The rise of the extremes

It has long been argued that the practice of democratic politics renders extremist political parties unviable. There were multiple proposed channels for this widely observed moderating influence associated with seizing power through elections. Perhaps, as the median voter theorem suggests, extremists cannot hope to win without persuading the median voter that they will responsibly implement moderate ideas. Or the nature of representative democracy, in particular, requires compromise in order to push through elements of an agenda. Or perhaps extreme views within the political spectrum serve merely to push the “Overton window” of acceptable ideologies one way or the other, shifting the median voter but not capturing power themselves.

What is clear, however, is that recent years seem to have knocked a hole in the assumption that extremist political forces converge to the centre over time. Consider, for example, the fraught politics of the United Kingdom, which is dealing with the looming Brexit deadline, the possibility of a general election, and a de facto split in the governing party. There, both the Conservatives in power and Labour in opposition have been taken over by a hardline minority — of Eurosceptics and Marxists, respectively — pushing them further apart from each other. In the United States, the Republicans have surrendered to Donald Trump and Trumpism, while the Democrats have swung to the left following Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. In India, meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party is no longer the party of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

So, why are political parties diverging to the ideological extremes in democratic polities, and what can be done about it? One reason lies, perhaps, in the radical changes brought about by technological progress. The ability to organise extreme interest groups within parties means that their greater enthusiasm ensures that they have an advantage in inner-party democracy. Thus, figures like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson have a head start when it comes to winning primaries or the equivalent. Technology has led to a crisis of representative democracy: Rather than trusting the far-away representatives in the national capital to come to the best possible compromise with other ideological factions, voters demand instead that they remain ideologically pure even at the cost of policy deadlock or extremism. In addition, when politics is reduced to Twitter-friendly slogans and memes, centrist parties find it difficult to present their nuanced approach to the public.

It is hard to see how democracies can break out of this dynamic. One possibility is what can be observed in France, where moribund parties of the centre-left and centre-right — the Socialists and the Republicans, respectively — have largely been replaced in the public imagination by a new centrist force, the En Marche party of President Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron is not hugely popular — but is still more popular than the alternatives. His ability to be decisive also means that he has not abandoned political agenda-setting to either extreme. Across the democratic world, centrist forces that are able to coalesce and demonstrate that they are able to take progressive and forward-looking decisions are those most likely to be able to fight off the rising power of the political extremes. The question is whether this process will ever be able to revive the political centre in the world’s largest democracy.

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