Darwin comes to politics

Are political species about to become extinct?

Darwin has finally come to politics. Last week’s European elections saw the further paring back of incumbent parties that have been the pillars of the political establishment in Europe since the second world war. For example, in France the Socialists and Republicans received only single digit levels of support, in the UK the Tories and Labour were roundly humiliated and in Germany, the Social Democrats have seen their vote fall precipitously.

The collapse in the popularity of established political parties is just one element of the breaking down of the order of the past thirty years. To many who have grown up with the reassuring predictability of two-party political systems this will be very confusing, others might simply ask why it taken so long for Darwinian disruption to impact politics.  

Indeed, innovation and disruption characterize many industries and many walks of life. Should politics be exempt? Take business as an analogy: new companies and ventures often succeed because of a new technology or a shift in consumer behavior. Of the top companies by market capitalization in the United States, a good number did not exist twenty years ago.

However, in politics, many of the political parties prominent today have been around for a very long time. To take this analogy further: if the French Socialist Party, the Democratic Party in the United States, or the Tory Party in the United Kingdom were stocks, they would trade at a sharp valuation difference from their peers. If they were companies, their sales would be falling and talk would grow of a takeover.

In many ways, political parties have it easy; they are not subject to the same stresses as companies. Indeed, political parties are also lucky in that unlike, say, consumer goods companies, their “consumers” have been more loyal in their preferences. This stickiness is under threat. Persistently lowered income expectations, demographics, immigration, and the influence of social media all tend to lead voters to be less anchored by party heritage and identity.

Allegiances to parties tend to be built through families and communities and are only broken by the deepest of crises. In this way, the change of preferences being registered by many voters is a sign of both how societies are changing, and of the stresses being placed on those societies.  

Another reason established parties are drifting from their political moorings is that many of them are associated with events and individuals in history. As time passes, events foundational to their rise have less meaning and relevance for younger generations.

So far, diminished support for incumbent parties in Europe is occurring in tandem with the rise of both new parties and a resurgence in some parties with singular identities (i.e. Greens). What we have so far seen little of is a split in a major party. In coming months, it is not unreasonable to think that this could happen in the United Kingdom, in the sense that the Tories are split between Brexiteers and Remainers, while Labour is cleft between hard-left-wing Corbyn socialists and a moderate New Labour faction.

What is even more interesting is that US politics has apparently been spared the dislocations evident across Europe. Party unity may only be cosmetic. We can easily paint a picture of a political spectrum being stretched on the right between the Trump/Pence Republicans and the Bush country-club Republicans and then on the other side between the Sanders/Warren/AOC Democrats versus the Obama/Clinton Democrats. In the US, it may be that a fiscal or debt crisis is needed to break the Republicans or a more profound socio-economic crisis leads to a breech in the Democratic party.

One way in which mainstream parties have managed to survive in recent years is that they have co-opted radical people and causes. This was the case with the Republicans and Donald Trump and with the Tories and the Brexit referendum. The success of the Brexit Party in the EU Parliamentary elections now leaves the Tories exposed, whilst the financial and economic damage that Donald Trump’s trade war is doing may leave many Republicans questioning the party’s economic credentials and its fast evaporating reputation as the guardian of the economy and finance.

In the absence of a deus ex machina in the form of a third party government or international body (it could be the OECD in the run up to the G20 meeting), senior Republicans need to step forward with a framework that can safeguard the intellectual property rights of American companies, its national security whilst at the same time avoiding unnecessary economic and diplomatic shocks.

I can think of few current Republican senators and Congressmen/women who are ready to do so.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike