Party Politics and its Limitations in NationStates
Written by McEntire
The following is a talk on party politics in NationStates that I delivered last month at the NationStates Great Exhibition. I attempted to use my own experience, in Forward Europeia! and other political parties, to elucidate how this type of politics works in NationStates, and how it doesn't. First, I talk about the different kinds of political parties that form, and discuss how those types map onto some parties I have seen in my time. Then I dive into a short case study of Forward Europeia! to see how the success of that party has been helped and hindered by the factors I have laid out. Finally, I present some takeaways that I had regarding party formation in NationStates.
I hope this is an informative and interesting analysis of relatively recent Europeian history! There is a lot more to this topic, I tried to keep it relatively narrowly defined. But I think the topic is still relevant as we think about our current electoral coalitions, our position in the world, and the policy stances that are taken by individual politicians. Enjoy!
Hello. For those who don’t know me, my name is McEntire. I am a current Senator and former domestic head of government and Speaker of the Senate of Europeia. Last year, as conversations around the Frontier/Stronghold update blossomed, I co-founded a political party named Forward Europeia!, whose mission was to advocate for Europeia to choose to be a Frontier.
This is by no means a definitive academic examination of political parties, but I will borrow a concept from the political science literature as a helpful scaffolding for my larger argument.
According to Herbert Kitschelt, political parties fall into a “rough classification… that appears helpful when addressing the issue of young party systems. Kitschelt distinguishes three ideal types: programmatic, charismatic, and clientelistic parties (Kitschelt 1995, p. 449).”
- Programmatic parties are those primarily based around ideology or a specific policy program or platform.
- Charismatic parties are based on the charisma of a particular leader.
- Clientelistic parties are more of a “spoils system” type of setup, where parties mainly exist as a club to promote their membership and put them into government jobs by winning elections.
Parties in NS
Parties in NationStates are less a vehicle for ideology and more a common space for friendly players to collaborate on writing platforms and coordinate voter contact strategies - think clientelistic or charismatic, not programmatic.
It is hard to have an ideologically consistent party in NationStates. After all, many of the issues that tend to dominate regional executive elections, such as recruitment, cultural programming, and media, do not divide cleanly into ideological lines. And even in legislative elections, typical real-life ideological divides such as security versus individual liberty can be stymied by a region’s own success. What I mean by that is, in a large and stable region like Europeia, many are resistant to large reforms; it takes a longer time to steer the ship on a different course. Thus, it is a heavy lift to put out a platform that would line up with a set of party principles.
Of course, there are some ideological dividing lines in NationStates, such as raiders and defenders. But regions are typically one or the other, not switching back and forth based on who wins the chief executive office. In Europeia, at least, foreign policy decisions are more broad-based and consensus-driven. Party politics based on foreign affairs alignment would be incoherent.
There is also domestic resistance to party politics since polarization can be a real problem. Personally, I think a little polarization is not a bad thing. An ongoing critical dialogue about a region’s institutions is the only way they get refined, and those discussions typically only occur in an atmosphere where ideas are being contested. There is no harm in calling things as you see them, as long as it does not reach the level of personal attacks.
For these reasons, the most successful parties I have seen are charismatic parties, based on the political coalition behind a strong leader. For instance, in early Europeia, Falconias’ Conservative Party dominated the region’s politics for quite some time. Their agenda was not particularly coherent, but they were a strong group of people with personal connections working together to get their chosen candidates elected to the Senate and Presidency.
Aexnidaral Seymour and I started the Europeian Moderate Party, again not with a real “moderate” agenda, but really as a space to organize. Aexnidaral had a fore-running “get out the vote” strategy that was ahead of its time in terms of professionalism and organization. He organized this network through several party apparatuses over the years, but it was a personal project, not one that would be dictated by a party platform. And certainly not one where party members would be expected to follow the party line in voting.
In both of the above examples, players nominally adopt relevant real-life political descriptors, in this case, “conservative” and “moderate.” There is a certain amount of cache in these terms, and often players will gravitate to a party because its name aligns with their real-life beliefs. How neatly these terms map on to in-game policy differences is a different story.
Case study: Forward Europeia!
Last fall, as the Frontier/Stronghold (F/S) update came into clear-ish view, it began to dominate regional politics. For those who have not followed the issue closely (which is probably not anyone reading this speech, but I will lay it out for a wider audience), a proposed update to NationStates would see regions choosing between becoming a Frontier or a Stronghold. Frontier regions would see a portion of new nations spawning directly into their region but would strip their founder nation of its power to secure the region in exchange. Stronghold regions would function basically the same as regions do now.
Europeia, ever the “small-c” conservative region, initially leaned heavily towards the Stronghold option. The risk of regional destruction was deemed too great. But F/S provided an interesting policy opportunity: a natural ideological divide that was ripe for party politics. Where there are two clear sides to an issue, there is room for disagreement. And Frontier and Stronghold do map quite well onto progressivism versus conservatism: accelerated growth with greater risk versus status quo.
In this case, however, I thought that the status quo could lead to our eventual decline. Our Stronghold-dominated politics needed a Frontier counterweight. At that time, we thought the update could roll in any day, so there was some urgency to get to work. My instinct was that Europeia would not face any real threat as a Frontier, given our strong military, high level of endorsements for our Delegate, and interregional alliances that could be called upon to defend us.
My suspicions were confirmed in early conversations with foreign affairs heavies in our region. Originally, I felt that an electorally-focused political party could not get the job done. I thought it would be too controversial, and I felt strongly enough about the issue that I did not want it to be perceived as cynically exploiting the issue to get elected. So, to be taken seriously, my original conception was the “Europeian Frontierist Society,” less of a party and more of a think tank that could produce media content and policy white papers to push Europeia towards the Frontier choice.
Ultimately, in a political simulation game, a political party is much more attractive than joining a dusty policy group, and my early partners set me straight on the idea.
The constraints came when we actually started to discuss policy. Our elected Senators had no unified policy outlook, no one agreed on how hard to push the issue, and then our endorsed presidential candidate lost in an election that had both a pro-Stronghold ticket and a second pro-Frontier ticket that sapped key support.
After our candidate lost a presidential election, our new party leader Common-Sense Politics chose not to run under the party banner, because the previous election had shown the downside to identifying with a party. Even as more Europeians identified as pro-Frontier, they weren’t like those pro-Frontier people over at Forward Europeia!
There is a certain degree to which, when one candidate is running on a party ticket and the other is not, the non-party candidate can run on being attractively independent, even with non-majoritarian views. Despite being party leader, Common-Sense Politics chose a non-Forward! running mate and won a landslide victory. The lesson I took was that a fuzzier ideological focus probably allows a candidate to capture a broader swath of the electorate.
Eventually, once it became clear that the F/S update was not imminent, Forward!’s planning areas went silent. Although the party nominally holds a Senate seat, it is no longer active. That may change when and if the F/S update does begin to move forward.
Ultimately, I believe that the party did achieve its ultimate goal: moving the region more favorably towards Frontier. If it did not directly cause the shift, it at least showed that it was an open question, unlocked some latent Frontier support among the electorate, and broke Stronghold’s consensus (although I always viewed that as a paper tiger anyways). The party ran into common problems: the lack of party discipline along ideological lines, skepticism of parties in general from the electorate, and individual personalities going their own way.
Takeaways: what Forward Europeia! says about party politics in NS
I still believe that, when the issue has two clear sides like Frontier/Stronghold, there is room to build a programmatic political party around it. If I had it to do again, in order to build a stronger programmatic party, I would do several things differently.
First, I would bind the party’s endorsed Senate candidates to pledge to endorse a list of policies. Even a broad set of policies would be a starting point to making progress during the term. What we could have, and should have, sought was steady progress every term. If not binding the region to a Frontier choice, we could have bound the region to a decision-making process. With our choice ascendant, we should have pushed towards regional consensus. It’s fine to create that consensus, but if you can’t bind your endorsed candidates to action, it doesn’t much matter.
Second, I would expand the party’s list of policies beyond simply Frontier. There are certain policies, such as government transparency, democratizing reforms, and advocacy towards greater defender practices, that I think are logically aligned with Frontier. Of course, there would be some attrition from party members who do not support every plank, but a smaller party building towards greater policy wins can have a larger impact in the long run.
Third, I would push for the party to do more region-wide polling and produce more long-form policy statements. Media pieces, few and far between as they are even in a very active region like Europeia, have a major impact, keeping the party on offense. And a programmatic party must have an active program.
For those starting a party in NationStates, note that the strongest basis for growth is likely a charismatic party, built around one leader or a clientelistic party where a close group works for mutual political benefit. Programmatic parties with clear ideological alignment run into a series of issues in NationStates that they would not in real-life to the same degree.
But where there is an issue with clear ideological cleavages, there may be room for party politics, if you can get past a skittish electorate and enforce party discipline.