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.