Missing Links

Al Qaeda, the NGO

After floundering during the 1990s, can political parties learn a few lessons from nongovernmental organizations?

What does al Qaeda have in common with Amnesty International and Greenpeace? All three are loose networks of individuals united by a shared passion for a single cause, and thanks to cheaper communication and transportation, each can project its influence globally. Their funding comes from small contributions made by thousands of sympathizers and from large sums given by a few major donors, while their effectiveness derives from the single-minded devotion of their idealistic activists. The difference, of course, is that while al Qaeda’s suicidal terrorists want to bring down Western civilization, the members of Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and other such nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) want to make it better. And in many cases, they do.

By any reckoning, the 1990s were a good decade for NGOs. The rise of these nimble organizations has — with the exception of the al Qaedas of this world — been a generally positive development. But it also highlights a troubling decline in the fortunes of political parties. Indeed, the weakening of broad-based parties that aggregate disparate interests at the national level and that help stabilize the natural volatility of domestic politics is unfortunate. Moreover, at a time when countries are periodically destabilized by foreign shocks, from financial crashes to terrorism, the domestic volatility that usually coexists with a weak party system is even more troubling. Fittingly enough, the best way for political parties to recover their lost vigor may be by emulating some of the practices that have made NGOs such a success.

During the 1990s, from Germany to Peru, angry voters threw out long-dominant political parties. Why? Because the 1990s were bad for ideological politics and good for political corruption.

The end of the Cold War blurred the ideological lines that gave many parties their unique identity. As electoral platforms became indistinguishable, candidate personalities became the main and, often the only, differentiating factor. To win elections, political parties relied less on the popular appeal of their ideals and ideas and more on marketing techniques and the telegenic prowess of candidates. Meanwhile, freer media and more independent parliaments and judiciaries ensured that corrupt practices once carefully hidden or silently tolerated became painfully visible and obviously criminal. Political parties that could no longer distinguish themselves ideologically from their opponents increasingly relied on scandals to define political rivals in the minds of voters. It is impossible to know if political corruption actually increased in the past decade, but it certainly was more publicized than ever. Remember Helmut Kohl? Giulio Andreotti? Noboru Takeshita? Carlos Salinas de Gortari?

While parties struggled, NGOs thrived. As the ties between political parties and their electorates weakened, those between NGOs and their supporters became tighter. As the public standing of politicians and political parties continued its secular decline, the prestige and influence of NGOs grew. As NGOs pursued their single issues with monomaniacal zeal, political parties chased a multitude of different, even contradictory, goals and only seemed monomaniacal in their pursuit of campaign contributions. In countries where political parties remained banned or stifled, NGOs became the only channel of political participation — as is now the case in much of the Middle East. In most other nations, NGOs grew rapidly because they were less tainted by corruption, often belonged to a larger international network, and generally had clearer ideals, a less hierarchical structure, and a closer relationship with their members. NGOs also had the advantage of having a clear mission. Whether dedicated to the protection of human rights, the environment, or the control of population growth, members rarely lost sight of what their organizations stood for. All these factors led new cohorts of political activists, who in the past would have gravitated toward political parties, to tend instead toward NGOs.

The growth of NGOs is, on balance, a welcome trend. What is far less welcome, and indeed ought to be reversed, is the erosion in the public standing of political parties, which in many countries — Italy, Russia, Venezuela — has led to their virtual disappearance and replacement with ad hoc electoral machines.

Strong, broad-based, and well-institutionalized political parties that address a multitude of issues, aggregate competing interests, and provide organized channels of political participation are indispensable. Without them, unbridled pragmatism and social balkanization ensue, aggravating the instability of domestic politics, economics, public policy, and institutions.

Breaking the addiction of political parties to the money of big business and special interests is the obvious precondition to making them stronger. Big money from strong groups reduces the parties’ autonomy, transparency, and accountability and weakens them. Reliance on such contributions undermines the resolve of parties to create and sustain the kind of close connections that successful NGOs have with their grassroots members.

Political parties must also be willing to adapt their structures and methods to a more networked world. While the "war room" tactics of rapid response, message discipline, and spin control may serve to win over pundits, they don’t do much for the grass roots. Just as relatively flat, nonhierarchical structures with more independent "cells" have helped NGOs, so they might also help political parties reach new members and advance their agendas.

Of course, political parties will never be the same as NGOs. They cannot blindly copy such tactics and approaches, but they may be able to learn something from NGOs — perhaps even from al Qaeda.

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