Political Parties by Fernando
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
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.