The collapse of the ‘Big Tent’

EPA-EFE/FELIPE TRUEBA

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (L) speaks with Chancellor Angela Merkel at the beginning of a faction meeting of the CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU) at the German parliament Bundestag in Berlin, 4 June 2019.

The collapse of the ‘Big Tent’


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What are the first words that come to one’s mind when America’s tumultuous 1960s are mentioned? That decade saw social and societal change aplenty, on both sides of the Atlantic. With certainty, it is not “big tent,” which is what one could define as the cohabitation of realistically conflicting ideologies and world views under the same political movement. Yet, that decade saw the demise of one political big tent and the forging of another, both political tectonic shifts that went on to dominate the public arena in the United States for decades to come.

The signing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson accelerated the Republican conversion of Southern Democrats, in what came to be known as the Dixiecrat switch, putting an end to the broad collation that included liberals and segregationist Deep South Democrats, among others.

At the same time, Frank Meyer, the senior editor of National Review, was working hard to provide the ideological underpinning that would unite that time’s three elements of conservativism -traditionalists, economic libertarians and foreign policy hawks- who had come to become sparring partners in the pages of the conservative outlet he had co-founded.

Meyer eloquently and convincingly put forward fusionism, thus becoming the architect of the truce, and the subsequent convergence: the bonding element was the love of freedom -or a shared understanding of the indispensability of it to all-, seconded by deep hatred of Communism and the realisation that the different groups needed to unite to win.

Barry Goldwater, the first presidential candidate of the newly-created movement lost against Johnson in 1964, but the newly-found common purpose of the evolved Republican Party saw fusionism cement itself and secure a series of stunning victories before reaching its peak under Ronald Reagan. It later fell apart in the post-9/11 era under George W. Bush.

The American example of a big tent movement that comes together under a unifying ideology or a substantive theoretical skeleton that goes beyond simple power arithmetic brings us to the main question – does anything like fusionism exist in Europe? Does European fusionism exist?

A child plays as people vote at a polling station during the European Parliament elections at the Groendal Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, 26 May 2019.   EPA-EFE/Mads Claus Rasmussen

A European fusionism?

At the European level, that could only have happened with the two big tent parties: the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES), the two main political families that have dominated Brussels politics for more than forty years.

The EPP brings together Christian Democrats, conservatives and liberals: anything from centrist humanists and federalists to Euro-realists and sovereigntists -both largely euphuisms for nationalists, to use the terms in vogue- if one accounts for the recent transformations of some of its members. The party itself is the amalgamation of different political movements that existed throughout the second half of the last century. It was created in 1976 by parties from European Economic Community members Belgium, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, placing a heavy accent on closer integration under a federalist model. In 1999, it absorbed a parallel structure that preceded it, the European Union of Christian Democrats (EUCD), founded in 1965.

In 2002, it also merged with the European Democrat Union (EDU), an organisation that was founded twenty-odd years earlier to accommodate parties that did not necessarily subscribe to either a strictly Christian democratic posture or a federalist vision, thus becoming a truly big tent party.

What has driven that transformation have been successive waves of European Union enlargement, seven to date. In other words, in order to maintain power conferred by majority control of the European institutions, initial doctrinal or ideological clarity had to be relaxed or overstretched -or, at any rate, expanded- to include members that had different views or came from different political traditions and contexts, yet remained within the limits of the loosely-defined centre-right family, such as conservatives or economic liberals. If the quest for freedom was fusionism’s basic tenet that held the Republican Party together in the United States, it is “the Christian view of mankind and the Christian Democratic concept of society” and the “joint will to create a federal European Union as a Union of free peoples and citizens conscious of their own responsibilities” that theoretically keeps the EPP together, per the party’s statutes, updated in 2018. Practically, and given that the eighty-one-strong membership finds itself increasingly distanced from either Christian Democracy or federalism, the emphasis has shifted to much more general principles.

According to the EPP statutes, the party aims to “work [first] to achieve free and pluralistic democracy, [and secondly] for respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law on the basis of a common programme” (in addition to “federal integration,” which a significant number of members do not espouse.)

The PES has followed a more linear development: founded in 1957 as the Socialist Parties of the European Community, was renamed into the Confederation of the Socialist Parties of the European Community in 1973 and settled to its current name in 1992.

Its internal cleavages are less pointed, despite the fact that, according to its statutes, the party brings together four separate factions: the socialist, social democratic, labour and democratic progressive ones. In spite of differences, all adherents can rally behind the idea of progressivism or a progressivist agenda. In a similar fashion to the EPP, “the object of the PES is to pursue international aims in respect of the values on which the European Union is founded, namely principles of freedom, equality, solidarity, democracy, respect of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and respect for the Rule of Law.” A similar need for numbers to keep up with enlargement, especially when it came to the party’s parliamentary group, also drove expansion. However, the challenges that came with it were of a different nature in comparison to the ones that the EPP faced. What were those? What were the challenges that are gradually leading to the demise of European fusionism on the right and the left?

The breakdown of European fusionism

Despite the common threads of Christian democracy and federalism within the EPP, European fusionism on the right had its own 9/11 moment: the migration crisis. Up until that point in time, the answer to any question would be more Europe. The pace of integration might have been up for debate, but the direction was largely not. The absence of an effective common response at the European level, and substantial differences in the understanding of the principle of solidarity, led some members to question whether the direction was the right one, rolling back decades of consensus. For the first time, it was the overall course that was challenged, not the speed of reaching the destination: national answers, contrasted to common ones, came to the forefront, and less Europe took the place of more Europe as the mantra for some.

The EPP, in control of all key positions, withdrew to the role of crisis management, which soon turned it into a manager in crisis. Irrespective of how satisfactory the response was, ideologically, the party chose to sit on the fence, unable to rein in the members that chose to go the populist path to counter an insurgence on the right flank. In the absence of firm ideological positioning and clarity of course, the louder radical voices that advocated a shift to the populist right gained ground over the centrist ones.

The freezing of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party membership two months before the elections came too little, too late. The Orbánisation of the EPP had taken place well ahead of that: a significant group of parties, with varying degrees of success, had already made the choice to look right rather than reaffirm their positioning in the centre, which was the recipe that had propelled them to power in the years prior to the migration crisis.

The Austrian People’s Party under Sebastian Kurz, France’s Les Républicains under Laurent Wauquiez, Spain’s Partido Popular under Pablo Casado, and even Germany’s Christian Democratic Union under the leadership of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had chosen the right over the centre by the time of these European elections. Most fell into a trap. Playing the populists at their own game will never work: the extreme right is prepared to outmatch any electoral promise the centre-right will make while playing that game. That is one certain way to lose legitimacy. If your public advocate also happens to be an old face that the electorate associates with a corrupt elite, you are bound to lose.

When the EPP should have tried to reclaim the centre, it remained silent, letting the voices of those who had turned populist or Eurosceptic amplify: those were the only voices heard. It is telling that the engine of the EPP machine, the German Christian Democrats (CDU), have been losing more votes to the Greens than the right-wing extremists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Even voters defecting the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian-Social Union, were opting for the Greens to the AfD at a rate of two to one around last year’s election in the otherwise conservative Länder. To reclaim the centre, the EPP would have to offer real solutions to real problems, a demanding task. Understand, formulate, explain and deliver. To turn populist only required different marketing. In any case, the European party left the work to the national members, letting the loudest dominate, with catastrophic results: the party has lost one third of its seats in ten years, and half the number of its heads of state since 2012. If some of the members continue their trip rightwards, and in light of the diminished ability to negotiate key positions for its members in the European Parliament or elsewhere due to disappointing results, it is a matter of time before members defect to the centre. Do not be surprised if others even leave to right-wing formations, should their rise continue. The party might remain a broad church. It seems unlikely it can become a big tent again any time soon, though.

The Social Democrats were shaken by two doctrinal earthquakes in the 1990s, which shuttered their coherence: first, at the beginning of that decade, they were confronted with the moral obligation to accept into their political family their new cousins from the liberated East. Only that the newly-formed Eastern European Social Democratic parties were the heirs of the Communist dictatorial regimes that had governed the region. Unreformed and -to some extend- irreformable, autocratic and mostly corrupt, they changed the nature of the centre-left European political family forever.

The second shock was produced by the advance of the Third Wave, best embodied by Tony Blair’s transformation of the British Labour Party. The embrace of market capitalism sent Social Democratic parties into a spiral of identarian self-search, which, as they became more middle class, they were unable to recover from either when full employment was reached in many of the Western European economies or when the need for a new champion against rising inequality returned during and in the aftermath of last decade’s financial crisis: by that time, the leadership has realised that their tradition pool, the working class, had not followed them in their quest for a new raison d’être and had readily dropped them for the new spokespeople of the frustrated poor, the populists on either the left or the right. Moreover, they realised that their middle-class offspring that they have helped elevate had not waited for them to reinvent themselves either, and had found solace for middle class guilt in the rising Greens -a phenomenon almost exclusively limited to well-off Western Europe and totally absent from the East.

This year’s Western Green wave further divided the wider centre-left family, leaving the political family a rather small tent compared to its former glory.

What does the future hold in store?

The downfall of the two big parties has also coincided with -or even caused- the rise of the centre, which might not be necessarily more clear on ideology, but has been vocally pro-European, in contrast to the EPP’s tacit support, and has put new faces forward, contrary to the majority of parties belonging to either the EPP or PES. Caught between the centre and the extremes, the two formerly-dominant parties have been significantly squeezed out by parties with either clear cut principles or new faces, or both.

This gradual transition is also having structural effects, beyond partisan politics. The two big parties, with the EPP in particular, will have to adjust to the new reality: from the duopoly of big tent politics and dominance to the politics of negotiation, coalition-building and power sharing, which have been unknown entities to the Brussels establishment to date. The first test is already here: there is a need to immediately built, for the first time, a three- or even four-party majority coalition in the European Parliament and beyond. More than that, a content reorientation away from platitudes and abstract values to applied solutions that directly impact the daily lives of all Europeans, solutions that go beyond protecting the borders, providing free railway tickers or breaking glass ceilings, but offer a better living and inspire through inclusive growth for all, will be necessary and beneficial.

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