The fragmentation of Western democracy
Three major elections on the same Sunday in June — in France, Colombia and Spain — tell the fundamental story of democracy in our era: the continuous disaffection with government, the collapse of traditionally dominant parties and figures, and the constant search for alternatives, which is quickly followed by yet more disaffection and the search for yet other alternatives. This is no longer a narrative of dysfunction distinctive to one country, if it ever was. The Conservative Party in Britain is now scrambling to find a new prime minister; the government in Italy is near collapse. The nature of political authority has fundamentally changed. Political power has become fragmented, as voters abandon traditional parties and turn to upstart, insurgent parties or independent, free agent politicians from across the political spectrum.
In multiparty democracies, such as the three that held elections last month, the fragmentation of political power makes it more difficult to form governments, causes those governments to be fragile and prone to collapse, and weakens their capacity to deliver effective policies. Politics in the United States, with its well-entrenched two-party system, are nonetheless being shaped by similar forces — although here fragmentation means the Democratic and Republican parties are torn by internal factional conflicts that party leaders struggle to surmount. Such battles made the House Republican caucus ungovernable when representatives John Boehner and Paul Ryan took turns as House speaker, leading both to abandon that powerful position. They are also why the Democratic Party damaged itself, perhaps irreparably for this year’s midterms, with a prolonged internal debate over whether to link major infrastructure legislation with the grander aspirations of the Build Back Better Bill, as well as conflicts between the party’s moderate and progressive wings that have hamstrung immigration policy and kept critical bipartisan legislation to boost US chip manufacturing in prolonged limbo. Even with unified control of government, the parties find it difficult to govern.
The recent elections in France, Europe’s second-largest economy, offer a particularly striking example of the dynamics affecting nearly all democracies in the West. When he was initially elected president in 2017, Emmanuel Macron upended the existing political order; indeed, he was dubbed “le disrupteur”. Since the 1950s, France had been governed by the main party of the Left (the Socialists) or the Right (the Republicans). Yet in 2017, voters abandoned those parties to such a shocking extent that neither was able to get a candidate into the second, final round of the French presidential election. Macron ran and won as a free agent, disconnected from any existing party structure. Virtually overnight, he instead created a new party, essentially a personality-based reflection of his own views, which he described as “neither Left nor Right”. This pop-up party, composed of many political novices, then quickly managed to capture majority control of the National Assembly. France seemed poised to have a completely new, effective governing majority.
Yet as soon as Macron started to propose policies, it was his turn to be dramatically disrupted. The “yellow vest” street protests spiralled France into a year of constant political turbulence starting in late 2018. Despite this, in April, Macron was re-elected, with the collapse of the two traditional parties now confirmed in a second election: in the first round, their candidates received a mere 1.8 per cent (Socialist) and 4.8 per cent (Republican) of the vote. Once again, Macron won in a contest that pitted him against the right-wing insurgency party of Marine Le Pen. After winning consecutive presidential terms, perhaps now Macron would be able to exert effective authority.
And yet, voters turned sharply against Macron a mere two months later when elections were held for the National Assembly. The success of more radical parties on Right and Left stripped the President of a legislative majority and fragmented the National Assembly to the point of “turbulence and incoherence”, as one analyst wrote. Indeed, even Macron advisers say they expect “total paralysis” of the legislature; some advisers say the only option is for Macron to dissolve the Assembly in a year and call for new elections.
Colombia’s presidential vote tells a similar tale of churning democratic disaffection, in a perhaps more puzzling context. As in France, both of the traditionally dominant parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, collapsed. The incumbent president, Iván Duque, a moderate conservative, was term-limited. In his four years in office, Duque “oversaw a record of policy success unmatched in recent South American history”, as David Frum put it in an Atlantic essay. The country’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 8.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and Duque effectively managed a massive influx of 1.7 million refugees from Colombia’s collapsing neighbour, Venezuela. Despite this, Duque left office with an approval rating of about 20 per cent. Faced with budget struggles owing partly to the pandemic, he had proposed raising taxes on many common goods and services, triggering months-long street protests, which, even after Duque rescinded the proposal, turned into an expression of general antigovernment rage, with at least 58 deaths, many at the hands of police, according to a human rights organisation there. As in other democracies recently, voters turned against the political class as a whole. Anti-establishment politicians trounced the Liberals and Conservatives; neither party managed to get a candidate into the second, final round of the presidential elections, as was the case in France.
Instead, one of the two final candidates was an independent populist and real estate mogul who was not widely known before the election and did not hold public rallies; his success in making it to the second round was credited in significant part to his substantial social-media following, including on TikTok. The other candidate, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter who went on to win with 50.4 per cent of the vote, promises to change Colombia to a state-centred economy.
On the same day, Spain held a major provincial election. The country had been governed by a dominant centre-left and centre-right party, which had won alternating elections since the end of the Franco era. But beginning in 2014, Spanish politics fragmented dramatically. That year, a new party, Podemos (“we can”), arose out of the street protests of the spontaneous “Indignados” movement. The country ended up holding four national elections from 2015 to 2019 in an effort to find a stable governing coalition. In five years, Spain’s two-party system shattered into an unwieldy five-party system. In the last of those elections, the Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, was forced to form Spain’s first coalitional government in order to put together a thin majority in parliament, which in 2020 made him prime minister.
But the country’s recent major provincial election is revealing discontent with that fragile government. In Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region and long a stronghold of the Socialist Party, the conservative Popular Party won an outright majority in the regional parliament. That suggests voters are turning against the Socialist-led governing coalition, a further sign of the turmoil and disaffection in that nation.
As the June 19 elections across these diverse countries show, citizen dissatisfaction is pervasive and readily mobilised, but more easily in the negative form of rejecting traditional parties and political figures. Yet when insurgent parties or free-agent candidates get elected, voters quickly turn on them as well, in a continually turbulent process. On the economic front, voter grievances stem from the effects of globalisation on middle and working-class wages, the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, and rising inequality. On the cultural front, conflicts over pandemic policy and, in many countries, immigration policy fuel further anger and disaffection. Social media is a major contributor as well: it makes possible the instant mobilisation of opposition, delegitimises political authority no matter who is exercising it and, in the United States especially, enables the emergence of free-agent politicians who can find national audiences and raise vast amounts of money through small donations, even in their first years in office.
The French, Spanish and Colombian examples, and similar ones across Western democracies, shed light on the turbulent politics in the United States. Starting with the Republican capture of the Senate in 1980, not since the Civil War have we had such an extended period in which partisan control of at least one of the three national political institutions — House, Senate, White House — is realistically up for grabs nearly every election. As the congressional scholar Frances Lee puts it, we are now governed by “insecure majorities”; voters continually turn on the party in power. This constant churn in our politics makes for what Lee calls “the perpetual campaign”.
Dissatisfaction with the dominant parties is just as profound in the United States as elsewhere. In 2016, an outsider (independent Bernie Sanders) nearly captured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, while another outsider to traditional politics (Donald Trump) did win the Republican nomination. The faction-riven conflicts inside the parties are playing out now in the primaries, with House members seeking to knock out their own party’s incumbents by supporting primary challengers — a taboo that began breaking down in 2020. Americans’ belief that the two major parties are doing an adequate job is at one of its lowest points ever. Not surprising, then, half the country now identifies as independents, the highest share in history. Support for third parties has also never been greater in the United States; in a Gallup poll last year, 62 per cent said a third party is needed.
In response to this dissatisfaction, some reformers urge the United States to adopt proportional representation for the purpose of creating a multiparty democracy. Members of Congress have introduced legislation to permit states to implement proportional representation — which they are prohibited from doing at present — for elections to the House. As the recent European elections demonstrate, however, in this era of political fragmentation, proportional representation has problems of its own. If the United States moved in this direction, the Left and Right would fracture into two or three parties each — at least. Proponents of proportional representation celebrate that. Yet as dysfunctional and ineffective as Congress is right now, can you imagine trying to cobble together majorities in a Congress of five or six parties?
Democracies are facing numerous challenges, including, in some countries, the rise of illiberal forces and the risk of sliding back into semi-authoritarian regimes. But political fragmentation is affecting nearly all Western democracies and reflects a wide range of ideological positions. Concerted, sustained political majorities are necessary to empower governments to deliver major policy reforms, but the splintering of parties and the rise of essentially independent politicians are making effective government harder to deliver across the West. Given the forces driving this dissatisfaction, it would be naive to believe there is some simple cure-all for restoring stronger governments. Still, there are institutional reforms that might help the United States push back against factionalism and fragmentation: changes to the structure of primary elections; the use of ranked-choice voting; more competitive election districts; traditional forms of publicly financed elections — rather than those based on small donors; greater input from elected party figures in choosing presidential nominees. If democracies are unable to deliver effective government, disaffection, anger and alienation will continue to grow. Even worse, that failure can draw voters to authoritarian leaders, who promise to cut through dysfunction and deliver what democratic governments seem unable to provide.
• Richard H. Pildes is the Sudler Family professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law and a coauthor of The Law of Democracy