Flinders University politics and policy expert Dr Rob Manwaring is mapping the shift in his ongoing research, analysing the current health of democracies and the fluctuating fortunes of traditional political parties.
Specifically, he is examining the fading popularity and influence of centre-left political parties that held a strong grip on democratic governments around the world through the early 2000s, but have mostly been adrift for the past decade. His recent book – The Politics of Social Democracy – provides analysis of this ailing political force that is akin to checking the pulse of social democracies, and ascertaining their future. He sees the new dawn of personality-driven populist leaders as a genuine threat.
“It’s a hollowing out of democracy to see populists gain the upper hand over established and traditional parties,” says Dr Manwaring. “It’s clear that the populists can’t deal with a genuine crisis, because they don’t have a solid platform of policies – and once a democracy loses good governance, it’s not easy to replace.”
Dr Manwaring is interested that murmurs of public concern about the influence of big business on politics is not resulting in widespread public willingness to engage in politics. “History tells us that a population needs a clear threat to push policy change, but even in the era of COVID-19, we’re not clearly seeing that sort of public reaction.”
Casting a wary eye across Europe, Dr Manwaring’s research has identified several prominent campaigns as a Trojan horse for pushing populist agendas. In France, the 2017 French presidential elections were especially revealing, as the victorious Emmanuel Macron had quit a traditional party to form his own En Marche! party only nine months before the election. He won office from nationalistic/populist Marine Le Pen, who had radically reshaped and re-named the right-wing National Rally party.
The rise of such individuals underlines growing detachment from traditional political parties, which are floundering in their efforts to regain traction.
Dr Manwaring’s systematic mapping of policy change across social democratic political parties shows a significant shift away from their historical foundations, although even these gestures have failed to connect with voters.
In this scenario, questions hang about whether centre-left parties are still relevant. If so, what do they stand for? “I don’t believe centre-left parties have resolved those questions satisfactorily,” says Dr Manwaring. “Voters have certainly recognised this, and have responded by removing their support for those parties.”
Some of these voters have gravitated towards populist political figures, but an alarming amount now feel disenfranchised and jaded with politics. Since the 1990s, there has been a 10% drop in global turnout at elections. Dr Manwaring’s research seeks to identify where these voters choose to shift their allegiance, or whether they remain disconnected from politics.
To obtain clarity about who wields most power in this era of waning centrist political parties, Dr Manwaring says it is crucial to unlock the identities of para-political sub-groups – the various institutes, “think tanks” and fundraising bodies that wield great influence over the direction and agendas of political populists. Dr Manwaring believes this shadowy area of contemporary politics must be brought into the light for voters to be fully informed, which is the purpose of his latest research.
“As the power of traditional party factions decreases and the numbers of active members in political parties continue to shrink, more needs to be known about this ecosphere of proxy organisations, and the amount of influence they wield,” says Dr Manwaring. “They have power and influence far beyond their relative size, and regulation of these organisations is lax.”
With voters veering further away from a traditional two-party option, democracy is in an era of flux, and change is continuing.
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