Party politics at the wake of the 21st Century

How has the practice of politics been reacting to the demanding pace of today's frenzied conditions of post-modernity?

The most important trend, underpinning both continuities and changes, is parties' convergence to the centre of the political vector. Economic globalisation and growth has meant that in many modern western democracies, the class divide has withered away. Voters under the label of middle class have increased and now form the majority. Dalton argues that in advanced democracies people now experience “historically unprecedented affluence, peace and security” while Kitschelt believes in some form of “end of history”, where current party mechanics revolve around “the maturing welfare states that have organized the class compromise and the disappearance of a radical socialist alternative to capitalism both in the perception of political elites and of mass audience”. Whoever seizes this slice of the cake is likely to win the elections, so parties have rationally tended to reflect this trend and have pragmatically moved towards the centre. Most of the peculiarities of this era arise from this, a big ideological centralization means that great ideological battles are harder to fight, and as such, the political contest embarks on different directions. The party is now a different animal, the mass party has given way to the catch-all party and some even argue to the cartel party. These two notions are recent and although not always compatible, do point to two distinct trends in the present era: 1) the constant tactical repositioning of party stances and strategies aiming at pleasing the centre strata of the electorate, making no class or clear distinction of their group target and by doing so being able to better capture this great majority lying at the centre of the spectrum; 2) the move towards a centralization of the party machine around its headquarters, and what Panebianco witnessed as “professionalisation” of the party staff has resulted in an increase in their absolute organizational strength. The black box of the cartelized party keeps moving further and further away from flat structures of decision-making and closer to fast-track, quick-reaction business like strategic decisions which are able to cope well against other competitors.

Campaigning does not go about as it used to. More than ever, it is all about agenda-setting, meaning that political marketers now throw all their guns at telling people not what to think but what to think about. They now rely on making specific issue-areas more salient, that for identity, tradition or any other circumstantial reasons put the party in advantage against others (i.e. Conservatives trying to keep the discussion revolving around public safety and policing). Campaigners will try as hard as they can to make those issues visible and make beneficial cleavages work in their benefit. Leaders seem more prominent than ever, they have taken more and more precedence when set against the party machine. This is due to TV and Digital age forms of campaign, which together with media pressures, find the focus on an individual leader more appealing. Personalizing politics offers immediacy, drama, easier judgements and straightforward messages in a sensorial and materialistic era where it is increasingly hard to hold people’s attention. The recent Americanisation of European parties (with these opting for professional marketing “spinning” directors in detriment to “old-school” political analysts) is only one element of a wider trend where politicians and actors seek (and depend on) well-designed sensorial packages, wrapped with an all-important campaign meta-narrative – the final crucial subliminal touch.

So what's installed for political philosophy? Is there still time and room for slow meditation in a world whose time and space incessantly become more and more compressed? And if we find enough time is it really worth spending it on the intricacies of apparently pathless conundrums held within complex concepts such as equality and liberty? Something tells me that perhaps, choosing between the old “hand holding a mug” shot at the worker's club or a colourfully orchestrated visit to the local hospital, is actually the ultimate of conundrums...

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