Life after the party

In an online world, the party is over. That's the wisdom of John Lloyd, the Financial Times' tv critic and author of What the Media are Doing to Our Politics. In today's FT, Lloyd argues that the Internet is doing to our political parties what it also doing to our institutions of mass media. The Internet, then, is the ultimate party pooper -- it is killing the political party:

The pillar on which they had relied in bad times, constructed both of the political party and mass movement, is hollowing out. So is all traditional political activism, even at the level of voting. The political scientist, Peter Mair, whose dreary life’s work it is to chart this decline, shows that party membership in western Europe declined in all but three of 16 states from 1980-2000 (and has probably fallen much further in all since). Voting levels fell from the mid-80 per cent level to mid-70 per cent from the 1950s to the 1990s and have fallen further, at times much further.

The crisis of the political party needs to be understood in the same light as the crisis of the newspaper and the recorded music industries. It's a consequence of what Lloyd calls a "new democratic order" in which the Internet's "mass participation" is disintermediating the traditional organizational pillars of 20th century cultural, educational and political life. As Lloyd argues, the representative democracy of mass society is being transformed into the direct democracy of the digital age:

As urbanisation and industrialisation produced the mass party, so mass participation in the internet begins to sketch a new democratic order – one that depends little on party.

So, if the party is now over, what does this "new democratic order" depend on? According to Lloyd, who quotes a 2007 speech at London's RSA from the British Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, democracy now is driven by social networking sites like Facebook, "rather than by trade unions or pressure groups". In that RSA speech, Osborne suggested that social networks were becoming the key vehicles for the successful politician of the digital age:

... as people come to be increasingly disengaged from traditional models of political engagement, these new technologies and social networks give us in politics and in government an opportunity to connect with and listen to new audiences”.

Lloyd is in full agreement with Osborne. Deploying eery utilitarian language, the FT journalist says that "politicians must have audiences: democratic practices demands it." And thus he introduces to the new age of digital democracy in which the most "able and ambitious" politicians (like the blogging British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband or Barack Obama) will use the technology of the network to build their own personal audience of followers.

Welcome to life after the party. This plebiscitory democracy, in which charismatic politicians like Miliband and Obama sidestep traditional political parties to build personalized support, will dramatically change our representative systems. John Lloyd seems thrilled that the party is over. I'm not so sure. Without parties organized around ideological principles, politics becomes dangerously personalized. Elections will be popularity contests determined exclusively by slick online marketing (the politics of Britney rather than of Hilary). If you worry that politics is inane today, just wait till life after the party.