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01 March 2015

Mobilizing Millennials: The crisis of parties and beyond

Posted by: Christophe Sente, Member of FEPS Scientific Council

Categories: Politics, voting

The idea that parties do suffer from a fatal illness called “bureaucratization” and that they will die from suffocation due to a lack of democratic oxygen supplemented by a hypertrophy of internal procedures is certainly not new.

At the very beginning of the last century, the Weberian approach of modern politics contributed to the formulation of the paradox still defining the nowadays issue of political parties. On one hand, these organizations are, in Max Weber’s own words, the “children of democracy” and have proved themselves indispensable to the holding of elections despite the fact they can also accommodate authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. On the other hand, they exemplify the oligarchic trends of institutions driven by a quest for efficiency and performance. The basic tenets of this cruel and realistic diagnostic were but forwards by Weber’s disciple, Roberto Michels, as soon as before World War I, in a famous book dedicated to the rise of an organized social-democratic movement in Europe.

During the last 15 years, Western parties, and especially parties belonging to the European social-democrat family, have suffered from a renewal of suspicion and criticism aiming not only at their bureaucratizing trends but mainly at their decline as political performers capable of translating citizens’ aspirations into viable political claims and governmental decisions.

Among political scientists, the late Peter Mair was probably the most provocative analyst of this alleged decline.

While in previous texts co-written with Richard Katz, Peter Mair had linked the disappearance of competitive mass parties with their functional success as organizations and consequent mutation into quasi-governmental agencies inside stabilized democracies, he took a much more pessimistic direction in his last works.

When using the metaphor of cartels, Mair and Katz had meant that parties could be understood as political enterprises that had succeeding in dominating and organizing a once competitive market. They had become the national pillars of the quite consensual and very “consociational” European democracies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Mair’s brilliant and posthumous book entitled “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy” tells us another story about a new century in which “the age of party democracy has passed” and politics is dying. According to Mair’s last analysis of the state of art of democracy in Europe, the weakening of national institutions by globalization has put a slow but potentially fatal blow to modern politics since the 1980s. The great threat to traditional parties is not a brutal disappearance shaped into “pasokization”. This threat takes three lethal forms that a slow erosion of their scores conceals: growing abstention, partisan disaffiliation and electoral volatility. According to this, parties would have become vessels without sailors, maps and directions on an unknown ocean.

To a certain extent, many results of the FEPS survey could be read as a validation of Mair’s pessimism. The thesis of “the hollowing of western democracy” is primarily supported by two undeniable facts: the Millennials take much less interest in politics than their elders do and they do not trust political parties very much.

However, despite this gloomy prospect, there is some light and hope for traditional parties in the survey.

The data showing that the Millennials do not support the populist agenda are particularly encouraging for idealists and humanists. Neither Europhobia nor xenophobia characterizes the dominant political attitude of a new generation of citizens.

Also encouraging, at least for technocrats, are the answers provided according to which, despite a lack of trust, young voters tend to retain their support for traditional parties because of technical experience in governmental matters.

And finally, Millennials’ confession that their voting behavior remains shaped by the influence of family background might delight cynical strategists.

These three rays of light could certainly please a wide range of politicians as they melt the picture of the imminence of a populist wave capable of sweeping well-established institutions. The likelihood of a “back to the 1930’s” scenario fueled by the political adventurism of a despaired generation is far from being confirmed by today’s survey.

However, the sweetness of the sun of an early spring should not lull anyone and two points must be highlighted.

First, the weight of family influence will not last: the results of simple actuarial calculations will not remain favourable to parties born in the 19th century and hegemonic in the post-war decades.

Second, as voting is not compulsory in most countries and as young citizens are not attracted to the polls, the impact of the Millennials’ political moderation could prove unable to counterbalance a rise in right or left-wing radicalism among older groups feeling threatened by any change induced by globalization.

In other words, if Millennials do not represent a threat for traditional parties or democracies, it would prove dangerous to neglect them and to forget to mobilize them. And, from this point of view, two lessons of the survey are bitter but must be swallowed.

The first lesson is that, despite numerous attempts to rejuvenate their image, traditional parties are described in terms that could be borrowed from a Cohen movie, as organizations “for old men”, deaf to the needs and aspirations of younger people.

The second lesson is tougher because it does call for much more imagination and boldness than programmatic revisionism or policy reviews: Millennials demand better representation through parties but are not ready to devote much time to them. What the survey brings to light is that if Mair has been correct in diagnosing a party crisis in Europe, he might have confused a decrease of desire for politics and a lack of political desire. The answers provided by the Millennials do not show a democratic despair supplemented by an interest for authoritarian remedies or a will of individualist withdrawal from politics. Young people want to reconnect with politics but without spending their life on the agora or trusting blindly permanent delegates: nor “participative democracy”, nor a “plebiscitary regime” suits their needs. The urge for new procedures reconnecting citizen and political bodies is well illustrated by the answers related to the appreciation of Beppe Grillo’s party: it is evident that political support for the program is weaker than the attraction for its informal digital structure. Other answers express at the same time a readiness to get together and distaste for traditional militancy.

Contrary to Mair’s last pessimistic views, parties could still have a future as political vehicles but it is quite obvious, according to the survey, that they won’t survive as entrenched camps led by senior officers. The point is not anymore to optimize their electoral results through one-time tactics but to boost their appeal thanks to a global strategy and the invention of a new corporate model. In order to do so, the first step is certainly to come back as social movements through which people will want to gather again. This is by the way less a great discovery than a reminder: social democracy was never as strong as when it was a network of political and socio-economic associations. Today, the clock is ticking.