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Moving beyond the Party? The Movement-ization of Party Organization in Austria, Germany, and Great Britain

Civil Society
Contentious Politics
Democracy
Democratisation
Political Participation
Political Parties
Social Movements
Party Members
Felix Butzlaff
Vienna University of Economics and Business – WU Wien
Felix Butzlaff
Vienna University of Economics and Business – WU Wien

Abstract

In the contemporary, the notion that parties should be more like movements has become ever more prominent and has led to a variety of party typologies conceptualizing emerging party organizations: from Kitschelts (2006) and Della Porta et al’s (2017) “movement parties” to Almeidas (2010) “social movement partyism”. Other scholars emphasized the role of digitalization in creating new links between parties and citizens: “connective parties” (Bennett, Segerberg, & Knüpfer 2018), “digital parties” (Gerbaudo 2019a), “platform parties” (Gerbaudo 2019b), or “digital movement parties” (Deseriis 2019). However, the pressure of movement-ization is not limited to emerging party organizations. Since the 1980s, parties from almost all party families in established Western democracies have been discussing organizational reforms to encounter shrinking trust, declining membership and dissolving social milieus. Established political parties, too, have (to varying degrees) incorporated elements of social movements into party organization. As bureaucratic and hierarchical party organizations had begun to look clumsy and inflexible, parties have facilitated more and more direct forms of membership participation, individualized participation opportunities, and have centralized their structure in order to provide more efficient political decision-making. A short glimpse at contemporarily successful political parties left and right shows that, apparently, the promise of political and social change today requires to be more movement-fuelled than ever. Understood as adaptive organizations, parties reflect how societies demand democratic participation, co-determination, and political leadership. Hence, a perspective on organizational change of political parties might shed a light on how parties react to changing social surroundings – and how expectations and hopes for democratic participation, representation and political leadership have evolved. Social theory approaches on the development of Western societies have suggested a deeply remoulded meaning of democracy, participation and individual identity as the result of underlying currents of social modernization processes. Inter alia, the concepts of “liquid identity” (Bauman 2012), “post-politics” (Wilson & Swyngedouw, 2014) and the “post-democratic turn” (Blühdorn & Butzlaff 2018, 2020) seek to conceptualize how established mechanisms of democracy have changed. On the one hand, democratic values are thriving and direct participation of members and citizens has become a public norm. On the other hand, elections and party membership are considered inflexible and bureaucratic. As a result, the idea that movements might be the ideal types of democratic organization is proliferating. In this paper, I analyze how traditional and established parties experience and react to changing societal conditions and evolving expectations of members, sympathizers, and voters. In a series of qualitative interviews with party organizers and planners of the social-democratic and conservative party family in Austria, Germany, and Great Britain, I compare how different parties experience the pressure to “movement-ize” and how parties use different strategies to incorporate shifting demands for participation and political leadership. By analyzing how parties seek to become movements, we can understand how expectations of the democratic in Western liberal democracies are changing and how political parties as key organizations for political representation are affected.