Lecture 21/22: Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy?

Last week we argued that when public debt increases political choice over fiscal policy declines. Governments change but the policy regime remains the same.

More precisely, in a world global capital markets, austerity, and monetary union, the capacity of political parties to represent and respond to citizens interests declines.

The state has two constituencies: markets (investors, creditors, debt servicing, interest rates, claims to assets) and voters (citizens, public opinion, elections, services, social rights).

In a context of a sovereign debt crisis and austerity the external demands placed on governments increase. Representativeness and democratic choice declines.

But if elections and a change in parties in government makes no difference to policy outcomes, then surely democracy is incapacitated?

The outcome is a legitimation crisis, whereby political parties in governments rule as technocratic managers, rather than representative agents of the electorate.

This is the core research finding of the book “Ruling the Void: the Hallowing out of Western Democracy“, by the late Prof Peter Mair. The book opens with the following quote:

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in  meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form

This premise is then backed up with a litany of empirical data on declining voter turnout and party membership in western parliamentary democracies since 1945

See this data: http://www.idea.int/data-tools

Why has voter turnout declined? Why are swathes of the electorate abandoning the centrist political parties across Europe?

One hypothesis is that this rejection of political parties (not quite the rejection of politics) is a direct outcome of the inability of political parties to offer distinct policy choices and “represent” citizens in government.

Declining voter turnout and party membership is a universal trend throughout the western world, whilst declining voter turnout correlates directly with rising income inequality.

Political parties were traditionally considered intermediate agents between voters and political institutions of the state.

The classic role of the political party was to act as the “voice of the people“, to translate voters’ interests into public policy, and to compete for control of the executive of the state.

For Mair, since the 1980’s, there has been a gradual withdrawal of party elites from civil society towards the realm of government and the state.

“Responsible government” has gradually become more important than “responsive government”, with the implication that a “governing class” has emerged to act as “managers of the state”.

Mair attributes this “hallowing out of democracy” to two interrelated causal factors: individualization and globalization (included in the latter is “Europeanization”). Both of which are intimately connected to the decline of mass parties.

  • Individualisation refers to the process of segmentation and liberalization of social collectivities that previously structured the growth of mass parties i.e. the church, trade unions, sporting associations and farming groups.

This is a complex process and interlinked with the changing structure of labour markets and employment. Social democratic or left parties are arguably most affected.

  • Globalisation refers to the declining ability of government to autonomously shape national public policies.

Under these constraints politicians shift decision-making to non-majoritarian institutions, like regulatory agencies, central banks and the EU, who are insulated from the redistributive pressures of majoritarian politics.

The constraint associated with being a ‘responsible’ member of international organizations such as the EMU or the WTO is particularly challenging for small open economies and parliamentary democracies, such as Ireland.

During the Euro crisis this tension could be observed directly, when national elections were replaced by what Wolfgang Streeck calls a “political system of depoliticized expert governance, specifically designed to exclude popular democracy and redistributive politics”.

Depending on your normative preference, this shift toward economic managerialism can be considered positively in the sense of “building state-technocratic capacity”, or negatively, in the sense of “the hallowing out of democracy”.

From a political science perspective, what is more interesting is the political consequence of this de-politicisnation, particularly for distributive politics. In a democracy, citizens will always demand some form of representation. They will never be content with only technocratic management.

The question, therefore, is whether political parties are capable of achieving both? Can they be both representative agents and responsible governors?

For Mair, the answer is no, not unless they are willing to give up their “responsibility” to capitalist markets and international organisations. Dani Rodrik agrees.

But if the politics of representation (and political opposition) declines it should not be surprising if anti-politics and Euro skepticism emerges as a replacement.

This re-politicisation of representative and popular government can be observed right across Europe in the aftermath of the crisis. But it varies by country.

In Spain, the shift is toward the left, with the emergence of Podemos, whilst in most northern European countries and the USA, the shift appears to be heading towards populist right-wing politics, such as UKIP in the UK, Font National in France or AfD in Germany.

But surely political parties in government are not completely decapitated, and can at least minimally respond and represent public opinion?

To answer this question, we need to analyze what is public opinion?

According to the latest Eurobarometer poll, the four main concerns of European citizens are: their economic situation, unemployment, public finances and immigration.

Discuss: are political parties capable of offering distinct policy choices to tackle these problems, whilst simultaneously being accountable to the external demands of international markets?


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