Democracy and the transformation of politics.

Keynote speech, ISSEI 2000

The state of contemporary democracy is deeply paradoxical. After the end of the cold war, liberal democracy is - in ideological terms - the only game in town. There is no alternative formula struggling for hegemony, no serious ideological challenge. In these terms, globalization is also democratization.

At closer inspection, democratic regimes have their back against the wall, in many parts of the world. Many democratic regimes are democratic in name only. They are phoney democracies as a dressing-up for new modes of authoritarian rule, or for lack of public governance altogether.

Even in democratically advanced Western countries, democratic rule is challenged from within and from without. Links between people and power are under transformation, and the implications for democratic governance are uncertain.

Historically, representative democracy - with universal suffrage and a free contest by elections - was carried forward by strong social movements: the peasant movement, the labour movement, the womens movement. These movements of political modernity are now forces of the past, marginalized by success or by a transformed social structure.

The alternative program packages of the political parties reflected social cleavages from the first decades of the 20th century, the early years of industrialism and mass politics - labour and capital, primary sector and industry, religion and secularism. Also these cleavages are under radical transformation, and many program packages are relics from yesterday: class parties abandoned by their class, or the other way around, or partisan programs for evaporated factions.

Is there a wider gap between people and power? What we know is that many people think so. Over the last 20 years, the popular trust in government and politicians have been declining in the established democracies, in Western Europe and North America as well as in Japan (Pharr, Putnam, and Dalton 2000). Disillusionment and cynisism in political attitudes are more widespread than they used to be, significantly if not dramatically. The legitimacy of government and the trust in representatives and representative institutions have consistently declined, whether the major explanation is reduced performance or increased expectations or whatever.

More important, however, is the dislocation of partisan politics, the disjunction of social structure from traditional party alternatives. Let me explain, starting with a few telling figures.

Austria is such a fine looking-glass. At the election in 1979, about 62% of working class voters, conventionally defined, voted for the social democratic party, which was the big party of labour. Last year, less than one third of working class voters supported the social democrats. In 1979, only 3% of working class voters supported Die Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), which is Jörg Haiders party. Last year, close to 50% of the working class voters voted for FPÖ (Moreau 2000).

Austria is not far out; as I said, it is a looking glass. National Front (FN) in France has been a major labour party during the 1990s - supported quite heavily by the unemployed, by manual workers in the private sector, by young men with a relatively low education. The support for FN has been particularly strong in working class areas affected by the strains of fast immigration, and it has been massiv in the suburbs and outskirts of Marseille and Lyon. The trends are the same in Germany, particularly in the Eastern Länder, in Belgium, in Denmark, and in virtually all advanced industrial countries.

I will make just two comments here, one brief, and the other one a little longer. The brief one is that the traditional working class is no longer politically correct for the liberal left. A radical formula for this observation was coined by the late Christopher Lasch in The revolt of the elites - and the betrayal of democracy (Lasch 1995). The formula said that the revolt of the elites started in the aftermath of 1968, as the intellectuals of the left gradually abandoned the labour class to the advantage of a radical conception of modernity which alienated broad sections of the population. The cultural radical elites became anti-popular, defining the opinions and attitudes of the lower classes as reactionary, and the parties to the left, or left-liberal, gradually drifted in the same direction, leaving a numerically diminished lower class behind.

In sociological terms a part of this formula borders upon the obvious: the new parties of the popular right - the FPÖ, the FN, etc. - filled a political vacuum which emerged as the intellectuals and the liberal left abandoned "the people" (with "populism" now as a word of abuse), turned their backs to the everyday concerns in insecure neighborhoods, and abandoned "the nation" as well.

The broader political context is a dissolution of partisan politics, particularly among the big labour parties. They have moved towards the center, purified their programs for socialist remnants, embraced market solutions, liberalization, effectiveness, and globalized openness. New Labour in Britain is the European vanguard for this trend, and "The Third Way" is the end of partisan politics: it is conceptualized as the only way, for all the people, and as such it is not between Left and Right but beyond Left and Right (Giddens 1994). The grand strategy of New Labour is an embodyment of this idea - strict party disipline in the outline and construction of the way, and then a broad plebiscitarian appeal to all the people above factions. Sister parties in Portugal, Spain, and Germany have embraced some of the idea and the strategy.

This takes us back to Austria. A visible and sinister challenge towering on the Right is essential to the hegemonic consensus on the liberal left. This challenge tends to neutralize a return to partisan politics and to block an opposition from the radical left. Haider and Le Pen take care of this. If they did not exist, European politicians would be tempted to invent them, as to some extent they have. They are rather convenient. It is an interesting experiment of thought to try to see the European demonization of Vienna in this perspective. Let me offer you Slavoj Zizek in a recent article, just for your consideration: "The Neue Mitte manipulates the Rightist scare the better to hegemonize the ´democratic´ field, i.e. to define the terrain and discipline its real adversary, the radical Left. Therein resides the ultimate rationale of the Third Way: that is, a social democracy purged of its minimal subversive sting, extinguishing even the faintest memory of anti-capitalism and class struggle. The result is what one would expect. The populist Right moves to occupy the terrain evacuated by the Left, as the only ´serious´ political force that still employs an anti-capitalist rhetoric --- While multicultural tolerance becomes the motto of the new and privileged ´symbolic´ classes, the far Right seeks to address and to mobilize whatever remains of the mainstream ´working class´ in our Western societies." (Zizek 2000)

I will summarize these parts of the analysis with two observations on modern democracy for which there is a lot of evidence in recent research.

First, there are trends towards a partyless democracy in relation to the electorate on the one hand, but strong party corporations in representative institutions and government on the other. Parties are not disappearing, but there is a shift in the balance between their various roles. As agents for popular mobilization and crystallization of political alternatives, they have become weaker. Membership is declining, voter turnout reduced, party meetings deserted, while the media contest and image-making at leadership level is paramount. Larger parts of the electorate are faithless and non-partisan, changing their party choice from one election to the next. The decline of partisan politics leaves a vakuum which is filled by public relations on the one hand and expert professions within and outside the party organizations on the other. Within the political institutions themselves, however, parties are still remarkably strong, explaining a good part of the variation in public policies.

Secondly: Identity politics in a wider sense, based on collective or individual self-constructions, seem to play a greater role. Nationalism is ethnizised as the nation-states are becoming more open, multi-cultural, and perceived as less secure. The cleavages of transnationality cut across the partylines from the early days of industrialism and mass politics, with the new cleavages being: modernizers vs. traditionalists, globalists vs. nationalists, polarized attitudes to insecurity, and to strangers, and to whether political governance is possible or not. In this late-modern landscape, mass protest against modernizing elites take the form of counter-modernization: neo-religious movements, neo-racism, re-nationalization, ethnic nationalism, tribalism, defensive traditionalism, higher walls, new flags or movements dressed in clothes from yesteryear (Beck 1997). Only a fraction of the trend is reflected in neo-populist parties. Here is the new polarization in modern democracies. The really noticable constellation is the convergence of political elites, big business, and intellectuals as agents of modernity, scolding the conservative mood of the masses and the lower class - in sharp contrast to the cleavage and discourse of 1968.

Summing up so far: There has certainly been a change in social structure, with a numerical decline of blue collar workers, but even more important is the dislocation of the traditional links between social structure and political alternatives. Furthermore, there has been a transformation of the intermediaries and mediations between people and government, to the disadvantage of parties and partisan popular movements, and to the advantage of - say - mass media on the one hand and market forces on the other; or perhaps even better: with mass media and the market in the same hands. This transformation is not very well understood in research on democracy.

Now, we simply have to consider globalization, as the Grand Narrative of our time. Let me state the challenge to democracy in the most simple terms. Democracy is national while many problems, and social influences, and decision-making structures, and cultures, and economies, and technologies - are transnational. Globalization in the simplest of terms, stimulated by liberalizing decisions, have increased during the last 20 years. Thus the political purchase power of the political currency, the ballott, is devalued. The national assemblies, as the apex of representative democracy, does not reach the arenas and the forces where crucial decisions are made. This is one good candidate for explaining the lack of trust in political institutions and the erosion of democratic legitimation.

There is even more to the current challenge to national institutions. Also in legal terms, the idea of citizenship is now split. There is a discrepancy, sometimes even a conflict, between democratic participation (confined to the nation-state) and human rights (in transnational terms). As the package of human rights is extended, and the competence of international courts is increasing, this discrepancy is bound to widen.

Sorry to say, there are no easy solutions to this acute democratic dilemma. So far, the models of transnational or cosmopolitical democracy - designed to catch up with global capital - are idealistic pipe dreams. Democratic decision-making starts with deliberation and public debate. Basic prerequisites are lacking beyond the national level - no functioning public space for wider parts of the population, no thick civil society, no distributive consensus for fairly obvious structural reasons.

The most viable models of transnational democracy may even be counterproductive. Take the European exemple. If decision-making competence was transferred from the Union Council to the Parliament, it would be a step backwards for democratic citizenship and popular legitimation in Europe: the remaining clout of the national assemblies in the member states would be undermined. But the discrepancy between transnational forces and national democracies certainly remains.

Approaching the end we should pose the grand question: what makes the condition and fate of democracy relevant? What is at stake? I mentioned deliberation and public space and popular legitimation.

The late Mancur Olson - in his posthumous book published this year - claims that the typical voter is ignorant about public affairs (Olson 2000). He/she has very little knowledge about what choices would serve his/her interests or any part of the electorate. Most people don´t care about decisions vital to society, but they eagerly consume entertainment and trivialities. Politicians adapt to this, engaging spin doctors and playing quasi-political mood music in the media.

The first twist in Olson´s argument is that ignorance is rational. It is rational because the probability that the typical voter will change the outcome of the election is vanishingly small. The cost of acquiring knowledge does not pay, except for a minority of politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and social scientists, who may earn more money, power, or prestige from knowledge of public affairs.

The second twist in Olson´s argument is that this rational ignorance of electorates may make them the victims of predations that they do not notice. They may be fooled into accepting that a given policy is serving them, or serving the majority, or serving society as a whole, when it really only serves some special interest. Rational ignorance may have its costs after all.

Therefore, the analysis of the workings of democracy is part of the democratic process: the dislocation of social structure from political institutions, the changing bonds between citizens and the state, the new ideological hegemonies, the discrepancy between representative democracy and globalization. Here are the challenges which also confront the social sciences.


Beck, Ulrich, 1997, The reinvention of politics, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Giddens, Anthony, 1994, Beyond Left and Right, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lasch, Christopher, 1995, The revolt of the elites - and the betrayal of democracy, New York: Norton.

Moreau, Patrick, 2000, "Comment Haider a conquis l´Autriche", Le Nouvel Observateur, 10-16 Février.

Olson, Mancur, 2000, Power and Prosperity, New York: Basic Books.

Pharr, Susan J., Putnam, Robert D., and Dalton, Russell J., 2000, "A quarter-century of declining confidence", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 11, No. 2, April.

Zizek, Slavoj, 2000, "Why we all love to hate Haider", New Left Review, 2, Mars/April.

Av Øyvind Østerud
Publisert 25. nov. 2010 13:52 - Sist endret 11. nov. 2013 13:41