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  • Writer's pictureAmy Erica Smith

A Party Manifesto

By Amy Erica Smith

Parties worldwide are changing in strikingly consistent ways. Some issues are coming to matter more and others less. Some types of parties are growing and others dying. And everywhere, voters are connecting with politicians in new ways. These changes give us mischiefs of faction a lot to write about.*

Source: Bristol Green Party / Flickr

Change 1: It’s not necessarily the economy, stupid. New issues may rival and even surpass economics as the main thing parties fight over.

In a provocative New York Times Op-Ed a few days ago, Sylvie Kauffmann declared that “global warming and immigration are replacing traditional left-right defining issues” in Europe.

It will likely surprise exactly zero of my readers that parties opposing immigration are gaining ground in many democracies. In mainland Europe, examples abound: Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) party in France, Italy’s Lega party, or Sweden’s Nazi-derived Social Democrats. Across the channel, as Chris Williams will argue here at Michiefs of Faction later today, the “remain” versus “leave” question has become the most salient issue in voters’ party choices. And in the US…well, I think I may have heard Republican politicians mention something about immigration once or twice recently.

Nationalists don't always target foreigners. Following its return to power in 2014, India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has increasingly appealed to Hindu voters by targeting non-Hindus. The most jarring example is the recent elimination of the regional autonomy of the Muslim-majority Kashmir province.

Elsewhere, the ascendant new right is focused on other issues. In Latin America, attitudes on homosexuality and punitive anti-crime attitudes increasingly affect vote choice. And my new research shows that in Brazil, the overt racial prejudice of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro made race unusually predictive of the 2018 vote.

On the European left, Kauffmann argues that environmental protection has come to be the single most important issue for young voters. In the current US Democratic primary, a growing slice of voters and candidates also makes the environment their top issue.

Not to say that traditional left-right issues are irrelevant. Legislatures spend a lot of time addressing issues like inequality, unemployment, regulations, health care, and pensions. Perceptions of how the government is doing, and attitudes about what it should do, still matter for voting -- very likely everywhere in the world.

But some evidence suggests the economy may matter less than it used to. Take US debates over the causes of Trump’s 2016 win as an example. Various academic studies conclude that, as Diana Mutz wrote, “changes in the parties’ positions on...issues that threaten white Americans’ sense of dominant group status” were what attracted voters to Trump -- not economics.

These trends leave us with a lot of questions, though. When a party pivots to focus on a new issue, some politicians and voters enter its coalition and others leave. Who? The details of changing party coalitions provide clues to guessing the future.

As new issues come to the fore, positions on traditional issues change, too. Nationalism may change economic ideologies in rightist parties -- the US’ increasing skepticism on trade under Trump being perhaps the starkest example. Neoliberalism is so 1999. Yet, tellingly, across the globe, business elites largely appear to be sticking with rightist parties, at least for the moment.

Here’s another question: We can describe how these changes are happening, but why? It’s tempting to focus on the idiosyncracies of each case.

In the UK, Brexit came to dominate the party scene because of...well, it’s a mess. (See Chris Williams later today.) In Brazil, we can trace the rise of the new right to declining trust in government in the wake of the Operation Car Wash corruption scandal. In many places in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, we can also point to the rise of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. In mainland Europe, Syrian immigration also played a big role. In the US, cultural backlash in the wake of Barack Obama’s election might have something to do with it.

But those explanations aren’t fully satisfying. When changes come in waves, it seems unlikely that individual sui generis explanations are enough to explain patterns.

What could be triggering the rise of a new right increasingly focused on culture war rather than economic issues in country after country? Maybe this convergence is the work of globalized networks of nationalists, often originating in the United States and Russia. Social media is another intriguing hypothesis I’ll explore further in coming weeks.

The answer might involve big cross-national economic and sociological factors. Rising inequality might lead rightist parties to pivot towards culture war issues on which they are more likely to win. Alternatively, growing economic security might enable both rightist and leftist parties increasingly to focus on what Inglehart terms “postmaterialist” issues that cannot be reduced to economics.

And perhaps it’s driven in part by climate change. As drought, heat, and flooding cause economic dislocation in equatorial regions, rising migration from Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to Europe and the US can cause cultural backlash.

Change 2: The party is dead. Long-live the party.

The issue entrepreneurs who champion new issues often gravitate to new parties or party factions. Old parties and factions don’t always keep up. Sometimes they reinvent themselves; sometimes they fail. In his piece later today, Chris Williams explains how the Tory and Labor Parties’ mixed and ambiguous positions on Brexit opened the space for the new Brexit Party, as well as growth of the Liberal Democrats. Yet in the US, what was formerly a faction of the Republican Party has successfully transformed the party in its image.

Across Latin America, recent decades have brought the deaths of long-standing parties and even party systems -- the consequence of parties diluting their brands and failing to maintain linkages with voters. In their wakes, new parties have arisen. Yet in newly democratizing Sub-Saharan Africa, the persistence of strong parties that had formerly ruled their countries under authoritarianism has stabilized party systems.

When do parties pivot to take on new issues? When do they refuse or fail? When do parties become unable to maintain their links with voters?

Political science is a probabilistic field. What we call “Duverger’s Law” is one of the few empirical regularities we're willing to give that moniker. Duverger tells us that when elections use plurality rules for selecting representatives -- that is, when only one candidate, the top vote-getter, wins -- they tend to have fewer parties than when elections are decided using proportional representation (PR). Under PR, multiple candidates win in a district, in proportion to their votes.

Plurality rules are most common in the UK and its former colonies. So, Duverger’s law helps us predict that in the US, the overlapping, centripetal effects of plurality races for executive and legislative office strongly favor a two-party system. If a new party starts winning elections, it will do so at the expense of an existing party.

But Duverger didn't tell us anything about what those parties would be. We can’t know at the outset which parties will win or lose, or what they will compete over. Nor can we know whether any particular party will adapt to new conditions or instead go the way of the dodo and the Whig Party. Those questions remain for other political scientists.

It’s also worth noting that the UK’s current partisan mess that Chris Williams will describe later today -- the rise of multiple parties unable individually to muster a majority of Parliament -- appears partially to “defy” Duverger’s Law. This is what a party system in flux looks. Still, we can predict that in the long term, the psychological and mechanical effects of plurality voting rules will winnow the partisan field in the UK.

Change 3: Global authoritarianism is on the rise, too.

We are in the midst of a global wave of “autocratization,” in which the number of democratic regimes is falling and the number of authoritarian regimes is rising.

In the past couple of decades, former democracies around the world have become “hybrid” regimes -- ones where increasingly authoritarian parties have consolidated power but continued to hold regular, multiparty (but not free or fair) elections. Think of United Russia, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and Hungary’s Fidesz. Meanwhile, authoritarianism appears to have deepened in what is arguably the world’s most important, long-standing authoritarian party, the Chinese Communist Party.

I doubt the wave of autocratization has crested. A decade from now, some current incumbent parties in democratic systems may well have become authoritarian parties overseeing hybrid regimes. How will these changes happen? We might speculate about some likely suspects (I won’t here*), but can we measure likelihood of autocratization? How do we know which countries will actually autocratize? Over the next decade, it will be important to track which parties succeed in consolidating power, and which party systems successfully resist members’ authoritarian impulses.

Change 4: Voters and politicians are linked in new ways.

Political scientists often talk about party-citizen “linkages” -- the ways parties maintain effective bonds with their supporters. Twentieth century parties followed a wide variety of models: some used clientelism, or material benefits and vote buying; some relied on effective ties to organized groups such as labor unions; yet others concentrated on policy-related appeals that they communicated to voters via advertising and mass media.

But in the past decade, parties and politicians have acquired a transformative new tool: social media. Individual politicians can speak directly to potential supporters, unfiltered by traditional media or by party leaders who would like to choose which politicians get the microphone.

As a consequence, politics has become less predictable. Take Brazil’s 2018 presidential election that led to the election of the far-rightist Jair Bolsonaro. Unable to find a major party to sponsor him, Bolsonaro ran under the banner of the very small Social Liberal Party. He was severely disadvantaged in resources for traditional advertising or TV time.

Yet Bolsonaro compensated through skillful use of social media. When he was stabbed three weeks prior to the first-round election and hospital bound, he took to YouTube and WhatsApp to communicate directly with supporters. Though Bolsonaro skipped most of the televised debates, he effectively teleconferenced into rallies from his smartphone.

Social media organizing via platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube has also created a new cadre of activists in Brazil. “Influencers” can mediate between candidates and voters, and sometimes they themselves choose to run for office.

Yet other “new” types of linkages are very old. In Brazil, churches have increasingly served as important sites for discussing and supporting candidates, as evangelicalism has expanded and become increasingly politically active.

Finally, democracies are constantly experimenting with institutions. They change primary rules. They institute procedures for referendums, petitions, or recall elections. They create new forums for participatory democracy, and abolish others. Each change creates opportunities for strategic parties to find new ways of interacting with potential supporters.

So many questions remain -- I’ll mention just one. Are some types of linkages more conducive to democracy than others? Political scientists argue that when clientelistic linkages prevail, representation of citizens policy interests suffers.

What about social media? A new and burgeoning literature suggests that social media politics favors populist and conservative causes. The consequences for democracy remain to be seen.


* Caveat emptor: I speak only for myself. My idiosyncratic interests in citizen-level politics, democracy, and Latin America filter my perceptions. I’m sure I’ve missed so many important things.

** Happy to do so over a beer.

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