Norms underlying representative democracy are breaking down

Political scientists were caught out in 2016; we need to reassess polling and research

This year has been a rollercoaster of a year for democracy, and also for those whose work is in the serious study of politics. This time last year most British political scientists felt that the majority vote in the EU membership referendum would be for “remain”, and most US political scientists didn’t see Trump surviving the primaries.

The consensus in political science was that the rise of populism in recent elections across the world, while significant, would reach a natural ceiling: the mainstream political forces would continue to hold the line.

One year on and so much has changed: the British opted for Brexit, the Americans for Trump. Inconclusive elections in Ireland and Spain (in Spain's case following in the wake of inconclusive elections a few months earlier) resulted in tortuous inter-party wranglings leading ultimately to the election of zombie governments; in Italy, Matteo Renzi, the reformist prime minister, lost an important constitutional referendum forcing his immediate resignation and threatening to plunge Italy (and the euro zone) back into crisis. On the same day as the Italian vote Austrian voters narrowly avoided electing the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, as president with almost half of the electorate voting for him. Meanwhile, regional elections in Germany over the course of the year also saw far-right gains – most recently in Berlin last September when the Alternative für Deutschland won more than 14 per cent of the vote.

Democracy in retreat

And these are just examples from the world's established democracies. Across the globe democracy seems in retreat: newer, more fragile democracies are under threat (including EU member states like Hungary and Poland). In its latest report the influential international think tank Freedom House noted the 10th consecutive annual decline in overall measures of "freedom" (particularly in the areas of freedom of expression and rule of law), with the rate of decline becoming more dramatic in the past year.


The old certainties are gone: the familiar comfort blanket of democracy is starting to look quite weather beaten not least in this “post-truth” age; mainstream political parties are in retreat in the face of rising support for populist forces on the right and the left of politics; election outcomes are becoming ever more unpredictable as voters lash out against the establishment.

Political science needs to rise to the challenge of these uncertain times in at least four respects.

Firstly, as social scientists we strive to be objective, seeking to develop evidence-based analysis, to make arguments based on facts. Of course this is not foolproof. We are all human after all; opinion can creep in, especially when the subject matter lends itself to it. But we must not let our dislike of certain election outcomes or our abhorrence of some political actors prejudice our analysis: for instance, many of those voting for Brexit or Trump did so for well-considered reasons. This needs careful analysis.

Secondly, recent election outcomes also raise important questions about the polling methodology that underlies so much of our analysis. In the UK 2015 election, the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential elections the pollsters got it wrong. If we’re going to continue to use survey research in a predictive capacity then some thought needs to be given to how to improve the methodology: we need to tread ever more carefully in our efforts to survey voter attitudes and behaviour. In an age of low partisan attachment and high electoral volatility the predictive potential of voter surveys needs careful calibrating, and warning notes about “margins of error” need to be taken more seriously. The frustration for political scientists is that we know how polling can be done better, but good survey work does not come cheap and we lack the funding to do this.

Survey design

But this is more than just a problem of skewed samples and poor weighting models; questions also need to be asked about survey designs that are failing to tap important opinion shifts. The fact that one of the wealthiest people in the US – a man with his own private jet decked out with gold and gaudy glitz – should attract 46 per cent of the popular vote and such a large base of “anti-establishment” support, particularly from among the less well-off, is symbolic of highly significant tectonic shifts in voter opinion. The norms that underlie representative democracy as we know it – most notably perhaps the nature of “class politics” – are breaking down: the old assumption that, for instance, the working class vote for parties of the left no longer applies quite so readily. It is time for all of us, political scientists included, to wake up to this challenge.

Finally, at this time of democratic challenge we need to redouble our efforts to analyse and audit the state of our system of representative democracy, including the “integrity” of the electoral process. This need is particularly acute in the US where Trump’s election (its manner and its outcome) threatens the fundamentals of one of the longest standing democracies in the world. If it can happen there it can happen anywhere: we have nothing to be complacent about.

As democracy limps into 2017 where will we be a year from now? It would be a brave person who would attempt to call the result of next year’s French or German elections.

David Farrell holds the chair of politics at UCD