As a Swiss/American follower of politicians and politics on both sides of the Atlantic, I am intrigued by the recent phenomenon of politicians changing party affiliations. Several prominent Genevans have gone from left to right, from center to populist, from conservative to further right. In the United States, Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced that she is leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. Her career moves have been described as going “from Green Party progressivism to pro-corporate centrism.” Besides the obvious opportunism, or in Sinema’s case what one analyst called “narcissism,” the switches question the role of political parties and loyalty. Politics, like market products, is becoming more based on cost-benefit analysis and calculation than ideology or tradition.
Switching parties is not a new phenomenon and has had mixed results. Several years ago an important Geneva figure, Robert Cramer, went from the extreme right to the Greens with considerable success, including election to the national Parliament. His electoral career was not hindered by his fundamental change in orientation. In the United States, Donald Trump was a Democrat in the 2000s, according to New York City voting records. His switch to Republican helped him all the way to the Oval Office. But switching parties does not always guarantee voter approbation. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania changed from Republican to Democrat in 2009 but was not re-elected.
Moving from one party to another is not as dramatic in Switzerland with its multiparty system as is a shift in the United States from one of the two major parties to the other or to run as an independent. Sinema will join Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Maine’s Angus King as independents in the Senate; both ran as independents.
What does it mean to be a member of a political party today? Time changes everything, including parties. The Republican Party was once the party of business and trickle-down economics – “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” The Democratic Party was once the party of minorities and unions – Prime-the-pump bottom-to-top economics. What do these labels mean in the era of Republican Trumpist populism or Democrat Clinton/Obama neo-liberalism?
(What would the Democrat icon President Franklin D. Roosevelt say about President Biden’s imposed contract on railroad workers with no time off? Biden would be well to recall what Roosevelt said when signing the National Labor Relations Act in 1935: “By assuring the employees the right of collective bargaining, [the new law] fosters the development of the employment contract on a sound and equitable basis … it seeks, for every worker within its scope, that freedom of choice and action which is justly his.”)
Significant party traditions are evolving in Geneva as well as labels. The merger of the business-oriented Liberal Party with the more humanist Radical Party is falling apart, with a new Freedom and Justice Party emerging from the growing schism with a charismatic leader, Pierre Maudet. The traditional Christian Democratic Party changed its name to “The Center” to distinguish itself from any religious affiliation. The new Green/Liberal Party is gaining popularity as a mix of business and environmental protection.
If politicians can easily move from one party to another, and party’s ideology and names can change, what is left of an emotional attachment to a party? Is politics merely transactional? It is one thing to declare oneself a staunch independent or someone whose vote depends on candidates rather than party platforms. It is another to say I will remain a member of party X no matter how the party changes or what candidates are running on the ticket.
Choices about what individuals do when dissatisfied with a political party or other social organizations are the center of the development economist Albert O. Hirschman’s 1970 classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Although the book focuses mainly on business and why consumers switch products, it easily relates to any social organization.
Exit is the obvious path when people are dissatisfied. In the politician’s sense, it would mean changing parties because the traditional party no longer represents the politician’s position or electoral ambitions. Voice, on the other hand, indicates that a person should remain in a party despite differences so that the person could influence change. By criticizing the organization’s activities while remaining within, it is hoped that the critical voice will foster some policy transformation.
As an example: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia had enormous weight in the Democratic Party because his vote was crucial with a 50-50 split Senate. The party had to take into consideration his fossil-fuel positions on all major climate legislation. If he had become Republican, he would have had less influence. Manchin’s voice has lost influence since the Democrats now hold a 51-49 majority. His is no longer a deciding vote.
Beyond the cost-benefit analysis of staying or leaving is the question of loyalty. Should I stay with a product or party even if I am no longer satisfied with what it does? Loyalty can be measured by people changing products – What ever happened to Nokia phones? It can also be measured by people leaving a country assuming mobility, “voting with one’s feet.” Emigration statistics are clear indicators of fragile or failed states as are capital flights. As Hirschman wrote: “In countries vulnerable for brain drain, loyalty or patriotism is often the only thing that can make people stay or draw them back.”
To return to our politicians changing parties: Sinema’s switch is obviously based on political optimism. While she was never a true Democrat, she now considers herself an independent like Sanders and King. Both Sanders and King caucus with Democrats and were counted as Democrats in the 50-50 split. It is not yet clear if Sinema will caucus with Democrats, but she will be counted as a Democrat in the current 51-49 party alignment. In this sense, being an independent seems to have it both ways. She, like Sanders and King, have not totally exited.
Exit, voice, and loyalty. Hirschman presented profound insights about decision-making. While many politicians move across the political spectrum with alarming ease, voters also seem to be less loyal to traditional parties as the parties evolve over time. Loyalty is no longer considered a defining factor in either the market or politics. Based on the recent rash of changing affiliations, names and platforms in Switzerland and the U.S., parties are becoming like the proverbial widgets, easily changed, easily discarded.