Imagining the reinvention of democracy
WORLD VIEW:Is the age of party democracy over, as the late scholar Peter Mair argued?
ROLLING PROTESTS in Spain, mass demonstrations in Portugal, Italian trade-union strike threats, continuous street politics in Greece, and a rapid-fire online rebellion in France against a new tax on small-business innovation.
These recent events all point to great turbulence in European politics, which is confronted with the imperatives of imposed austerity within the EU and the question of who should bear its costs. Can domestic politics take the strain or will electorates revolt? Might that take a populist turn? What effects do wider changes in the quality of party democracy have on these developments? Are governments capable of combining responsiveness to the voters who elected them with responsibility to implement agreed policies?
Or is democracy being eroded and hollowed out at national level without being adequately compensated elsewhere in the multilevel political systems we now inhabit in the EU?
These questions were considered last week at a conference in Florence at the European University Institute in honour of Peter Mair, the Irish political scientist who taught there until his sudden death last year. It is a tribute to his international standing and influence as a writer on European political parties and their democratic role that such issues can so readily be framed in terms of his research and theories.
A forthcoming book completed before he died, Ruling the Void, The Hollowing-Out of Western Democracy (Verso), will give an overview of his argument. In its introduction, he says: “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.”
His case is supported by evidence of sharply falling party membership, declining election turnouts, loss of trust, growth of voting volatility and reduced party identification – all indicating a withdrawal from the institutions indispensable to the introduction of popular democracy throughout Europe a century and more ago.
That is paralleled by a reconfiguration of political elites into a converging professional governing class insulated from popular control and increasingly relying on personalised leadership and media to communicate and justify their rule. An associated depoliticisation transfers governance to independent agencies, courts, banks – and to an inadequately accountable EU. A dangerous partyless populism could emerge in these conditions.
The scholars attending the conference debated these propositions in an appreciative yet critical spirit. Some shared Mair’s pessimism about the erosion of European parties’ capacity to represent and respond to citizens in the past 20 to 25 years and the consequent deterioration in democratic quality.