Why do stable Political Party systems suddenly collapse? Some intriguing insights from Bolivia: Podcast (20m) and blogpost

December 18, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

A new paper by my LSE colleague Jean-Paul Faguet caught my eye, not least because of the timing. It’s a reflection on the causes of the rapid collapse of previously stable political party systems, based on the experience of Bolivia. Impressive timing – we met and recorded this podcast just as Theresa May and Emmanual Macron were facing their respective political meltdowns. And for non-podcast listeners (podpeople?), here’s a fairly drastic edit of Jean-Paul’s essay (so blame me for any clunky bits).

Across Europe, the UK and the US, the decline of mainstream political parties, and the resurgence of populism, have been evident for some years now. As the phenomenon grows, it becomes clearer and clearer that this is not limited to certain charismatic leaders, like Geert Wilders in Holland, or particular policy issues, like immigration. Something far bigger and deeper is at work. Witness the collapse of all of Italy’s major political parties, which governed the nation throughout the post-war period. The rapid decline of France’s center-right and Socialist parties is another example. The current upheaval on both sides of American politics is a third.

Throughout the West, not just particular parties but entire party systems are losing their relevance. By ‘party systems’ I mean parties arranged in a competitive equilibrium along a left-right, worker-capitalist ideological axis. Having dominated the 20th century, and presided over enormous social and economic change, these systems are suddenly disintegrating around us. Well-prepared, experienced leaders are unable to mobilize traditional coalitions of voters. This allows established parties – even entire countries – to fall into the hands of charismatics and extremists. What’s causing the collapse? Is it somehow tied to deeper changes in society? What’s likely to come next?

To quote both Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra: predicting is hard, especially when it concerns the future. But as I argue in an article just published in the Journal of Democracy, we can open an analytical window into the future by examining the experience of Bolivia. Bolivia? I can hear you think. Yes, Bolivia. Precisely because it’s one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, Bolivia’s politics were never as institutionalized, nor its parties as strong, as those of richer, more developed countries. But it has suffered many of the same economic shocks, technological disruptions, and social and environmental changes as far more developed countries. Which is why the disintegration of its political system began earlier, and proceeded faster, than elsewhere. Adjusting heavily for context, Bolivia offers useful insights into how political disintegration works, and clues about where it may be going.

Political Stability

During the second half of the 20th century, Bolivia’s political party system was a surprisingly robust component of a famously fragile democracy. Why, early in the 21st century, did it suddenly collapse, to be replaced by the gigantic figure of Evo Morales and his comparatively loose Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS)?

Although Bolivia suffered many coups in its first 190 years of independence, from 1953 onwards its politics was characterized by a party system arrayed roughly along a left-right, labor/peasant-vs.-business/capital axis typical of the twentieth century, which was remarkably stable. So dominant was this system that the same parties – indeed the same individuals – survived coups, civil disturbances, guerrilla insurgency, hyperinflation and economic meltdown, and striking social change – returning again and again to take up the reins of power. Why did it suddenly, unexpectedly collapse in 2003?

Bolivia’s radical decentralization in 1994 provided the trigger by which a cultural cleavage could become political. Before 1994, Bolivia was a highly centralized country where politics was legally and financially restricted to the national level. By creating hundreds of new municipalities, decentralization generated hundreds of spaces of local politics that had not previously existed. In these new spaces, Bolivia’s indigenous and mestizo majority could at last become political actors in their own right. The irrelevance of the dominant system revealed itself to them not analytically, but in the practical sense of responding to constituents’ demands to win elections. Over the course of a decade, these new actors abandoned first the ideological discourse of the elite party system, and then the parties themselves.

The dam broke in 2002, with a surge of parties emerging all over the country. A handful of parties tightly controlled from the top by privileged, urban elites gave way to 388 parties, most of them new, tiny and with ultra-local concerns, constituted and run by unprivileged, ordinary Bolivians: carpenters, truck drivers, shopkeepers, and many, many farmers. Politics didn’t so much fracture as disintegrate from the bottom up. For a short time there was unbridled party multiplication. But then order began to emerge as many micro-parties federated, and others were absorbed, into the umbrella-like structure of the MAS.

Four Lessons for the West

  1. Political party systems, even those that appear successful and stable, can and do fall apart once they lose their moorings in the key issues and conflicts voters care about most. What is essential is the link between parties and social cleavage. Where it is missing, parties are doomed.
  2. The nature of these cleavages evolves. The old worker-capitalist divide on which politics in the West has been based for a century or more appears increasingly obsolete. As manufacturing and heavy industry decline, they take with them a class of workers who strongly identify with each other against a common adversary.
  3. Bolivia illustrates how hard parties find it to change their core values and positions, because they have invested so much in building reputations based on them. For different but complementary reasons, both politicians and activists oppose large shifts. Hence as society changes – even as a result of policies they implemented – parties tend to get left behind.
  4. When established parties fail, in which underlying social cleavage will a new kind of politics anchor itself? Such a cleavage would need to be not only relevant, but competitively compelling to a large segment of the population. ‘Competitively compelling’ means attractive to voters, as political entrepreneurs create new movements and compete for adherents. Their narrative, which privileges one particular cleavage over others, must be more compelling than the narratives other parties base on alternative cleavages. And today the most compelling narratives in the West, as in Bolivia, revolve around race, ethnicity, and place.

In historical terms, this is an extraordinary reversal. The Western Enlightenment believed in the equality of mankind. Liberalism sought to overcome identity-based cleavages. In countries like the US and France, liberals built not just politics, but national identities based on shared ideals, and not skin color or cultural traditions. Parties arrayed on a left-vs-right axis were accessible to everyone, regardless of identity. For decades we have taken this as given. But it is useful to remember that an open, inclusive politics in a multi-ethnic democracy is a hard thing to pull off. The danger now for the West is that a new politics is forged around identitarian cleavages of race, religion, ethnicity, and language. This would vindicate Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, and possibly mark the failure of the Liberal project.

Finally, why is political realignment around identity good for Bolivia, but likely bad for Europe and the US? The first answer is that we cannot yet tell if it will be good for Bolivia. The events following realignment have so far been positive because Bolivia entered the process in a deep, deep hole. It was a poor, highly unequal society, in which a coherent, historically dispossessed majority continued to be politically excluded and economically disadvantaged by a small minority. Overturning that required a kind of politics suited to the society’s principal cleavage – race, ethnicity, and language. The new politics produced a regime that proved surprisingly prudent on the macroeconomic front, and was stunningly lucky internationally, coinciding for most of its life with a natural-resource boom that swiftly lifted its boat. But tough times reveal the true character of any government. In Bolivia, this test is under way now.

The deeper answer is that the implications for the West are as different as these societies and their challenges are from Bolivia’s. The likelihood is not that the “wrong politics” is replaced with one that reflects the society better, as in Bolivia, but rather that a cleavage is created where currently only differences exist. The risk is that the politics of identity will take one of the many ways in which citizens in the West differ from one another and, through sharp, polarizing, and racist language, create a new, hard social cleavage that divides us.