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Ruling The Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy

By Peter Mair

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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. Ruling the Void is about this problem.

It deals with how the changing character of political parties impacts upon their standing, legitimacy, and effectiveness, and thereby also on the standing, legitimacy and effectiveness of modern democracy.

As I try to show in this book, much of this has to do with the failings of contemporary political parties.

Within the world of the politicians, the most obvious case was that of Tony Blair, who famously set himself up as being a leader above politics and political partisanship.

As far as politics was concerned, and perhaps even as far as the democratic process more generally was concerned, expert reason was deemed superior to interest. But while the various sources of evidence did indeed point to widespread indifference to politics and politicians, they seemed to offer a much less robust foundation for the notion of indifference towards democracy as such.

By the end of the 1990s, democracy – whether associative, deliberative, or reflective; global, transnational, or inclusive; electoral, illiberal, or even just Christian – was at the centre of animated debate. At these levels at least – that is, institutionally and within the academy – indifference did not seem to figure.

This massive renewal of interest in democracy coexists with indications of an opposite kind. In the political discourse of the twenty-first century we can see clear and quite consistent evidence of popular indifference to conventional politics, and we can also see clear evidence of an unwillingness to take part in the sort of conventional politics that is usually seen as necessary to sustain democracy. How do we square these developments?

For, far from seeking to encourage greater citizen participation, or trying to make democracy more meaningful for the ordinary citizen, many of the discussions of institutional reforms, on the one hand, and of the theory of democracy, on the other, seem to concur in favouring options that actually discourage mass engagement.

In other words, while there may be some concern with the problem of popular indifference to democracy, the idea of making democracy more massuser friendly does not seem to be a frequently favoured answer.

Far from being an answer to disengagement, the contemporary concern with renewing democracy is about coming to terms with it.

If democracy is being redefined to downgrade its popular component, then why is this happening, and why now?

As parties fail, so too fails popular democracy. Or, to put it another way, thanks to the failings of parties, popular democracy can no longer function in the way in which we have come to understand and accept it, and in the way it has always functioned up to now. In going beyond parties, democracy also passes beyond popular involvement and control.

The rise of political parties is indubitably one of the principal distinguishing marks of modern government. The parties, in fact, have played a major role as makers of governments; more especially they have been the makers of democratic government.

Thus, for example, it is argued that despite all the problems facing parties, and despite different and cumulative challenges, they will continue to survive, as Schattschneider suggests, as long as democracy survives…we can also read it the other way around, suggesting that the failure of parties might indeed imply the failure of democracy…

If democracy, or representative government, is unthinkable save in terms of parties, then perhaps, in the face of party failings, it does indeed become unthinkable, or unworkable.

First, as is now well established, parties are increasingly failing in their capacity to engage ordinary citizens…

Second, the parties can no longer adequately serve as a base for the activities and status of their own leaders, who increasingly direct their ambitions towards external public institutions and draw their resources from them.

Parties are failing because the zone of engagement – the traditional world of party democracy where citizens interacted with and felt a sense of attachment to their political leaders – is being evacuated.

I focus on the evidence of popular withdrawal and disengagement from conventional politics and discuss the emptying of the space in which citizen interaction with political representatives might be expected to be at its closest and most active.

I am concerned to emphasize the evidence of indifference on the part of both the citizenry and the political class: they are withdrawing and disengaging from one another…

I argue that because of the gap that has been created by the process of mutual withdrawal, and really for the first time in post-war political history, the political class itself has now become a matter of contention…

In sum, because of the growing enfeeblement of party democracy, and the indifference towards party democracy that is being expressed on both sides of the political divide, we now find ourselves being offered as alternative scenarios either the populist or the ostensibly non-political expert.

If politics no longer counts for so much, then not only should the willingness to vote begin to falter; so also should the sense of commitment among those who continue to take part.

Electoral volatility is likely to increase; new parties and or new candidates are likely to prove more successful; and traditional alignments are likely to come under pressure. Hand in hand with indifference goes inconsistency.

Citizens are also obviously much less willing to take on the obligations and commitments associated with membership in party organizations. Here too, it is striking to note not only the sheer decline in the number of party members over time, but also the extent to which this decline seems characteristic of all long-established democracies.

Though the levels of party membership in absolute numbers now appear to be bottoming out – indeed, they have often fallen so low as to make it almost impossible to imagine further decline in absolute numbers without this signalling the wholesale collapse of the party organizations concerned – the scale of the decline since the high point reached in the late 1970s is unmistakable.

In the United Kingdom and France, the parties have lost around 1 million members over the course of the last three decades, equivalent to approximately two-thirds of the memberships recorded around 1980.

The most obvious conclusion is that it has now become more than evident that citizens are withdrawing and disengaging from the arena of conventional politics.

Electorates in this sense are becoming progressively destructured, affording more scope to the media to play the role of agenda-setter, and requiring a much greater campaign effort from parties and candidates.

The conclusion is then clear: all over Western Europe, and in all likelihood all over the advanced democracies, citizens are heading for the exits of the national political arena.

***

As Britain’s two-party system gave way to alternating periods of predominance, so too adversarial politics gave way to a new centrist consensus. The parties might still compete with one another for votes, sometimes even intensively, but they came to find themselves sharing the same broad commitments in government and confining themselves to the same ever-narrowing repertoire of policy-making. *

In many different respects – including their patterns of incumbency, their policy commitments, and their electoral profiles – parties within the mainstream have become less easily distinguished from one another than they were in the polities of the late 1970s.

Even when parties are in government, in other words, the freedom for partisan manoeuvre is severely limited, and this too makes the task of differentiating between parties or between governments more difficult.

Through the sharing of office, programmes and voters, even as competing coalitions, the parties have become markedly less distinct from one another, while partisan purpose is itself seen as less meaningful or even desirable.

Party government in democratic polities will prevail when a party or party bloc wins control of the executive as a result of competitive elections, when the political leaders in the polity are recruited by and through parties, when the (main) parties or alternatives in competition offer voters clear policy alternatives, when public policy is determined by the party or parties holding executive office and when that executive is held accountable through parties.

My contention is that, as a result of long-term shifts in the character of elections, parties and party competition, it is precisely this set of conditions that is being undermined.

Party, in this sense, loses much of its representative and purposive identity, and in this way citizens forfeit much of their capacity to control policy-makers through conventional electoral channels.

In the absence of a left-right plane of competition, in other words, the entire foundation of the party government/responsible parties model is undermined.

It is here that the challenge to party government may be most sharply defined. Briefly put, and building on a variety of different arguments, it may be argued that the left-right divide, even in its simplest form, is now finally losing coherence.

In these circumstances, it is almost impossible to imagine party government functioning effectively or maintaining full legitimacy.

Parties, like the other traditional agencies of the European polities, might well be accepted by citizens as necessary for the good functioning of politics and the state, but they are neither liked nor trusted, and one way in which we might better understand this change in perspective is by recognizing that although the trappings of party government may persist, the conditions for its maintenance as a functioning governmental mode are now at serious risk.

On the face of it, we might expect that the popular withdrawal from conventional politics discussed in Chapter 1 would leave a lot of angry and frustrated politicians in its wake.

Rarely has there been such widespread discussion of institutional reform, be it of the electoral system, parliamentary procedures, local or regional government, plebiscitary mechanisms or whatever.

Disengagement is mutual, and for all the rhetoric that echoes on all sides, it is general.

The British Labour party, for example, was built on the basis of a very powerful class identity, but always remained relatively weak in organizational terms, preferring to develop as a sort of federal party to which local organizations and trade unions could become affiliated.

The result was that European democracy became synonymous with party democracy, and European government with party government.

In other words, parties – or at least the classic mass party – gave voice to the people, while also ensuring that the institutions of government were accountable.

The golden age of party has now passed, and one of the principal purposes of this book is to analyse some of the causes and implications of this great change of political condition.

*

Party-voter distances have become more stretched, while party-party differences have shrunk, with both processes combining to reinforcing a growing popular indifference to parties and, potentially, to the world of politics in general. This also becomes one of the sources of the growing popular distrust of parties and of political institutions more generally.

Electoral identification with political parties is now almost universally in decline, and the sense of attachment to party has been substantially eroded.

The voice of the ordinary voter is seen to be at least as relevant to the party organization as that of the active party member, and the views of focus groups often count more than those of conference delegates.

Parties have also cemented their linkage to the state and to the public institutions by increasingly prioritizing their role as governing (rather than representative) agencies. In the terms adopted by the analysts of coalition formation, parties have become more office-seeking, with the winning of a place in government being now not only a standard expectation, but also an end in itself.

What we see is ‘the ascendancy of the party in public office’. What remains is a governing class.

One of the first functions usually associated with political parties is that of helping to integrate and mobilize the citizenry in the polity within which the parties compete.

In sum, while parties may be important in other respects, this particular task no longer forms an essential – or even effective – part of their repertoire.

The second key representative function classically associated with parties is as articulator and aggregator of social and political interests present within the wider society.

The articulation of popular interests and demands now occurs more and more often outside the party world, with the preferred role of parties being that of the receiver of signals that emanate from the media or the wider society.

So conceived, the traditional representative role of the mass party eventually wastes away.

In other words, the functions that parties do perform, are seen to perform, and are expected to perform, have changed from combining representative and governing roles to relying almost exclusively on a governing role. This is the final passing of the traditional mass party.

Parties have reduced their presence in the wider society and become part of the state. They have become agencies that govern – in the widest sense of the term – rather than represent.

The result is the beginning of a new form of democracy, one in which the citizens stay at home while the parties get on with governing.

Despite its evident idiosyncrasies, the EU should not be seen as particularly exceptional or sui generis, but rather as a political system that has been constructed by national political leaders as a protected sphere in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy.

It was only after 1989, however, that the pronounced variation in types of democracy was brought to the fore.

Now it seemed that something more than elections was required, or perhaps even something different.

In short, the EU is not conventionally democratic, and can never be conventionally democratic, for the simple reason that it has been constructed to provide an alternative to conventional democracy.

Political opposition gives voice. By losing opposition, we lose voice, and by losing voice we lose control of our own political systems. It is not at all clear how that control might be regained, either in Europe or at home, or how we might eventually restore meaning to that great milestone on the road to building democratic institutions.