Political parties perform important roles in European societies. Parties are institutions in which citizens with similar political views organise, develop political programmes and actively participate in the political process. They are vital for democracy because parties offer the most clear-cut political choices that are put to the electorate. Parties are also recruitment organisations, through which parliamentarians and members of government are sourced. Even though the latter functions are important, the general effectiveness of parties is closely linked to the first characteristic: their societal embeddedness – the main channel between a party and citizens. And in this respect, political parties have been declining dramatically.
The demise of political parties is not a new phenomenon. Since at least the 1980s, parties in all established European democracies have suffered massive membership losses to the point where they only retain a very limited capacity to engage citizens. The societal anchor of political parties is seriously threatened. Vernon Bogdanor wrote in 2006 that ‘the story of the rise and fall of the mass political party is one of the great unwritten books of our time’. So why do I pick this rather old problem up again in 2009? Not because I want to write the obituary of the mass political party but because we can now see where the development of political parties might lead us. This potential new future became apparent during the US Presidential campaign.
Additionally to his remarkable personal qualities, Barack Obama – during the Democratic primaries, the Presidential campaign and now even as sitting President – has been extremely successful in using new communication technologies to connect directly with citizens. Through the use of social networking tools, online video messaging and almost real time updates on what was happening on the campaign trail – and by making many of these tools available to his supporters too – he was able to create a community that was not only prepared to vote for him but willing to organise and campaign on the local level. He was able to create a political movement he can now build upon.
The construction of this movement was above all possible because new communication techniques offered a way of being actively involved in the campaign for change. But if you look behind the technical tools you notice that Barack Obama’s campaign was able to recreate old – rather than create new – characteristics that traditional European parties, especially left-of-centre parties, have lost over the years: a sense of community and belonging.
Let us take the oldest social democratic party in the world as an example: the German SPD. When the party was founded in 1863, its backbone was educational leagues founded to educate workers. The cultural and community aspect was therefore not just a by-product but very much the founding principle of the party. Being a social democrat was not a question of membership in an organisation but rather a way of life. The identity of the party was reinforced by the large variety of social democratic newspapers and publications that contributed to this distinct culture. The cultural underpinnings of political parties were also evident elsewhere and it seems that it has been especially this attribute, that used to provide the closest link to society, that has declined most dramatically in recent decades.
It was argued that because of social and ideological changes in societies in the second half of the twentieth century, mass parties – rather homogenous constructs – developed into catch-all parties that attempted to integrate the diversifying political views and social backgrounds of citizens under the umbrella of the same party. Today, many parties look like what political scientists call ‘professional-electoral parties’. Such parties are organisations that have a highly centralised leadership and are focussed on winning votes and offices. They have largely abandoned the cultural heritage of traditional political parties. ‘Professional-electoral party’ is also the closest typology for US political parties, which are practically committees to fight elections without much activity between ballots. They are very candidate centred and lack organisational leadership.
So what is new that could show the way political parties could go from here? What has changed during the Obama campaign? In a nutshell, Barack Obama has managed to recreate the community aspects of old mass parties and integrate them into a professional-electoral party. In the contemporary context, however, culture does not mean a certain way of living but rather being part of a community based on a charismatic political leader, new political ideas and a desire for grassroots activism. The creation of this new culture in the Obama campaign has only been possible by the use of new media. So after it has transformed the economy and the way we communicate with each other, is the information, communication and technology (ICT) revolution now fundamentally changing the political process too? I think there are strong arguments in favour of this and Barack Obama’s success is evidence.
What does this mean for European parties? The socio-economic circumstances and ideological believes of citizens have indeed changed dramatically since the foundation of early European parties, political activism has however not disappeared. The success of single-issue movements such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Globalisation critics of Attac clearly shows the enduring desire for political activism. Some of these movements have even grown into political parties in their own right, for instance the German Greens or – with a rather different political agenda – the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
So the first ingredient – desire for political activism – is still there. But how can it be used? European parties have tried for decades to open their structures to social movements and to use societal activism for their party purposes. They have all been largely unsuccessful so far because their strategies were unclear and their own structures often too rigid. Waking up to the potential of new technologies and the experience of the Obama campaign however makes it a necessity to try again – and to try harder. After all, the only alternative seems to be further decline. Initial steps to use new technologies have been taken but more needs to be done. Europe in general is clearly behind the US in terms of internet integration in everyday life including politics. But this can also be an opportunity for the party that comes up first with a successful mix of technologies for the European context.
The second ingredient is political ideas that can capture and motivate people. The current economic crisis has opened a window of opportunity for a new politics. There is a vacuum of ideas since the promise of prosperity facilitated by unfettered markets collapsed with the international banking sector. This void has not been filled yet. In Barack Obama’s case the simple promise for change was enough to create his movement. This was however only possible in the narrow window of opportunity at the beginning of the economic crisis and in the specific context of US politics. If his movement is to become sustainable he needs to bring in new positive ideas. President Obama has understood this and has kept the close link to his followers even after assuming office. The way in which he encouraged living room discussions about his economic stimulus package across the US was a remarkable move and combined the desire for activism with political content. The sense of belonging and potential for activism created by a ‘I received an email from the President’ moment should not be underestimated.
The last ingredient in the mix is charismatic leadership. Early attempts of online campaigning in Europe have shown that it is very difficult to build mass participation in a political online campaign if there is not an appealing political figure at the top. Parties as such seem to be rather inappropriate vehicles for such campaigns. Identification becomes much easier if people are involved. So if the European political culture develops in the direction set out in the United States, it is likely that politics becomes more personalised and centred around political ideas represented by certain politicians.
Political parties have been declining for decades without finding a way to stop their downfall. The ICT revolution is here to stay and has already transformed many areas of our lives. The Obama campaign in the US has broken new ground and is certainly an important example to watch. But the question is how these developments can be worked into European party politics. A simple ‘copy and paste’ will not work. But the revitalisation of political culture and activism using new technologies is the most promising opportunity on offer to change the fate of political parties. Given the alternative, it is certainly worth trying.