The decline and demise of parties is rare, especially in the Anglo world. In the early days of the Republic, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists gave way to Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. In the mid-19th century, the Whigs collapsed. Thereafter, the stage belonged to the GOP and the Democrats. In 17th century Britain, the Whigs and Tories began to dominate. Eventually, the Whigs were pushed aside by Labour, which would alternate in power with the Conservatives throughout the 20th century.
In postwar Europe’s multiparty system, the kaleidoscope turned more quickly. But fundamentally, two blocs led the pack: the moderate Left and the moderate Right. This system is crumbling away before our eyes.
Take France, where the Socialists once propelled Francois Mitterrand and Francois Hollande into the Elysée Palace. At last count, they gathered 8 percent in the EU elections. In Germany, their Social Democratic brethren, who once shone forth with chancellors Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder, are down to 13 percent in the most recent poll. The Italian Socialist Party was disbanded in 1994; previously they had placed men like Bettino Craxi and Giuliano Amato into the Pallazo Chigi, the seat of the Italian government. The PS left behind an ever changing bunch of parties with “Socialist” in their names. Today, the populists of the Right (Lega) and the Left (45 Stars) rule.
To get a grip on the sorry state of Social Democracy, look at the map of Western Europe. As late as 2000, the map was virtually drenched in red, the traditional color of the Left. Last year, only 5 of the EU-28 were governed by Democratic Socialists. Among the large countries, only Spain was inked in red.
You would think that the moderate Right would savor the decline of its rivals. Alas, the rot has also reached the likes of the German Christian Democrats, the French Republicans and the British Tories. The German CDU/CSU had vaulted into power with Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel, who is in her fourth term. Kohl had 16 years in the Chancellor’s Office, Adenauer 13 (who captured an absolute majority in 1957). Now, their party is down to 24 percent in the most recent poll.
The French Republicans, the heirs of Charles de Gaulle, have seen their take in the 2017 national elections almost cut in half. The Tories, the party of Disraeli, Palmerston, Churchill and Thatcher, are currently committing suicide over Brexit. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party came in first in the EU parliamentary elections, leaving Tories and Labour in the dust. In the current YouGov poll, the Brexit Party is still number one. The Tories get 18 percent. So hard have the mighty fallen.
The Left’s losses, however, are not the Right’s gains; they are losing together, which is a bizarre pattern. Who, then, is winning? The outsiders, a motley bunch. Marine Le Pen’s National Front raked in one-third of the votes cast in France’s last presidential elections. The German AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) has come from nowhere and now stands at 14 percent in the polls. Nigel Farage’s anti-European nationalists scored 30 percent in the EU elections. In Italy, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Lega is well positioned to capture the Palazzo Chigi in the next national contest.
The Right is on a roll, but so is the Left—when it puts on rightish clothes, as it did in Denmark. The Danish Social Democrats came in first in the June elections with a harsh anti-immigrant, but generous social policy. Label it “Keep them out and make them pay!” With its vote in the Folketing, the Social Democrats had been instrumental in passing the “Jewelry Law.” It empowers the border police to search asylum seekers for valuables and cash that will finance their upkeep. A nice deterrent, if you can impose it.
The hardest hammer blow against the established party system is the comet-like rise of the German Greens—pro-immigration ecologists who are on the center-left side of the spectrum. At 27 percent in the polls, they have (theoretically) outstripped both the Christian and Social Democrats who have ruled Germany for 70 years, either together or with smaller parties. The current grand coalition no longer commands a majority in the surveys.
Having dropped their leftish orthodoxies, the Green saviors of the planet are virtually everybody’s darling, drawing votes away from all parties this side of the extremes on the Left and the Right. Rigid left-wing ideologues in the not-so-distant past, they have put their best foot forward. They appeal to excitable college students as well as to the urban bourgeoisie, to hipsters as well as to tech workers and start-up artists. Their traditional pacifism has paled along with their leftwing economic policies. They are even downplaying their Nanny State ideas, such as prescribing a once-a-week “Veggie Day.” They are cool, yet with a friendly face and a modest demeanor.
Apropos of “face,” it helps if you don’t look like Angela (“Mutti”) Merkel, which is German for “mom.” It helps that the Greens’ standard-bearer, Robert Habeck, looks like your ideal son-in-law who threatens nobody. It helps that these by now nice middle-age folks are not at all like those Social-Democratic apparatchiks who have dominated German politics for decades.
“If you could elect a chancellor directly,” the pollsters recently asked, “for whom would you vote?” Four out of ten opted for Habeck, only 21 percent for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s heir-apparent as Christian Democratic chancellor candidate.
So who will determine Europe’s future? All we know for sure is that the established system is rupturing. The disruptors don’t form a clear pattern. There is the liberal Emmanuel Macron, who has welded together his “Republic on the March” party ex nihilo. There is the Brexit Party that preaches Little England nationalism. There are Matteo Salvini’s hard-Right populists in Italy. In Denmark, the Social Democrats have scored with an anti-immigrant plus welfarist agenda. Farther to the east, nationalist authoritarians rule in Poland and Hungary. Yet in Germany, those kindly center-left Greens are on a roll with their “Save the Planet” message.
Is there a common denominator? If so, it is the mounting aversion to politics-as-usual, to the powers-that-be-no-longer. Add a dollop of isolationism and defensive nationalism triggered by apparently uncontrolled immigration in tandem with globalization. Or make it very simple and invoke sheer boredom with the politics and politicos of the status quo.
Is there revolution in the air? Europe is not living in 1789 or 1918 when revolutions spread across the continents. It is, by comparison, well-off and well-ordered. If anything, it resents too much change. But everywhere, the established party system is breaking up. Yet the bet is on rearrangement, not on revolt.