No party, no democracy – An interview with Sheri Berman

The streets of Paris in flames; the most ancient democracy of all overturned by Brexit and incapable of guiding it towards a rational outcome; populist-held Italy tempted by the aspiration to dismantle the EU from within. What is happening with European democracies, two months ahead of the continent-wide EU parliamentary elections? Who and what allowed for the deterioration?

After a successful day-long gathering on the Trap of Polarization at Columbia University, Sheri Berman, political scientist at Barnard, author of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe (2019) and a frequent contributor to Op-Ed pages, speaks with ResetDoc on these issues and identifies the number one cause for the great democratic retreat: the shattering of political parties, and the collapse of its mission to “select” ideas, information and policies, even before than leadership.

Sheri Berman, in your last book Democracy and dictatorship you tackle the question of the crisis of Western democracy in a long-term historical perspective. What is your sense about the meaning of this point at which we find ourselves?

It seems to me that we’re facing something that might historically have been called an interregnum, an era that lies between two other eras, and these kind of periods have always been unstable. An old order is decaying and even falling apart, but it’s unclear exactly what’s going to replace it. All of the arrangements and institutions that functioned at the national, regional and international level for much of the post-war period are today being questioned and challenged. Whether they are going to disappear or not is unclear, but certainly, their basic functioning has already changed from what we expected to be the norm in the previous decades. So far, however, we are in the midst of a disorderly interregnum.

Foreign policy debates in Europe as well as in the US still feature spreading and supporting democracy elsewhere. Now, some would argue that the opposite is taking place: the deconsolidation of our own democracies. Why have our political systems fail to react to the changes?

If we look at Europe, the two most obvious issues are political parties on the one hand and the European Union on the other one. Traditional political parties – particularly those of the Left – have declined a lot over the past generation in terms of membership, in terms of links with civil society organizations, and ties to grass-root nexus activists. During the 20th century, those parties acted as the political vehicle for those folks who felt disaffected, disadvantaged, or left behind. They were supposed to link citizens to elites and to governments and enabled elites and governments to send information back down to them. With the decline of the ability of those parties to champion their needs, those voters were left free to float, creating an opportunity for new kinds of parties to scoop them up: which is precisely what populist parties have done.

The other place to look is the European Union. Even leaving aside endless debates about democratic deficits, there is no doubt that over the past decades increasing amounts of political competencies have been taken out of the hands of elected officials at the national level and placed at the European level. Now one of the big strengths of democracy is that when decisions are made that that voters don’t like, they will always have the opportunity to vote for the other guy next time. But at the European level that’s harder to do, because the connection between those elections and the political outcome is much less direct than it is at the national level. So by moving more competencies to the EU, you’ve removed to my eyes one of the big advantages of democracy: the ability to correct mistakes, to offer voters an institutionalized opportunity to express their displeasure, strengthening that “magical” linkage between legitimacy and effectiveness of institutions.

The parties suffering the most from this new wave of populism are Social Democratic parties. Why is it that only non-traditional formations have been able to formulate responses to what should be bread-and-butter issues for the Center-Left?

I think the place to start to answer this is with the decision of many of these parties during the late 20th century to shift the nature of their identity and profile and to move to the center on economic issues. Now, in retrospect, it’s easy for us to criticize that decision, but clearly at the time it made some sense to those leaders to make such a move in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with all the hopes and triumphalism of market capitalism. Yet when inequality started to rise, growth started to slow down, and unemployment soared, etc. – these parties were unable to capture that disaffection. In fact, they were associated with many of the policies that a lot of voters now blamed for their problems. One key downstream effect was that this opened up a space for populist parties to move into, even by appropriately updating their policy offer. On the other hand, such “homogenization” of economic recipes created huge incentives for these new parties to differentiate themselves on social and cultural issues. And these are issues that are typically very easily exploited by the Right, and not so much by the Left.

«America First», «Prima gli italiani», «Oui, la France». Should the old saying It’s the economy, stupid be updated to It’s the nation, stupid?

Or It’s the culture, stupid: yes, I would say so. And that is certainly not good news for Social Democratic parties, which have no way to compete effectively on those issues. They risk losing part of their traditional voters not just to populists, but also to parties like the Greens and others on the Left. So this is just not a winning dynamic for the traditional Left. And, I might add, this is not a healthy development even from the perspective of democracy overall.

In terms of recovering democratic participation, however, shouldn’t we look with at least some interest to phenomena such as the Five Stars Movement in Italy or the Yellow Vests in France? Could these be signs of some sort of reawakening of civil society?

Civil society, as I’m talking about it here, is neither good nor bad: it totally depends on the context. For sure protests are by definition part of the democratic process, but the primary way in which dissatisfaction should be expressed, in which demands should be formulated, is through the political process, political parties, voting etc. So when you see such explosions of political anger of people out on the streets, that looks like the reflection of a political system that is not working well. Now, if these kinds of protest movements or new civil society groups are integrated back into the democratic process, if their demands and collective mobilization are channeled through it, then that would be healthy. If our political institutions on the contrary can’t respond to these new movements and new issues, then in the long run things will get worse.

Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP


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