The most disturbing thing about the agony of political parties is that Western democracies have no other viable model to work with.
Keeping track of politics in Italy has always challenged the talents of even the most seasoned pundit. Business Insider sums up the current situation: “Italy’s political stalemate shows no sign of easing, with high level disagreements remaining between all the parties with ambitions to govern the currently rudderless nation.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A group of people organized with the unique intention of receiving a mandate to tell everyone else how to organize their lives and think about the world
Parties exercise two functions in modern democracies: They manage government bureaucracy when elected and — when governing or as the opposition — promote a specific version of a nation’s standard ideology. The best known examples are in the US (Democrats vs. Republicans), the UK (Conservatives vs. Labour… plus the Liberal Democrats), and France (the right-wing establishment that constantly changes its name and the Socialists … plus the extreme right, formerly Front National). Germany is more complex, partly because of its regional structure (Länder) and its proportional representation. Italy is something else again.
Until 2016, the US, UK and France functioned predictably according to the laws of alternance, as the French say. Two parties at irregular intervals exchanged control of the reins of government.
Then came 2016. Donald Trump split the Republican Party in two along ill-defined cultural lines. Bernie Sanders split the Democratic Party in two along ideological lines. David Cameron unwittingly allowed Brexit to split both the Conservatives and Labour in two, provoking a state of ongoing chaos. Emmanuel Macron exploited the moral weakness of the left and right in France to upset a strongly hierarchical system, which he appears inclined to replace by a more hierarchical one with himself at the top.
Italy continues to be the permanently ungovernable nation. Formerly it was ungovernable with an ever-changing government. This time it may break the tradition by proving to be equally ungovernable, even without a government.
Italy’s confusion highlights the second function of a party: to promote an ideology. The party in the strongest position, Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), defines itself as anti-establishment, which suggests a similarity with Trump and Macron. But with its strong ecological and anti-European ideology, the contrast with Trump and Macron — both driven by an ambition of personal control of government — couldn’t be greater. And while M5S’ anti-Europe stance pushes it toward the populist, nationalist pole on the right, its commitment to ecology and direct democracy displays some affinity with the left.
Two years after Brexit and Trump’s election, the West is desperately trying to understand the meaning of its core belief: democracy. Not so much the media, who are too busy relishing the endless confusion, backbiting and bickering that provides them with the titillation their advertisers require.
In the US, the two-party system, which morphed into a duopoly in the late 20th century, has remained not so much the norm as the foundation of what was once intended to be representative democracy, in which parties were considered anathema.
In the UK, where — in contrast with the binary thinking prevalent in the US — nuance is a necessary element in public discourse, a third, centrist party has fairly consistently floated not too far from the gravitational center of electoral politics. The two-party axis of the system — Conservatives and Labour — reflects the traditional class structure of English culture, with the Liberal Democrats providing some serious nuance. The rise of the UK Independence Party has of course troubled that curious equilibrium.
France has forever cultivated a dynamic based on ideological rivalry — left vs. right. This usually led to various permutations on either side, with multiple parties, but always with a dominant party in these coalitions, one capable of imposing an ideological line. The recent presidents on the right and left, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande — lightweights when compared to François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac — weakened the credibility of these pillars of stability.
The outrecuidance (impudence) of Macron — blithely betraying the institutions and people who gave him his start on both sides of spectrum before inviting them back to his “party” (movement) — left the main parties on the left, right and even the center (François Bayrou’s MODEM) in a shambles. A strong move, but where will it lead? Macron’s belief in the viability of an authoritarian center remains on a short lease and is unlikely to go beyond a single term.
The most disturbing thing about the agony of parties is that Western democracies — and the bureaucracies they have created around them — have no other viable model to work with. The party may be over, but the parties — even as sources of endless shenanigans — will be back.
Except possibly in Italy, which, unified as a nation-state since 1871, is still a culture of city-states. Benito Mussolini’s strong-arm fascist culture and Silvio Berlusconi’s TV entertainment culture were the only examples of effective but superficial unification.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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