(CN) — Europe has become a laboratory for a new type of politics: The rise of the “digital party,” whose members choose candidates, vote on policy positions and offer ideas through online platforms.
Call it digital disruption moving into the sphere of politics. Just as newspapers are being zapped by Google and Facebook and taxis put out of business by Uber, the old political order in Europe is challenged by a new breed of politics calling itself democracy fit for the social media age. Nothing similar is taking place in the United States, political scientists say.
The influence of digital parties is real, and gaining a foothold in Europe’s political world where a potpourri of parties face off in elections and, if they gain enough votes, are given a portion of seats in parliaments.
Italy’s 5-Star Movement is Europe’s most successful digital party. It is now Italy’s biggest party and heads the government. Its politicians, who often appear clad in casual clothes rather than business suits, are in the highest positions of power. Italy’s offices of deputy prime minister, defense, justice, labor, economic development, environment, education and health, among others, are all held by 5-Star members.
Europe’s other major digital party is in Spain. It is called Podemos (We Can) and its members and affiliated politicians hold 67 seats in Spain’s congress and 19 seats in the Senate. This makes it Spain’s third-largest party. Spain’s Socialist minority government relies on their votes.
But it’s a messy and controversial way of practicing democracy still in an embryonic stage, and so far it has come with mixed results — both in terms of electoral success and reviving democracy.
The digital party is, in fact, not a brand new phenomenon. The first digital party was born in 2006 in Sweden and called itself the Pirate Party. It was founded by internet activists upset at a judicial ruling that shut down the file-sharing service known as Pirate Bay.
Using a platform called LiquidFeedback, the Pirate Party expanded to other Northern European countries. They advocated for government transparency, digital rights and online privacy. Pirate parties are still around today, largely on the fringes, with the exceptions being Iceland and the Czech Republic.
So far, Europe’s digital parties have emerged only on the left, where their influence is growing. Britain’s Labour Party recently created an online platform, called My Momentum, where members can engage in party decision-making. In France, a nascent far-left party known as France Insoumise (Unbowed France) is also using a participatory online platform.
“I think these parties prefigure an emerging template that all democratic parties will need to adapt to. It is a format far more able to capture current feelings,” said Paolo Gerbaudo, a political sociologist at King’s College London, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. He is the author of a new book, “The Digital Party.”
Political scientists, though, warn that these new parties — nimble, streamlined and fast-growing in a similar fashion to digital commercial start-ups — are not living up to their ideals of fostering an improved, and more participatory, democracy, and say they are creating new conundrums and problems.
Both Podemos and the 5-Star Movement, for instance, have been criticized for creating “superleaders” who manipulate the technology to bolster their own views and positions in the parties.
What makes a digital party different from a traditional one?
First and foremost, the use of digital technology, through which members discuss and debate issues, vote on candidates and policy decisions, and offer ideas for new laws: a political version of crowdsourcing.
Their big selling point, supporters say, is how they bring people into politics in a real way — forging a new political dynamic where people and not politicians are in charge. This is done through online platforms. The 5-Star Movement has a system called Rousseau (named after the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an early advocate of direct democracy) and Podemos has a platform called Participa.
“These parties present themselves as the solution to the democratic deficit that has turned political institutions into the preserve of technocrats and self-serving politicians,” Gerbaudo wrote in his book.
On a daily basis in Europe, laments about a crisis in democracy are expressed in opinion columns, from out of the mouths of politicians, in policy briefings from think tanks, in parliamentary debates and in conversations around dinner tables.
The 2008 financial collapse is seen as the moment when liberal democracy’s failings were exposed. Europeans became angry and distrustful of politicians whom they viewed as governing for a global elite and disregarding the concerns of the rest.
“People are looking for alternatives,” said Alexandros Kioupkiolis, a political scientist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, who studies the digital parties. “For me, there is no doubt democracy is in crisis.”
Kioupkiolis said the digital parties are a response to this crisis. “These parties are kind of outsiders; they are challenging the status quo,” he said.
But he was skeptical about their claims of fostering direct democracy. Instead, he said, policy and selecting candidates remain the domain of a clique of party insiders and leaders.
“They do not actually make a difference,” he said of the new digital parties. “Policies are predetermined by a small group of leaders at the top. … I think it is not a new form of direct democracy.”
The new digital parties merely create an illusion that they’re offering voters participatory democracy, he said. In other words, Podemos and the 5-Star Movement politicians do what politicians have always done: They manipulate. “Politics is a deception,” he said.
Lorenzo Mosca, a sociology of communication professor at the State University of Milan, said the structure of the digital parties does not include the checks and balances on power that traditional parties have.
“This lack of control on the leader makes arbitrary decisions from the top difficult to resist and reverse,” he said in an email.
Gerbaudo agreed with these critiques. He said debates often are “led from the top.” He added: “There is a limit to pluralism.”
Still, Gerbaudo believes the future of party politics will be defined by these new technologies and demands by voters for more participation.
“It is here to stay; it is a response to a need,” he said. “The old forms of politics are not working.”
Major parties have been hemorrhaging members for years as voters became disillusioned and parties moved away from being mass ideological movements to become organizations run by political professionals and insiders.
The new digital parties, by contrast, have seen people flock to them, in large part because they are unrestrained in talking about today’s pressing issues: Unemployment and living standards in an age of globalization, the hollowing out of public services, inequality, transparency in government.
The new parties are attracting young urbanized people who are highly educated but also unemployed or underemployed, living precariously: Today’s so-called “precariat,” a term that merges proletariat and precarious.
“Most movements are trying to adapt to this new dynamic,” Gerbaudo said.
Mosca was doubtful online platforms will become a fixture in party politics because they’re costly to run and require parties to “move away from representative politics.”
He said that studies show attempts at direct democracy, as advocated by the digital parties, often fail when they are applied to “larger groups of people beyond the local level and in terms of making their decisions binding.”
“Direct democracy works if it is perceived as effective by citizens, otherwise it only generates further disenchantment, cynicism and distrust,” he said.
He said one thing is certain: The use of Facebook, Twitter and “data-driven party politics” is going to stick around.
“The role of social media companies will grow accordingly as they build profiles, sell sensitive data, and allow tailored advertising,” he said.
Allende Marina Palomo Jiménez, a spokeswoman for Podemos, said her party was working to improve participation rates among its members.
“We firmly trust this is the best way to regain citizens’ faith in democratic systems and their involvement levels in political decisions,” she said in an email.
She said online platforms will become ever more important to “engage voters,” and that several large cities, including New York, use such platforms.
“So yes, we think that new online direct democratic methods are going to play a big role in the short-term future,” she said. “There is growing demand for citizenship participation among some social strata.”
Although the digital parties may not be the answer, Kioupkiolis said democracy is in need of rejuvenation in light of widespread disaffection. “We need to invent models,” he said. “I don’t think we have a model.”
Kioupkiolis said citizens need to be more engaged in political decisions and given more say. That should start at the local level, he said, but also be injected into the European Union. “The EU has been an elite-driven project,” he said. “It works for the majority.”
For now, the digital party appears to be mostly a European experiment.
Nothing like Europe’s digital parties exist in the United States, said David Karpf, a professor at George Washington University who studies digital media in politics.
“No political parties in the U.S. are adopting these techniques or technologies,” he said in an email.
Karpf said it was unlikely U.S. politics would see anything like them in the future, either, largely because the “time-intensive deliberative mechanisms” of Europe’s digital parties would not help win elections in the two-party system in the United States.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)