The democratic world is struggling to find political leadership. On the conservative side of the spectrum, the parties of the center-right have watched their constituencies fade and their political role be supplanted by a populist upsurge. The German Christian Democrats, the dominant party of the postwar period, now poll below 30% in national elections. The French Gaullists claim only 5% of registered voters and were eliminated in the first round of the 2022 presidential election. The Italian Christian Democrats got muscled off the political stage by insurgent populists, who in turn forced the resignation of the centrist prime minister, Mario Draghi. In lamenting the end of the era of postwar alliances, Draghi proclaimed, “the majority of national unity that has sustained this government from its creation doesn’t exist anymore.”
On the left of the spectrum, the picture is no rosier. The French Socialist presidential candidate got only 1.75% of the vote in the 2022 election and was unceremoniously eliminated. The dominant political parties of the postwar period—on both the right and left—have lost their mass base and their ability to project a common mission. The fact that the once-dominant French Gaullists and Socialists got less than 10% of the last presidential vote combined signals that the postwar politics of stable political competition is over.
“The dominant political parties of the postwar period—on both the right and left—have lost their mass base and their ability to project a common mission.”
In place of the parties of yesteryear, lone wolves quickly ascend through independent channels and the parties cannot resist the power of social media fueled candidates. Once in office, the restraints are gone. No one today sees faithful service as a back bencher or a junior committee member as a path to personal advancement. More critically, few fear challenging party leadership as a meaningful roadblock to personal or policy success. Repeatedly, the parties of the center-right and center-left have watched their constituencies fade and their political role be supplanted by a populist upsurge.
At home in the United States, the party publicly evidencing current disarray is the Republicans. But a quick look around the world’s democracies makes clear that is not just the Republicans who are displaying inability to project clear leadership. The evident tumult at the heart of the Republican Party may appear as a momentary loss of direction in the incomplete transition away from President Trump. Barely able to select a Speaker, House Republicans are now unable to form a set of legislative proposals showcasing their claims to manage the deficit, immigration, or a host of real governance concerns. In 2020, in thrall to the prospect of Trump’s re-election, the Republicans abandoned the American tradition of debate and horse-trading over a party platform, but promised, in the words of Mitch McConnell, that “the party only needs to reveal its plans for running Congress ‘when we take it back.’” But in 2023, even without a Trump-centered axis, the party now cannot present a coherent public platform despite having a House majority.
But beyond the Beltway dramas, one sees reflections of American political disrepair across the core of democracies. In the United Kingdom—where, like the US, the first-past-the-post electoral system entrenches the existing parties—both Labour and the Tories have proven repeatedly unable to put forward cohesive policy frameworks. In the proportional representation systems of France, Germany, and Italy, meanwhile, politics fracture further, citizens’ interests fail to be integrated in a common enterprise, and democracies recede.
“The atrophying of the center-right is destabilizing all western democracies because they are ceding valuable political turf to populism.”
The atrophying of the center-right is destabilizing all western democracies because they are ceding valuable political turf to populism.These parties shared a core vision and overlapping constituencies with the Republican Party, and it yielded a political path that offered fairly steady electoral success in the second half of the twentieth century. All these parties had ties to the commanding heights of the economy, but with wide and deep roots among small entrepreneurs and farmers. They were institutionally linked to the mainstream churches and local chambers of commerce. Conservative in their social values, they nonetheless coexisted for the most part with the individual rights demands of the post-1968 era. When in government, these parties were fiscally cautious, yet had made their peace with the core New Deal and social democratic safety nets, including national health in Europe and social security and Medicare in the US.
Broad constituencies yielded conflicting policy demands. Electoral success required an ability to mediate and re-election turned on successful stewardship once in office. That in turn required both internal party discipline and the capacity to control the delivery of political goods through the legislative process. Despite internal tensions, these parties all stood for something and could translate electoral success into tangible outcomes.
Across the democratic world, almost without exception, the legislative chamber has now largely collapsed into dysfunction reflecting the failure of political party leadership. The dominant political parties of the postwar period —on both the right and left—have lost their mass base and their ability to project a common mission. The parties of the left relied on a trade union tradition that has largely evaporated in the private sector. Correspondingly, the parties on the right saw the disappearance of the social ties that forged their base of support. It is hard to even imagine that in post-WWII America, about 40% of the adult male population belonged to a fraternal order such as the Masons or Rotaries or Kiwanis—relics of a form of local engagement which has almost disappeared from contemporary life.
As the historic parties become unmoored from their institutional bases, the consequences of their weakened internal discipline compound. These parties lose control over their nominees and become less participatory and more susceptible to capture by narrow, minority, or extreme interests within the party. What these parties stand for is increasingly unclear. The resulting loss of political coherence finds its substitute in inconsistent, personalist, or substance-less platforms, as with the Republicans in 2020. And with less capacity to organize members, parties provide less of the coordination benefits that made legislatures productive, deepening democracies’ under-delivery and capacity problems. Around the world, from the US to Eastern Europe, left and right, the caudillo politics these weakening constraints have allowed are undermining popular sovereignty.
“Demographic changes and cultural estrangement fracture citizens’ relationships with their polities, weaknesses that populists gleefully exploit.”
Party weakness highlights the perceived inability of democracies to meet citizens’ economic expectations. Meanwhile demographic changes and cultural estrangement fracture citizens’ relationships with their polities, weaknesses that populists gleefully exploit. When it comes to railing against threats from outside, established parties hold no natural advantage over charismatic demagogues.
No doubt President Biden was exploiting the moment of the State of the Union in February to demand what is the Republican program on deficits, social spending, and immigration. Very well. We live in a world of partisan competition. But how long can a party claiming the inherited mantle of years of governance avoid taking positions on critical issues of the day? The Tories thought they could avoid taking a stance on Brexit and instead substitute attacks on the uninspired leadership of Labour. That strategy brought years of weakness and even a scathing comparison to the shelf life of a head of lettuce.
The Democrats in 2020 were able to command from the center around President Biden’s candidacy and have been able to govern more-or-less on that basis. Whatever one’s party affiliation, the reality is that a healthy democracy requires partisan competition that presents voters a choice on policy outcomes. Parties that cease to reflect their constituencies and to organize themselves around a vision of governance do not satisfy the demands of democracy. Slowing the rise of populism and protecting popular sovereignty is a tall endeavor, and no simple platform of reform can do it alone. But reinvigorating parties, re-empowering electoral majorities, and restoring the capacity of parties and their candidates to govern must play a part.