Political parties have played a dominant role in almost all developed liberal democracies, and have functioned as the traditional instrument for electoral campaign, offering competing policies as well as aggregating and representing the interests of citizens ( Amyot, 2017). These traditional functions of parties offered citizens the opportunity to participate in politics as a means of achieving their interests. However, political parties are losing their power as initiators of policies, losing grounds to pollsters and political consultants as well as losing their stronghold on party supporters, as the number of independent electorates increase (Amyot, 2017, p.90). What then are the driving forces that have challenged the functions and appeal of political parties? How have political parties adapted to these forces? The first part of the question will investigate how structural changes in the economies and political system, as well as the sociological changes in developed democracies, have limited the policy space for political parties. The second part of the question will explore how the adoption of the electorate-marketing practices, aided by technological advances as well as appeal to charismatic leaders have helped political parties to overcome the forces that have challenged their role in modern democracies. I will argue that, with these new practices, parties have rebranded themselves as a relevant instrument in the practices of democracies and policymaking.
First of all, globalization and the spread and practice of neoliberal economic ideology have narrowed the policy options for governments, and to a large extent limit political party as the original agency for policymaking. For example, governments of developed democracies have embraced less public spending, abolished financial capital control and implemented policies favorable to attract foreign direct investment from the international business communities (Amyot, 2017, p. 91). These neoliberal economic practices due to globalization, have constrained the monetary policy choices of all political parties and their freedom to spend on their election campaign promises. In other words, incumbent governments or awaiting political parties are constrained by the liberal economic structural changes, hence compelled to offer similar policy choices to voters during and after elections. Consequently, voters have developed a skeptical approach towards party politics, with a view that political parties cannot offer varieties of policy options to address the challenges they face.
Furthermore, the delegation of major policy decision-making area by political parties and governments to either internal or supranational independent agencies such as National Central Banks or the European Central Bank have limited the policy alternatives available to political parties (Amyot, 2017, p. 93). As a result, these independent financial agencies have assumed the “power to manage the currency and exchange rate” (Amyot, 2007, p.94) policy, depriving governments and political parties the policy space to devalue currency. Notably, governments under the monetary policy control of the European Central Bank have limited policy choices, especially, during an economic downturn, as was witnessed with the 2008 financial crisis. The ramification of this policy delegation to agencies outside the control of political parties and governments is that political parties are unable to initiate and execute policies, particularly their campaign policies favorable to voters, hence making voters skeptical about political parties and the need to participate in party politics.
In addition, social changes such as; the decline in associations and sociable lifestyles as well as secularization of values in modern developed democracies have weakened the traditional support base of political parties. For instance, Amyot (2017) argues that the decline in time spent with associations such as trade unions and its corresponding increase in time spent with family in front the of television have weakened the traditional ties between political parties and voters. At the same time, the shift from a religious base of society to a more rational secular society in developed Western democracies have weakened the support base of political parties that relied on religious groups for support (Amyot, 2017, p. 97). For example, Conservative parties across Western democracies have seen their religious support base shrink as societies and people embrace secular lifestyles ( Amyot, 2017, P. 97). Overall, the shift from the traditional identity of society ( unionist, religion ) to a secular-rational society have loosened the relationship between parties and voters.
Political parties have adopted several strategies to preserve themselves in the midst of the structural and sociological changes, challenging their appeal and functions. These strategies are as follows.
First of all, parties have adopted political marketing strategies that allow them to promote policies that reflect segmented electorate values, lifestyle, and interests. At the core of political marketing strategies lies the gathering of electorate data intelligence, analyzing electorate data and responding to this intelligence by formulating “boutique” policies that bring segmented like-minded electorate together ( Marland & Thierry, 2016, p. 348). Consequently, parties have resorted to a computerized or online administered survey that allows them to collect information about electorates’ day-to-day lifestyles, values and interests. This electorate data collection is analyzed and becomes the basis for campaign promises or policy formulation that is targeted at an identified cluster of voters (Marland & Thierry, 2006, p. 350). For example, during the 2015 Canadian federal election, Candidature Trudeau and the Liberal party adopted the Modern Data -Collection Enterprise and with the aid of a console gather information on segmented voters ( Delacourt, 2016, p. 179). This data information allowed the Liberal party to send an Ad advertising message to people with kids who will benefit from the Liberal campaign policy promise of “Child Benefit Program” ( Delacourt, 2016, p. 182). In summary, political parties are prioritizing focused group voters with targeted campaign policy promises, whiles ignoring certain segmented electorate that are likely not to vote for them.
Another component of political marketing strategy adopted by political parties is the professionalization of campaign and elections. Political parties have adopted innovative professional techniques such as relationship marketing and direct marketing as well as the use of special political consultants. ( Marland & Thierry, 2016, p. 352-352). For instance, parties have developed a customer-based communication technique that allows them to bypass the traditional media to reach electorates directly through personalized email, letters, and social media posting ( Marland & Thierry, 2016, p. 353). The adoption of direct communication with electorates, allow parties to build and strengthen two- way relationship that results in party support ( Marland & Thierry, 2016, p. 354). At the forefront of the professionalization of campaign and election is the use of specialized political consultants. Political consultants are tasked by parties to developed a relational marketing strategy that allow them to effectively communicate with electorates. Thus, professional techniques have become a central part of parties strategies to appeal to electorates support.
The adoption of political marketing by political parties have been facilitated by advances in technological digital devices. Technological digital devices, particularly social media and the internet have become the central vehicle for spreading campaign messages (Delacourt, 2016; Amyot, 2017). Delacourt (2016) argues that the power of social media is its “ability to reach people who are not necessarily connected to politics as well as their network of friends” ( p. 183). As a result, social media such Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become a campaign platform for parties and their various leaders. The power of Facebook and other social media, as a campaign platform was demonstrated with election victory of Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau in 2012 and 2015 respectively ( Delacourt, 2016, p.183). For example, in the 2015 Canadian federal election, Justin Trudeau became the first Canadian party leader to unveil his election Campaign promises through the use of Facebook (Delacourt, 2016, p.183).
As the traditional party memberships and membership dues shrink, parties have resorted to the use of social media as a cost-effective platform for raising campaign funds and to test their wide appeal of their campaign promise. For example, Delacourt (2016) argued that the Liberal party in the 2015 election sent a fundraising email to Canadian electorates to determine who will respond by contributing to their campaign, whiles at the same time pegging such contributor as a potential Liberal voter. Thus, technological digital devices have become a marketing tool for political parties not only as a vehicle for policy campaign but also to raise funds and test the appeal of leader to electorates.
Perhaps the most important strategy adopted by political parties in response to the forces that have challenged their appeal is to stress the charismatic traits of the leaders. The Personal managerial competence and imagery of leaders have overshadowed political parties, both in campaign and policy-making ( Amyot, 2017, p.100). According to Amyot (2017), instead of offering competing varieties in policies, political parties have resorted to emphasizing the quality traits of their respective leaders during election campaign. In particular, during the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau, projected his personality qualities, including his attractiveness and physicality against his competitors, whiles downplaying is lack of experience- “Just Not Read” advertisement ( Marland & Thierry, 2016 Amyot, 2017). Thus, the charismatic traits of various party leaders have become part of the strategy to appeal for party loyalty and support.
In conclusion, globalization and other structural changes in the economies and well as the sociological changes in developed democracies have challenged the appeal and functions of political parties. However, parties have adapted to these forces by resorting to political marketing strategies, facilitated by technological digital advances such as social media and internet. In addition, political parties have projected the charismatic traits and imagery of their leaders in their bid to win party support and loyalty. As shown above, political parties have rebranded themselves as a relevant instrument both in the practices of democracies and promoting focused policies to a cluster of electorates.