Can Movement Politics Renew European Democracy?
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Jan-Werner Mueller

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His latest book is What is Populism?

Many people expected the big political story of 2017 to be about the triumph of populism in Europe. But things didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the biggest story was about self-styled “movements” upending or replacing traditional political parties.

Consider French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche!, which swept the French presidential and parliamentary elections this past spring. Or consider how, at the end of the year, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz became Chancellor of Austria after refashioning the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) into a movement called “The Sebastian Kurz list – The New People’s Party.”

Across the European continent, more voters have come to see traditional political parties as self-interested and power-hungry. In the developing world, too, parties with well-established pedigrees, such as the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, are now widely regarded as corrupt. In many cases, traditional parties have become what political scientists call “cartels”: they use state resources to remain in power, and, regardless of their policy differences, they often work together to keep out challengers.

Young voters, in particular, seem to have less interest in working for traditional parties, which they view as overly bureaucratic, and thus boring. One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about the problem with socialism: it takes up too many evenings. Not surprisingly, then, the most innovative political experiments in Europe in recent years have emerged from street protests and mass assemblies that eschewed hierarchical forms of organization.

For example, Spain’s left-wing Podemos was formed after mass demonstrations by the indignados in 2011. Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which came out on top in Italy’s 2013 parliamentary elections and is predicted to do well again in 2018, emerged from large rallies organized by comedian Beppe Grillo against “la casta” – his derogatory term for what he sees as the country’s ruling casteof professional politicians and journalists.

Yet something funny happened between these movements’ origins as spontaneous, inclusive street protests and their later success at the ballot box. Ironically, even as they have continued to tout horizontal forms of organization and participatory democracy, their charismatic leaders have concentrated ever more power in their own hands.

Podemos Secretary-General Pablo Iglesias, for instance, has drawn criticism from idealistic activists in the movement for his “hyper-leadership” and “online Leninism.” In response, Iglesias has declared that, “one cannot storm heaven by consensus.”

Grillo holds no official position in M5S, which bills itself as a “non-association,” and yet he owns the blog that has been key to the movement’s success, as well as the copyright to its official symbol. He has revoked M5S members’ right to use that symbol for supposedly breaking the “rules” – or what is officially called the “non-statute” – of his “anti-party.” And those running for public office under the M5S banner must sign a contract promising to pay fines if they violate party principles.

Of course, political movements are not necessarily populist in nature. As the Green and feminist movements have shown, a movement can contest traditional forms of politics without claiming to represent “the real people” or the “silent majority.”

But today’s political movements also tend to be less pluralistic than the large parties that have dominated post-war European politics. This makes sense, given that “movement” implies not just dynamism, but also a presumption that all members are in complete agreement about the path forward.

The problem is that when everyone supposedly already agrees on where they are going, there seems to be no need for extensive democratic deliberation. Thus, the movements that have emerged in Europe in recent years – on both the left and the right – have focused on strengthening their respective individual leaders, rather than empowering their rank-and-file members, even when they emphasize participatory democracy.

In the case of Macron and Kurz, each leader has tapped into the sense of dynamism and purpose that is usually a key feature of single-issue movement politics. Kurz, for his part, has bent the entire ÖVP to his will. In addition to giving it a new name, he has reorganized its internal structures and changed its official color from black to turquoise. Still, the party’s conservative platform has hardly changed at all, suggesting that Kurz’s moves are about marketing and asserting his personal authority more than anything else.

In the end, Podemos, La République En Marche!, and Momentum, the youth movement that helped Jeremy Corbyn reshape the British Labour Party’s platform, are not important because they are movements per se. Rather, they are important because they provide more political choices for citizens, especially those frustrated with prevailing duopolies – political systems dominated by two long-established parties offering nearly identical policy prescriptions.

In Corbyn’s case, movement politics could reestablish Labour’s progressive credentials, and reverse what many saw as an embrace of neoliberal policies under former Prime Minister Tony Blair. But it would be naive to think that movements alone will make European politics more democratic. If anything, they could operate even less democratically than traditional parties, owing to their strong plebiscitary forms of leadership.

Project Syndicate