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Political Parties on the Move. Party Reforms in the Light of Modernization Theory.

Political Participation
Political Parties
Social Movements
Felix Butzlaff
Vienna University of Economics and Business – WU Wien
Felix Butzlaff
Vienna University of Economics and Business – WU Wien

Abstract

Since the New Social Movements in the 1970s and 1980s political parties have seen themselves exposed to a growing pressure to facilitate experiences and emotions similar to social movements to maintain their legitimation and appeal to their constituency. In the face of social movement mobilizations the long established and hierarchical party organizations began to look clumsy, inflexible and restricting. Since then political parties seek to mimic the social change, the experiences and emotions provided by social movements through party reforms offering direct member participation, flexible forms of membership activities, the participation of non-members as well as the integration of side-entrants and career changers new to politics. The promise of political and social change has nowadays to be more movement-fuelled than ever before. This is visible in the fact that it is those parties that appear to have become movements that are successful in elections as well as establishing the notion of a vivid and powerful political force, such as the Labour Party under Jeremy Corby, the French La République en Marche under Emmanuel Macron, the Austrian ÖVP, the Republicans under Donald Trump or the flourishing right-wing populist parties in Europe. This greatly affects our established understanding, of a) the role political parties play within a representative democracy and b) of what the citizens expect in terms of the political bodies facilitating democratic integration and interest aggregation. Yet in the research on political parties these changes have been analysed in the light of organisational sociology and inner-party history but somehow have not been connected to the body of literature suggesting a deeply remoulded meaning of democracy, participation and individual identity as the result of underlying currents of modernization. The sociological modernization theory has developed the concepts of liquid identity, post-politics and the post-democratic condition to describe how established mechanisms of democracy are being considered more and more ambivalent, i.e. on the one hand democratic values are thriving and direct participation has become a public norm and on the other hand democracy does not unanimously entail an emancipatory promise anymore. Starting out from modernization theory in this paper thirty years of organisational changes (or their attempts) of political parties to adapt to slowly shifting societal preconditions in order to make political party membership mimic the experience promised by social movements (opening up, more participation, less commitment, more flexibility, career shortcuts etc.) are analysed and balanced. How do parties and their reform attempts reflect individualization, flexible and liquid identities and alter the way interests and societal groups are integrated into a representative democracy? This way the paper seeks to connect the research on parties, movements and participation with the conceptualizations of modernisation theory.