Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why we hate parties

So Mariano Rajoy received dirty money (dinero 'B') from secret accounts controlled by the Partido Popular's Treasurer, accounts filled with kickbacks paid by construction companies in exchange for building permits delivered by PP politicians (read all about it here). Meanwhile, the likely winners of the coming Italian elections, the Partito democratico (PD), seem to have been closely involved in the decisions that have dragged Monte dei Paschi di Siena close to failure. In these circumstances, it's hardly surprising that Spanish and Italian voters view their political parties and elected representatives with mistrust and loathing.

They are not alone. Political parties are increasingly unpopular throughout the advanced democracies, calling into question the ability of elected governments to deal with the political fallout of the crisis. This is not a new phenomenon: political scientists have been discussing party decline for decades. But the evidence keeps mounting that parties are organizationally ever weaker, with fewer members, a smaller and ever less loyal electoral faithful, and less popular leaders. The crisis is brutally exposing the limitations of these parties.

Are voters right to distrust politicians? Yes, but unfortunately democracy makes it inevitable. Parties can please some of the people some of the time, but they can't please all of the people all of the time, and the disappearance of economic growth makes this more and more acute, since benefits can only be redistributed to one group at the clear expense of others. Not surprisingly, voters are dissatisfied with politicians' ability to solve their problems. But how exactly could politicians solve everyone's problems? One voter's problem is another voter's pay check. In the low growth scenario, politics is a zero-sum game.

At the heart of the problem is the increasingly individualistic way in which voters experience electoral politics. Electoral behaviour studies have moved away from the group-based paradigm of the post-war era (reflected in the work of Butler and Stokes or Lipset and Rokkan) towards a more choice-based analysis of voter behaviour, in which voters act as consumers of politics rather than as citizens. The consumer-oriented voter expects to receive what she wants in return for her vote, but is in competition with many other consumers who may want something quite incompatible. There is no way of the political market 'clearing', given there is no price mechanism. Everyone's vote is worth the same. Except...

Some voters count more than others because they can top-up their vote with something politicians badly need: cash. Political parties mostly organize on a national scale, and need to select candidates throughout the electoral territory, provide them with resources and help them campaign for votes. Yet the mainstream parties' turnover is a fraction of that of other nationally organized groups such as trades unions, churches or private companies. They need more money than the paltry state funding provides, and the obvious way to get it is to offer special treatment to well resourced organizations in exchange for cash or services in kind. If you're wondering why the Levesen recommendations are going to be ignored by the current UK government, this logic provides 99% of your answer.

So back to Rajoy. Is it any wonder that an organization which has huge responsibilities and a limited revenue stream should leverage its institutional power to raise a bit of money to help keep the show on the road? Hardly. In some ways the 'costs of politics' (to use a term deployed to spectacular effect by Beppe Grillo in Italy) are extraordinarily low, and we shouldn't be surprised if politicians look for ways to raise more cash. We also shouldn't be too disappointed if the votes that we get for free don't buy us exactly what we want. Democracy can't be 'consumed', it's made with our own engagement and involvement in the political process.