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THE SLOW DEATH OF WESTERN DEMOCRACY AND WHAT
COMES AFTER
Álvaro Gómez del Valle Ruiz
Graduate Student at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid
“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a
President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Abstract: Democracy is living a paradoxical moment at the global level. While more people are now empowered to vote and
hold elected office than at any other time in history, and democracy has become the unrivaled blueprint for a legitimate
government, it can be argued that democracy, is in, fact in decline. Participation rates have fallen to appalling lows, and political
parties fail to energize their electorates on capture the imagination of societies. Decisions on an ever-expanding list of issues,
ranging from economic regulation to social rights, are made not in the ballot box but in the corridors of non-majoritarian
institutions on the offices of lobbyists that cannot be held to account demo- cratically. These trends are slowly choking
democracy and imperiling the Western liberal order.
L
D
eclining Confidence and Engagement
ast year, the downgrading of the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in the annual
Democracy Index by Economist Intelligence Unit made waves across international media. Although many
commentators rushed to point to the election of Donald Trump as the determinant factor of this decline, the report
insists this was not a cause but a result of it, due to a “protracted and persistent decline in levels of popular
1
confidence in political institutions and parties.”
The United States was hardly alone in this troubling trend—a direct result of the slow erosion of public trust in
politicians, political parties, and political institutions. The 2016 Democracy Index, which incorporates 60 indicators
across five broad categories—electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation,
democratic political culture, and civil liberties—saw the
Journal of International Affairs, Fall/Winter 2017, Vol. 71, No. 1. fall/winter 2017 | 161 © The Trustees of Columbia
University in the City of New York
Á lvaro Gómez del Valle Ruiz
2
scores of more than 70 countries decline compared to 2015. Out of the 38 coun- tries that improved their scores, the
case of Great Britain stands out, which went from 8.31 to 8.36 thanks to the strong turnout for the Brexit vote, which
is in itself hardly a success for democracy.
The decline in confidence has increasingly become a fixture in Western democracies. In 1964, 77 percent of
3
American citizens said they trusted the gov- ernment in Washington “always” or “most of the time.” In 2015, that
4
figure sunk to 19 percent. In every major poll conducted since July 2007, less than one in three Americans have
5
expressed trust in the federal government. Although not as well documented as in the United States, this is a
widespread phenomenon in other Western democracies. In particular, Pharr, Putnam, and Dalton identify evidence
of the decline in political support in three areas: disillusionment with politicians, political institutions, and political
6
parties.
To clarify, distrust and criticism of the government are not only not bad but a crucial component of the democratic
process. Disaffection is a healthy part of democracy, and elections give constituents the chance to correct their
choices every so often. The problem is when “dissatisfaction is generalized to the point where citizens lose faith in
7
the entire political class…then the chances for demo- cratic renewal are seriously diminished.”
Alienation from political leaders has come from a mutual withdrawal of career politicians and the general public. On
one hand, career politicians at the helm of political parties are increasingly perceived as disconnected elites who
retreat into institutions and direct their ambitions toward external public institutions, often using political parties as
8
stepping stones to other offices. On the other hand, the general public withdraws either into private life or into what
Beck terms sub- politics, or “politics emerging–and hiding away–in new places: for instance, in the everyday
9
activities and choices of people and in the often informal and sponta- neous political actions of social movements.”
On the same topic, Bennett writes,
What is changing about politics is not a decline in citizen engagement, but a shift away from old forms that is
complemented by the emergence of new forms of political interest and engagement…Civic culture is not dead, it has
10
merely taken new identities, and can be found living in other communities.
In any case, this mutual withdrawal has two major effects: the growing acceptance and legitimation of non-political
or depoliticized methods of decisionmaking, which kindles a sense of disempowerment among the general
electorate; and increased hostility toward the national political class, which has facilitated various populist
challenges, and which possibly reached its zenith in 2016.
In the event that politicians do click with the electorate, it has less to do with their status as politicians or ties with
any political party than with their person162 | Journal of International Affairs
The Slow Death of Western Democracy and What Comes After
ality and charisma. In fact, the “outsider” status is seen as a major asset in our current political climate: from former
investment banker Emmanuel Macron and reality TV star and businessman Donald Trump to more bizarre examples
such as German Chancellor-hopeful Martin Schulz, who after a life of public service in the European Union is
selling his brand as an outsider to German domestic politics, and Senator Bernie Sanders, a seventy-six year old
career politician who, after ten years serving in the United States Senate, positioned himself as an outsider vis-à- vis
Hillary Clinton.
Although political leaders continue to be recruited by the party, they are less likely to be recruited through the party,
with the choice of leader “often deter- mined by the candidate’s capacity to appeal to the media and hence to the
11
wider electorate,” less so than by the candidate’s support within the party. This trend can be seen clearly in the rise
of Jeremy Corbyn in British Labour politics. Twice challenged by the leadership of his own party, he has managed
to cling to power through his direct link with the base.
The clearest way to assess the levels of disengagement with political institu- tions, which are generally harder to
evaluate, is through participation in national elections. While there is much literature written on this topic, there
is also ongoing academic debate over
whether declining numbers represent
the disengagement of existing voters
or whether it is a generational issue.
Regardless, it is clear that we are witnessing a pervasive, global phenomenon that signals a weakening of the
democratic electoral process.
“Once societies begin to take democracy as a given with whole
generations born into that system, it is difficult to maintain the
enthusiasm and citizen engagement characteristic of newly-born
democracies. ”
From the 1950s to the 1980s, average turnout in democratic elections in Western Europe scarcely varied, “increasing
marginally from 84.3 percent in the 1950s to 84.9 percent in the 1960s and then falling slightly to 83.9 percent in the
12
1970s and to 81.7 percent in the 1980s.” Although slight, the decline from the 1970s to 1980s was noticeable
among the 15 long-established European democra- cies for which there is long-term reliable data, according to
13
Mair. The case of France stands out, with a decline of over 10 percentage points.
This decline was the first symptom of a trend that began to accelerate in the 1990s. According to data presented by
Mair, participation throughout Western Europe fell from 81.7 percent in the 1980s to 77.6 percent in the 1990s, and
further to 75.8 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, reflecting steep declines in particular cases.
fall/winter 2017 | 163
Á lvaro Gómez del Valle Ruiz
Once societies begin to take democracy as a given, with whole generations born into that system, it is difficult to
maintain the enthusiasm and citizen-engagement characteristic of newly-born democracies. The decline of
democratic momentum should be accepted as inevitable, barring unexpected crises or major upheavals to the system,
14
which permit re-engagement.
Nonetheless, some fear that in the same way that high participation deems a democracy to be more legitimate,
consistent low turnouts throughout an extended period will undermine the democratic system, making it less
15
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legitimate and robust. Authors like Heran and Muxel have described “the party of abstainers,” often the first
political group in their countries. For example, in the first round of the French presidential elections, Macron won
the presidency with 8.5 million votes, trailed by Marine Le Pen with 7.7 million votes. However, neither came close
17
to the 10.2 million French citizens that abstained from voting altogether. In the second round, out of the 47.5
million French citizens registered to vote in the elec- tions, over 25 percent, or around 12.1 million, abstained—
18
almost 2 million more than those who cast their vote for Le Pen.
Political Parties as 20th Century Relics
According to political scientist Giovanni Sartori, a political party is “any political group identified by an official
19
category that runs in the elections and that can have candidates elected to public.” The need for political parties
arises when society grows to a point when it is no longer possible to keep using the classical definition of
democracy, better suited for a small city-state and unapt for societies as large and complex as our own. They are
formed because of what Pharr et al. call the greatest modern political innovation: representative democracy, “which
required intermediary institutions to link citizens to their governments, to aggre- gate the increasingly diverse
universe of conflicting social and economic interests into coherent public policies, and to ensure the accountability
20
of rulers to the ruled.”
With the progressive waiver of restrictions to electoral participation, mass democracy arrived, and with it, the
emergence of mass political parties, which became the defining model for the new political age. Mair writes that
21
“[i]n politics, just as in communications, culture, and war, the twentieth century was the mass century” Mass
parties were expected to bring political power to the ordinary citizen from the hands of the elites typical of
22
parliamentarian regimes. They would finally be represented by their own kind. This hope was quickly dispelled by
Michels’ study of the German Social Democrats, the great mass party of his time. His formulation of the Iron Law
of Oligarchy states that all organizations, regard- less of how democratic their beginnings, will eventually morph
into an oligarchy,
164 | Journal of International Affairs
The Slow Death of Western Democracy and What Comes After
with elites establishing themselves well above and away from their base.
Mass parties provided stability and a sense of representation: people no longer voted for a candidate they knew, just
for some individual unknown to them that had been anointed by the party to carry its colors. They managed to build
strong organizational networks by shared social experiences. For decades, in countries such as Austria, France, and
the United Kingdom, voting was a way of belonging to a group. It was not a political choice at all, but rather the
23
result of identity and social destiny. As Rose and Mossawir write, “to speak of the majority of voters in a given
election choosing a party is nearly as misleading as speaking of a wor- shipper on a Sunday choosing to go to an
24
Anglican, rather than a Presbyterian or Baptist church.” In short, partisan “brand loyalty” gives politicians the slack
25
they may need to implement unpopular measures and painful decisions without losing popular support. Similarly,
they allow voters to feel dissatisfied with a particular set of candidates, yet remain committed to the party as a whole
and the values it
represents.
Although significantly weakened for various reasons, partisan loyalty and
identity politics still play a key role in national politics, especially among the older and more conservative electorate.
For one, Partido Popular has sustained its level of support in Spain despite nearly monthly corruption scandals that
have been rocking its party structure for several years now. Additionally, former French presi- dential candidate
François Fillon, who even when besieged by scandals, including the infamous Penelopegate, maintained his core
support at 20 percent, primarily from the social movement Sens Commun. This group is built around conservative
values, opposition to marriage equality, and a strong sense of common French identity—in their own words, “born
26
from a fear that the French left was trying to change civilization.”
Nonetheless, political parties are losing relevance and struggling to define their identity. Their inability to adapt to
changing conditions might play a large role in the crisis of democracy that we are experiencing. Although traditional
cleavages remain relevant to voting behavior, societies are not as distinctly segmented as before. Maintaining a clear
identity became increasingly difficult as parties were forced to extend their appeal ever more broadly across
traditional class and reli- gious lines to the point where “political competition has come to be characterized by the
27
contestation of socially inclusive appeals in search of support from socially amorphous electorates.” The effect this
has on the real world can be seen in the struggle for electoral realignment in the United States, with former
Democrat- voting, working-class, blue-collar workers flocking to the Republican Party while the Democrats, once
28
opposed to the abolition of slavery, become the party of minorities. Both struggle to band together the biggest share
of the electorate
fall/winter 2017 | 165
Á lvaro Gómez del Valle Ruiz
29
under increasingly large big-tents.
Moreover, the attenuation of ideological conflicts in the West in the last
decades, what Fukuyama so readily jumped to call “the end of History,” has pro- duced a reduction in the intensity
of ideological polarization, with all parties in the mainstream becoming less easily distinguishable from one another.
The capacity of national parties to act on the issues that polarized them most visibly, such as macroeconomics, has
been notably reduced by the weight of international markets in globalized economies or supranational non30
majoritarian institutions, such as the European Union. As Rosengaard writes, “[g]lobalization has made it more difficult for national governments to control their economies, and business elites use lobbying, outsourcing, and
31
offshore tax havens as effective tools to sway policies.” Both international markets and supranational nonmajoritarian institutions have eroded traditional instruments of economic policy, while globalization has created
whole new policy challenges that governments cannot fully understand, let alone manage.
A direct result of this political convergence between parties is the loss of coherence of the age-old left-right divide.
This juxtaposition, which was origi- nally used to refer to the seating of royalists and anti-royalists in the Assembly
32
of revolutionary France in 1789, is further weakened by the Eastern European paradox, whereby traditional Left
parties are seen as more conservative. Moreover, the reconfiguration of the global Left as a response to American
33
imperialism has brought together religious fundamentalists, former communists, and critical social movements.
Although this is not new, Western media jumped at the opportunity after France’s first round of the presidential
elections, when both candidates of the tra- ditional Right, Fillon, and the traditional Socialist Party, Hammond, were
34
ruled out. Headlines read “France Discards the Politics of Left and Right,” “La fin du clivage droite-gauche avec
35
l’avènement du tripartisme,” and “French elections 2017: disintegrating left-right divide sets stage for political
36
upheaval.” And not without reason: Macron has steadfastly refused to identify himself as either right- wing or leftwing, an ambivalence supported by his trajectory as an investment banker and later minister in Hollande’s Socialist
government. Le Pen eschewed the left-right divide altogether to frame the election in civilizational terms: nationalist
versus globalist, closed versus open, or what Swiss sociologist and political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi described as a
new divide between “a predominantly urban, ser- vice-based, and liberally-minded constituency of winners of
globalization against a predominantly non-urban, manufacturing-based and conservatively-minded con- stituency of
37
the so-called losers of globalization.”
The inadequacy of traditional parties to address this new reality, as well as
166 | Journal of International Affairs
The Slow Death of Western Democracy and What Comes After
the discrediting of the political establishment, has led to a growing disenchant- ment with partisan politics in
38
general, as more citizens opt to maintain their inde- pendence from political parties altogether. They decide their
vote closer to the moment of voting, with short-term considerations and influences weighing more on their choice
39
than identification with any particular party.
This trend has been both a cause and a consequence of the growing impor- tance of subpolitics, or the growing
number of outlets through which citizens decide to become politically engaged, shunning traditional parties. On a
similar note, Schmitter and Karl conclude that “[t]hese interest associations, and not political parties, have become
the primary expression of the civil society in most stable democracies, supplemented by the more sporadic
40
interventions of social movements.”
Post-democracy
As illustrated, there is growing disengagement and disenchantment with poli- tics, accompanied by a withdrawal of
political parties and elites from the public realm, departing the era of mass politics as understood in the 20th century.
Now the question that remains is what will fill the political vacuum that is created. Crouch argues that the most
evident force has been economic globalization:
Indeed, the more that the state withdraws from providing for the lives of ordinary people, making them apathetic
41
about politics, the more easily can corporate interests use it more or less unobserved as their private milch-cow.
This phenomenon has been termed by scholars such as himself and Jacques Rancière as “post-democracy.” Virtually
all the formal components of democracy survive within post-democracy. But while the mass of citizens “plays a
42
passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given to them,” the bulk of politics “is really
shaped in private by interaction between elected govern- ments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business
43
interests.”
Crucial to this concept is the difference that Crouch makes between two concepts of the active democratic citizen.
Positive citizenship is where “groups and organizations together develop collective identities, perceive the interests
of these identities and autonomously formulate demands based on them.” This type is opposed to negative acti …
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