The End of the Party

The election of Emmanuel Macron is the triumph of populism and not its demise. His direct appeals to French voters were more compelling than those of Marine Le Pen. Nevertheless, the strategy of the two second-round candidates was much the same: play to emotions and identity; circumvent the established traditions of party politics; run against entrenched elites as much as against the other side. Now comes the hard part of converting a populist movement (En Marche!) into a political party capable of governing the institutions of state (La République En Marche!). Macron’s supporters no doubt realize this is important but are understandably still glowing in the confirmation that their France can embrace hope and change. Thinking back to the last successful hope-and-change candidates, however, it is necessary to stress how things can go wrong.

The problem lies in the link between parties, elites, and governance. Parties originated in a time of elite democracy, where few people voted and many members of parliament were there by birth-right or some other inherited privilege like wealth. Parliamentarians could participate in legislation as individuals, but they quickly learned it was easier to pass legislation when they organized as like-minded groups capable of sharing burdens internally and negotiating compromises with others. In other words, entrenched elites created parties in order to govern.

Fast forward to the expansion of suffrage around the start of the 20th Century, however, and the problem of government added two new dimensions. One was to educate voters and integrate them into the democratic process; the other was to socialize would-be political elites who had neither wealth nor title. Voter education – or ‘mobilization’ – required a clear message of what the party wanted to accomplish together with a virtual army of activists ready to help potential supporters figure out the how, when and where of democratic politics. In turn, all of this required organization, rules, and self-discipline. In the end, though, this new model proved remarkably successful. Parties created elites and gave them the support and ability to govern.

By the middle of the century, however, most voters understood the basics of democratic politics and they began to think outside the narrow programmatic formulas that political parties had to offer. Voters also began to chafe at the discipline required for party politics and they grew cynical of the elites that the parties created. Parties responded by diversifying their message and elites responded by tailoring their self-image, often casting themselves as ‘outsiders’ even as they held elected office. Very quickly, however, this led to a crisis of governance – as anyone who still remembers the 1970s will testify. Without strong linkages between parties and elites, even the best constitutional arrangements were hard to manage.

Elites responded to this crisis in the 1980s by strengthening their hold over political parties and then channelling ever larger resources – either public or private – into putting out their appeals for support. Increasingly, however, voters got lost in the shuffle and drifted away from both the traditional parties and the democratic process. Occasionally some fresh voice would rise up to represent ‘the people’ of one sort or another and so attracted renewed attention at the ballot box. But those new leaders who emerged outside or at the margins of the party system quickly learned the importance of organizing consistent groups of like-minded legislators to make decisions, formal rules for candidate selection, and masses of activists to help turn out the vote. The lessons of 19th and early 20th Century democracy are still with us, in that respect.

The problem is that fresh-faced elites that turn from populism to party politics soon lose the affections of their followers. Just think about how quickly the Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barrack Obama lost their lustre (or fairy dust).  Claims to represent ‘the people’ ring hollow when issued from the Oval Office or 10 Downing Street. As voters drift away again, elites are creating parties and parties are creating elites, but none of this really ensures that anyone has the power to govern. If anything, the loss of popular attention only encourages politicians to repeat the mistakes of the 1970s.

Making direct appeals to the people over the heads of existing elites is not the solution. Such populism is effective at breaking open the system and creating new opportunities, but that is only a prologue for what is to come. The challenge for leaders like Macron is to shed the anti-elite and anti-party rhetoric and to build some new vehicle for marrying traditional formulas for political organization to the needs of a 21st Century electorate. It is not clear what that formula will be. Looking at the consequences of the Third Way for the center-left in Britain and Germany or what has happened to Obama’s Democratic Party does not offer much reassurance. Matteo Renzi’s travails controlling the Democratic Party in Italy is also a source of concern. Macron has the chance to reshape France. He must first figure out how to restructure democracy.

This piece was originally published on E!Sharp. For the edited version, go here.