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.

Collapsing party membership deeply affects legitimacy, while state funding of parties confirms their professionalisation. Mair’s other indicators of declining participation are largely confirmed empirically, although there are variations across Europe.

In the US there is a different type of presidential party system, much more loosely organised than the European mass parties, but highly polarised ideologically. Might this represent Europe’s future? Some of the more optimistic thought so, arguing that Mair underestimated in his later work the adaptability of parties. After all, we live in a different world to the one in which mass parties took shape – more individualistic, post-Fordist and more open to global flows.

So the reinvention of democracy can be imagined, for example by harnessing new information technologies; by devolution; by lowering voting ages; by new forms of deliberation such as participatory budgeting, consensus conferences, and citizens’ juries and assemblies; by channelling social and protest movements back towards mainstream politics; and by strengthening democratic accountability at European level.

Populism is certainly an emerging force. It pits the pure people against the corrupt elites. On the right, it invokes the nation; and on the left, class as the popular expression. Along with charismatic leadership, these parties promise to protect sovereignty against globalisation and reject liberal checks and balances. It is too soon to say how far they will go, but as yet most European party systems have withstood the strain.

Mair saw the potential to develop more democratic accountability in the EU by strengthening the European Parliament, directly electing the European Commission president, and empowering competitive European party groups. But it would be a struggle, and a lot of politics would necessarily remain at the national level. The latest round of euro zone rule-making is severely constraining, seeming to confirm his picture of democracy without choices.

Mair was scathing about the arrogance of European Central Bank figures such as Lorenzo Bini Smaghi in denying Irish voters a choice on renegotiating the EU-IMF bailout terms; but he saw the force of the argument for continuity of state commitments. In a multilevel system politics begins at home but no longer ends there – but how best to organise it? That is the central conundrum of contemporary European democracy.

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