Winning Elections and losing their Identity – Parties in Modern Politics

By Gabor Gyori


When you talk about party organisation these days it sounds fairly simple. You get yourself a young (or youngish) candidate with a few novel (or seemingly novel) ideas, compile a team of professional campaigners, energise on-the-ground activists and undecideds and sweep the elections. Then everyone is sent home, the technocrats come in and four years later the previously revolutionary challenger repackages himself as the seasoned moderate candidate against the “extremist” candidate from the other party.

The traditional party organisation supplies part of the cash and contributes its infrastructure, and that’s about it. We have seen numerous variations of this over the past two decades.

In fact, the most memorable left-wing leaders internationally, from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder all they way to Barack Obama, have won by creating and riding such waves to victory. Explored interestingly in the documentary The War Room, this new model of campaign has set the standard well beyond the US, its birth country. While it is no accident that it was pioneered in the US, a country where party structures have traditionally been weak and are becoming more so, it is also no accident that it is spreading: traditional party structures are becoming weaker everywhere, and the shrinking parties lend themselves to and need such lean and mean campaigns.

Rather than building organisations, which takes considerable energy and money, such an approach requires merely the temporary activisation of the party base and other motivated volunteers or paid staff during actual campaigns. In addition to costing less, this gives the party leadership even greater control over the party agenda and its actions in government. With a smaller and increasingly inactive base, the party leadership is accountable to no one but itself (not that I have any illusions about the strength of responsiveness or accountability in the era of large parties).

Though I don’t think the responsibility for this sad state of affairs is the most important issue, it’s still only fair to point out that the modern party leaderships are not alone at fault. They may not even deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Citizens have become less active in political parties for a variety of reasons, and in some sense politicians had to adapt to a changing environment.

It is true that modern mass media has given politicians a tool for circumventing the traditional party apparatus and for relying less on the party base in conducting a campaign. Candidates can appeal directly to voters in ways that were inconceivable before.

It would’ve been politically suicidal to neglect these instruments. But the convenience of mass communication tools probably also bred complacency in terms of nurturing the traditional party structures.

Trying to figure out who abandoned whom first – party elites the base or vice versa – is a bit of the chicken and the egg problem. The process itself, however, is a mutual feedback mechanism: with a dissipating base, party leaders must increasingly rely on alternative means of mobilisation, which in turn alienates the remaining base.

Furthermore, the costs of holding together a disintegrating party structure from the centre are enormous. Both building and retaining a large organisation takes considerable resources and, devoid of a large voluntary base, parties may simply lack the means of stopping the decline of their organisations.

Ultimately, the declining attachment to parties is a  sociological phenomenon that does not benefit party leaders to the degree it might sometime seem. On the one hand, modern campaigns make victory possible without the traditional reliance on a committed party base. At the same time, party membership was always to some extent an indicator of social embeddedness (though the relationship was always far from linear). In addition to being the source of free footwork during electoral campaigns, party members represent the politically most committed part of those segments of society that are supportive of a given party.

The disappearance of party members also signals the declining social support of parties. One result is the diminishing vote share of traditional parties. Another, maybe even more dramatic, effect is the volatility of their results: parties whose share of the vote used to fluctuate by a few percent at most now can often lose or gain 10-20% of the vote between elections. For the party leadership, which is not only politically but also professionally and existentially invested in the results, these swings have a dramatic impact.

Losing one’s seat in the legislature or one’s job as a legislative aide or party worker is more likely at any given point, thus making a commitment to a political career more precarious existentially.

Electoral politics, in other words, has become more risky. It stands to reason that for large segments of the party leadership – specifically the less visible middle-leadership – this is a less preferable state than a relatively stable percentage of votes. For many, the occasional impressive upswings will not compensate for the uncertainties.

Apart from resourceful political entrepreneurs whose careers advance considerably faster in such an environment, most of those involved in political parties would benefit from reinvigorating party organisations, even at the price of a somewhat diminished clout.

Nevertheless, breathing life into moribund parties is going to be difficult, potentially even impossible. The reason for the weakness of party organisations is in large part their inability to tie into modern identities, to convey a sense of belonging to those supporting a given party.

To tie people in, a party must be more than a chance to realise policy goals and even more than a vehicle to improve society; it must be something that is an integral part of its members identity, an organisation that they can feel passionate about not only when it fields a good candidate but even when its leaders disappoint, as they’ll inevitably do on occasion. If our parties were to take a look in the mirror, that is hardly the image they’d see.

Social 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. This perception reflects a deeper crisis than social democracy’s current electoral malaise or its lacking mark on European policy-making – these might be reversed within the span of a few years.

Unless the problem of social democracy’s failure to engage its own supporters on an emotional level is overcome – and I will address this soon in a follow-up to this article – it is unlikely that social democratic parties can recover what they’ve lost along the way.

Social Europe Journal