Political Parties by Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Foreign Policy, September/October 2005, p. 41.

We take it for granted that political parties are vital to modern political life. They have shaped representative democracies since the late 19th century. Yet, their prospects are not bright in today’s large democracies. In fact, these powerful political machines may soon disappear.  The ground is already shifting underneath their feet. Political parties have based their platforms on ideological and class divides that are becoming less important, especially in more advanced societies. Although class consciousness still matters, ethnic, religious, and sexual identities now trump class, and these affiliations cut across traditional
political party lines. Today, the labels left and right have less and less meaning. Citizens have developed multiple interests, diverse senses of belonging, and overlapping identities. Some political parties have managed to adapt. Think of the British Labour Party, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, or Brazil’s Workers’ Party, whose economic policy has very little to do
with its trade union origins.

Others won’t be so lucky. Political dislocation exists alongside a growing fatigue with traditional forms of political representation. People no longer trust the political establishment. They want a greater say in public matters and usually prefer to voice their interests directly or through interest groups and nongovernmental organizations. The debate on genetically modified food in Europe, for example, can hardly be understood without reference to organizations allegedly representing consumer interests, such as Greenpeace. And thanks to modern communication, citizens’ groups can bypass political parties in shaping
public policy. Political parties no longer have a lock on legitimacy. Voting, of course, remains essential. But voting doesn’t
require political parties, either. Indeed, the more important the issue, the more likely governments in places as different as
Switzerland, Bolivia, and California will seek legitimacy directly in referenda rather than through parliaments or legislatures, the traditional stomping grounds of parties. The rejection of the European constitution in France and the Netherlands
demonstrates that major political parties—all of which supported the constitution—often have little leverage
once an issue is posed to the people.

In this environment, political parties are at a critical junction: They must transform themselves or become irrelevant. To survive, they must design flexible agendas not dependent on traditional class and ideological divides. Somehow, they’ll have to recapture the public imagination. And they’ll have to accept that others deserve a seat at the political table. Otherwise,
the party may be over.