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The Party Is Over
The mass political movements that once dominated Europe are fading fast—and the nationalist populists and upstart parties taking their place are here to stay.
The current political volatility that is sweeping through much of the West marks the beginning, not the end, of a new era of great churn and change. Europe, the United States, and other democracies have entered an age of dealignment. The fragmentation of political systems, the rise of populist parties, higher rates of electoral volatility, and an ever-tightening squeeze on the traditionally dominant parties have become the new normal.
This process was decades in the making, and it will continue to have profound effects on politics—effects that may be much stronger than we currently apprehend.
The West has come a long way from the golden era of mass politics, which ran from the early 20th century through to the 1990s. While there have always been populist insurgents and periodic explosions of volatility, in broad terms, the golden era was characterized by strong bonds between citizens and the traditional parties—such as Germany’s Christian Democrats or France’s Socialists, both of which are now in steep decline. During peacetime, this system of mass politics brought relative stability. Its success owed much to its underlying foundations.
The traditional parties drew strength from deep divides in Western societies that been shaped by nationalist upheavals and the Industrial Revolution—rifts between national and periphery identities, between church and state, between a landed elite and a bourgeois class, and between capitalists and workers. These foundations provided not only a framework for many political systems but also a durable and typically reliable source of votes for the traditional parties. Workers leaned left, the old property-owning middle class leaned right, territorial disputes fueled regionalist parties, and Catholics voted for Christian Democrats. It was these foundations that led the influential scholars Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan to observe in the 1960s that many political systems had essentially “frozen”—they looked much like they had in pre-World War I Europe.
Those systems have now thawed, if not melted away entirely. The long-term continuities that once delivered loyal voters, dominant major parties, and stable, experienced governments have been disrupted. The key disrupters include the left’s drift away from workers to focus on the culturally liberal and degree-holding middle class, the way in which new value conflicts have cut across traditional electorates, and how this has been exacerbated by the rise of new issues such as immigration that do not sit easily within the classic left versus right framework.
This process began in the 1980s and 1990s, long before the Great Recession, and it accelerated during the 2000s and is now producing unprecedented political change. In only a decade, between 2004 and 2015, the average share of the vote going to the traditional mainstream parties in Europe slumped by 14 points to 72 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the vote going to new populist challengers, whether on the left or the right, more than doubled to reach 23 percent. The center-left is experiencing record losses, and in several political systems the combined share of the vote going to the traditional mainstream parties has reached record lows. In Germany, social democrats plunged last year to their worst result since 1933. In Sweden, they just fell to their lowest since 1908.
At the root of these shifts is dealignment, the way in which the bonds between citizens and the traditional parties are eroding or, in some cases, have broken down completely. It hasn’t happened overnight, but the erosion of support for once-dominant parties has been stubbornly persistent. By 2009, before the effects of the global financial crisis had really taken hold, the share of people in Europe who did not feel close to any party reached 54 percent. It is this dealignment that has cleared the path for an assortment of new challengers.
Some observers were shocked by the recent election result in usually stable Sweden, where the Social Democrats had their worst showing for more than a century, while the center-right Moderates fell to their second-worst result since the late 1980s. Meanwhile, the national populist Sweden Democrats reached a record high, and the combined share of the vote for the two major parties dropped to just 48 percent, the lowest since Sweden’s party system reorganized itself in the late 1970s.
But if one looks at the deeper currents, then this volatility would not have been a surprise. By the time of the election, and compared to the 1960s, the percentage of Swedes who identified with a party had crashed from over 50 percent to just 17 percent.
It is a similar story in Germany, where during last year’s general election the two major parties took their lowest combined share of the vote since the country was reunified (53 percent), while the upstart Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured 92 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag. And in the state election in Bavaria earlier this month, the picture was even bleaker: The two main parties combined took just 47 percent of the vote.
Again, the writing had been on the wall. Between 1972 and 2009, the percentage of people in what was West Germany who felt strongly aligned to one of the two main parties dropped from 55 to 32 percent, while in the East, where the AfD has emerged as a major force and where there is no tradition of multiparty politics, these weak loyalties had been on full display since the early 1990s.
In the United Kingdom, in the three decades before people voted for Brexit, the ratio of people who felt as though they had a strong relationship with one of the two dominant parties dropped from around half to one-third, a trend that has been accompanied by a strong sense of disillusionment. This year, when Ipsos MORI asked people whether they felt that “traditional parties and politicians” cared about people like them, the replies in Europe were sobering—47 percent of people in Germany, 51 percent in Italy, 57 percent in Britain, 64 percent in Hungary, and 67 percent in France felt that they had been abandoned by the old guard.
The wider tendency to dismiss this sentiment as ephemeral protest is misleading. The drivers of dealignment are deep-rooted. The globalization revolution that began in the post-war era ushered in a new era in which political conflicts between communitarians and cosmopolitans, underpinned by an educational divide, have revolved around new and far more potent issues. Immigration, refugees, Islam, the declining power of the nation amid supranational integration, gender equality, and challenges to the traditional family unit have gradually crept up the agenda. The traditional parties were too slow to adapt to the new reality or unable to reconcile what are irreconcilable value divides within their own electorates. On the critical questions of identity, liberal middle-class professionals and blue-collar workers hold fundamentally different views. As a consequence, new and more flexible political movements have emerged to tear off chunks from the old dominant parties, whether it’s the Greens going after middle-class voters in Germany or national populists seeking the support of the more socially conservative working class.
It is from this dealignment that higher rates of volatility have flowed. We now live in an era in which the Italian Five Star Movement can be founded and win an election within a decade, in which Emmanuel Macron can step outside traditional party politics and capture total power in France in just a couple of years, and where our political systems are fragmenting as more ideologically radical parties draw strength from the way in which older coalitions of voters are breaking apart. And these changes are also having another important effect: pulling previously apathetic voters back into politics.
In Germany, the top source of votes for the national populist AfD were nonvoters, people who had given up on politics but now saw an opportunity to regain a seat at the table. In the U.K., a substantial number of traditional nonvoters turned out to vote in the 2016 referendum, and most of them supported Brexit.
Amid the new age of dealignment, it is tempting to look for solutions in democracies that seem to have escaped the broader trend. In the U.K., for example, while Brexit divides the parties and voters, the most recent election, in 2017, saw the share of the vote for the two main parties surge above 80 percent, the highest combined vote share since 1970. But headline figures can be misleading. As my colleague Jon Mellon has shown, when you drill down beyond party vote shares to look at how individual voters are behaving, then you see that both the 2015 and 2017 elections were actually among the most volatile in the entire post-war era. What disguised the fact that many Liberal Democrats and Greens switched to Labour, while many working-class Labour and UK Independence Party voters switched to the Conservatives, was the “first past the post” system, which unlike proportional systems awards seats by the achievement of a simple majority.
In the United States, too, from the 1970s onward numerous studies have pointed to the same weakening bonds between citizens and the main parties. Whereas in the early 1960s, a solid 70 to 75 percent of people lined up between the two main parties, by the time Donald Trump was mulling over whether or not to run for the White House, it had sunk to a record low of 56 percent. Both the share of Americans who see themselves as independent or who felt that a new party is needed have surged to record highs. This much greater fluidity no doubt helped the insurgent Trump, not least among some former Obama voters.
Central and Eastern Europe offers a glimpse into one possible future that awaits democracies in the West. As the scholars Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause point out, since the 1990s, many of these democracies have experienced substantial losses by established parties, rapid gains by “uncorrupted newcomers,” but then equally rapid newcomer losses to even newer parties. The result, they point out, is often “accelerating party-level cycles of birth, death, and replacement.” They hint at a political future in which, amid broader dealignment, major successes by new parties triggers a steady stream of “start-up parties,” which “bear closer resemblance to their technology-industry counterparts than to traditional political parties.”
The new, awkward reality is that, while the age of dealignment and volatility make it easier to create and build new parties, these deep trends simultaneously make it harder to keep challengers alive. So, while the old traditional parties will continue to struggle, it might also be that even new populist challengers come under threat from even newer parties. States in Western Europe, much like their Central and Eastern neighbors, may in the coming years find that they too are increasingly heading into a never-ending cycle of birth, death, and replacement.
All of this means that it will be harder for Europe to get the strong, stable, and ideologically coherent governments that are a prerequisite for dealing effectively with a growing list of challenges: how to respond to the rising support for national-populism, how to craft a durable solution to the refugee crisis, how to resolve economic inequality that continues to exacerbate tensions between North and South, and, more broadly, how to deliver a model of integration that can simultaneously satisfy the liberal and (increasingly strong) conservative wings of Europe.
The demise of traditional parties is not a blip. The evidence suggests that it is a lasting transformation of the party system. And as a consequence, European politics is likely to become far more volatile in the years to come.