The previous decades saw Coke and Pepsi roll out new varieties. For comedians, this came to be a source of absurdist humor. What’s next? Caffeine-free Diet Cherry Coke Zero, am I right? In their own vapid way, what such types were recognizing was the increased fine-tuning of products to individuals. Milk that was available as skim, 1 percent, 2 percent or whole can now be bought lactose-free and/or organic at any supermarket, with unpasteurized raw milk available where permitted by law. Orange juice is sold with pulp, pulp-free or with—as Tony Soprano famously preferred—“some” pulp.
The days when the major three or four networks dominated television are long gone. Cable has given way to streaming services like Netflix, to say nothing of web series. Nor does a viewer have to make one choice for all their viewing needs. Getting one’s news from the networks and then turning to HBO for drama and FX for comedy, for example, is completely unremarkable.
It is only in politics where a binary option is the norm—and we are experiencing the collapse of this in real-time. The phenomenon is strongly underway across Europe. Neither 2017 finalist for the French presidency came from one of the two major parties, just as had been the case in Austria in 2016. In the same way that it takes something truly extraordinary (say, the Super Bowl) for any given network to manage a majority of the viewing audience, one by one it is becoming increasingly difficult for European parliaments to form governments at all—let alone pass legislation.
Last month Angela Merkel led her Christian Democrats to victory in the German elections. For the first time ever there will be six parties represented in the Bundestag. Given Merkel’s refusal to coalition with both the neocommunist Left and the populist AfD, she will be forced to work with both the market-oriented Free Democrats and the Greens. It will be the first German three-party coalition government in decades, if not ever, and would be akin to Mitt Romney trying to form a cabinet with Rand Paul and Jill Stein. These are strange bedfellows to say the least, and areas of consensus are virtually nonexistent.
Similarly, last October saw Iceland’s parliamentary election split across seven parties for the first time. It took Prime Minister Barni Benediktsson two and a half months to get three of the parties to agree to coalition. Even so, the resulting government only had the minimum one-seat parliamentary majority. The inherent instability with such a coalition took its toll with a pedophile scandal earlier this year. New elections are being held this Sunday, precisely one year later.
It recently took the Dutch a record 208 days to agree to a coalition after their March elections. Even so, the resulting four-party deal still only has a one-seat majority. These are four parties who quite obviously represent different interests and points of view. A situation where any one member of parliament has the power to take down the government—whether via defection, death or resignation—is not a governing consensus.
This Saturday, the Czech elections saw similarly unprecedented outcomes. The formerly first place Social Democrats slipped to sixth, while the Pirates took third place despite never having been in parliament before. In 2002 the Czech Chamber of Deputies had four political parties represented. When the new members take their seats there will be nine, which has also never happened before.
What this means is difficult to ascertain. We are seeing signs of this political fragmentation in the United States already, with President Trump seemingly unable—for whatever reason—to get a working Republican majority on any major bill. For those who view government as the essential backbone of a thriving society and economy, these trends can be perceived as nothing other than disturbing—especially as the fragmentation escalates country by country. No governing consensus implies state paralysis and political stalemate. We will never return to a world where the only two choices are Coke and Pepsi, after all. Yet for those who view the government as the enemy, this increasing fragmentation is perhaps the best possible trend that could occur in international politics.
Michael Malice is the author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. He is also the subject of Harvey Pekar’s graphic novel Ego & Hubris and the co-author of five other books. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmalice