The research project aims to analyze the impact of the entry of oligarchs (i.e. individuals who control systemically relevant concentrations of economic resources) in democratic political competitions. The phenomenon is considered from two points of view: the functioning of the logistical-organizational mechanisms for the creation of new political entities and for electoral mobilization, and the selection of ideological positions and communication methods for attracting popular support and creating collective identities. The project, whose empirical scope is OECD countries from 1989 to the present, is intended as a contribution to the political science literature on the transformations of representation and of political parties, the quality of contemporary democracy and the nature of the new forms of populism.
In contemporary democracies, traditional political parties encounter increasing difficulties in placing their personnel in national legislative and executive elected office. Popular disaffection with parties is fueled by the strain of representing constituencies whose interests are at odds with the policy prescriptions mandated by economic and supranational institutional constraints (i.e. the trade-off between responsiveness and responsibility). The waning of the electorate’s identification with the ideology and organizational traditions of territorially rooted political parties with internal mechanisms for cadre recruitment and socialization leads to a search for visibility resources external to the political system. Individuals endowed with social capital of various provenances tend, as a consequence, to be more attractive as candidates, while parties become less able to guarantee long-term career prospects within the representative institutions of the State for their own personnel. This cooptation process of high-visibility outsiders weakens the power of the party leadership and subjects it to influence by aggregations of social interests that were traditionally external to politics; at the same time, it facilitates the entry of new political actors in the electoral arena.
The present research project aims to explore an aspect of the ongoing transformations in the selection of political personnel and the securing of electoral support in contemporary representative democracies: it aims to explore the ways in which the political system is transformed by the presence of outsiders to whom the task of securing electoral consent is increasingly devolved.
Specifically, I intend to investigate the direct participation in electoral politics of individuals (who for lack of a better term will provisionally be labeled ‘oligarchs’) endowed with private financial resources on such a scale as to alter the organizational balance of power of the political system. Whether such individuals create new personal parties or take control of pre-existing parties, their direct intervention in the electoral arena transforms political competition and the workings of the system, inducing changes even in the political forces that oppose them.
If we conceive of the status quo in terms of the cartel model of party organization (as set forth by Richard Katz and Peter Mair), the phenomenon can be seen as a type of strategic response to the technocratic consensus, effected by individuals who belong to the social elite but who are outsiders in the political sphere.
The project focuses on the level of the actors, rather than advancing a general thesis on the reconfiguration of the party system as a whole. Similarly, it strives to remain normatively agnostic about the process and the empirical shapes it assumes. What is sought are the determinants of the electoral success or failure of oligarchic intervention in democratic politics. A variety of factors, from the institutionalization of the party system to constitutional engineering constraints to exposure to international economic fluctuations, are to be considered as explanantes.
Within the broader phenomenon, there are two specific topics I wish to investigate. The first is the set of logistical and organizational techniques (typically derived from the corporate world) at the disposal of new political actors for electoral mobilization. The honing of these techniques is seen as a byproduct of globalized business practices, and relies on key advances in information and communication technology. The research hypothesis is that the development, initially in contexts far removed from politics, of such methods and techniques, together with the ideological de-alignment of the electorate, offers greater ease in converting economic capital into political capital, decisively breaking the organizational and mobilizing monopoly of traditional parties and consequently lowering the barriers to entry (in terms of specific know-how) of new actors in electoral competitions.
The second topic concerns the rhetorical and discursive aspects of these new political actors, i.e. the topics and issues on which they plan to gather support and express the goals and political identities of their voters. The resulting political profile of these movements, given their inherent personalization, can also be seen as the outcome of a process of construction and consolidation of the charisma of the oligarchs who lead them. The working hypothesis is that the political content of the movements thus created is mostly under-determined, at least at the moment of entry into the political sphere, and that therefore it is defined in a pragmatic fashion, on the basis of the contingent attractiveness of single issues. At the same time, the process of aggregation and the building of the movements’ collective identity relies on forms of identification that transcend the material interests of the voters, but satisfy needs for symbolic representation (whose relative importance is heightened in turn by the perception of the growing inability of national politics to influence the economic conditions of societies under globalization). However, the interaction of personalization with opportunism in the specific policies advocated is, I intend to argue, a leading cause of the transitory and ephemeral character of these new parties, and thus functions as a feedback loop that heightens the volatility of the new emerging party systems.
Scope and case studies
The research project is intended to be carried out in two phases. In the first, the aim is to describe the phenomenon quantitatively, showing the diachronic evolution of this new form of political organization. Such a comparative analysis would take place chiefly among OECD countries and with relation to elections contested since 1989. Primary attention will be focused on elections where control of the executive power is at stake (presidential elections, or general elections in parliamentary systems), as they appear to be the natural target of oligarchic intervention, but the framework should bear extending to single legislative races, as well as subnational government.
In the second phase, and based on the results of the large-n analysis, a limited number (3-4) of national case studies will be selected for qualitative, idiographic research, in order to exemplify the determinants of the success or failure of oligarchic participation in democratic politics in its various organizational and rhetorical-discursive forms, and account for outliers.