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Jacobin - February 11, 2020

"The jury is out on what Bernie’s ultimate effect will be, but he represents a far greater challenge to the Democratic Party. He leads a more organized movement far more ready to take over and transform party structures — or possibly break it apart if resistance from the New Democrat/Clinton/Obama wing is too great. Should that happen, the Democrats will have brought it upon themselves and they will deserve it. Having held their own constituencies in relative disdain, held its base hostage, and done everything they could to freeze out and repress the Left, the Democrats left no other choice but what has become the Bernie strategy. Take the party over."

No matter the final count in Iowa, it’s clear Sanders is emerging as the front-runner in the Democratic primary. If he does win the nomination, the presidential race will express a uniquely American version of the wider crisis of authority facing representative democracies.

Consider the fact that both Trump and Sanders will be leaders of parties that they did not belong to in any significant way prior to running. They will both lead parties whose major figures and leading apparatchiks did what they could to stop Sanders/Trump. These will be parties to which neither candidate paid the dues of time and effort: parties that they did not rise up in, rendering the normal relationships of mutual obligation and favor-owing more or less inoperative. All of this makes each of these nominees leaders that are far harder for the party to discipline and control. And, further, it is the source of their appeal to major segments of their party.

These will be candidates elected because the gap between the party establishment and its membership has grown so large that one of their greatest appeals is that they did not follow the rules. If Sanders really is nominated, we will have seen the internal revolt of party members and fellow travelers against the party officialdom in both parties, achieved by selecting someone about as far outside the party as possible: a real estate mogul–cum–reality TV host with no political past and purely nominal party affiliations, and a self-proclaimed socialist who had never before run on the Democratic ticket (prior to 2016) and who remained an Independent even after his first run. It’s interesting to ask why this is happening. Why are the parties being taken over by leaders who are not real members of that party?

As various political scientists, most famously Peter Mair, have long pointed out, the capacity of many major political parties to represent their traditional constituencies in a democratic way has been in decline for a few decades. Peter Mair called it “ruling the void” — political elites and their parties retreat from their constituencies, seeking alternative ways of ruling, while their members withdraw their consent in various ways. In some countries, this has taken the form of the collapse of traditional parties (e.g. the French and Italian Socialists), the growth of new ones (AfD in Germany, Podemos in Spain, Front National in France, Lib Dems and UKIP/BP in UK), and the rise of more ad hoc parties as personal vehicles for national leaders (La République En Marche for Macron, various Italian formations like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia/Grillo’s Five Star, Mélenchon’s France Insoumise).

There are important national variations in these developments. But what Mair noticed about all of them was that there was an important decline in party loyalty, increasing distance between leadership and membership, ideological disorganization of existing parties, all symptomatic of the deeper hollowing out of the parties themselves. Where political parties were created to represent segments of society to the state, they had over time become ways of representing the state to society. The more they functioned to limit and control their members and their aspirations, the less they could serve their properly representative functions and the harder it was for members to control their parties.

We are currently watching the American variation of this process take place. If Sanders wins the nomination, he completes the process of outsiders taking over the parties through the internal revolt of the membership. That has necessarily been the American version of “ruling the void.” There have been failed bids by figures like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, either outside any party or from very marginal third parties, to break through the two-party monopoly in the United States. But these are mostly notable for how resistant American political institutions are to third-party challenges relative to other democracies. In fact, the legal repression of third parties in the United States is enormous, unmatched in any industrial democracy — one of the many intensely undemocratic features of our “democracy.” I would go so far as to say legal repression of third parties has become a fundamental, though relatively silent, feature of our political constitution. (The historical development of that legal repression was documented by Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman in his 2016 article “A Blueprint for a New Party.” It served as the legal complement to the violent repression of radical elements of the labor and more militant left movements in the twentieth century.) ...
Read full commentary at Jacobin