6 November 2019

The Impact of Political Fragmentation

Around the world, politics is becoming more fragmented, with an increasingly diverse array of parties and leaders emerging as significant players in their countries’ political systems. As this fragmentation gains momentum, “mainstream” parties and leaders are seeing their support decline, in some cases precipitously.  At the same time, parties and leaders on the more “extreme” ends of the political spectrum have seen their support rise in recent years to the point where they are now challenging long-time dominant parties for control of governments around the world.  This fragmentation is due, in large part, to the increasing focus of many voters and citizens on a single issue from among a widening series of issues, such as immigration or the environment.  

While this fragmentation is in some ways a welcome development for modern politics, most current political systems are ill-equipped to deal with this change. In fact, fragmentation is emerging as a major threat to democratic systems in many countries, as it has produced higher-levels of extremism and a greater threat of political gridlock that results in an erosion in the level of trust in the democratic system of government. Nevertheless, this fragmentation could also prove to be a significant threat to authoritarian governments as well, especially if it results in a higher degree of interest in political issues among the citizens of such countries.

There are numerous examples showing how fragmentation is a serious threat to the political systems of many countries. In some countries, there are now simply too many political parties in their legislatures to allow those bodies to function as they should.  In others, the diverse array of parties that enter the parliament make it all but impossible to form a new government, as we have seen in many recent cases, including Spain, Israel and Belgium, to name just a few.  

Even in systems with just two main parties, fragmentation is becoming more apparent.  Just look at the United States, where the Republicans and the Democrats are now more like coalitions that represent a broad array of policies and platforms.  In fact, in nearly all countries that hold free and fair elections, the share of the vote garnered by those countries’ traditionally-dominant parties has trended downwards in a major way in recent decades.  Instead, new parties have risen, representing both the political right and left, and these parties have become major players in their own right.  

The example of Spain highlights these trends clearly.  There, two major parties (the center-left Socialists and the conservative Popular Party) have seen their combined share of the vote fall from around 80% in the 1990s and 2000s, to just a little above 50% in each of that country’s last two national elections.  Instead, new parties such as the far-left Podemos, the center-right Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox parties, have made major inroads and are forecast to win as much as 40% of the vote in that country’s upcoming parliamentary elections (Spain’s fourth parliamentary election in the past four years).  In fact, Spain highlights both the process of the fragmentation of modern politics and the impact that this fragmentation has on the formation of new governments and how fragile these governments are, if they can be formed at all.

The root cause of this trend towards political fragmentation is the fact that the political spectrum is widening, with a wider range of issues finding support among an increasing number of voters. Furthermore, more voters appear to be focused on one or two of these quite diverse issues when making their choices, furthering the trend towards fragmentation.  On both the political right and the political left, there are a number of issues that are gaining precedence today.

Among the issues on the political right that have helped to propel the fragmentation of politics are:

  • Social conservatism (this issue plays a major role in both democracies such as the United States and Spain, as well as in countries such as Russia and Turkey)
  • Nativism (with immigration once again becoming a major issue in North America, Europe and parts of Asia, nativist policies have moved to the fore in recent years)
  • Nationalism (this has been a vital source of support for the political right since the 1800s, but is rising again in response to globalization and multilateralism)

Meanwhile, a number of other issues have led to a rise in support for newer parties and leaders on the political left, including:

  • Socialism (issues such as wealth inequality have led to a resurgence in support for socialist policies, particularly among younger people)
  • Environmentalism (a growing awareness of environmental threats has given rise to the proliferation of “green” parties in many areas of the world)
  • Social justice (interest in issues such as social privileges and racism have led to many voters supporting parties and leaders that focus on these type of issues)

When one looks at this diverse array of issues, it is interesting to note that, while many of these issues have been around for decades or longer, their impact on politics has increased significantly in recent years.  This suggests that not only will these issues continue to play a major role in determining the political direction of many countries, but that even more issues could emerge in the coming years that will further fragment politics around the world.

The implications for this fragmentation of modern politics are truly enormous.  In fact, we are already witnessing many of these implications right now.  For example, in presidential political systems, major parties are finding it increasingly difficult to find candidates that can attract voters across this wide range of issues that are now determining presidential elections.  Recent presidential elections in the United States, France and other countries highlight just how fragmented many presidential systems now are.  Meanwhile, the implications for parliamentary systems are just as great, as this fragmentation has left many parliaments around the world hopelessly divided.  

In fact, in both types of democratic systems, electorates are becoming ever more divided, with the major issues of the modern world pushing voters on the right and the left further and further from the political center.  In many cases, this results in very small majorities (or in some cases minorities) making monumental decisions.  In the United States, President Donald Trump has upended US politics, even as he lost the popular vote in 2016’s presidential election, while in the United Kingdom, a small majority took the monumental decision to withdraw the UK from the European Union. Altogether, the challenges posed by political fragmentation is threatening the very future of democracy, as an increasing number of people lose their faith in what has been a very successful form of government for much of the world.

Looking to the future, it is hard to envision a scenario in which this fragmentation of politics comes to an end. Increasingly, people focus on just one or two issues, and with news reading habits changing thanks to the rise of social media, this is unlikely to change.  In fact, finding politically-neutral sources of news has become increasingly difficult in recent years, hardening people’s positions on the issues that are impacting modern politics.  

Meanwhile, few political systems are equipped to deal with the challenges posed by this fragmentation of politics.  Democracies are vulnerable to the threat of gridlock and radicalization, both of which are already eroding its foundations.  Totalitarian systems are also under threat, as they struggle to manage the increasingly diverse array of issues that define modern politics, while also maintaining control of the flow of information related to each of these issues. 

In fact, the political upheaval that we have witnessed over the past decade may just be the beginning of a much longer and more disruptive period of political change than anyone has foreseen. If so, fragmentation will be at the heart of this upheaval and could be the driving force of a series of massive political changes to come.