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.