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The Death of the Party

MOSCOW – Nearly 26 years ago, President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree that effectively banned Communist Party organs from operating in factories, universities, and all other workplaces across the Russian Federation. But Yeltsin’s bold decree was, in some ways, superfluous: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), once a fearsome organizational weapon, had already been decimated by its own incompetence and brutality, to the point that the public was simply indifferent to it.

Today, once-great political parties in the West and some developing countries also seem to be on a fast track to oblivion. But whereas the CPSU’s demise was perfectly logical – Yeltsin’s decree came just months before the Soviet Union’s collapse – the decline of major political parties in countries like France and India is not so easy to explain.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has just secured a massive majority in the French National Assembly for his own year-old movement, ostensibly consigning the Socialist Party – with which Macron himself was affiliated while serving as economy minister – to Trotsky’s dustbin of history. France’s other major mainstream party – the center-right Republicans, rooted in Charles de Gaulle’s political legacy – does not seem to be doing much better.

Until recently, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, under the leadership of the far-left Jeremy Corbyn, also seemed to be on the edge of extinction. But it has been granted something of a reprieve, thanks to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s sheer incompetence during the recent parliamentary campaign. But whether Corbyn will actually be able to unite and reinvigorate his party remains far from certain.

In the developing world, India is witnessing the decline of the Indian National Congress, the party of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who led the country to independence from the UK. Under the feeble dynastic leadership of Sonia Gandhi (the widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru’s grandson and the son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) and her son Rahul, Congress now seems unable even to retain seats in its historic bastions, such as Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, its main opponent, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, seems to have the 2019 parliamentary election already locked up.

In South Africa, another great party of national liberation – the African National Congress, which helped to bring about the downfall of apartheid – is facing similar rot. Just 18 years after Nelson Mandela left the presidency, the ANC is crumbling under the ruinously corrupt leadership of President Jacob Zuma. An official split among embattled and embittered rival factions may very well take place when the ANC chooses a new leader later this year.

Of course, great political parties have died before. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Liberal Party, not Labour, was the Conservatives’ main rival in the UK, thriving under the leadership of figures like William Gladstone and David Lloyd George. Yet that ended just a few years after World War I, as the British journalist-turned-historian George Dangerfield chronicled in his book The Strange Death of Liberal England.

In Italy, the postwar political parties – the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists – experienced something of a mass extinction, after the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) corruption scandal erupted in 1992. The next year, Canada’s Conservative Party was practically wiped out in a parliamentary election, in which it lost all but two of its 151 seats.

Many explanations for the fall of political parties have been advanced. Working-class voters’ move to the middle class did as much to kill off Western Europe’s communist parties as the failure of the Soviet regime.

More broadly, in countries where coalition governments comprise parties with similar ideologies, it can be easy for voters to shift their loyalty. This is particularly true nowadays, as voters increasingly view parties as brands that can be replaced if they fail to keep up with consumer tastes, rather than as focal points of unassailable tribal loyalty.

Moreover, voters nowadays are more and more likely to focus on one or two key policies, rather than a party’s entire program. It is this thinking that has allowed single-issue parties like the immigration-focused UK Independence Party (UKIP) to thrive.

The increased use of referenda in the world’s developed democracies seems a direct outgrowth of the turn toward consumer-oriented politics. The problem is that referenda undermine accountability, as they enable ill-advised decisions based on simplistic questions, as was the case with the UK’s feckless Brexit vote. In such situations, the playwright Bertolt Brecht once quipped ironically, the only alternative is to “dissolve the people and elect another.”

But, while consumer-minded voting goes some way toward explaining the demise of parties like France’s Socialists, it does not explain the decline of the Indian National Congress and the ANC. Their problems seem, instead, to be rooted in arrogance.

For the Indian National Congress, that arrogance is largely hereditary. From Nehru to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to the current incompetent face of the party, Rahul, the Gandhi family has viewed leadership and control of Congress as a birthright that cannot be rescinded, regardless of the individual’s actual skill or qualifications.

As for the ANC, its arrogance seems more akin to that of the CPSU: an overweening sense of “owning” the state, which makes corruption seem like a form of electoral entitlement. Arrogance of this sort cuts a party off from its actual supporters, who then find it easier to search, and to find, a viable alternative.

But, in politics, death need not be permanent. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), for example, ruled the country for 71 years, before its defeat in 2000. At the time, it was assumed that the PRI would never return to power. Yet, by 2012, it did, with the election of current President Enrique Peña Nieto.

This possibility may be why the Gandhi family and Zuma are so nonchalant about their parties’ decay. The question, though, is whether anything that comes back from the dead can ever again be what it was.