Is the crisis of the traditional parties synonymous with the predicament of democracy?

Director for Research and Training
12/12/2023

Pepijn Corduwener

The Rise and Fall of the People’s Parties. A History of Democracy in Western Europe since 1918

Oxford University Press 2023

Studying the developments in the political party systems is like working in an anatomical pathology laboratory: different samples are put under the microscope and are then carefully observed. The various outcomes are scrupulously noted in the hope of finding mechanisms behind the trends. What is more, political scientists are equally as diligent as anatomical pathologists. Their research methodology enables them to frame electoral performances in sophisticated graphs, encapsulate parties of very diverse origins into moulds of models, and codify ideas to describe in numbers the respective manifestoes. While fascinating for scholars of this discipline, the outcomes often appear inaccessible to others and risk being disregarded as technocratic. But every now and again a brilliant publication comes along that builds a bridge between the two: what is discovered, and the way various audiences like to learn about it. The Rise and Fall of the People’s Parties. A History of Democracy in Western Europe since 1918 by Pepijn Corduwener is precisely such a publication. In the most stimulating manner, Corduwener’s book takes the reader through 150 years of Western European political history. 

The author is a scholar of contemporary history. He holds a PhD and works as an associate professor at Utrecht University. Furthermore, his academic path has enabled him also to acquire international academic experience, including scholarships and visiting fellowships in Oxford, London and Rome. The latter resulted in his fascination with Italy, which led him to write several relevant articles on the country’s institutional developments. His work has been published by such prominent houses as Routledge, Oxford and Clingendael.

The Rise and Fall of the People’s Parties is a fascinating study, which Corduwener begins with a set of thought-provoking hypotheses. The author admits that the results of recent elections in Europe may have been perplexing, but he does not recommend opting for the shortcut of instantly heralding the existence of a crisis of democracy. That is because, in his opinion, there is a big difference between democracy being challenged and democracy in jeopardy. This then brings him to ask the ever-important question: can we imagine the future of democracy without the (traditional) parties as we have grown to know them until now? And if not, why not, since these parties seem to be falling short in both of the dimensions for which they were established: firstly, acting as transmission belts to ensure the representation of vast groups of citizens, and thus serving as inclusive communities; and secondly, acting as the guarantor of stable, consensus-based governance. For any party-related individual, a reading of these lines may create a certain discomfort or even sound like blasphemy. But these individuals would be advised to give careful thought to the 220 gripping pages and 13 easy-to-read chapters that depict the path the Socialists and Christian democratic parties have been on ever since their inception. And in the well-documented study of periods and metamorphosis, these individuals may well find answers on why and how to shake off their nostalgia for mass parties, and on how to find new ways of thinking about organisations that would better fit with serving the (progressive or conservative) mission in our new reality.

What is invigorating is that when explaining the evolution of the parties in (Western) Europe, the author focuses on their organisational developments and their context. Indeed, he illustrates these skilfully, quoting an impressive number of speeches, political essays and diaries from across the continent. Furthermore, the ideological disputes that typically take the spotlight are treated only as a point of reference when they concern the vision for the party and the missions it should serve. All the elements in Corduwener’s book come together as a coherent story, which has a pace marked by major events and generational changes, is full of cliffhangers, and also appears to promote the most natural course of action. 

Corduwener consequently shows the period after the first world war as a time in which the Socialists and the Christian democrats respectively tried to place themselves as co-founders of the new democracies. This meant that they needed to reconsider some of their initial principles. The new parliaments were meant to be institutions representative of all the people and the new governments acted in the interests of the whole country. When entering these institutions, Socialists and Christian democrats moved from opposing the systems to being their co-creators. The Socialists dropped the idea that they were striving exclusively for the workers’ cause and that revolution was a feasible way forward. Corduwener captures this intellectual shift through extended quotes from speeches and writings by leaders such as Karl Renner and Eduard Bernstein. This shift then brought an organisational transformation. Social Democrats needed to expand their socialising and educational capabilities. But they needed to do it in a different way from that of the 19th century. Had they continued on the previous path, they would simply have risked becoming subcultures. 

The subsequent decades saw several such transformative moments. The period between both world wars was one of fragility for the political systems and of an economic crash. These situations inspired radicalisation and polarisation among populations, and they became the catalyst for the rise of extremist parties. Then came the tragic generational experience of the second world war, which united the Social Democrats and Christian democrats in their conviction that democracy takes precedence, and that it is their responsibility to make sure that there is no space for those who want to challenge this. The post-war reality therefore saw a transformation from class- or religion-driven parties to ‘people’s parties’ (the SPD’s Bad Godesberg Programme reflected this). These parties then became the proponents of compromise, consensus and collaboration.

The new order, based on the post-war economic boom, provided the underpinning for the Christian democrats’ paradigm of new stability, and for the Social Democratic welfare state (with emblematic achievements such as the establishment of the National Health System in the UK). The party organisations were there to negotiate the terms of ‘new deals’ and hence absorb internally any contestation tendencies. But then the societies evolved, and the system was challenged in 1968 with protests and the emergence of new social movements, which brought forward demands from the new class of white collar workers, from the second wave of feminism and from environmental movements. Parties needed to adjust again and put emphasis on being beacons of participatory democracies. Based on this notion of being beacons, a new generation of leaders appeared – including Willy Brandt – who all argued for ‘open organisations’. This was also the time when, for example, the parties’ women’s organisations received a boost, even if the struggle for actual parity remains ongoing today. This new type of party became a kind of a prototype which could be exported – for example to Spain and Portugal by Felipe Gonzalez and Mario Soares respectively.

In the 1970s, the economic crisis then provoked yet another re-make. The parties now understood that they needed to prove their governing and managerial capabilities. This brought the professionalisation of politics, which was further boosted by mediatisation. The distance between the party elites and the membership consequently started to grow, with the latter beginning to decline. Corduwener’s book offers some reflections on the damage caused by the subsequent era of neoliberalism, and the last chapters refer to the organisational evolution that took place in the context of globalisation and the emergence of the Third Way. The paradox of these times seemed to be that the more open the parties tried to be to attract new members, the less appealing they became in terms of membership. The opening of consultations on their manifestoes and leadership elections simply left little in the hands of the ‘old party faithful’. The relationship between parties and citizens therefore loosened, leading to more electoral volatility – with growing numbers of abstaining voters who were angry or ambivalent.  

Against this backdrop, it seems to be unrealistic and irresponsible to believe that the traditional parties can make a U-turn and recreate themselves to be the organisations of their former glory. Indeed, perhaps the author is right – a hundred years of evolution show that nostalgia is never a recipe for success. So the final question is the same as that with which the book opens: can we, the most informed and most connected generation ever, stretch the boundaries of our imagination? Democracy is being challenged. And the reality is precarious – not least as a result of the recent polycrisis. What is needed is a new model, which would empower the citizens and be fit to serve them in contemporary times. The traditional parties can reconquer the ground, but only if they find a new organisational project. Inventing this is bound to be a turbulent and hard process, far different from the conferences with a polished televisual sequence of speeches. It calls for an honest debate, free from wistfulness and full of courage.

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