World, Politics

Obituary: A Political Party finally passed away in the Twenty-Teens, a victim of its own success

Contemplating history and today’s rowdy politics, J. BROOKS SPECTOR wonders if the old style of party politics is about to vanish.

The political turmoil cascading through so many western-style democracies nowadays seems to be pointing to something much more fundamental than the desire of people in places as diverse as the United States, Austria and South Africa for something beyond the immediate reach of their respective political systems. A key element in this is that a stable political party system no longer seems sufficient to respond adequately to the increasingly unending demands of citizens.

Modern political parties – putting aside those historical examples like the factions within, say, the Roman Senate, or in the brawling between the Guelfs and Ghibellines in 13th century Italy, lined up behind either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor – largely came into being in the early 19th century. In America, Aaron Burr (the canny and conniving New York politician, American vice president to Thomas Jefferson, and killer of his great rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel) was effectively the architect of modern machine politics. He conceived and then built up an interlocking system of patronage, party loyalty through votes, service delivery (to use that South Africanism), and a little bit of graft to keep the machinery running. Pretty much every political machine since has used the same system Aaron Burr constructed.

From the early 19th century and on into the 20th, this system worked magically in fast-growing cities every bit as well as it did in the racial aristocracies of the states in the American South. There, of course, if blacks couldn’t vote, their needs need not be factored into the political equation. As a result, this was key to understanding the importance of voting rights, voter education and voter registration for civil rights activists right back at the beginning of the civil rights revolution.

In such settings, formal ideology was largely an afterthought. Throughout the many variations of party control, the fundamental mechanisms remained the same: effectively organise voters into geographic groups or distinctly ethnic ones; deliver services sufficiently enough to keep those voters and their families in line; and then guarantee enough votes through that process so as to keep a party in power. A low level of voter turnout effectively was a sign the system was working just fine, for as long as the governing party held onto its majority.

Alternatively, by the end of the 19th century, the impetus for the first mass mobilisation parties began to grow. This came from the growing industrialisation that continued to bring ever more workers into cities. The resulting modern economy bred a workers’ unionisation movement, often in tandem with socialist ideologies to underscore the demands for broader social, political and economic change. Or, as in Russia, such ideology served to generate a vanguard party that was determined to drag the workers into becoming a revolutionary force for change.

But all of these systems largely depended on political parties being able to hold some kind of monopoly over the political attitudes, ideals, desires and actions of their supporters. To control the game, political parties had to shape the way citizens saw the political system and to provide just enough of a payoff so that the fundamental system could safely stay in place. More cynical (or more clear-eyed) observers like Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca in the early 20th century argued the circulation of elites in a polity made sure that while the political parties might alternate in power, or even change their shape and publicly articulated goals, the elite in a society maintained control – even if such a thing was not immediately visible from the outside of that elite circle.

Populists – from Louisiana’s governor Huey Long to Argentina’s president Juan Peron, from Italia’s Il Duce Benito Mussolini to Germany’s Fuhrer Adolph Hitler – all knew that if they were to seize power successfully for whatever they actually hoped to achieve, they needed to do so from outside their respective nations’ traditional political structures. Accordingly, their fundamental challenge was to create an entirely new mass party that fed upon the real (or imagined) grievances of a population. Alternatively, if not an entirely new party, they elected to carry out a kind of hostile takeover of an already-established political party, and then reshape the political structure to their own purposes.

Until recently, this depended on the ability to conjure up mass demonstrations in front of government buildings, to stage a vast march as with Mussolini’s March on Rome, to carry out massive night-time, torchlight parades, or to organise stadium-filling mass gatherings. Eventually, for some “gifted” performers, radio became the medium that magnified their message, transcending distance and delivering the message to millions simultaneously, wherever potential supporters might be. More recently still, of course, television has been a way to reach potential adherents and supporters – especially if the media will be one’s willing servant in carrying visual proof of the power of the movement.

But most recently of all, the notion of celebrity and the interactive possibilities of social media have, intermingled together, become the most effective possible route to leap beyond long-established political parties and thus to create movements no longer dependent on those subtle and interwoven relationships that traditional political parties nurture.

In the US, as obvious examples, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have attempted to stage what are effectively takeovers of the two major, established parties. Neither Trump nor Sanders were in the mainstream of their respective parties, and Trump was not even a Republican until fairly recently. His “coup” came from leapfrogging off of his national television celebrity and his protean cult of self, telling an increasingly disaffected portion of the electorate that he felt their pain, he understood their angers and fears, and that he would heal their hurts, their wounded pride and their depleted wallets.

In fact, Trump did not fit into any of the traditional versions of Republican ideology. He was not a social conservative like the Mike Huckabee, nor a small government/low tax Main Streeter like Paul Ryan or Scott Walker, nor even a Rand Paul-style libertarian, let alone what used to be called a country club internationalist in the model of someone like Nelson Rockefeller. Instead, his success has been to build outward from a base of what were previously the Nixon-, then Reagan-Democrats, new GOP voters angry at the liberal social and economic policy turns taken by the Democrats in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, alonag with their increasing inclusion of minorities into the inner sanctum of party politics.

Sanders too came from beyond the formal edge of the Democratic Party to carry out a raid on the oldest continuously operating political party in the world. Previously, he had been an old-style socialist out of Brooklyn, and then a fiercely independent senator by way of the largely rural, often-contrarian state of Vermont in New England. And he, too, was attempting a coup of the formal organs of the Democratic Party, backed by crowds who had given up on the Democratic Party’s more traditional approaches for what they saw as their economic salvation. While Trump has carried out his coup, Sanders’ effort will come close but most likely will fall just short of the finish line.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, new Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn carried out a similar, and successful, effort in the UK. In Corbyn’s case, a change in the Labour Party’s manner of voting for its leader allowed Corbyn to appeal to a wave of heretofore unengaged people that were not members of the Labour Party to pay a small fee and then have a say in the party’s leadership election, instead of following the old, tried and true way of joining the party and then coming up through the ranks of union and party structures, or by being part of its leftist brain trust. In the process, this time, the party picked a backbencher with virtually no party or legislative track record. (Of course this came after a soul-searing defeat in the most recent national election that banished the party from even a toehold north of Hadrian’s Wall – in a Scotland that had for many decades been a traditional stronghold of Labour politics.)

And, of course, here in South Africa, the CiC of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, first angrily left (or was dismissed from) his perch in the ANC, and having achieved national celebrity in the process, called forth a new kind of party for South Africa around him from among the disaffected. His EFF has swollen to become a mass gathering of millions who feel no home in any of the country’s other current political structures. And somewhat like Trump, or even Bernie Sanders, in his celebrity and ability to command an outsized share of the media space, Malema has felt comfortable summoning up his “army” of the disaffected to believe in his leadership. For historians, this could offer an echo of the way Juan Peron’s supporters had called his followers “the shirtless ones” in Argentina, some 70 years ago as they rallied behind Peron against any efforts to depose him.

Looking at such developments, one can argue that, increasingly, the old style of building political support via the careful cultivation of a political party that generates a product – government activities – and creates loyalty in return, is dying out. Instead, it may be shifting to a model where ambitious politicians rely on an increasingly impatient crowd – as they build their movement through loyalty to the celebrity created out of the mass media, and enhanced through a continuous chatter on a multiplicity of interactive social media platforms.

Or, as Shakespeare had had that would-be populist ruler of all Rome, Julius Caesar, advise, “It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.”

If this is the model for the future, now with the addition of social media and the media-magnifying aura of celebrity, traditional politics – and the politicians adjudged to be mere traditional men and women – may not have much of a chance in the age we are entering now. And that is not a happy prospect. DM

Photo: A supporter of Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures towards a protester as Trump speaks during an airport campaign stop in Millington, Tennessee, February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Karen Pulfer Focht