The Rise of the Political Non-Voter

With the rise of globalisation we live in a seemingly post-modernist world with a high degree of individualism. Within this individualised atmosphere the political elements have followed suit, becoming more focused on single issues that have a global perspective rather than on particular party ideologies that encompass a particular range of ideals. Thus the political party, which has generally encompassed some form of ideology, has become an obsolete form of political expression for the voter, with social movements being able to co-opt peoples political attitudes much more succinctly as they focus on particular issues. The first reason for this phenomenon is that political parties have failed to modernise in a way that still attracts voters. Instead of focusing on the issues that may actually matter to voters, there is either an attachment to a particular ideology or an attempt to reach the ‘centre-ground’, which means that many important issues that have a global affect are ignored as they are seen as too controversial and thus get in the way of attracting the median voter. As a result, social movements, with their focus on one particular issue, fit the mould of what voters believe in a lot more than the political party. This further goes along with the individualised, liquid world in which we live in, where political movements that focus on one issue that has global consequences are more popular than the party political. However, many recent political movements that operate as political parties or in political parties are beginning to have more of a single issue focus. The rise of UKIP and the Green Party in the United Kingdom and the Tea Party in the United States have gained large and surprising support, as these movements operate in a political system that is dominated by two political parties. Thus we see that social movements focusing on a single issue has changed the face of political parties as they have become more of a protest movement that focuses on single issues. The popularity of these new parties also shows in an individualised world that political parties will most likely have to reform themselves and focus on particular issues that make a bastion of certain voters, rather staying as the broad churches they have always been.

The role of the political party and its assigned ideology has begun to become significantly diminished. With the advent of globalisation and thus either the internationalisation or localisation of many political issues, political parties operating at the national level do not have the relevance they did 20 or 30 years ago. Furthermore, the rise of modern globalisation has created a highly individualised society, where political party platforms lose out to single issues that have a global impact, such as global warming, immigration or free trade. This is of course an aspect of the ‘liquid modernity’ in which Bauman claims we currently live in. As Bauman notes, “much of the power to act effectively that was previously available to the modern state is now moving away to the politically uncontrolled global space”[1] demonstrating that the political has become an element of the global, thus removing from the power of national party politics and as previously mentioned this increasing globalisation of politics has led to an individualisation in how many people see political issues. This has been noted in the rise of social media, where individuals can simply sign onto a petition or cause with the click of a mouse, thus individualising politics and making it about single issues that one person may care about and another may not. It’s also those individuals that help create or even decide policy outside of any party machine, thus making the party obsolete. Further, particular social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed politicians to create a certain personal character and to remove themselves from overly attaching to a certain political party. As Adonis states in his article in the New Statesman, “For the politician, there no longer has to be an intermediary – whether that is a political party machine or a newspaper or a broadcaster – and the opportunities for stamping out diversity are reduced. Conversely, voters can and do connect with politicians and decision-makers, as well as with each other, as never before”[2] showing that social media has allowed politicians to actually engage directly with their citizenry thus further taking politics down to an individual level where single issues can be voiced to politicians outside any respective party political structure. Finally, the power of political parties continues to become more obsolete as a result of their failure to modernise in a way that still attracts voters. When we look at the mid-nineties, when many Western political parties were moving towards the so-called centre-ground, as with Tony Blair’s New Labour and Bill Clinton’s Third Way, we see the beginning of the end for ideological politics and instead a watering down of policies to favour the average voter (an arbitrary concept at best). These policies have seemingly furthered the voter apathy being seen in Western democracies. A report by the Smith Institute notes that “Labour lost nearly five million votes since 1997”[3] and Cakmak states in his article “The US, the world’s leading democracy ranks 140th in voter turnout among democratically elected governments”[4] both show this increasing voter apathy that is occurring. This seems to be attributed to the fact that many major political parties, particularly in the two party systems of the US and the UK, are continually chasing the centre-ground, thus losing their core voter base who are more focused on particular issues such as global warming and immigration. This then leaves a gap in party politics that is now being filled by social movements, who are able to co-opt political support away from parties as they focus on single issues at either the global or local level, where mainstream political parties are failing to focus, instead keeping their policies in the eye of supposed ‘centre-ground’. Overall, the political party as a construct of post-war politics is seemingly dead, and in its place, are social media-based social movements that focus on single issues, thus furthering this individualisation of politics and turning the apathetic voter into someone who cares not for party politics but more for global issues that have a genuine impact on the world.

The increasing political void that political parties are leaving as they fail to focus on local or global agendas and become increasingly centralised, losing their core voters, has begun to be filled with the rising, newer social movements. Unlike rigid party structures, social movements are fluid and are able to suit individuals particular beliefs and needs, thus suiting our individualised, ‘liquid modernity’. This point of individulisation is pointed out by Frank and Fuentes, stating “Social movements display much variety and changeability, but have in common individual mobilisation through a sense of morality and (in)justice and social power through social mobilisation against deprivation and for survival and identity”[5] showing that the movements can focus their selves at the global level while suiting individuals. It also makes a point on the fluidity of social movements, showing that they can display different ideas to different people. The fluidity of these movements can be further seen in historical contexts. When we look at American politics, seen traditionally as a two-party system, much of the major social reform of the last century, such as Civil Rights, Women’s Suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality have come off the back of major social movements. As Ganz noted in his paper, “The work of successful social reform in the U.S. has been initiated by social movement organizations that make claims, mobilize participation, and develop leaders. They make claims in moral terms, often linking their claims to broader moral narratives”[6]. This demonstrates one type of fluidity that social movements use to gain support, this being moral fluidity. They were able to gain supporters by representing the morality of their group/cause in a different way to different groups of people. Then there is the recent rise for social movements as a major international political alternative to parties. This can be significantly attributed to the rise of social media, the same force that has made party politics more redundant and allowed for the independence of politicians from the party machine. The ability for social media to get around government control of other media outlets and connect people globally means that social movements are able to gain supporters all over the globe. The influence of social media in social movements has been noted in the Arab Spring where, as stated by Tusa, “computer-mediated communication creates a space between the public and private spheres that was clearly little understood by the authorities in these case studies. Technology allowed people to share not simply information about how and when to protest, but more importantly, to share images and videos that contributed to a different interpretation of events than that which the authorities themselves wished”[7]. This shows that social movements ability to use social media as a tool to gain support is successful in gaining social movements international political support. This is where, as noted before, political parties fail as social movements are able to modernise by using new technologies to gain support. Occupy Wall Street is another example of this ability, where protests and news of the movement were put on Twitter and Facebook. These movements were also able to gain support by simply having a presence on social media, as people could become involved by simply signing a petition online. Thus support comes at the click of a button, rather than a party membership. Overall, the ability for social movements to use new technologies and consistently make their message fluid allows to always gain some form of support. With the redundancy of the political party and the internationalisation of political issues, social movements are going to continue to evolve and maintain political support. However, as a result of the popularity of these new social movements and their ability to co-opt support away from traditional political parties, new political parties are becoming something of a hybrid between these parties and social movements, adopting aspects of a protest movement combined with traditional party structures. With this adaptation, it seems the future of party politics are these smaller, less traditional parties.

Now that the difference between social movements and political parties has been noted, it seems that political parties are dead in the water. However recent developments seem to have shown that political parties are transforming their selves into some form of hybrid between the social movement and the traditional political party. There has been a rise in protest movements becoming politically legitimate, such as UKIP or the Tea Party. These new political movements generally concentrate on one or two specific issues, such as the EU and constitutional government respectively, yet are intrinsically involved in party politics. UKIP itself are a good example of this phenomenon, where they seem to blur the line between protest movement and political party. Heath notes in his article that “Like other parties of its kind, it is patriotic and anti-immigration, but unlike them it doesn’t indulge in endless banker-bashing, big business bating or tirades against free trade”[8] showing that while it displays the characteristics of a protest movement it also has genuine policies that aren’t seen in social movements. This then gives it credibility, which is being seen in its larger uptake of votes, with some seeing it as the new third party of British politics. The Tea Party is a similar example, however instead of being a new party it has become a major force in the Republican Party and has challenged the party leadership by running their candidates against other Republicans. An article by Paul Kane states that “More than half of Senate Republicans facing re-election next year face potentially viable tea party challenges — a historically large threat to the GOP establishment that could, once again, kill the party’s chances of taking back control of the chamber”[9] showing the extent to which the Tea Party has taken control of the Republican Party, which shows political legitimacy while at the same time maintaining elements of a social movement with their particular focus on healthcare and the Constitution. It seems then that the future of party politics is going in this direction. Political parties will become smaller and more focused on particular issues, while at the same time representing a certain part of the voting public and keeping party structures in place. Tim Montgomerie has made this point in his idea that British politics should move away from broad church parties towards smaller, more representative parties. He states in his article that “At the heart of my design for a new political system for Britain is a recognition that the old division between Right and Left may no longer be the most important one”[10] showing that the current ideological constructs politics operates in may become redundant and traditional party politics with them. This new political construct would further go along with the liquid, individual world that exists as individuals gain a clearer choice of what policies they’re voting for, rather than voting for an outdated ideology. Thus the future of party politics seems to be a mishmash of the social movement with the political party.

The difference between the social movement and the political party is clear. While the party still confines itself to outdated ideologies and has a failure to modernise in an evolving political system, the social movement is fluid and attractive to individuals on a global scale. With a world that is becoming more globalised and policies taking an international character, people aren’t interested in party manifestoes that combine different ideas from a broad church, and are instead focused on particular issues that have a global impact, such as immigration or global warming. However, the future of party politics seems to be the hybridization of these two political constructs. Parties like UKIP or the Green Party have that focus on single issues like social movements while maintaining party structures and relying on a specific voting base. Thus it seems that politics will focus on smaller political parties (like mentioned by Montgomerie) that focus on a particular element of the electorate and bring forward issues relating to that electorate, combining the single issue focus of social movements with the party structures of political parties.

[1] Bauman, Z (2013). Liquid Times. Cambridge: Polity. p2-3.

 

[2] Adonis, A. (2012). A cautious welcome to the new iDemocracy . Available: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/11/cautious-welcome-new-idemocracy. Last accessed 12th Apr 2014.

 

[3] Hunter, P (2011). Winning Back the 5 Million. London: Smith Institute. p7.

 

[4] Cakmak, C. (2014). The Role Of The Political Party In The United States: Is The Party Becoming Obsolete?. Available: http://www.turkishweekly.net/article/98/the-role-of-the-political-party-in-the-united-states-is-the-party-becoming-obsolete.html. Last accessed 12th Apr 2014.

 

[5] Frank, A. & Fuentes, M. (1987). Nine Theses on Social Movements. Economic & Political Weekly. 22 (35), p1503-1507.

 

[6] Ganz, M. (2006). “Left Behind” [Online]. The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations Working Paper No. 34 Cambridge. Available at: http://www.ksghauser.harvard.edu/PDF_XLS/workingpapers/workingpaper_34.pdf

 

[7] Tusa, F. (2013). How Social Media Can Shape a Protest Movement: The Cases of Egypt in 2011 and Iran in 2009 . Available: http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=816. Last accessed 13th Apr 2014.

 

[8] Heath, A. (2013). Nigel Farage’s biggest problem is Ukip doesn’t do details . Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10071380/Nigel-Farages-biggest-problem-is-Ukip-doesnt-do-details.html. Last accessed 15th Apr 2014.

 

[9] Kane, P. (2011). Tea party threat again hangs over Republicans’ efforts to take Senate. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/tea-party-threat-again-hangs-over-republicans-efforts-to-retake-senate/2013/12/10/8cdf470c-61d6-11e3-8beb-3f9a9942850f_story.html. Last accessed 15th Apr 2014.

 

[10] Montgomerie, T. (2013). Borgen Britain: let’s redraw the political map. Available: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article3948772.ece. Last accessed 13th Apr 2014.

 

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