The end of politics as we know it?
The French election this past Sunday is being hailed as a victory for the establishment. The winner, Emmanuel Macron, was endorsed by the other candidates and parties, except for his opponent, Marine LePen. Admittedly, LePen’s victory would have been a huge upset, but Macron’s was significant because he was not a candidate of either of the two major parties that have governed France since 1958. His win is the latest sign that politics as we know it is changing significantly.
A major shift going on in global politics is the shaking up of traditional political parties and their influence in their respective nations. One example is the election of Donald Trump. Trump was anathema to the Republican establishment. And Trump, in turn, threatened to run as an independent if the Republican Party mistreated him during the nomination process, a serious threat for Republicans. Since Trump captured the Republican Party, almost unwillingly, his election was less a Republican victory than a populist one.
The last United Kingdom election in 2015 similarly was a rejection of the traditional party system in Scotland. While the two major parties — Conservative and Labour — had dominated Scottish elections to Parliament for decades, two years ago the Scottish National Party captured all but three of the 59 Scottish seats in the British Parliament.
The Brexit referendum one year later also signaled a decline in the influence of the traditional parties. The Labour Party and Liberal Democratic Party both opposed Brexit in last June’s referendum. Then Prime Minister David Cameron firmly opposed Brexit, although many of his fellow Conservative Party members did not. In a sense, the most influential party may have been the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), a small party that supported Brexit and whose position ultimately won the day.
Another example is Italy. For five decades after World War II, the dominant political party was the Christian Democratic Party, a Catholic-based conservative party. The main opposition was the Communist Party. When the Soviet Union fell, the Communist Party disappeared. Scandals undermined the Christian Democrats shortly thereafter. New parties formed in the 1990s.
But the most recent election was the most dramatic. The largest share of the vote went to a new party called the Five Star Movement. Headed by a popular comedian, the movement has rejected the longstanding left-right continuum and become a centrist reform party dedicated to internet democracy, term limits for politicians and anti-immigration. How successful such an anti-establishment can be in the future is questionable, but there is no doubt the Five Star Movement has dramatically altered Italian governance.
Still another example is the case of Spain. For decades, governance of Spain rotated between the People’s Party, similar in tone to the Christian Democrats, and the Socialists, a center-left party. However, three new parties emerged in the Spanish election last year. Two of them formed an alliance that won 21 percent of the vote. The third captured 13 percent of the vote. Combined, they won over a third of the vote and robbed either major party of the ability to form a majority government. By contrast, in the previous election, the two major parties combined won 84 percent of the vote. The new parties have shaken up the Italian electoral process.
The emergence of new political parties is an indication of anti-established party sentiment going on in electorates in various parts of the globe. This is also true in the United States. A USA Today poll in March found that Americans viewed both parties unfavorably — only 37 percent thought well of the Republicans, while only 36 percent felt that way about Democrats.
There are three main characteristics of the change. One is the decline of the left-right dichotomy that has long governed politics, including in the United States. Another is the desire for problem solving and the end of partisan gridlock and divisiveness that marks current partisan interaction. And the third is a desire for political reform that encourages rather than discourages citizen engagement. These changes will highlight electoral processes in the future. Whether current major parties will be a part of that future is the question.