Parties and Populists

This is not a good time for political parties, especially those with traditional orientations. Gone are the times in the older democracies when one could count on two major parties – one social democratic, the other more to the right of center – dominating the political scene.

In the new democracies of the postcommunist world, such two-party systems never came into being. Nowadays the two largest parties can rarely hope to muster two-thirds of the popular vote. Not infrequently they have to form a “grand coalition.” The rest of the vote is split many ways – unless a political force emerges to cut right through the old party structures by arousing popular nationalist or socialist sentiments, or a combination of the two.

The decline of parties reflects the decline of class. The old proletariat and the old bourgeoisie are gone. Instead we see what has sometimes been called a “levelled-in middle-class society,” albeit one with an important elite of the super-rich at one end and an underclass at the other.

The very structure of society has come to be shaky. There are no social groups on which lasting organizations can be built. People are, in a sense, socially homeless. This means that their interests vary as situations change. It also means that they no longer find a political home in parties, but react to situations, to vague moods, and above all to appeals to sentiments, if not resentments.