Establishment parties are flagging. They should learn from political disruptors.
Patrick Quirk and Jan Surotchak
On June 19, a bare majority of Colombians elected a former guerilla as the country’s first leftist president. His opponent, a conservative-populist businessman, was also an antiestablishment outsider—all the mainstream political parties had been eliminated in the first round of the race. This election marked a profound shift for Colombia, where an entrenched political class has dominated politics for the last half-century.
Colombia’s election isn’t an isolated case: Across the globe, political outsiders from the right, left, and center have supplanted traditional parties, often capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction and energizing electorates with promises of change. From Bolivia to Italy and beyond, citizens have made clear that traditional parties no longer address their needs. As a result, century-old parties such as the Social Democrats in Germany or the Labor Party in the Netherlands have been hemorrhaging support for years.
In Europe, where center-left and center-right parties once collectively garnered majorities approaching 90 percent, they now struggle to win even half the vote. A similar trend is frustrating mainstream parties across Latin America, creating space for political outsiders to gain power: In the run-up to Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, up to 87 percent of Brazilians said they did not trust the country’s political parties.
Economic crises, divisions over immigration and refugees, and festering inequalities have left many voters skeptical of political parties’ ability to govern effectively. Political outsiders or “disruptors,” whether individual politicians or entire movements, have used this voter dissatisfaction to their advantage. Time and again, these disruptors told us in interviews that they succeed because traditional parties have failed voters.
Consider French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche (recently rebranded as Renaissance). This movement-turned-party rode a wave of disaffection with the scandal-plagued mainstream to capture the presidency and parliament in 2017. Ironically, Macron is now under attack from disruptors on both his right and left.
The problems that disruptor politicians and parties pose to democracy are clear and well-documented. Many expressly also state their intent to break up, if not destroy, the existing political-party scene. All too often, disruptors legitimize extreme political views that are usually confined to the margins of society, deepening social divides and imperiling stable governance. Far from keeping promises to alleviate society’s ills, disruptor politicians often struggle to act, failing to build consensus for their policies—thereby exacerbating political turmoil and, ironically, contributing to stagnation.
While mainstream parties should avoid emulating many characteristics of disruptive politicians and parties, establishment outfits can still learn from the success of insurgent forces as they devise electoral strategies and craft party platforms. Based on our extensive research of political disruptors in Latin America and Europe, including interviews with nine outsider parties and their politicians, four key lessons stand out:
Expand the Tent
Dissatisfaction with establishment parties often stems from what voters view as elitist leadership and career politicians determined to uphold the status quo at the expense of the public. Many citizens believe that the establishment has stifled policy innovation and ignored their most pressing needs. Welcoming political outsiders might enable mainstream parties to address these concerns.
The Sweden Democrats, once dismissed by mainstream parties, have solidified their position in the political landscape by broaching stricter policies on migration that resonate with a broad swath of Swedish voters. In response, traditional party leaders may seek to uphold democratic institutions and create stability, but disruptors jump on the chance to paint them as stifling the voices of everyday citizens and blocking their own paths to party-leadership positions.
Disruptive parties are often led by individuals with little or no political experience. For some, the fervor of an outsider movement may motivate them to become politically active. For others, the birth of a new party is their first opportunity to engage in national politics without the kind of connections necessary to break into establishment parties.
The Five Star Movement is a good example: Its decision to include members from diverse professional backgrounds in the movement broadened its appeal; by contrast, Italy’s establishment parties frequently require connections and demonstrations of loyalty before members can gain a voice within the party and in national representation.
The rise of new types of voters to positions of power within political movements may open the door to internal criticism, especially once the time comes to develop actionable policies. But for established parties, lowering the hurdles for political outsiders to join their ranks would allow them to reap the benefits of new ideas and energy while enabling insurgents to thrive in a structured environment.
Engage Youth Beyond Election Season
In the 2019 EU parliamentary elections, a dramatic fourteen percentage-point surge in participation from youths aged 18 to 25 drove record voter turnout. Amid mounting nationalist populism and uncertainty concerning Brexit and policy issues relating to climate change, digital technology, and human rights, many young people who view their futures as firmly rooted in the European experiment felt compelled to express their political will.
But recent national contests in Europe show a stagnation or decrease in young people’s participation. In the 2022 French presidential election, young people accounted for 41 percent of first-round abstentions. In Germany, a country with traditionally high voter turnout, youth participation decreased in the 2021 elections.
Disenchanted by establishment politics, the young people who did vote in these elections often opted for nontraditional parties and candidates, such as Germany’s Green Party or France’s leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won nearly a third of the youth vote in 2022.
This difference in youth turnout between the European and national elections suggests that to win younger voters, establishment parties must overcome burdensome preconceptions and adopt policies that align with the concerns and values of rising generations. Antiestablishment groups or disruptors appeal to younger voters partly because they see in them an opportunity to vote against a perceived pattern of political corruption or stagnation. As young people enter the workforce, many are confronting challenges including unemployment and high costs of living for the first time. Outsider promises to initiate meaningful change where the establishment has failed can therefore prove extremely attractive to young voters.
Establishment parties whose policies do not naturally draw a sizeable youth vote may find engaging young people difficult. But by inviting young supporters to participate more actively in party affairs (beyond just voting), mainstream parties can harness some of the energy usually attributed to their antiestablishment counterparts. Establishment forces also need to deploy online influencers, and to attract and empower youth to engage their peers on social media. The popularity of the Free Democratic Party among young and first-time voters in the 2021 German elections shows that mainstream parties can appeal to youths by implementing these strategies.
Adapt to the Electorate
Antiestablishment movements target not only political leadership, but also the very concept of political parties and traditional ideological divides. The standard left-right political binary is a point of contention for disruptors, who find the political landscape stultified and unable to effectively respond to the challenges of the day. In some cases, emerging and insurgent parties have joined together to form governing coalitions despite their differing positions on the political spectrum. Others appeal to voters from the left and right with a centrist platform.
Established parties, however, can strike a balance between upholding their core values or ideological orientations and demonstrating a willingness to consider policy alternatives. Norway’s Conservative Party signaled flexibility on immigration while sticking to its center-right principles, allowing it to successfully accommodate pressure from the right. Rather than ignoring the policy proposals that drive disruptor success, mainstream parties should recognize the need to rethink party platforms to ensure that they reflect voter concerns. Traditional parties’ failure to adapt to increasingly competitive party environments gives greater momentum to would-be disruptive actors.
But voters also seek transparency and reliability, so compromise should not mean walking back on fundamental principles. Flexibility on some issues can enable citizens to seek change within the establishment so they do not feel compelled to support disruptors.
Look to the Future
One of the greatest challenges antiestablishment groups face upon winning power is how to transform into effective leaders. Many disruptors are punished at the ballot box for governing missteps arising from their inexperience, or for becoming too much like the mainstream. In France, some Macron supporters felt that in government En Marche had grown too detached from the movement that had brought it to power. And in Italy, the wind has long exited the sails of the Five Star Movement, as failure to fulfil basic responsibilities of governance has drained its popular support.
Of course, establishment parties face the same struggles; campaign-trail promises must eventually be fulfilled. Without a commitment to following through, parties risk alienating their supporters and appearing too comfortable in power to actually improve anything.
In some ways, disruptors have what establishment parties need in a typical election season: engaged and passionate supporters, messaging that resonates with voters, and the benefits of campaigning without years of political baggage. As much as the establishment can evolve to emulate the best of these movements, it can also learn from disruptors’ shortcomings to convince the electorate that progress is possible while institutions remain in place.
Reestablishing Establishment Parties
Around the world, political disruptors are transforming the democratic landscape, with both positive and negative results. For establishment parties, this can mean opposition not only from new parties but also from movements that transcend typical party structures.
To counter the often destabilizing and polarizing effects of disruptors, establishment parties should study insurgent movements on the rise—including the demographic makeup of their supporters, broad appeal, long-term plans, and the access ordinary members have to leadership positions—and use these observations to adopt more effective electoral strategies.
Consider the dramatic rebirth of Greece’s center-right New Democracy (ND) party. In 2015, the country’s sovereign-debt crisis and ensuing austerity measures left voters disillusioned, opening up space for political disruptors on the extreme left and right. In elections that year, the far-left Syriza coalition won an outright majority in parliament, causing the center-left to collapse and driving ND into the opposition. In response, ND undertook bold reform, implementing an innovative candidate-selection process meant to increase young and diverse contenders, adopting more modern social and economic policies, and launching social-media campaigns to appeal to youth voters. These efforts helped the party to capture a parliamentary majority in 2019.
Despite the tumult often resulting from disruption, political challengers remain a fundamental and necessary component of any healthy and inclusive democracy. Rather than dismiss or ignore them, established parties would do well to perceive their rise as an opportunity for growth and change. In doing so, mainstream parties not only enhance their prospects for electoral victory, but also foster a more dynamic and engaged electorate that is better prepared to secure future stability.
Patrick Quirk is senior director for strategy, research, and the Center for Global Impact at the International Republican Institute (IRI). He is nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and previously served on the policy planning staff of the U.S. Department of State. Jan Erik Surotchak is senior director for transatlantic strategy at IRI.
More from the Journal of Democracy:
The Pushback Against Populism: Running on Radical Love in Turkey
Latin America’s Shifting Politics: Mexico’s Party System Under Stress
The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy
Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy
Image Credit: Dimitris Lampropoulos/NurPhoto via Getty Images