Mainstream Political Parties are in Hard Places

Mainstream Political Parties
People approving for change ar Parivartan Yatra, Beohari, INDIA in April 2013. Photo by Santosh Kumar Shukla.

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Mainstream Political Parties are in Hard Place

Throughout the series on democracy in hard places, institutional weakness became a recurring theme. Unfortunately, established democracies have seen their own institutions gradually weaken or decay in recent years. Nowhere is this more evident than the state of political parties. Voters punish mainstream political parties in election after election in countries around the world. And even when mainstream parties survive, outsiders find ways to seize the reins of political leadership.

Patrick Quirk and Jan Surotchak believe mainstream political parties can learn from important lessons from political outsiders. They argue traditional political parties lack the flexibility and adaptability to thrive in the current age of politics. They offer a few specific prescriptions. For starters they argue political parties must offer opportunities for outsiders to become political leaders. Interestingly, American political parties have pursued this tactic with mixed results. Politicians like Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan began as political mavericks only to become labeled as part of the establishment. Eric Cantor rose to House Majority Leader, but lost a primary to a new outsider. Meanwhile, the most infamous outsider in American politics, Donald Trump, has excited Republican voters, but damaged democratic institutions.

Their advice to political parties does make some sense. But it aims its message toward political elites. It fails to consider the deeper cause for democracy’s existential crisis: Far too often citizens view politics as consumers. It’s a passive mindset where voters want politicians to meet their needs. Instead, citizens must think more like active participants. Robert Putnam (among others) has argued for greater social engagement. Of course, social media has developed new ways to participate. Still, people must direct their energy into organizations like political parties to build lasting political institutions. Unless citizens embrace greater responsibilities for democratic institutions, every democracy will become a hard place.

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2 thoughts on “Mainstream Political Parties are in Hard Places

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    1. I’m not sure. I think a first step is to reduce ballot access restrictions and to make it easier for parties to retain ballot access after receiving it. Your piece mentions ballot access as a problem but skips over it to talk about more significant voting reforms. I’m not opposed to voting reform, but think less onerous demands for ballot access are a necessary first step.

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