NEED FOR A PARTY BLUEPRINT?
I believe that most of the global party-support community agrees that political parties are confronted with threats and challenges that are more serious and difficult to answer than at any other time in modern political history. This is a matter for the political parties to debate and find responses to; but it is also a broader threat and challenge for our democracies in general, considering that political parties play a central role for the type of parliamentary and representative democracies we have developed over several centuries.
The publication published earlier in 2017 by the National Democratic Institute [NDI], based on a series of online discussions and a conference in Brussels, should therefore be welcomed by all of those interested in this debate – party leaders, party officials, elected party representatives, and party-support organizations. What follows below is not a detailed review, but rather some reflections on the approach taken.
DOWNLOAD DOCUMENT: NDI Blueprint for 21 Century parties
Let me first of all give NDI credit for initiating the 21st CENTURY PARTIES project. It was necessary for the party-support community to start wrestling with the difficult questions, and with the outreach of NDI to many countries and parties around the world, the organization is well-positioned to lead the investigation. As stated in the document:
“This guide features case studies and best practices that were discussed and identified during the 21st Century Parties Conference. The perspectives follow accepted best practices for democratic parties operating in established and emerging democratic societies. The information contained in this document provides parties with practical insights and examples of reform efforts they can undertake to become more contemporary, relatable, inclusive and open organizations. Practical worksheets, which accompany this document, can be used by political parties to help them better understand the topics and provide useful questions for party officials as they consider solutions to the challenges they face.”
As a former practitioner inside the party-support community, I can easily see the usefullness of the thematic reflections, case studies and work sheets presented in the document. However, the nature of the document also raises questions that I believe need to be asked.
The first question: DO WE REALLY UNDERSTAND THE CHALLENGES?
The introduction in the document lists some of the challenges faced by 21st century political parties: Why do disenfranchised citizens not see party activism as a mechanism to give voice to their concerns? How do parties with developed ideologies, platforms, and programs compete against the rise of populist movements? How can parties raise legitimate resources to continue their operations? How can political parties keep up with changing citizen expectations? How can political parties reflect a commitment to women’s empowerment?
All of these questions are relevant, and many more could be added. Unfortunately, there is very little rigorous analysis in the document of the causes of these weaknesses and challenges, and for the failure of the majority of political parties to deliver what we expect political parties to deliver. When did the crisis of political parties start? To what extent is this a self-inflicted crisis? How is the crisis linked to the destruction inflicted upon ordinary people by the financial crisis, or to the crisis of the type of globalization many citizens tend to reject today?
Because the analysis is too superficial, there is not a strong enough baseline to assess if the proposals presented will actually be able to change the situation. There are many common sense proposals mentioned, but my sense is that there is very little new under the sun, and also not enough transformational power in the proposals to be able to turn the situation around.
The second question: WHY NOT FOCUS ON OUR OWN PART OF THE WORLD?
I have to admit that I find it rather strange to read a blueprint paper for future political parties, published by a US-based organization with links to one of the two major political parties in the US, without just a single sentence or a footnote referring to the state of affairs of political parties in the US. How can NDI and other party-support organizations retain the necessary level of credibility to offer advise to parties in far-away corners of the world, if we shy away from scrutinizing our own family of dysfunctional political parties and party systems?
My own position – which I have also outlined in my recent book Engaging with democracy globally [Engaging – 2016 – final] – is that we cannot be seen as credible party-support advisers and organizations, unless we take a hard look at our own country. This is of course not more true for the US than it is for Denmark, but it is certainly necessary for the US, in particular at this point in time, when the entire world is wondering what is happening under the Trump presidency. We need to know how NDI understands the key challenges facing political parties in their own country. It would be useful to know if there is anything at all in the US party system that is at all relevant for other political parties around the world to learn from?
The same is true for Denmark. During my leadership as Director, the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy branded itself through a number of very ‘Danish’ ways of doing party politics – women’s representation, youth wings, coalition building. If we are no longer able to deliver in those areas, DIPD will have credibility issue. My propsal was that party-support organizations should set up programmes directed towards our own parties and party systems. Unfortunately, it is not very likely that our parties will welcome this!
The third question: DO WE NEED NEW TYPES OF IDEOLOGY?
Of the three key issues treated in the document – ideology, representation and funding – I find the section on ideology most refreshing. At the outset, the following is stated:
“Around the globe, two phenomena are evident: 1. support for populist and non-traditional parties on both the left and the right is on the rise; and 2. the increase in crossnational, cross-party consensus among democratic policymakers has led to many similarities between parties, and has caused some difficulty on the part of citizens to identify differences between the different parties and platforms. Additionally, in new and emerging democracies, traditional notions of ideology have a limited role in the challenges of making democracy deliver. This section examines how political parties can use ideology as a tool to develop policies that reflect the values of their supporters and members. The aim is to help parties think through how they can reshape and reinterpret traditional ideologies, and what those changes mean for their supporters.”
I fully agree that the days of positioning parties on a simple left-right continuum are long gone. Suggesting ways of widening the approach makes sense, and the GAL [green-alternative-libertarian] TAN [traditional-authoritraian-nationalist] model is probably as useful as any other model we can think about. Crowdsourcing the party policies in the manner the new Danish party the Alternative did it in the run-up to the 2015 elections also has refreshing aspects, although only time will show if it works longer-term.
However, more basically, I am wondering if we should focus as much as the blueprint suggests on ideology. The world was a very different place to live more than a hundred years ago, when the ideologies of socialism, social democracy, liberalism, and conservatism were coined. Key issues and challenges such as globalization, climate change, migration, tax-shelters, and terrorism do not lend themselves easily to ideological positioning, and ideologies also tend to suffer in the type of communication culture we live in today. Maybe the approach should rather be to focus more clearly on the values that need to underpin policies of political parties. Maybe this is also a more effective way of approaching the waves of populism afflicting the world these days.
The final question: IS A BLUEPRINT THE WAY TO GO?
My final comment is about the title of the document, in particular the use of the word ‘blueprint’. During my years working with development, I believe we ended up agreeing that using the word ‘blueprint’ was unproductive. It was embedded in a mistaken understanding that those from the North could ‘teach’ those of the South how to develop their societies [in our image of course]. Unfortunately, one blueprint after the other proved to be mistaken, misconceived, misunderstood or simply misplaced. Blueprints never worked, full stop!
So using the blueprint concept when we discuss how to meet the challenges facing political parties around the world today is not appropriate. At least it should be ‘blueprints’ in plural, considering that we already know that the US party system will require a certain approach, the Danish system a different one, and parties and party systems in other parts of their world their own specific blueprints as well.
What we really need first of all is to reflect, reform and reengage as also stated in the title. Hopefully this is what will happen as a follow-up to the NDI initiative. Hopefully the reflecting, reforming and reengaging will also be the name of the game among political parties in the United States and Denmark. So far, it does not seem like the leaders of all our political parties have really understood what is at stake.