According to the simple two-party voting model of Anthony Downs, democracy privileges the centre ground: parties compete to attract the median voter. This is no longer working: the centre ground is losing political power to the extremes.
Across Europe, new populist-extremist parties have broken in: Greece, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Scotland and England. The rival mainstream parties face an unenviable choice between allying with the populists, or of working together in coalition. Allying with populist parties legitimizes them as fit for government. Forming a grand coalition gives them equivalently valuable status as the alternative government. Either way, as the economic consequences of the Euro play out over the next few years, the populist parties look set to be Europe’s future.
In the USA, the two-party structure has held intact, but this is probably only because its campaign finance system imposes an absurdly high financial hurdle for political entry. Instead, extremism has infested the established parties. The American constitution, with its strong checks and balances, was designed for consensus. With its demise, America’s political system has generated policy gridlock. Sooner or later, the American government will have to act and it will not be able to do so.
The weakening of the centre ground is liable to produce tragedy: the dysfunctions generated by empowered European populist parties and American gridlock may not be self-rectifying. It is therefore important to understand why the centre is weakening, and what can be done about it.
The centre has been weakened as a result of rising social diversity interacting with outdated voting systems. Political parties are run by activists: in Europe they elect the party leaders, in America they provide the workforce needed to win primary elections. Activism has always been greater among the political extremes, but as diversity has pulled the extremes further apart, so the parties in which they are disproportionately influential, have positioned themselves further from the centre. They are willing to sacrifice some prospect of power for periodic opportunities to implement their undiluted agenda.
Democracy works better in conditions of social consensus, but it cannot build those conditions. On the contrary, party competition is inherently divisive, generating narratives that denigrate opponents and exaggerate differences. This has been exacerbated by the fragmentation of the media: people with different loyalties no longer digest common narratives so that the base of ‘common knowledge’ is eroding. Democratic politics is consequently now polarizing electorates, rather than building a shared understanding of choices.
As politics becomes discredited with moderates, the parties attract activists who have internalized an oppositional identity. In turn, they elect leaders who cater to their agendas. Electorates are then faced with a choice between options which, while very different, are all unappealing. A choice between rival extremes is not what democracy should be delivering. Instead, it should be doing what the simple voting models comfortingly but wrongly predict: providing a choice between mainstream parties that compete to satisfy the centre ground, one of which can be judged on its record in government. How can this be re-established?
The functioning of democracy depends in part upon the design of electoral systems. Some European countries, such as the UK, have systems which do not meet even the most basic standards of legitimacy. But even where party representation broadly corresponds to votes, the parties themselves remain the playthings of unrepresentative elites. The key step is to weaken the power of political activists relative to ordinary citizens. Primaries, in which ordinary voters rather than only the activists choose the party leaders, are potentially the solution. However, as run in America they now fail to do that. With voters registered approximately into thirds as ‘democrats’, ‘republicans’, and ‘independents’, and turnout low, the extremes tend to win the primaries.
With Europe’s increasingly fragmented party system, an American-style system of registering voter allegiance would be even less effective in frustrating the extremes. The alternative is for primaries to be open to all citizens: everyone should be allowed to vote in each of the party leadership elections. Activists would be outraged at their loss of inordinate privilege, but the composition of the political menu, rather than merely the choice from that menu, would be determined democratically. Once leaders were elected by the middle-ground rather than by the extremes, parties would gradually weaken their identification with systematically distinctive ideologies. Instead they would evolve into rival teams of people. A team which had performed badly in government would be removed through an election, which is arguably the most essential aspect of democracy.
Europe is heading for politically dangerous times. Without reform of the democratic process, the status quo will self-destruct.