When more than 150 years ago the Dutch newspaper Het Nieuws van de Dag (News of the Day) described the future of politics as “in darkness”, it warned its readers that “the bloody feuds of yore are coming again”. What sounds like a line from a post-apocalyptic movie bears an interesting analogy on current discussions about the future of Western politics. Recently, scholars have painted an equally dark picture warning about the “hollowing of Western democracy” and identified a future of “post-democracy”. In the center of these concerns is the ability of political parties to fulfill their function as a core institution of democracy. Scholars fear that decreasing membership numbers are a symptom of democratic decay. Parties will lose their ability to connect political elites and civil society, and, thereby, inevitably extend the void between rulers and the ruled.
Why did people start founding political parties in the first place?
If we look for the beginning of when the close connection between parties and democracy was fostered, we end up in the second half of the nineteenth century, at least for the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain. Many scholars believed that the changing political environment inspired institutional innovation – the growing electorate provided a viable opportunity for political outsiders to organize the masses for parliamentary power. In reality, the situation on the ground was more complicated. Some countries, like Germany, unexpectedly introduced suffrage rights to all men in 1871. In other instances, like in Britain, the political elite decided to gradually extend male suffrage with three Reform Acts in 1832, 1867 and 1884. Then there were also some cases like the Netherlands in which it took almost four decades to broaden the electorate after the constitutional reform in 1848.
Despite these stark differences, the three countries witnessed the emergence of party organizations in a relatively close time period. Among the first successful party organizations were the well-known examples of the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei), the British National Liberal Federation and the Dutch Anti-Revolutionary Party (Anti-Revolutionaire Partij) – the three case studies of my dissertation The Making of the Democratic Party.
There was a longer trajectory of organizing that inspired contemporaries across the continent to work together in associations, clubs and leagues and led to early party organizations. In particular, the model of the British Anti-Corn Law League (1839 – 1846) provided a viable model of national organization with local membership branches. Early party founders directly referred to the League to explain what they intended to do with their new organizations. But it took years to convince a sufficient number of people to support their new type of political organizations. Their ability in connecting a previous organizational model to a discourse of political injustice is, therefore, an important factor in understanding the emergence of party organizations.
Party founders argued that their organizations were the perfect tool to help ordinary people have a political influence. Instead of deriving political legitimacy from the established political elite, they acclaimed representation for the masses. From today’s perspective, one could argue that this was not always a real success. The examples of Abraham Kuyper and Joseph Chamberlain show that despite public commitment to the autonomy of local branches, party leaders manipulated decision-making processes in their favor. Even German Social Democrats were famously criticized by scholars like Robert Michels for their inability to establish “truly” democratic procedures.
What can we learn from these early party founders?
Despite the contested history of their organizations, the experiences of early party founders offer two important lessons. First of all, crisis does not necessarily mean catastrophe. The text quoted at the beginning shows that an alarmed discourse of a crisis can initiate a new period of democracy. Today´s decreasing membership numbers also offer an opportunity for party leaders and society at large. The growing legitimacy crisis of democratic institutions suggests a shift in our understanding of democracy.
Second of all, early party founders offer a valuable lesson about the nature of democracy as an aspiration to a utopia, a better society. If we accept that democracy is inherently contested, we might witness a turn in the original story, also typical of many movie plots. At times when the future seemed to be in darkness, innovation is possible and the historical model of the party can be re-aligned to a new understanding of democracy.
About Anne Heyer
Dr. Anne Heyer is currently working on the monograph of her dissertation. As a postdoctoral researcher, she is studying the changing conception of mass in politics nineteenth-century Europe for the ERC-funded research project TRANSPOP at the Juan March Institute of Carlos III University of Madrid. Anne is also a research fellow at the German think tank d|part. Her main research interest is the interdisciplinary study of past and present political participation and digital humanities.
 Original quote in Dutch is “de bloedige veten van weleeer zijn weder in aantocht” “In Duisternis,”. Het Nieuws van Den Dag: Kleine Courant, June 15, 1879.
 Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013); Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Oxford: Polity Press, 2004).
 Anne Heyer, ‘Die Ersten Volksparteien? Ein Vergleichender Blick Auf Das Demokratieverständnis Früher Parteiorganisationen Im Deutschen Kaiserreich, in Großbritannien Und in Den Niederlanden (1860–1880)’, Archiv Für Sozialgeschichte 58 (2018): 107–124.
 Anne Heyer, ‘Manipulation or Participation? Membership Inclusion in the Party Organizations of the German Social Democratic Workers´ Party and the British National Liberal Federation’ in: Organizing Democracy. Reflections on the Rise of Political Organizations in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Henk te te Velde and Maartje Janse (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017): 185–210.