A political scientist on the front line


WORLD VIEW:Peter Mair’s work on European politics made him an internationally influential figure, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

ONE OF the last e-mails Peter Mair wrote was to his colleague Luciano Bardi concerning an article they were writing with their fellow political scientist Richard Katz. It was to be entitled “Can there be a European politics?” Mair said he would complete his section of the article on his return from holidays in Sligo and not to worry about it, as he had lots to say. Alas, he died the next day.

The many tributes paid to him have emphasised what a major figure he was in political science. Intellectually the discipline is still dominated by United States scholars. Mair’s work put the European experience of political parties, representation and democracy at the centre of its concerns, using a systematic comparative approach that drew on his extensive knowledge of smaller states such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark. This was reflected in the title of his chair at the European University Institute (EUI): Professor of Comparative Politics and Government.

As his close friend Alex Trechsel, a Swiss scholar who also teaches politics there, puts it, Mair “combined a profound historical knowledge of politics with an analytical eye that saw important trends to develop before most others. When I speak to leading American political scientists, they know few Europeans from the literature, but mentioning the name Peter Mair always provokes a sign of recognition. Although he was a true Europeanist, his work became widely cited on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, a most remarkable and rare occurrence in our profession.”

The US concentration on mathematical modelling, rational choice and quantitative methods in political science leads critics to say it knows more and more about less and less. Mair’s work was deeply empirical but it always asked big questions about politics concerning both its detailed study and practical effects on citizens and leaders.

His historical and comparative approach gave him the necessary perspective, ensuring a wide audience within and beyond the academy. I saw this during his seminars last year at the EUI, where I was a visiting fellow, as those who read his remarks on political reform in Ireland to the MacGill summer school in this newspaper last Saturday will appreciate.

Trechsel says Mair “was also one of the most modest academics and intellectuals I have ever come across. When we jointly taught seminars I had to force some of the fundamental texts written by him on to the reading lists. He was too modest to do it himself. When I co-taught graduate seminars with Peter, I often took notes of what he was saying, just like any of our students – I could never stop learning from the enormous reservoir of knowledge he was willing to so generously share with all of us.”

Mair’s other EUI colleagues, such as Bardi and Stefano Bartolini, who attended his funeral at Rosses Point, echoed these sentiments, as did his Irish colleagues. The collaborative research he was doing with them was in the front line of contemporary events, with a deep commitment to accurate analysis and the accumulation of adequate data on European politics.

He argued that the political parties which were central to representing and governing citizens in 20th century democracies have been transformed by social and political changes. There was a popular and elite withdrawal from mass electoral politics when society became more individualised and fragmented. Many functions of government were transferred to depoliticised regulatory bodies, hollowing out democratic life.

Governing became more complex, and so did reading and representing political trends. Professionalisation of parties and public funding drew them closer to the state and away from civil society. They acted more collusively, like cartels, creating a new bipolar political dynamic of ins and outs of government rather than offering alternative visions of society.

As a result, popular trust in and the legitimacy of parties collapsed; their membership fell; and indifference and voter volatility rose with falling political attachments and more fluid political identities. They were no longer efficient intermediaries between society and state, moving much closer to the latter in a growing tension between representative and responsible, expressive and instrumental government.

Europeanisation and globalisation reinforced these surprisingly convergent trends. The vacuum left has been filled by populist parties of right and left, by audience rather than participatory democracy, by polling and focus groups and by a host of new interest groups and non-governmental organisations.

The question asked in Mair’s joint article – “Can there be a European politics?” – is therefore highly germane. Although he originally doubted that Europeanisation had much effect on domestic politics he later argued that the autonomy of political parties in the European Parliament gave them a valuable independence from the EU executive. Potentially this could renew their representative function if they found an effective way to organise transnationally.

The euro zone crisis, in which budgets, debts, taxes and austerity become entangled with domestic issues, is a perfect laboratory for these concerns. A way must be found to continue the work that properly reflects Mair’s critical, engaged and friendly spirit.