Groningen, a.d. X Kal. Nov. MMDCCLXXII A.U.C.,
Throughout the West we see political parties are in decline. Fewer voters trust them to do the right thing, they attract fewer members, they attract less involvement overall, and fewer people show up at election time to support one or the other party. This is part of a wider trend in Western societies, in which fewer people are willing to commit themselves to the arduous process of governing their own society. I cannot say I am any less guilty of this.
Yet at the same time we see that in the USA party affiliation has become stronger than ever. People are less willing to listen to arguments coming from the other side of the political aisle. People read the media affiliated with their political preferences. The Republican party has become perhaps the predominant source of identity, the Democratic party is a tribe. This provides the paradox that while people feel a stronger affiliation to their party than ever, they are less willing to do anything for it than ever.
There are several keys to explaining this paradox. To start, many people do not trust the party as an organization, even if they affiliate strongly with the identity which they think fits with that particular party. Some people who strongly support Trump do not even believe he is an honest person. In a country with very similar polarization to the US, namely the UK, we can see that as people started to doubt that the Conservative Party would deliver Brexit, support for the Brexit party rocketed. When May was kicked out, and Boris Johnson came into office, who strongly committed to Brexit, people flocked back to the Tories. In other words, these citizens were more strongly committed to Brexit than to the Conservative party. This nuances the story: people may strongly identify with a particular party, but if that party fails to live up to the key policies which fit that identity, people are very quick to leave. Rather than sticking with the party, and trying to influence the party from within, they leave for the next best option.
Moreover, the reason that party affiliation can be such a strong part of someone’s identity in the USA is because its two-party system maps well on the political tribes. Cosmopolitanism versus nationalism is a two-way division in society which has become the most salient political dimension. The two parties have taken their sides, and simply have to stick to their side, lest they fall out of favour with their supporters. The Democrats and the Republicans are keenly aware of this.
In the UK, the political parties have found, much to their harm, that not committing to a side carries major political costs. When David Cameron resigned after he lost the Brexit referendum, and Theresa May came into power, she set out for a soft Brexit. To gain legitimacy she held an election in which she defended her approach. Meanwhile, Labour was also there. May lost her majority, and Labour failed to become the largest party. My analysis: they failed to match their positions with the political main political dimension in the UK at the moment, in which most people are at an extreme, either hard Brexit or no Brexit. Currently, the Tories have figured out that this was indeed not viable, but Jeremy Corbyn still seems to want another election. Consequently, the Liberal Democrats are over 15 percent in the polls (!) and the SNP is set to win a big number of votes in former Labour stronghold Scotland again. In short, when parties fail to match their policies to the preferences of the major political tribes, they do not at all become core parts of the identity of people. The Democrats and Republicans have figured this out by now, currently so have the Tories, Labour is still in the process of being there.
To take things one step further, political parties are even less part of people’s core identity in multi-party systems. In these systems the presence of multiple parties which sort of do what we would like them to do, but none of them really do or inspire us, and the lack of social links between citizens and political parties leads many no longer affiliate with any political party. Multiple parties sort of fit our political preferences, but most do not inspire any real enthusiasm. There is much less of a we-versus-them mentality based on political parties (Republican or Democrat) or one very specific political question (Brexit). For instance, even those who oppose the EU have multiple options in the Netherlands, and it is possible to vote for multiple parties with different levels of euroscepticism. We can tentatively conclude that in the places in which political parties do not map easily on the social division in a society, political parties fail to become major tokens of identity.
The paradox that political parties in the USA have become core parts of people’s identity, while people simultaneously are less willing than ever to actively engage with these parties can thus be explained by the fact that in the USA specifically there are two parties which have latched themselves firmly onto the two political tribes which emerged during the Bush and Obama years. Failing to do so has brought major political costs to the Tories and to Labour, as they have failed to capture the identitarian imagination of their voters. Meanwhile, in multi-party systems there is no one party which captures one identity in the way that is possible in a multi-party system. In the USA specifically, latching onto political identities has allowed the political parties to become, what a friend of mine called, ‘sport teams’ which represent the tribe. Without any active input, people vocally cheer for them, defend them, take insult at critique about them and refuse to listen to arguments to change teams. The political parties simply happen to be a simple identification strategy, a recognizable brand. In countries where they are not, they also fail to be part of people’s core identity.
Bottom line: In the USA political parties have become part of people’s core identity, even while people are less willing than ever to engage with political parties. This seems to mostly be due to the specific circumstances in the USA, in which the two parties could firmly latch themselves onto the two new tribes, becoming clear indicator of political identity, that has been hard to copy in other countries.