By Pasquale Ferrara.
The debate on the crisis of political parties, at least in most Western Countries, is not new. There have been already two major waves of criticism on the organized parties: one related to performance, the other linked to ideology.
The first occurred in the seventies, when appeared clear that mass parties would not resist the 'overload' of demand for an even wider welfare state after the economic crisis in that decade. At that time, the high expectations created by ambitious party programmes had to face the increasing stress on public finance and the consequent impossibility for the political organizations 'to deliver' and keep the electoral promises. The second wave surfaced after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a process of redefinition of identities as a consequence of the end on the bipolar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and the sudden disappearance of the fault line between East and West, communism and "free world". In both cases, however, what was at stake was mainly the modernization of party programmes - in a more realistic direction - and rethinking the "comprehensive vision" of a society related to each political party. In any case, the crisis of the parties did not imply a negative judgement of the representative system of the liberal democracy. On the contrary, parties were requested to better 'channel' the demand of political representation and participation rising from the society. What is really new about the present narrative of the crisis of the parties is that it includes a broader critical assessment of the current mechanisms of democratic representation and of the entire political-electoral process, considered no longer capable to interpreter the popular will through institutional arrangements.
How was is it possible that in a few decades parties became, from major socialization agencies, structures seen as sclerotic and even damaging to the society and the political system? Well, it is not a mystery and we do not need Sherlock Holmes to reveal it. Parties suffered an involution when they started to behave as catch-all parties, trying to 'occupy' every social and political space, not to mention deplorable phenomena as corruption and lack of public ethics. Power became their main objective, not as an instrument to achieve goals of general interest, but as an end in itself for the political élite. Parties transformed themselves into 'cartel parties' - according to Richard Katz and Peter Mair'[i] definition: more a part of the state than a part of the society, more concerned about their survival and reproduction than about the production of socially relevant achievements. It is not a surprise, therefore, that the public started looking at them as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
What we are experiencing today is not only the decline of parties as such, but, more importantly, the loss of their crucial functions - aggregation of demands, transformation of demands and articulation of demands. With parties no longer playing their essential role between the society and the political system, demands are no longer aggregated, transformed and articulated to become political options. This is the real account of the so-called “populist turn” in Western political systems. Parties are no longer capable to intercept and represent needs and demands. At best, they are more and more skilled in selling ‘dreams’ or emotions with no real connection with the harsh reality of the scarce economic resources and viable political options. The disenchantment toward the parties is, indeed, a crisis of credibility. If we had to apply to contemporary Western democracies the conceptual framework of Albert Hirschman on the attitude of consumers/users towards complex institutions, we would say that people tried in vain to articulate their voice from the standpoint of loyalty to liber-democracy; now we might be in a phase of exit from the political system as it is conceived and structured in many Western countries – in Europe for sure.
One additional problem is that in the Eurozone the enforcement of strict criteria of budget discipline is creating a gulf between politics and policies, that is, between two essential tasks performed by political structures: responsible governance, from the one side, and representative functions, from the other. Following Peter Mair interpretation, traditional parties may well listen to popular demand, but they are not in a condition to respond to them properly when they are in the government.
The result if rather paradoxical: from the one side, we have parties that deliver, but don’t represent; on the other side, we have parties that represent, but don’t deliver. Complexity and external constraints reduce significantly the ability of political parties to fulfil their ‘partisan’ programmes. As a consequence, it is gaining ground the idea of a ‘partyless democracy’[ii], understood as a ‘consensual’ system of concrete policy agreements - above politics. Partyless democracy is by no means based on the naïf assumption that contemporary societies can be ruled through direct democracy. To be sure, this latter idea – directism - is much more problematic than the traditional concept of populism. It is a sort of “democratic illiberalism”, in which direct participation through networks (the ‘net’) is preferred to established institutions or representation. However, there is nothing necessarily wrong with these new tendencies, provided that they will engage in a constructive dialogue on the transformation of contemporary political systems in more open and participated structures of both representation and shared responsibility. The end-game of this process is uncertain. For sure, what could not be left without a sound systemic response are the new questions raised by movements like the Indignados (Spain) and Occupy Wall Street (United States), outside the electoral channels (relying on a ‘SPIN’ structure: Segmentary, Polycentric, and Integrated Networks) and by Jon Gnarr (Iceland) and Five Stars (Italy), challenging – as Hanspeter Kriesi notes - the party system from within[iii]. The new cleavage defining political systems is taking the form of a dangerous opposition between “the people” (people-centrism) and “the political élite” (anti-elitism: “la casta”, in Italian); reconciling promises with choices – a traditional political theme – could be one way to start responding to this difficult challenge.
[i] Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair. ‘The Cartel Party Thesis: A Restatement’, Perspectives on Politics 7/2009, 4: 753-766.
[ii]Peter Mair, ‘Partyless democracy’, “New Left Review” 2, March-April 2000
[iii] Hanspeter Kriesi‚”The political consequences of the economic crisis in Europe. Electoral punishment and popular protest”, in: Mass politics in the Great Recession, edited by Nancy Bermeo and Larry Bartels, Oxford University Press 2013