4.3. Crisis, conflict, and the digital challenge to parties

We see parties being challenged all over Western democracies. The analytical tools discussed above help us in charting and analyzing these challenges. These tools are:

  • crisis and conflict in intermediary institutions, and

  • emergence of new parties or factions within parties adapted to the new opportunities provided by lowered information and coordination costs.

So, let's first start by looking for signs of what Offe [2006] calls crisis and conflict within institutions.

4.3.1. Signs of crisis and conflict of parties as institutions

Let's quickly recap. As we have seen, Offe [2006] identifies two reason for the decline and public challenge of institutions: crisis and conflict. With crisis Offe describes an institution losing step with external conditions it operates within and through this faces decline. This leads to defections and challenges. With conflict Offe describes a loss of moral fit. If the social order, sense of justice, or morality shifts around and institution. That institution might find itself in conflict with society. Again, defections and challenges may result from this development. Now, do these diagnoses apply to political parties as institutions?

In most Western democracies, the discussion about the decline of parties goes back decades. We find public critiques in the popular press, in academic work, but also in the declarations of political challengers of the status quo. Diagnoses of decline vary somewhat between different countries and party systems but they tend to share a common set of claims.

Various studies show that on a foundational level parties lose their representative function for broad sections of populations in Western democracies. Party membership declines, while members grow older, and large sections of the population find no - or choose not to seek - access to parties. Similarly, the socio-economic backgrounds of party members do not tend to represent the whole population anymore but only specific subgroups. Specific findings vary between countries, but the central tendency seems to hold. On a fundamental level, this tendency might lead to a loss of representation for specific groups in society who might end up with no spokespersons in parties or parliament anymore. At least, it points to a weakening of the function of parties as information transmitter between publics and political elites in order to make them visible to each other. A function for which Müller [2021] has labeled parties intermediary institutions in democracy.

Going further, some have diagnosed for parties in Western democracies a loss touch with their core constituency. As this is seen to be true for all major parties, those established parties stop actually competing for power but share it in a form of cartel, with government power shifting between members of said cartel. This makes public control of peoples' representatives, political parties, and governments untenable and - in the words of Peter Mair - hollows out democracy.

Others have diagnosed rot that reaches even further to the core of democracy. In countries where parties and their representatives depend on large donations to run competitive elections, such as the US, parties are seen as more beholden to their financial benefactors than their constituents. This raises the challenge that parties simply represent the rich donor class and large companies that finance campaigns, instead of the public.

As said before, the details of these diagnoses and their severity vary between countries and party systems. But we encounter variations of them across a wide set of Western democracies. Now, can we connect these diagnoses to the terms crisis and conflict as understood by Offe? For this, we have to examine potential drivers and consequences of these phenomena.

Parties are location-based membership organizations. They connect members who share given places. Their structure starts with local chapters, moves up to counties, from the on to states, and ends on the national level. Local party members have local, regional, and state representatives for whom they vote and who are, at least in principle, answerable to them. Like all location-based membership organizations, parties thrived in a time when people were comparatively immobile through their live and changed jobs and places where they lived comparatively seldom. With greater mobility between jobs and places parties, like other location-based membership organizations, suffered. Many people tend to be less connected to the places they live, since they either recently moved there or are on the jump to move somewhere else. Why spend time and money on a location-based membership organization, when there are other opportunities to get rid of both? This might explain the attractiveness of cause- instead of party-based political participation for many young and highly educated people.

In this sense, parties as institutions might indeed face a crisis. The institution party started in the context of given societal structures - rather immobile people who were open to participate in location-based membership organizations - and developed institutional structures that were optimized for this context - local representation and party hierarchies that followed geographical units of greater magnitude - local, regional, state, national. Once these underlying social structures shifted - many people being much more mobile over the course of their lifes - parties struggled to adapt and lost access to those people. The often diagnosed loss of parties' representational abilities and functions could thus be driven - at least partially - from an increasing mismatch between institutional structure and societal context.

But we also clearly see signs of conflict. The role of parties as intermediary institutions is to connect publics with political elites and the government. This depends on them - as a set - being able to reach all groups and sections of society and provide them with access points to the political system. Once this is seen to fail, or even objectively is failing, parties lose the moral justification for their role and the associated privileges. Lack of actual, or perceived, representation of sections of the public through parties thereby provides the basis for the challenge of their legitimacy. This then provides the seeds either for the emergence of new challenger parties with greater claims of representing the supposedly unrepresented or is channeled into attempts at political mobilization and participation outside the established party-political system. This is only acerbated once the role of outside money starts to feature strongly in accounts of whose requests parties tend to respond to.

Already this quick and cursory look has shown that parties as institutions face challenges connected with both, their fit to current societal conditions and structures and their moral justification. This provides the basis for the challenge of parties as intermediary institutions in democracies. Now, how do digital media feature in these challenges?

4.3.2. Challenge through information

The sinking costs of information production, publication, and distribution through digital media provides an important tool for the challenge of parties, be it from the outside or inside.

In their role as information providers and conduits parties interact with news media. Parties provide news media with speakers, topics, and positions for them to cover and feature. In this they are subject to selection decisions of editorial desks or news organizations. Accordingly, parties adjust topics, positions, and speakers to what plays in news media. In party systems with strong centrally controlled parties, this might be a conscious choice by leadership. In systems with weak parties, this is probably best understood as an emergent phenomenon. This provides the media power over which speakers and positions feature often in their coverage and in turn come to dominate the public image of a party or faction.

In the past, this interdependence has been criticized strongly. For one, this collusion between gatekeepers to the public - news media - and powerful institutions of the status quo - political parties - was seen as a feature to restrict access to the general public for challengers to the status quo and alternative view points. Also, the adjustment to selection criteria of the media by politicians and parties was seen as a detriment leading to a dumbing down of political debate, sensationalization, and politics as entertainment.

With the digital extension of communication environments by new channels and new sources, we can see challenges to parties manifest that undercut this mechanism. This can lead to a healthy and more pluralistic extension of the types of information and opinions represented in the public area but also to the challenge of the status quo through extremist or exclusionary actors, which previously would have found themselves excluded from the public arena by mass media exercising their gatekeeping power.

An example for this is the way Donald Trump used his Twitter account to drive media coverage to his primary bid in 2015 for the Republican nomination as Presidential candidate in the 2016 US US presidential election. When reality TV personality Donald Trump announced his candidacy in the Republican primaries on June 16, 2015 it was difficult for commentators and the party establishment to know what to make of this. With Trump, there were 12 primary candidates. Some of whom were heavy weights within the party, with five former governors and four current air former Senators in the race. Accordingly, it was easy to chalk Trump's candidacy off as a publicity stunt to rekindle the embers of his celebrity.

But the size of the field and the number of candidates well connected to the party establishment turned out to support Trump's bid. Since the party establishment could not settle on one candidate to throw their full weight behind, no obvious front runner emerged early on with media coverage rotating from one to the other. The only fixture in the media coverage of the primaries was Trump, who managed to scandalize and enrage the public regularly by tweeting a constant barrage of provocations destined to keep him in the media limelight consistently. This and his consistent challenge of the Republican establishment help him establish consistent coverage and over time support among the Republican primary voters. Trump used Twitter to give the media a story too good to refuse, after all outrage and scandal bring clicks and viewers. His use of digital media allowed him to circumvent the gatekeepers of the Republican Party and mount a challenge to established party creeds and personell. In fact, this challenge turned out to remodel the Republican Party well beyond his candidacy and Presidency.

While Trump's success in this regard is still unique, many fringe groups or politicians within parties use digital media regularly to gain media and public attention and position themselves as de-facto spokespersons for the supposedly disaffected party base. This makes parties harder to govern and contributes to their image in public appearing as fractured and torn between extremes. This loss of control of what constitutes the party line is acerbated by parties also losing the monopoly on making the party visible to itself. By checking their social media or messenger groups, party members are nor longer dependent on the party in order to find out what other members like them are thinking or doing. Again, this makes it harder for the leadership to establish a coherent line on controversial topics and control challenges or insurrections from within.

The same mechanism is also in play when we look not at the challenge of parties from within but from without. As shown above, challenges not only address specific parties but the established party system as a whole. This challenge does not attack one party as having lost its way or left its supporters behind, this challenge extends these claims to all established parties in a given system. In the past, these system challengers would have had to rely on friendly news media to feature their challenge and give it viability for voters. Today, these system challengers can rely on alternative digital news sources to feature them and use digital media as distribution channel to reach interested people and to connect supporters. The informational opportunities provided by digital media allow them to - at least in part - substitute for exclusion or moderation through established gatekeepers. These system level challenges are put forward by movements on both the far left and the far right. But recently, the use of digital media to circumvent institutional gatekeepers to pose a system-wide challenge has featured most prominently with far-right populism.

4.3.3. Challenge through coordination

The sinking costs of coordination provide another mechanism through which digital media enable the challenge of political parties. Digital media and the organizational opportunities they provide are an important element in the work of party organizations, established and new.

Established parties integrate digital media in their existing structures be it on the national or the local level. These are important developments that receive ample academic attention and that can teach us a lot about the adaptability of parties and innovation within political organizations. But for our purposes it is more important to examine the way that digital media enable new political parties or organizations challenging political parties in their political function.

Already early in the political uses of digital media, scholars pointed to the opportunities of digital media in the creation of alternative forms of political organization - sometimes called cyber-, digital-, or platform-parties. Digital media provide people and movements with tools allowing them to coordinate, elicit feedback, mobilize, organize, and create public visibility allowing new organizations to emerge.

By now there are many cases of new political parties emerging in multi-party systems. Examples include parties on the political left, such as Pirate Parties in multiple European countries, the Spanish Unidas Podemos, or the Italian Movimento 5 Stelle, the 5 Star Movement. More recently, a growing count of new parties and movements on the political right rely on digital media as well, such as Germany's Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). These cases warrant further study. Especially since the uses of digital media vary strongly between different parties: from using existing publicly available digital tools for office work and administrative duties of an organization to the development of dedicated software for internal coordination and voting, as with tools like Liquid Feedback or Rousseau.

In political systems that make it harder for small parties to enter parliament, digital media are used by challenger groups within established parties to form and coordinate. This includes the use of digital media in the US by insurgent campaigns competing for the Presidential nomination of their party, such as Howard Dean, Barack Obama, or Bernie Sanders. But this also includes uses of digital media by factions within parties, trying to shift the balance of power, such as Momentum within the UK Labor party.

The uses of digital media for these organizations vary. They start with support in mundane but important office or organizational work, such as keeping in touch through email or keeping supporter lists current through publicly available digital tools. Digital media have also come to play a very important role in parties in political campaigns as channels for the collection of political donations. This is especially crucial in the US. Beyond this, digital media are also a very important element in the mobilization and coordination of volunteers. Various U.S. insurgency campaigns from Howard Dean, through Barack Obama, to Bernie Sanders have used digital media actively to generate and channel enthusiasm among supporters into the party organization and translate it into volunteer work, such as telephone or door-to-door canvassing. At the same time, channeling the enthusiasm of activists into a more structured campaign organization can prove to be challenging as activists and volunteers often can pursue politically more pure or extreme goals than the campaigns feels comfortable in pursuing with the general electorate in mind.

What we see here then is that digital media provide challengers to the status quo with tools that serve fundamental coordination functions out of the box. They provide them with a communication hub for their organization, tools for identifying, binding, and coordinating volunteers, collecting and distributing resources, and internal distributed decision making and voting in the form of dedicated software solutions. To achieve either of these functions in the past, challengers would have to go through established political organizations and marshall their resources. This in turn would have forced them to adjust their challenge in ways to make it palatable to the organization. Today this is not necessary anymore. As we have seen above, this mechanism can support challenges to the status quo aimed at making the system more representative and more responsive. But it can also enable challenges that try to achieve the opposite.

We played through this analysis of digital media's role in challenges to institutions with the case of political parties. But other institutions might have provided similarly instructive cases: think of the challenge to news media through digital-born and alternative media, think of the challenge to governments - democratic and authoritarian - through digitally enabled activism, or the digitally enabled open science movement for more transparency and replicability in scientific studies.

Diagnoses of crises or conflicts of specific institutions might vary, so might the specific digitally enabled challenges to the status quo, and our normative assessment of their justification. But thinking in terms of opportunities provided to challengers through lowered costs of information and coordination, offers a promising lens through which to analyze and discuss these challenges as well.

Go ahead and give it a try! Choose a case along your lines of interest and see how far this framework takes you, or where it stops being useful.