Not so long ago, both political parties in the West had a strong hold on their members and controlled access to their ballots. If you wanted to be a Democrat, a Tory or a Christian Democrat, it required you to be a member of those parties. You had to be in good standing with party leaders. There was plenty of internal party politics, as that’s the point of party politics, but the parties themselves had firm borders. If you wanted to be in the party, it meant adhering to party rules and supporting the party.
Look around today and that’s no longer true. In the United States, both parties are devolving into loose affiliations of power centers. The Republicans have no control over the message, as members regularly contradict one another in public and they can barely perform the basics as a party. The Democrats are close to flying apart as the various tribes within the party put loyalty to the tribe ahead of the party. They may nominate for president someone who is technically not in the party.
In Europe, it is a bit different, as the parliamentary system allows for parties to break apart, forming new parties. Still, in Britain, Labor looks like a cult of personality around Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories are cracking into one camp of yesterday men clinging to ideas from the last century and a new camp around British independence. Then you have the party of Nigel Farage. No one really cares what his party is called or what sort of platform they are putting forth, as it exists as long as he exists.
Farage is a great example of what is happening all over the West. Politics in mass democracy inevitably devolves into coalitions around personalities, rather than factions based in group interests. The parties exist as vehicles for individuals, a legacy item from the era of factional politics. The system that is supposed to be the polar opposite of authoritarianism, ends up being a competition between little Napoleons, competing with one another in the mock warfare of politics.
One reason for this is that group interests are longer term, as they are generational, while individual interests are shorter term. Democracy rewards the here and now on an individual level, so an organizational model that is willing to sacrifice the now for later is always going to be at a disadvantage. It does not take long for someone within that organization to see the opportunity and promise to win now, thus elevating his status within the organization and eventually dominating it.
This was the case in Athens, where political parties never got going. Lacking a long republican period or a slow transition from monarchy, the Greeks went right to the full democracy phase. Granted, they did not allow women to vote, as the Greeks were smart, but they otherwise had a true democracy. Instead of parties, they had coalitions around an influential person. His followers would describe themselves as being with this person or that person, indicating the person leading a particular faction.
We see this happening in America, where both parties are unable to do much of anything when in power. The old-timers like Joe Biden lament the lack of cooperation between the parties, but what he is describing is the dysfunction within the parties. It’s no longer possible for either party to push through policy on party lines. On the GOP side, there’s always a jerk like Rand Paul to bugger up the works. On the Democrat side, the hard Left is always ready to subvert their own leadership.
Dissidents get mad at Trump for not doing what he promised, but a lot of his problems stem from the fact he keeps playing old party politics. He remains convinced that he has to get the Republicans behind his initiatives, through the game of horse trading among the factions. The same problem exists in the Democrat House, where Pelosi struggles to get anything done with a caucus made up of people that hate one another. Both parties are led by old people playing a game no longer relevant to this age.
In Europe, this decay of factional interest into cults of personality has an opportunity to flourish because of the parliamentary system. No one even cares what Macron’s party is called or that it even exists. In Germany, the old folks desperately clinging to power are simply Merkelists. In Britain, things are becoming more explicit as we have the Farage party, the Corbyn party and soon the Boris party, assuming he can avoid beating his girlfriend long enough to win the leadership race.
How this plays out in America is hard to figure, as forming new political parties has been made so difficult by the two main parties. There’s also the fact that America is continent sized country with lots of diversity. In fact, America is already a majority-minority country, when you take into consideration the diversity that exists within the white population. Then there is the fact that the ruling class is cramped into the tiny city on the Potomac, which is walled off from the rest of the country economically and culturally.
Of course, this leads us to the Roman example, where the Republic was dominated by a handful of powerful men. This rivalry eventually led to one of those men conquering his rivals and the republic. The Europeans may be headed to a non-violent version of the Crisis of the Third Century, a form of war-lordism, while America is headed to some form of non-violent Caesarism. Historical analogies are never perfect, of course, but the comparison is useful for seeing down the road for what comes next in the West.
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