card with a lorry driver is actually very appropriate, I cannot but empathise with the disappointment the young man apparently felt at the time: a long-awaited moment and the desired party-membership had finally materialised, and yet it was all so very unceremonious. And yes, I think a new-looking membership card is a legitimate expectation after years of loyal waiting.

The local organisation should have been especially circumspect, as such a romantic desire to become a member of organised social democracy is rare in young people, who are not keen on party membership in general and not very interested in social democracy. For young people, interest in politics is already nerdy, but wanting to become the member of a party? And of a party that was on the way of being passé already a millennium ago, in the 1980s? Well, let’s just say wearing suspenders is not the oddest thing a teen could do.

That is perhaps one of the biggest changes that party organisations must respond to.

Party membership or belonging to formal or informal social networks that were ideologically committed to a party – and especially the popular mass parties, social and Christian democratic parties – were also part of the “opiate” of the modern masses: for many, they used to convey a natural sense of belonging and identity, a way of engaging in and understanding society. (To their radical critics, they were certainly also instrumental in making people part of the “system”).

Even with all the individualised and varied interpretations, for generations being a social democrat was a natural manifestation of who they were and what they thought about the world.

Far fewer people today believe that membership in a political organisation or even a less formal commitment to it is a necessary expression of who they are. The reasons are legion, and even the ones that I do know would fill pages that I don’t have here.

A result in any case is that far fewer people will stick to their party even when they find its momentary policies displeasing (i.e. electoral volatility). There is of course something attractive about the notion of enlightened citizens compiling scorecards of the competing parties and holding them accountable for their performance.

But there is also something to be said for political parties – and especially social democracy – serving as the locus of both physical and imagined communities that command loyalty even when one is in disagreement or even mad at them.

This does not imply uncritical fealty to one’s party, but an enhanced commitment to it that allows for – borrowing  from Albert O. Hirschmann – using one’s voice and seeking to enact changes from within before transferring one’s loyalty to another party.

Those who belong to this category are largely persons for whom their relationship with the party is an identity-related feature, those who are on some level emotionally involved with their party. In other words those who are increasingly disappearing from politics.

Today’s social democracy is clearly failing at the fundamental function of conquering its voters’ hearts in addition to their minds, of making them feel at home, emotionally as well as intellectually.

There are useful and absolutely necessary debates among progressive and beyond about the right policies, the  role of language, strengthening organisational structures, campaign strategies, etc. Several of these touch upon the issue discussed here, for language and policies also impact one’s sense of identity, but neither of these addresses the issue directly or as a distinct problem of its own.

But successful political organisations should offer more. They should try to construct communities where (especially young) people feel at home and which they find is an important expression of who they are.

Identities today are on average more complex and multi-layered than they were a few decades ago. Inevitably, binding individuals as closely to any single layer as was once routinely possible is not only customary at the political fringes. Through their reductionist worldview and primitive ingroup/outgroup dichotomisations these often construct very cohesive communities, though fortunately for the most part small ones.

Clearly, their means and strategies should not be adopted. The goal must be more limited and the emotional involvement achieved should be weaker, obviously. But nevertheless there must be some debate about how to interweave social democracy with our increasingly and attractively complex patterns of identity, and also about how to better intertwine social democracy with other, more trendy, layers of identity to which it bears affinity (e.g. civic organisations focused on human rights, environmentalism, social justice, etc.).

I am far better at raising the issue than at offering potential solutions, but I do believe that the answer must start with building or reinforcing community spaces, both physical and virtual.

As I noted in my previous article on this subject, such activities require enormous investments of money and time, both of which political parties and their shrinking staff are increasingly devoid of.

It is no surprise that this aspect of social democracy’s organisational woes receives little attention. The challenge is vast and even if we divert more resources to tackle the problem the returns may be slim: there is no way to recapture the golden age when in many countries political parties were natural parts of community life. But political organisations that accept their gradual degeneration to mere campaign machines are doomed in the long run.