Now that the dust from the 2016 U.S. election campaign has settled, students of electoral systems everywhere are scrutinizing the remarkable case study of President Donald Trump, who managed to overwhelm an array of strong Republican candidates and entrenched opposition from within his own party to win the GOP nomination and, eventually, the presidency.
Trump’s surprise win over the establishment seems to illustrate the awesome new power of the Internet-savvy individual in politics. It also offers support for the claim that political parties are in decline.
The reduced ability of parties to connect with voters and mobilize them to action parallels the increasing ability of charismatic politicians to develop a mass following without the benefits of a traditional party infrastructure.
Is the personalization of politics good, bad or irrelevant?
Political parties have always been an essential component of a healthy democracy. They are an important organizing framework that brings together representatives who share a common ideology and similar interests, facilitate the articulation of thoughtful policies and platforms, and serve a crucial mediating role between citizens and elected officials.
Politicians come and go; parties (should) endure.
Personalization comes at the expense of parties for the simple reason that it focuses public attention on a party’s constituent elements rather than its entirety. Another danger associated with excessive personalization is the illusion that a strong leader can provide a quick fix to the myriad problems of government.
For these and other reasons, it seems advisable for liberal democracies to try to counter excessive personalization of politics by promoting measures to strengthen political parties and, if necessary, reinvent them for the digital age.
Social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, are obvious enablers of personalization. However, if used smartly, the Internet could give political parties an opportunity to reclaim center stage.
When the Israel Democracy Institute performed a comparative analysis of the activity of political parties and politicians on Facebook in Israel and in 24 other democracies, we found that political parties were trying to be present on the Internet. For example, in most cases, parties were posting more frequently than their individual members, including the party leaders.
However, when we looked at the demand, or consumption side, we found — at least according to the number of likes that a Facebook page received — that in some cases the citizens using the Internet tend to prefer party leaders to the parties they lead.
This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Israel, where the level of personalization was the highest among the 25 parliamentary and semiparliamentary democracies that we examined.
In Israel, the party leaders’ Facebook pages received, on average, more than 20 times the number of likes that their parties’ pages received. For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had 1,873,588 likes vs. 19,152 for the Likud party.
While we did not include the United States, which has a presidential system, in this particular study, one could see that the official Republican Party page had 27,595 Facebook followers while Donald Trump’s “government official” page had 1,256,046 likes.
But personalization of politics, in its online manifestations, is not equal across all parliamentary democracies. In fact, in 17 of the 25 countries we studied, the parties had a higher number of likes than did their leaders.
In Italy, for example, where we found the second-highest level of personalization overall, party leaders’ pages received only seven times more likes on average than the pages of their political parties.
True, social networks provide a direct, cheap and relatively accessible media outlet, and access requires no large-scale resources or personnel. This situation clears the way for talented individuals to speak to their constituencies directly, without the need for intermediaries.
Moreover, political entrepreneurs tend to adapt quickly and embrace change and innovation, whereas bureaucratic organizations are top-heavy and slow to adapt.
Nonetheless, the Internet’s ability to render the abstract tangible and to facilitate the formation of direct relationships with voters should be an asset for parties as well. And because political parties (in most countries) have greater human and financial resources available to them, they should be able to take advantage of the Internet, especially when it comes to the quality and quantity of their online activities.
Other changes political parties must make to adjust to the changing times have nothing to do with the Internet.
For example, the perception that primary elections are determined by small constituencies with strong vested interests can be addressed only by changing the electoral system. Measures to broaden participation in primary elections by opening them up to the wider public could prove decisive in the greater struggle to rebalance the roles of the candidate and the party.
These are challenges common to both Israelis and Americans. We should tackle them together.
Professor Gideon Rahat is the director of the Political and Electoral Reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute.