Guest post: Booknotes by Michael James

Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing-out of Western Democracy. London: Verso, 2013

The title of this book boldly evokes the gulf of alienation and contempt that in many Western democracies divides people from politicians these days.

For political scientist Peter Mair, two recent changes in the mainstream political parties both reflect and perpetuate the political malaise. First, the parties are no longer significant venues of citizen participation in public life; their consequent loss of membership fees has forced them to become dependent on large donations from wealthy sponsors, with the attendant suspicion that their policies are effectively being bought. Second, the parties typically attract youngish career politicians whose ambition is to become members of the executive.

Parties are nowadays little more than machines for winning elections; faithfully representing a substantial part of the public in the legislature is no longer viewed as an honourable and worthwhile role in itself. As a result, and especially where voting is voluntary, poll-driven party competition is likely to leave the poor and the marginal with no effective representation at all.

The author died before he could complete his manuscript, which was prepared for publication by a colleague with the help of a few of Peter Mair’s related published papers. This may explain the absence of prescriptions for reinvigorating democracy. Greater use of citizen initiatives and referendums comes to mind, as does sharper separation between legislature and executive, enhancing the role and prestige of the former. But the problem may be too deep to solve with such institutional reforms alone. Democracy was adopted in the West as the rivalry between capitalism and socialism was emerging, and that rivalry was to remain the great issue dividing the political parties for around a century. In the 1980s the contest was essentially won by capitalism, but with the spirit of socialism remaining in the form of the welfare state.

In the 21st century it has become apparent that this ‘social market’ model around which the new party consensus has formed is unsustainable: a combination of party competition and a universal sense of welfare entitlement is pushing many if not most Western democracies towards national bankruptcy. But the mainstream parties, geared up as they are exclusively to win the next election, have so far been unable to take the necessary hard decisions to avert that outcome. Our problem is that, while we despise the parties for putting their short-term interests before the long-term national interest, we have little incentive to reward any party that does the opposite. And the bold leadership that might cut through the dilemma is just about the last thing that modern politicians seem able or willing to risk attempting.

Michael James is on the editorial staff of Economic Affairs, produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs and the University of Buckingham. He is a fellow traveler with the Australian School of Economics and he has volunteered to provide occasional booknotes for Catallaxy.

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6 Responses to Guest post: Booknotes by Michael James

  1. Blogstrop

    ” … we have little incentive to reward any party that does the opposite. And the bold leadership that might cut through the dilemma is just about the last thing that modern politicians seem able or willing to risk attempting.”

    We had something approaching that before 2007, but the bold leadership which gave us the chance to finally mitigate the unions and their sponsored welfarist party was white-anted by the media’s unremitting boosting of Rudd. How are you going to convince the current coalition that firm remedial action will be rewarded when even the mild budget just brought down is pilloried by the media as harsh and unfeeling. That incorrect message is being reflected in social networks.

    If you can’t get the messaging right through the media, you lose the voters. We are one more term of Labor away from ruin. Democracy can only work properly if the people are told the right things on a regular basis. Running along as it does at the moment, it will ultimately deliver not good government but a Venezuelan-style or Greek coup de grace.

  2. .Dr.Sir Fred Lenin

    I have always believed in Rule By Referenda, I also support the removal of incentives that make politics a career,you will never get the best from selfcentered job seeking people who are usually just older first year uni students.Part time politicians who are only serving a short time ,as a duty to thier country ,will always be better than the mob we have now.pay and conditions should reflect performance,and pay your own super,this cold apply tp the judiciary too,might clean up our court system.

  3. Ant

    Parties are nowadays little more than machines for winning elections; faithfully representing a substantial part of the public in the legislature is no longer viewed as an honourable and worthwhile role in itself. As a result, and especially where voting is voluntary, poll-driven party competition is likely to leave the poor and the marginal with no effective representation at all.

    Very astute. The malaise is especially apparent today in Washington DC, where the political class – most noticeably on the Republican side – is ‘at war’ with its traditional base.

    It reached boiling point with the Mississippi senate race run-off recently won by a 72 year old incumbent who’s been in Congress for over 40 years, after he lost the initial ballot and then got a second bite because his challenger, Chris McDaniel, won the primary by failed just short of the required 50%.

    Cochran’s eventual victory came about by the DC GOP machine campaigning heavily in overwhelmingly Democrat black minority districts urging them to vote in the open primary run-off because if McDaniel won he would take away their Food Stamps and welfare! Once the deed was done, the party machine argued “Hey, Cochran’s just like Reagan and his Democrats!!!”, as if those same Democrats would vote for him in the Senate race in November.

    Funding for this filth came largely from Mitch McConnell’s senatorial committee and from big crony corporatist donors or their surrogates such as the US Chamber of Commerce.

    Cochran, BTW, is your quintessential government time server, achieving next to nothing of any use in his 4+ decades in Congress while McDaniel was a much younger, accomplished and vibrant conservative candidate. Yet, none of that mattered because McConnell’s (another useless time server) main objective is to get re-elected as Republican and Majority Leader in the Senate come November and he knew he could count on the mentally invalid Cochran for a vote.

    That’s the state of affairs in the USA. They’re sunk.

  4. Token

    Democracy was adopted in the West as the rivalry between capitalism and socialism was emerging, and that rivalry was to remain the great issue dividing the political parties for around a century. In the 1980s the contest was essentially won by capitalism, but with the spirit of socialism remaining in the form of the welfare state.

    Interesting comment. In the Anglosphere democracy pre-dates the rise of socialism.

    Throughout the rest of democratic Europe it occured in parallel.

    In east Asia, the rise of democracy occured during the showdown which resulted.

    Leaving aside the cultural differences of east Asia, this may provide some hints to the different characters of each of these systems (especially the subservience in much of Europe to socialist ideals).

  5. Token
    Parties are nowadays little more than machines for winning elections; faithfully representing a substantial part of the public in the legislature is no longer viewed as an honourable and worthwhile role in itself. As a result, and especially where voting is voluntary, poll-driven party competition is likely to leave the poor and the marginal with no effective representation at all.

    Very astute. The malaise is especially apparent today in Washington DC, where the political class – most noticeably on the Republican side – is ‘at war’ with its traditional base.

    Sounds like a good summary of what is happening in the US and UK as ultimately there can only be one party for insiders & machine politics. The other party needs to recognise it can not be the lesser version of the same message or else it has no reason to exist.

  6. Rafe

    Interesting comment. In the Anglosphere democracy pre-dates the rise of socialism.

    The Anglosphhere enjoyed laissez faire capitalism during its most rapid advance (from a very low base) and the late Gerard Radnitzky argued that the conditions for the “European miracle” of the industrial revolution pre-dated democracy.

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