Peter Mair on the death of parliamentary democracy


Continuing our series of blogs on the UK General Election, today we bring you an extract from Peter Mair's Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. Peter Mair was one of the leading political scientists of his generation before his death in 2011. Posthumously published, Ruling the Void offers Mair's chilling diagnosis of the EU and the slowly eroding mass democratic politics of Europe since the 1970s. Perfect reading before you cast your vote!

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. Ruling the Void is about this problem. It deals with the problem of parties, of governments and of political representation in contemporary European democracy, and stems from a wider concern with the fracturing politics of popular democracy. It deals with how the changing character of political parties impacts upon their standing, legitimacy, and effectiveness, and thereby also on the standing, legitimacy and effectiveness of modern democracy. Although focused on Europe, and highlighting problems that are of particular relevance to Europe, the implications of the argument run much more widely.

The position that is developed here owes much to e.e. Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People (1960) and to his contention that control over political decision-making sometimes lay beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. This was a familiar theme in the political science of the 1960s, and was echoed in different ways, and differently contested, by a variety of critical scholars in the so-called pluralist-elitist debate. But although that particular debate has since been put to rest, Schattschneider’s thesis continues to be highly relevant – although now in a stronger and less hesitant form. Indeed, almost a half-century later, it seems that even semi-sovereignty is slipping away, and that the people, or the ordinary citizenry, are becoming effectively non-sovereign. What we now see emerging is a notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component – easing away from the demos.

As I try to show in this book, much of this has to do with the failings of contemporary political parties. I am not suggesting that there has been wholesale failure here. Rather, I am seeking to draw attention to an ongoing process in which there are party failings, in which democracy tends to adapt to these failings, and in which there is then a self-generating momentum whereby the parties become steadily weaker and democracy becomes even more stripped down.

When I first began to consider the notion of non-sovereignty, I associated it primarily with indifference: indifference towards politics, on the one hand, and indifference towards democracy, on the other. indifference has always been one of the more neglected elements in the study of the relationship between citizens and politics, and its importance seemed to be badly underestimated by much of the literature on political trust and mistrust that emerged in the late 1990s. From my reading, the real problem at issue here was not trust as such, at least in the sense of there being a problem of popular mistrust of politicians and governments; rather, it was one of interest, or lack of interest, such that the sense of hostility that some citizens clearly felt towards the political class seemed less important than the indifference with which many more citizens viewed the political world more generally. to put it another way, whether politicians were liked or disliked, trusted or distrusted, seemed to matter less than whether they were seen as having a real bearing on citizens’ life situations. of course, the dividing line between indifference and hostility is not always very pronounced, and, as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed in the case of the old French aristocracy, it is easy to breed contempt for those who continue to claim privileges on the basis of functions they no longer fulfill. But even if indifference does lead on to hostility or lack of trust, it remains an important phenomenon in its own right, and hence it is also important to recognize that politics and politicians might simply be deemed irrelevant by many ordinary citizens (see also van Deth, 2000).

Indifference to politics and politicians was not just a problem on the ground, and was not simply confined to what could be seen in the realm of popular culture and attitudes. it was also compounded by the new rhetoric being employed by various politicians in the late 1990s, as well as by a growing anti-political sentiment that could be seen in the specialist literature on policy- making, institutional reform, and governance. Here too it seemed that politics as a process was often being denigrated or devalued, and that indifference to politics was deepening still further. Within the world of the politicians, the most obvious case was that of tony Blair, who famously set himself up as being a leader above politics and political partisanship. ‘I was never really in politics,’ he claimed in a BBC2 television interview broadcast on 30 January 2000, during his first term as prime minister. ‘I never grew up as a politician. I don’t feel myself a politician even now.’ Blair was also at pains to caution against the belief that politics could solve problems. For him, the purpose of the new ‘progressive’ agenda was not to provide solutions from above, but to help citizens to search for their own solutions – ‘to help people make the most of themselves’. Politics in this sense was not about exercising the ‘directive hand’ of government, but about the synergy that could be generated by combining ‘dynamic markets’ with ‘strong communities’. (Blair, 2001). In an ideal world, it seemed, politics would rapidly become redundant. As one of his close cabinet colleagues, Lord Falconer, was later to remark, ‘depoliticizing of key decision-making is a vital element in bringing power closer to the people’ (Flinders and Buller, 2004).

At one level, this was a simple populist strategy – employing the rhetoric of ‘the people’ as a means of underlining the radical break with past styles of government. At another level, however, it was an approach that gelled perfectly well with the tenets of what were then seen as newly emerging schools of governance – and with the idea that ‘society is now sufficiently well organized through self-organizing networks that any attempts on the part of government to intervene will be ineffective and perhaps counterproductive’ (Peters, 2002: 4). In this perspective, government becomes subordinate and deferential, and no longer seeks to wield power or even exercise authority. The relevance of government declines while that of non-governmental institutions and practices increases. In Ulrich Beck’s terms, the dynamic migrates from politics with a capital P to politics with a small p – or to what he sometimes calls ‘sub-politics’ (e.g., Beck, 1992: 183–236).

Anti-political sentiments were also becoming more evident in the more specialized policy-making literature of the late 1990s. In 1997, Alan S. Blinder published an influential article in Foreign Affairs expressing his concern that government in the united States was becoming ‘too political’ (Blinder, 1997). Blinder, who was then a leading professor of economics and deputy head of the Federal Reserve, and hence a weighty contributor to this debate, suggested extending the model of the Federal Reserve in particular, and that of independent central banks in general, to other key policy areas, in such a way that decisions on health policy, welfare provision and so on would be taken out of the hands of elected politicians and passed over to the control of objective non-partisan experts. According to Blinder, the solutions that politics could offer were often sub-optimal, and hence the role of politicians in policy-making should be marginalized, or at least confined to those difficult areas in which the judgement of experts would not be sufficient to legitimize outcomes.

Similar arguments were then emerging in the European context. In 1996, for example, Giandomenico Majone argued that the role of expert decision-making in the policy-making process was superior to that of political decision-making in that the former could better take account of long-term interests. Politicians, by definition, worked only in the short-term, or at least were only capable of committing themselves in the short term, and hence to cede control of policy-making to politicians, allowing decisions to be dominated by considerations of the electoral cycle, was to risk less than optimal outcomes: ‘the segmentation of the democratic process into relatively short time periods has serious negative consequences when the problems faced by society require long-term solutions’. The solution, echoing Blinder’s advocacy of the Federal Reserve model, was to delegate powers to institutions ‘which, by design, are not directly accountable to voters or to their elected representatives’ (Majore, 1996: 10, 3). Majone described these institutions as ‘non-majoritarian’,1 with more than one beneficial effect in decision-making. In particular, experts had many advantages over politicians when it came to dealing with the complexities of modern law-making, and with the many technical problems that often stymied or confused elected politicians. As traditional forms of state control were replaced by more complex regulatory frameworks, expertise rather than political judgement was likely to prove more valuable and effective (Majone, 2003: 299). Here too, then, politics was becoming devalued, with the potential contribution of politicians themselves to the policy process being seen as irrelevant or even damaging.

By the late 1990s, in short, it seemed that neither the citizens, on the one hand, nor the policy-makers, on the other, were keen to privilege the role of political or partisan decision-making. Even the new breed of third-way politician seemed ready to take a back seat. As far as politics was concerned, and perhaps even as far as the democratic process more generally was concerned, expert reason was deemed superior to interest. But while the various sources of evidence did indeed point to widespread indifference to politics and politicians, they seemed to offer a much less robust foundation for the notion of indifference towards democracy as such. Indeed, the extensive debates about constitutional reform at that time, in public forums as well as in the more theoretical literature, gave the impression of a burgeoning interest in democracy, with more attention being paid to how democratic systems worked and to what they meant in reality, than probably at any stage in the previous twenty or thirty years. Democracy was on the agenda in the late 1990s, and, far from being treated with indifference, had become a research priority within both empirical political science and political theory. Already in 1997, for example, David Collier and Steven Levitsky were able to document some 500 different scholarly uses of the term, a number that has probably increased even more substantially since then, while the catalogues of academic publishers were beginning to brim over with new titles on the subject. Democracy was also becoming more of an issue on the everyday political agenda, with debates on institutional reform taking on a substantial role in a large number of western polities, appeals to ‘participatory governance’ issuing from the World Bank and other international organizations, and discussions of the reform of the European union polity achieving a degree of salience that would have been almost unimaginable ten years before – as, for example, could be seen in the discussion of the European Commission White Paper on governance in 2001, with its attention to participation and openness. By the end of the 1990s, democracy – whether associative, deliberative, or reflective; global, transnational, or inclusive; electoral, illiberal, or even just Christian – was at the centre of animated debate. At these levels at least – that is, institutionally and within the academy – indifference did not seem to figure.

Which leads me to my first puzzle. This massive renewal of interest in democracy coexists with indications of an opposite kind. In the political discourse of the twenty- first century we can see clear and quite consistent evidence of popular indifference to conventional politics, and we can also see clear evidence of an unwillingness to take part in the sort of conventional politics that is usually seen as necessary to sustain democracy. How do we square these developments?

This extract is taken from the introduction to Peter Mair's Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (Verso, 2013), currently 50% off as part of our UK Election reading list (until 8th May). See the full reading list and sale here.

See all our UK General Election extracts and articles here, including:

Tariq Ali on "the triumph of finance" and the politics of Thatcher and Blair - exclusive extract from The Extreme Centre.

'Who will protect, provide, shelter, build?' - James Meek on the questions that should be at the heart of the election, but are not being asked.

"Political leaders within the 1% promise to reduce inequality just before they gain power, but then increase it" - an extract from Danny Dorling's 
Inequality and the 1%