Do political parties matter anymore?

People matter: From Sanders to Clinton and Tsipras to Modi , leaders now overshadow parties   -  Reuters

In the era of social media, parties are being de-emphasised in favour of personalities. This trend will be a game changer

Something strange is happening in the world of politics. In election after election around the world, leaders are being chosen on the strength of their charisma, background and vision. Party affiliation seems to matter little.

The first person to trigger this trend was US President Barack Obama. In 2008, his was a message of change when he brilliantly defined change not only in terms of how he wanted to usher in new liberal policies and end America’s wars but also, in a subtle manner, to challenge Americans to elect their first black president and make history.

The party was simply the vehicle he used to get to the finish line. The country was so fed up of the Bush years that it was a foregone conclusion that a Democrat would win anyway.

Modi, Rahul and Tsipras

Then, there was our own 2013 Lok Sabha contest which was conducted, for the first time, as a US or French presidential style election in which the candidates — Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi — were a lot more important than the parties they represented.

The matchup was framed in many ways: bachelor against bachelor; former tea stall worker against the scion of a political dynasty; intolerance vs. secularism; old guard against the new. That Modi belonged to the BJP was simply a matter of administrative convenience.

In Greece, a country on the brink of exiting the EU last year and causing the Euro to fall, all politics continue to be defined by the personalities of its current Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. Technically, he is the leader of the left-wing Syriza party but Syriza wasn’t even formed until 2004. In 2015, he was voted by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people globally. Syriza needs Tsipras a lot more than the other way around.

Sanders, Clinton and Trump

Look at the current US presidential race. Bernie Sanders, who still sits in the US Senate as an Independent (but votes with the Democrats) is almost head-to-head with the Democratic party establishment favourite Hillary Clinton and, last week, pulled ahead of her in national polls for the first time. Sanders has called for the US to become the next Sweden in providing cradle to grave benefits such as free medical care and college education.

So extreme are his policies that the top tax bracket may well have to go up to 70 per cent, a prospect that makes even the liberal Democratic party wince. But the voters don’t seem to care. They want someone who can play Robin Hood to take money from the rich and hand it to the less well-off.

And, of course, there is Donald Trump. The former TV star became a Republican only recently and is using the party to ride it as a bus to the nomination — nothing more. He has won two of three state contests so far and almost all of the delegates awarded. He has vanquished former governors, senators and other establishment types — even Jeb Bush.

His relationship with the Republican party is so poor and fragile that he had to sign a contract to promise to stay within it and not run as an independent in return for the party establishment to “treat him nicely”. The political thinking here is that were he to run as an Independent, he will siphon away sufficient votes from the Republican party nominee and hand the general election to Sanders or Hillary.

Communications revolution

Clearly, this de-emphasis of party in favour of personality is unprecedented. So what changed in the last eight years? Two words: Social Media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and political blogs have changed every aspect of communication in modern politics. Today, candidates can tweet out their message for the day and hungry blogs provide near-instant, and often, biased coverage. Citizen journalists film an outlier of a political rally — such as the crowd booing a candidate — and post instantly to YouTube or Instagram.

If the clip goes viral, that itself becomes news. TV tickers incessantly playing out text on 24-hour news screens spread the message even more. Online editions of newspapers scramble to make sense of all that is happening around them and try to provide commentary. In this dynamic media environment, what exactly is the role of the careful party spokesperson who stays on message, looks carefully at the camera and releases a boring but approved statement?

The traditionalist would probably insist that parties are needed for fundraising. But Bernie Sanders has proved that using the party machine for raising cash is such a 1990’s mindset. By tapping into a grassroots movement, he has revolutionised the concept of small money giving by ordinary citizens. More than 3 million Americans have contributed online to his campaign, the average donation being about $27 a piece. Records show that Sanders has more money than Clinton. Scale is powerful — whether you are marketing a product or a political message seeking money. The Sanders campaign claims that this situation is a record for any White House candidate.

Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, says in a piece in the latest New Yorker: “The party system, like just about every other old-line industry and institution, is struggling to survive a communications revolution. The fate of the free world does not hinge on this (the US) election. But the direction of the party system might. And that’s probably worth thinking about, slowly and deeply.”

The writer is the managing director of Rao Advisors LLC

Published on February 26, 2016
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