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Ruling the Void: The hollowing out of western democracy

Nick Spencer

Peter Mair
Verso, 192pp

A century ago, nonconformists won the British General Election. An unprecedented 181 secured seats as Liberal MPs, effecting a landslide and marking an astonishing achievement for a group that had, within living memory, been widely treated with suspicion. The victory proved Pyrrhic. Nonconformity's political triumph came at the expense of evangelism and empty pews. Having spent too much time 'making numerous and ardent politicians, it has made scarce any saints.' Within a generation, nonconformity - and the party - had all but vanished from the political landscape.

This tale of political hubris came to me when reading Peter Mair's fine, short, posthumous book on the state of western democracy. In the battle for political survival that scarred the 20th century, democracy proved the fittest system. In 1900, there were no fully-fledged democracies anywhere. By 1950, 28% of regimes were fully democratic and by 2000 this had risen to 63%. More pointedly, by 1990 democracy was the only game in town. Few could imagine a serious alternative. Fewer sought one. Democracy had won.

Mair's contention is that this has become a hollow victory. Our notion of democracy, he explains, is being 'steadily stripped of its popular component'. In particular, political parties are dying, with alarming consequences. Reasonably static until 1980 (except in the UK, where it was already falling), party membership almost halved in the 1980s and 90s. By 2000, the average total party membership in a Western democracy was around 5% of the population, a third of what it was in the 1960s. Italy led the way, losing around 1.5 million members between 1980 and 2009, but others followed: Britain lost 1.2 million, France a million, Germany half a million, Austria 400,000. If you think the churches have membership problems, try running a political party. The decline has slowed now, but only because there is nowhere left to go.

This trend is severe and ubiquitous. 'Mass politics rarely moves in concert', Mair notes, but there is true cross-national convergence here, and it doesn't end with party membership. Anti-political sentiments abound. Party allegiance (the more general sense of 'being' Tory, Labour, Social Democrat, etc.) has fallen. Support for parties of protest has increased. Electoral turnout has also declined: average Western European turnout fell from 82% in the early 1990s to 76% today (it remains much higher than in the US). Electoral troughs in this period were unusually deep: 11 of 15 European democracies recorded their lowest ever turnout since 1990. All in all, we honour democracy more in rhetoric than in reality.

Ruling the Void is more than simply a sorry litany of depressing data. Mair does not toll the bell for democracy as such, but for party democracy, and for this to matter you need to know why parties matter. Mair explains. Parties give voice. They integrate and mobilise the public, articulate and aggregate interests, translating these into public policy, recruiting and promoting political leaders in the process. There are many other kinds of democracy, some more direct (like referendum or plebiscite democracy) and some less (corporatist democracy) but Western democracies emerged as party democracies and if they lose that, they will not only become something very different but risk losing the fundamental connection between ruled and rulers.

This is precisely what is happening, Mair argues, as elites withdraw from those they govern and political scientists 'attempt to define democracy in a way that does not require any substantial emphasis on popular sovereignty'. In its place, there emerge the 'experts': allegedly non-partisan technocratic specialists, embedded in supposedly accountable institutions of state, who make decisions that are beyond the capacity not only of the ordinary voter but often of the politicians they elect. For all the incessant talk of electoral reform bringing politics closer to the people, party democracy is evolving into what Lord Hailsham once called 'elective dictatorship': government that is certainly of the people, arguably for the people but, in as far as possible, not by the people.

Mair puts the blame for this squarely on the EU and his final chapter (assembled by his editor from various sources: Mair died before completing the book) comprises a withering critique of '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.' This is no UKIP rant but rather a patient argument that 'despite the seeming availability of channels of access [to the EU], the scope for meaningful input and hence for effective electoral accountability is exceptionally limited.' The EU has no self-conscious demos, its integration is driven by elites rather than popular sentiment, and its structures are more alert to the concerns of interested parties than of the public at large. To many political scientists this isn't a problem. 'Expert-based decision making is not on its own illegitimate and antithetical to democracy… It is conducive to democratic legitimacy under certain modern conditions', one opines. Mair disagrees.

Ruling the Void suffers from being unfinished, hardly something for which one can blame the author who died suddenly aged only 60. It does a superb job in drawing attention to and explaining the seriousness of the hollowing out of Western democracy, and its case against the EU is powerful and convincing. But it fails to deal adequately with two important contextual factors: individualisation and globalisation.

Party democracy has weakened because Westerners seem happier as individualised consumers and spectators than they do as collective participants. We are fundamentally different from the generations that secured the franchise in the first instance, which is why we are having such problems sustaining party democracy.

Just as seriously, continent-wide political systems have become necessary on account of the vast global flow of capital, services and goods, which dwarf any one nation's capacity to deal with them. Sheer interconnectivity has forced upon medium-sized countries such as make up the EU the need to work together long before their peoples felt sufficient affinity to back any fiscal, let alone political, unification.

This is not to excuse popular apathy, elite political hauteur or what Mair sees as the disingenuous Europeanisation of democracy. Western democracy is indeed far hollower than our mandatory genuflections at its altar recognise. But the problem is deeper than any one of these factors allows and while it may be ameliorated is hardly likely to be solved. The fear is not that Western democracy is hollow but that in the 21st century it cannot be anything but hollow.