“Politicians are only in it for the money and power”. This accusation often comes from voters in random comment sections, but more importantly, it is also a popular stance among members of civil organizations. Those who are spending years and years fighting selflessly for a cause they believe in find it difficult to accept that politicians often do the same – and they have more power.
On paper, both civil organizations and politicians fight for the same thing: to better their society. But often, tensions between them can spiral out of control, hurting both the organizations and the politicians, and the causes they fight for. In Hungarian politics, I have seen countless examples of civil organizations self-sabotaging by refusing to cooperate with parties that fight for the same thing.
And it’s not just one-sided: political leaders also often exclude civil organizations just to keep all the political points for themselves. They view NGOs as naive beginners, who don’t understand that change is only possible through the change of government.
This opposition between the parties are much more prevalent in polarized societies, as both governing and opposition politicians have a simple cause to make: everything wrong with the country is due to the ‘system’, i.e. the evil government/evil opposition, so politicians say that change is only possible by beating them to the ground. This goes against the very DNA of NGOs, who rather fight for a cause than to topple their government – otherwise they would be party members.
But what can parties do to alleviate these tensions? What can you do?
First, understand the role of NGOs and activists in society. They matter because they DO represent a certain part of society, however niche. And that representation is not affected by e.g. election campaigns or daily political scandal. In that sense, NGOs who advocate for a group or interest have a stronger connection to their sympathizers than parties do to theirs.
Two, appreciate the fact that NGOs are not constrained by electoral politics and campaigns, which means that they can break political taboos and question long-held beliefs. Which basically means that NGOs ‘test’ political topics before anyone else, and allow parties to join the cause if it is popular enough.
Three, focus on what connects you with NGOs. Basically any modern party understands how climate change is one of the most important issues, so allying your party with green interest groups can be a net positive. Just make sure to respect the fact that they probably raised awareness about climate change a long time before your party did. No problem: that is why they exist. Just respect their autonomy and avoid framing them as a subsidiary of your party.
And four, if your party is serious about gaining a majority in your country, understand that it will be impossible without voters who don’t really care about parties. The next best option to get them to take part in political life are interest groups representing causes they care about. For example, many disabled people might not care about politics, but they will pay attention to NGOs fighting for their interests, and might notice parties who ally with those NGOs. Or single mothers. Or single fathers. You get the picture.
In short: the way to an electoral majority runs through civil society. Whether you like it or not.