The Party Paradox

By Rene Cuperus

There are two tales about party politics. In the first, political parties are moribund, if not on their last legs. Parties are said to have been in crisis or decline for decades and are believed to have lost virtually all their functions to the courts, the bureaucracy, the media, or powerful social organizations. Parties supposedly no longer matter in actual agenda setting and policy making. They have become marginal institutions. Following the de-ideologization and the rise of the floating voter, parties no longer stand for anything or anybody. Nor do they provide principled politicians or edifying programmes and innovative political ideas. The party is over: consider the ongoing decline in voter turnout, diminishing party loyalty, the declining membership, the loss of ideological identity, and the decreasing social concern among parties and their representatives. The social, electoral, and ideological weakening of parties suggests that the concrete pillars of democracy are crumbling. At best, parties continue to function as campaign organizations and become empty shells, driven purely by mediagenic party leaders and mediagenic ideas.

According to the second tale, the “established” political parties run the show. They have formed a “state cartel” and are turning their country into a “society of technocratic regents”, where the aim is to maintain a semblance of democracy. A very limited and in fact diminishing number of citizens is believed to wield a disproportionate political influence that is no longer justified. Political parties are supposedly dividing up the offices and deliberately blocking non-politically correct public opinion (“never speak your mind”). They monopolize the government administration. While they lose their social roots, parties are becoming increasingly prominent in public administration. Parties serve as exclusive gates of access to public offices and bureaucracy and have many high-ranking officials, advisors, and the like among their members. From this perspective, parties are an oligarchy of policy makers and decision makers.

Some time ago, The Economist addressed these two divergent tales of political parties with a note of concern. “Is it really comforting that parties lose their members, abandon their ideas, become disengaged from a broader social movement, motivate ever fewer voters, and nonetheless maintain an iron grip on politics?” This ambiguous, ambivalent image of political parties – parties are both irrelevant and omnipotent; parties are marginal institutions as well as powerhouses – is, what I would like to call, with some alarming undertones, the party paradox.

Indeed, the paradox of party politics has become more alarming. Both the increasing weakness and oligarchic character of political parties jeopardize the legitimacy of politics and representative democracy: who do the party representatives in parliament really represent, and why are they the exclusive voice of the people? Is it possible for political parties to overcome and transcend the paradoxical positioning between powerless marginality and omnipotence? Can parties be liberated from the dilemma of their role as fall guys?

The rapid ascendance of right-wing populist movements in Europe, the democratic discomfort of the intellectual elites, the loud lack of self-confidence of the existing institutions and “their residents”: everything suggests a system leap or paradigm change in our democratic society. Three sweeping transformations – the transition from political representation to the political theatre of the ‘’audience democracy’’; the displacement of politics to non-political actors; and the transition from political project to technocratic management – have drastically reduced the room available for politics to determine the course of society and have brought about a “democratic menopause’’.

The first to be affected are the intermediary organizations of which political parties (as well as newspapers, trade unions, and churches) are prototypes. Citizens are progressively less represented by such intermediary organizations. They no longer view political parties as their advocates and have transferred this responsibility to other institutions, such as the court or lobbies. Values, lifestyles and interests have become so fragmented that many citizens no longer feel represented by ideologically oriented political parties. For the younger generations political parties have got an X-factor of minus 100.

At the very least, our representative democracy will have to abandon its business-as-usual attitude and needs to become receptive to democratic innovation and experimentation to retain its legitimacy. Following Willy Brandt’s renowned saying (‘’mehr Demokratie wagen’’): we need to dare more democracy in response to a new anti-institutional wave, a deficient representation, and a bias pro academic professionals in politics.

The major crisis of the existing party system – the pan-European populist revolt against the so-called mainstream establishment is its most visible symptom –  requires that parties deploy two adaptation strategies:

  1. a shift toward more direct democracy
  2. party innovation with a capital P, which means improving professional and programmatic quality and fostering a more open party style.

The move toward more direct democracy appears unavoidable, wherever the representative filters of political parties and parliament are rapidly losing their standing and function in the complex environment. Parties will need to improve their response to the changed circumstances and to offer a far higher calibre of programmes and people. They now lack adaptive and innovative ability.

Compared with large social organizations and especially corporate industry, political parties have very limited means. This situation does not, however, excuse the almost metaphorically poor administration and management of present political parties. Amid society’s new rules of conduct and heavy pressure, enough room remains to strengthen and professionalize the debating and agenda setting function (the lesson of technocratic government and the populist citizens’ uprising) and the recruitment function (the lesson of an “autistic” government party) of parties in their new form. In a post-modern audience democracy, political parties still have a major role as actors and as spectators. Parties will need integrity, responsibility, and professional quality. New potentials may be put to better use to this end. If parties do not take the signs that our democracy is in rough transition seriously, they will become more marginal by the day and will ultimately be better suited to the museum of Machiavellian atavism than to a flourishing democracy.


Postscript: the G1000 Citizens Summit

Not well observed yet in the English speaking world, is a spectacular initiative in Belgium, the country where the party paradox in its most extreme form has led to an absurd political stalemate: a Guinness Book world record of a country without government.

As a reaction to this, citizens took the initiative to take over politics from politicians and political parties. On November 11th, there will be a Citizens Summit, the G1000. 1000 ordinary Belgians will gather in Brussels for deliberative sessions about the course of the country. At 100 tables, a perfectly selected cross section of Belgian citizens will discuss the acute challenges for politics. Democracy is criticized for having become ‘’a dictatorship of elections’’, not able to lead to balanced deliberation and government outcomes. Those who took the initiative call the G1000 Citizens Summit not anti-politics, but ultra-politics: a gift of citizens to politics.

These kind of post-old school representative party democracy initiatives may well be the future for democracy beyond the party paradox. Never to be expected: the crisis of Belgium leads the way forward for refreshed democracy. As The Economist’s Charlemagne wrote recently: ’The world gives little thought to Belgium. Yet it may soon have to pay more attention. (…) The effects of the Belgian crisis would be felt far beyond the fantasy world of Tintin and Magritte’s bowler-hatted men falling from the sky’’.

Partly based upon: Frans Becker & René Cuperus, The Party Paradox: Political Parties Between Irrelevance and Omnipotence. A View From the Netherlands,

Social Europe Journal