samedi 15 septembre 2012

Communities of values or communities of project

Since the seminal work of Jacques Levy, the French political geography has made the distinction between three types of power maps: the strategic map organised by the military, the map of control organised by the Nation State and its different institutions, the map of legitimacy structured by the distribution of political parties, trade unions, churches and NGOs.
At local level, the political parties of the present are often the successors of previous political parties belonging to the same broader "political family". Successful candidates and their affiliates (family, direct friends) often play an important role in the transition between old political parties and new ones. Basically, they stay whereas the party changes or merges with another one to form a new entity. Personal loyalties and nostalgia for past political groupings have not to be under-estimated to understand the local complexity of the French socialist left or centre-right at local level. They explain partly internal divides within each party at constituency level. Yves Lacoste and his team studied, twenty years ago, the deep complexity of the French political map. Their empirical studies demonstrate - in a country where the forces structuring the political map are more frequently changing than in the US, Great Britain and Germany - a certain stability in the divide between left and right, Marxist and non Marxist left, Gaullists and Christian democrats, even if the number of activists and voters gathered by those political forces considerably vary over time.
With often a shorter life, political parties bear similarities with other institutions that structure the map of legitimacy and are considered communities of the willing : churches, major NGO and charities, trade unions or parent unions, most of them being duly represented as legitimate voices of the civil society in the Conseil Economique et Social.
The question follows: what makes parties different from other clubs and communities aiming at the improvement of society? What brings and keeps together party activists, supporters and voters, if this is not the faith of a church, the project of a charity and the advocacy of an NGO? Are political parties not out-dated organizations in the new knowledge economy dominated by easy direct access to information and expression, a world in which traditional middlemen are squeezed out in retail, culture, science? Will parties of the future not be just loose and flexible coalitions between members of more solid - or more fluid- communities: believers, interest groups, NGO affiliates and internet communities organised around a central purpose?
What does the American benchmark tell us about the future of the legitimacy map in the digital age?

1) Parties as Communities

There is little doubt that political parties play a social role and are not just tools for their leaders to access to legislative or executive mandates. One could argue that political parties can be also be considered "societies", "communities", even if ephemeral.
a) Parties as communities of candidates and activists - Political parties contribute to the social capital of their candidates as much as they happen to build upon it. At a different and almost separate level - they also contribute to the social capital of their regular or occasional activists. In regular party meetings at constituency level, during local or national campaigns, party activists meet fellow activists. They create between them all sort of informal links that may affect their economic, social and personal life. In many places, established parties also function as economic networks of elected, candidates and militants. They may offer jobs or facilitate access to jobs in the public sector or the party apparatus. Being member of a party is even, in some places, a way to gain easier access to public procurements. Parties contribute to education, training and selection for public functions. They act as editors and producers of contents for the media. As social institutions, they bear some similarities with churches, trade unions and large NGOs.
The recruitment of new party members often demonstrates the social nature of party building process rather than the mere attraction of slogans on values. Groups of friends, work colleagues, members of the same trade union, student association or ONG often rejoin party together. To fully understand the behaviour and political potential of party activists (what input in programmes, what impact on voters) it clearly appears to researchers in America that one has to understand better the connections between activists and their immediate social sphere[1].
The US experience also seems to show a rebound of interest for political parties through a new type of grass-root approach that the internet permits. New types of activists with new expectations appear and may bring a new sense of community in the realm of party politics. One may argue that the traditional networking function of parties is to some extend kept even by so-called minute parties or ephemeral coalitions between digital activists built from the internet. Interaction between ephemeral activists is namely increased as they share information, agendas, contact details during the period of "net-root campaigning" that are organized by the parties or its support groups[2].

b) Parties as "communities" between voters - To what extend can political parties be considered as larger communities of voters, affiliates, friends beyond the core group of activists and candidates? In a functionalist approach, voters that end up voting for a specific party have some common interests, be it economic or symbolic. The victory of the party means that they may benefit from a more benign legislation or a more generous taxation system. They may also get themselves a better recognition in society as a result of the election. This positive result is to be achieved by a mix of economic, social and symbolic measures. Seeing the newly elected executive leaders defending publicly one's own values or beliefs or being able to identify with them may have as much importance as seeing one's immediate economic interests being taken care of. The functionalist approach explains some stability in voting according to social groups and their respective lasting interests.
If one follows the French sociologist Raymond Boudon[3], some kind of looser rational community is being built around partisan proposals and projects put forward by party candidates, with voters gathering around the more credible project and the most coherent set of principles (sometimes at the expense of their own interests). The way in which candidates propose to address issues and challenges may be as significant to attract voters as specific promises. When voters associated themselves with a party programme on the basis of rationality, they usually promote it within their own social network, they celebrate the victory of the party as a victory of their own and they will share worries for the future with fellow voters if the party is defeated. A loose feeling of reciprocity and togetherness is created between people likely to vote for the same candidates.
But beyond habit and that kind of affectio societatis that goes with the sense of community -a sense of community stronger in partisan core groups - what does link party candidates, activists and voters together? - Symbols, leaders, party rules, party narrative and proposals, of course.
But what do they stand for? What do they try to service, represent and incarnate? - Values or projects? What is behind the dynamics of partisan (self)- inclusion or (self)- exclusion ? What does one expect or refuse to share when he joins or quit a political party?

What brings people together: project or values?

Two traditional visions seem to have contrasted in post-World War II Europe.
 For the parties inspired by the Leninist tradition, affiliation has to build around a common revolutionary project. The project is to destabilize the bourgeois regimes and destroy the State in order to establish a new socialist order. Those that refuse the dialectics and discipline of revolution under a central command have nothing to do in the party. This is the iron rule made explicit for instance by Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Mains sales. The party exist only to service the revolutionary project and acts in a completely tactic and opportunist way when it comes to making alliances and joining forces in other to win at the end. "No one cares if the cat is black or white when it catches mice".
For the parties inspired by the Christian democrat thinking, affiliation has on the contrary to build around a common set of values derived from the Tradition, the social doctrine of the Church, modern philosophy and the interpretation of recent history.
In the two cases, the party is responsible for a narrative of society and history. This narrative also has something to say about the fate and the role of the individual (and of the social class they belong to). This broader narrative constitutes the basis of the "party doctrine". In the two cases, more than in traditional values, activists and supporters are invited to approve and share the broad narrative provided by the party as well as the party doctrine on organization, actions and purposes that results from it.
Leaders on those two sides of the political spectrum are usually eager to criticize the short-termism, the lack of ideological back-bone of the other parties - liberals, social-democrats, peasant parties - that are, according to them, just trying to provide a political offer that would capture to a large (unexploited) political demand. They are also critical of other political contexts where ideological salience is weaker and parties mainly represent traditional affiliates and interest groups. This has often been the continental perception of the American party system.
The French philosopher Georges Lavau[4] has tried to deconstruct this opposition between parties of project and parties of values, and tried to investigate further what defines a political party in continental Europe.

a) Partisan pride?
Surprisingly, both Christian democrats and Marxists, as well as for many trade unionists with a ideological tradition going back to anarchism, consider the political party a necessity, an instrument, and even a difficult one. For Marxists the purpose of the party is to end the party system of the bourgeois regime. For the Christian democrats in the tradition of Mounier, the party will always remain inadequate to adjust to the prophetic dimension, the assertion of absolute values that is, for Mounier, the necessary complement of any political action based on ethics. More important that engaging in party politics is to give a testimony for Truth, in a complete refusal of any kind of relativism[5].
This may be why a larger number of people with strong values (socialist, humanistic, Christian, environmental...) finally engaged in NGOs, trade-unions, leagues or ad-hoc movements rather than in political parties, with the expectation of "doing something else" that the "usual political parties". If they finally accept to engage in party politics, people with values are likely to put stronger emphasis on the function of the party as a tribune from which to address the public opinion. They may also prefer smaller parties unlikely to be the core of successful coalition but in which they will find more likely people sharing very similar views.

b) Partisan values and doctrine?
Unless in very rare cases (pure clandestine revolutionary party, very small ideological party functioning as an ad-hoc league), the doctrine usually does not over-determine party action, positioning and recruitment. In many cases, doctrine is not even produced within the party and does have to be: "A party cannot be only ideological, and even less only based on doctrine.  It has to smoothen a doctrine that its takes and accepts and takes as compass. One may wish the party to have links with an ideological research centre, but there is no gain for the party to institutionalize those links and to consider them as organic. The party should certainly have training classes and should devote itself to internal debates about doctrine. But I do believe it can have very high ambitions in this field.... Creating a doctrine is largely a work of its own that requires a solitary work and a little "dis-engagement" from daily political fight...One requires party leaders to understand a doctrine, to explain it to the activists, to abstain from arrogance and cynicism when they work with people in charge of doctrine, but above all to be creative, to suggest, based on intuition and political experience, constant adjustments and renovation"[6]
The compass role played by a doctrine - this large social, historical, geopolitical narrative that is familiar to leaders, activists and voters of a political party - differs from the prophetic assertion of absolute values that Mounier advocated for as the necessary complement of political action. The doctrine provides useful "reading keys" to perform the first role of a party in an open democracy that is to inform the public opinion. The narrative, the doctrine of the party provides a kind of meta-text to those that take the floor in the name of the party. It contributes to create a branding, a political identity.
Reference to values is only a part of the doctrine borrowed by a party from philosophers, think-tanks, spin doctors... It serves as a narrative basis for the production of declarations, stories, papers, pamphlets, tweets... of party leaders. Parties with marxist roots also use a "doctrine of action", a "praxis", to help justifying their methods, their structures and their internal rules, even if it is largely demonstrated that those methods, rules and structures often owe more to power struggle and compromises between the leaders within the party that to any kind of outside rationality.
In America, competition between party leaders (in articulation with constitutional and institutional opportunities and constraints), much more than values, rational choice between projects or any doctrine of action, appear to define first party rules and then the choice that party elites present to the electorate and the incentives that they will have benefit from if they follow through on their campaign promises once in offices[7].
One may even wonder if the digital age has not brought about the end of a centralized and unique party doctrine as well as it has reduced the impact of central party communication by authorized spokespersons. The reality seems to be much more decentralized: activists, bloggers close to a important party, may be building their own stories, pamphlets and tweets based on different doctrines available between which they do cherry-picking. A constant interactive co-production of both doctrine and information contents towards the public opinion between legitimate leaders and efficient digital activists close to the party appears to be a sort of new modus operandi been shaped.

c) Candidates and project to win the elections!
Beyond the first task of political party that is to contribute to the information of the public opinion, the second task is clearly to win the elections and to size power or a share of power. Ahead of elections people are not interested less interested in doctrine and values behind doctrine than in proposals and projects: "Ahead of elections, one has to propose things simple, timely and workable. One has to propose them without hatred, in a reasonable way, without no fear to go into details about implementation: because voters are not fool and wish to know how one will do"[8]
The rationality of the party project is even more necessary as parties have to do with very heterogeneous voters. Parties cannot rely anymore on the automatic support from certain constituencies (those with many industry workers for instance that used to vote for the Left). The election is not a period to express doctrine or develop a narrative. It is a match between competitors. Voters first expect their challenger... to win. This basic fact commands to build support of vary different kinds of opinion leaders and supporters that do not necessarily share the same values or the same narrative on history and society. It commands to build alliances and to accept compromises. It commands to leave a large margin of manoeuvre to the work of coalition building carried out by party candidates at every level.
According to Mark Brewer, parties in America have one fundamental goal and that is not to "assert values". It is the construction of a coalition that enables them to win the elections[9]. Social groups (less affluent/more affluent, blacks/ whites, big cities dweller/small towns) as well as religious blocs (low level of religious salience/high level of religious salience, Catholics/Evangelicals) are full-fledged targets in this process but they are not the cradle of party politics. Coalition building around a candidate, its project and its supporter retains high levels of risk and uncertainty.
A partisan project differs nonetheless from a catch-all patchwork dictated by the rules of political marketing. The mere juxtaposition of promises aiming at different opinion clusters usually lacks credibility because it lacks coherence. In countries used to the huge influence of lobbies, churches or interest groups, the defence of a common and coherent project seems to have a real value added.
McFarland's concept of "neopluralism" explains the mobilizing of political "countervailing groups" - old and new political parties - in reaction to the advocacy of policy networks, lobbying coalitions, patrons, social and religious movements, more than by share values. The defence of common interest and even the defence public space against the constant threat of regulatory capture by private or community interests would be one of the reasons for the citizens' engagement and participation. Being against the capture of the common norm by ideology movement (be they green, feminist, pro-life, libertarian or gender neutral) or faith based groups is a powerful driver for the re-emergence of a pluralistic political resistance[10].
In the service of a common project for all, inconsistencies on praxis and project are more difficult to overcome than divergences on values, doctrine or overall narrative. Isolationists and interventionists cannot easily work together on a common project. People in favour of redistribution through targeted taxation and people against tax increases cannot easily work together. Europhobes and European federalists may have a difficult time in bringing about a common project. Difficulties and inconsistencies are usually more benign between people with different views on family, marriage, religion that can nonetheless work efficiently together on other issues and present a credible common project in which means and processes can be consistent with objectives and promises.

In a new geography where centralized command in doctrine, organization, campaigning is more an more difficult to achieve, it may be surprising to see political parties to try to mobilize voters and new activists around values, either traditional (religious or patriotic values) or "new" less dividing values (engagement, responsibility...) rather than around rational projects or contractual relations with voters based on a contract.
Will this strategy be successful? One may wonder.
 Is coalition building not easier when room of manoeuvre is a left to candidates and when programmes are not too heavily pre-determined by values or a general narrative that may bring together - mainly for sociological reasons - activists potentially able to enjoy a communion of belief, but likely to at trouble to put together and defend a project that will convince at the end a silent, heterogeneous and demanding majority.

[1] Walter J. Stone, "Activitsts, Influence and Representation in American Elections",  in Sandy Maisel, Jeffrey Berry, Americain Political Parties and Interest Groups, Oxford : OUP, 2010, p. 285-302
[2] See Daniel Shea, John Green (eds), Fountain of Youth, Strategies and Tactics for Mobilizing America's young voters, Lanham : Rowmann and Littlefield, 2007
[3] The author of The Origin of Values describes the need for rationality of citizens able to abstract themselves from their immediate interests and able to make a rational choice for the seemingly more coherent policy proposals in an electoral competition. See Raymond Boudon, Retrouver les principes fondamentaux de la Démocratie, Paris, Fondapol, 2007
[4] Georges E; Lavau, "Définition du parti politique", in Esprit....p 42-75
[5] Emmanuel Mounier, Le Personnalisme, ....
[6] Georges Lavau, op. cit; , p.61
[7] John Aldrich and Jeffey Grynaski, "Theories of Parties", in  Sandy Maisel, Jeffry Beery, The Oxford Handbook of American Political Parties and Interest Groups, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010
 See also the classical book of  John Aldrich, Why parties ? Chicago : Chicago University Press, 1995.
[8] Georges Lavau, op.cit., p. 61
[9] Mark Brewer, The Dynamics of American Political Parties, New-York : Cambridge University Press, 2009
[10] Gerald Macfarland, Neopluralism, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004