Battle in Print: Democracy and its discontents

Peter Mair interviewed by Maria Grasso, 12 October 2007

What substance is there to the notion of widespread popular political disengagement from politics in established democracies?

Peter Mair: I think there’s a lot of substance behind this notion. However, you need to be nuanced about this idea. Political engagement is certainly declining in the conventional and traditional sense. Indicators such as party voting, party membership, attention to events in national politics, trust and engagement with national politics, and so on, are all declining fairly consistently, more or less across Europe, and across the well-established democracies. But on the other hand, we are also witnessing increasing engagement at the more micro or local level - in other words, more energy is being expended in the ‘immediate’ environment rather than in the ‘distant’ political environment today.

So you would say that this decline in popular political engagement is unitary and consistent and not the result of short-term factors?

Yes, but the thing about all these indicators (except maybe for party membership where the decline is very clear and rapid) is that while in general the long-term trends point downwards and do so consistently across all indicators and countries, you’ll nonetheless always find exceptions. Sometimes turnout suddenly rises and then goes back to lower levels, for example. I like to use the analogy of climate change: the world might be warming, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that every year is warmer than the year before.

How do you square what seems to be a renewed and proliferating interest in the idea of ‘democracy’ at the level of the elites and academia with the trends in popular political disengagement at the ballot box and traditional political participation?

I think they square quite well because first of all the ‘opening up process’ - democratisation in that sense - is about transparency and indeed about potential access as well. In other words, the system of government is becoming much more transparent than it used to be: policy-making is becoming much more transparent, there’s much more consultation with groups, as well as with interested actors and stakeholders than there ever was. In the past that sort of thing used to be channelled through political parties, and now that this can no longer be the case, it’s been opened up in other ways. But it’s transparency rather than engagement - people might see what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean that they get engaged, and they often don’t. If you want to engage, you can engage very well, but the opening up itself is about seeing things being done, not about actually doing them.

But are ‘listening’ politicians really more democratic that traditional party politics? Are we witnessing a new kind of democracy, or rather the degradation of the old?

I think it’s a new form of democracy. New in the sense that politicians today are relatively neutral policy-makers, neutral office holders: they have very few stakes in what goes on. They want to be re-elected, and they want to stay in power, and in order to do that they must be responsive and open and so on, and they are. There’s no reason not to be. In fact, there’s absolutely no reason today why a senior politician should not be responsive to people’s concerns, but it’s a different form of responsiveness and openness than used to be the case with traditional mass parties whereby people came into office with a mission and a mandate, and their job was to exercise that mandate on behalf of the people who put them in office. But they weren’t particularly open to other people with different political allegiances, and they wouldn’t really have wanted to compromise so much. They were responsive to their own party members and organisations, and sometimes there was a coalition and compromises had to be worked out, but in general you went in with an agenda and you carried it out. Today, instead, I don’t think politicians go in with much of an agenda - they are willing to do the job of policy on behalf of anybody who wants them to. They do ‘what works’.

Some theorists have argued that the decline in traditional ideological debate between the left and the right is part of the explanation for the decline in political involvement: that whereas traditional mass parties proposed visions for the way in which we should run society, and therefore managed to mobilise huge sections of the populations by appealing to their interests, parties today are merely managing agencies and that therefore people see them as having less bearing on their lives. Is this a positive or a negative development?

I’m not sure whether the decline of the ideological debate between the left and the right is a good or a bad thing, and I think that our opinion on this is generally determined by how nostalgic we feel. For example, there was an interview last week in the Guardian with Eric Hobsbawm who was lamenting the passing of the period between 1945 and 1975 - saying that we had left behind something very good. I wouldn’t accept that. I think a lot of things have gotten better. But when I discuss these issues with people and I argue that these old forms of democracy are less viable and that we’re moving to new forms of democracy, people often tell me that I’m very pessimistic. I don’t think I am being pessimistic. I think this is a new form of democracy which can be very good in a lot of ways. We do have access, we do have information and transparency and all these things are good - and if we don’t have parties and governments that we can control in the sense of a mandate, well, then we just don’t have that! But there’s nothing coherent that we are demanding of the parties in the first place, so it’s not as if we have a demand that they’re not responding to - there is no demand out there other than that a country be run efficiently and fairly and that people be assured of their rights. I also think that that is increasingly likely to be the case in most countries in the near future, at least in the West.

I suppose historically the question of sovereignty and democracy has always been closely tied to participation - people voted, so the government had the democratic support of the majority of the people. So in what sense can we really speak of democracy when hardly 50 per cent of the population vote in a country like Britain?

No we can’t speak of democracy in that sense. But why should we speak of democracy in that sense? We spoke of democracy in that sense in the period where democracy was instituted, but democracy is relatively young and indeed some countries rejected democracy in the inter-war period, and then reinstituted it again in the 40s. So I guess my point is that democracy understood in this participatory, mobilised sense of a democracy instituted on the backs of protestors and highly mobilised citizens is characteristic of only a relatively short period, and there’s no reason why democracy always needs to be like that. Maybe it can be something different and I think it’s moving into a new phase nowadays. The danger is that if you start to rely on this relatively quiescent and passive democracy - where you get your rights and you don’t mobilise because no one’s denying you a voice and so on - if you do become so passive because you don’t need to do anything to further your political ends and then some crisis does emerge, then there’s no reservoir of support to fall back on. In other words, if the population becomes more and more passive, it may reach a point where if democracy and citizens’ rights are threatened, it can’t resist that threat, and that’s the danger.

And how do you understand the relationship between elite and popular political disengagement?

I think it’s a mutually reinforcing process. I think politicians increasingly adapt their behaviour and their strategies to what are the prevailing circumstances. The point of this is that you have two parallel movements, one in society and one at the level of the political elite which complement one another and which reinforce each another, and so you get this vicious or virtuous circle - depending on the perspective you want to take - in which nobody is there to break up this momentum.

Some theorists have argued that the decline in political involvement today is to be attributed to young people as statistics do consistently show that the young tend to be the most politically disengaged age group in society. Some theorists argue that as they grow older they will become more politically involved, but others argue that this generation is particularly depoliticised due to its socialisation experiences - what do you think?

My inclination is to say that young people today are growing up in apolitical circumstances, or relatively apolitical circumstances. They are growing up in a period where politics is not highly valued and this may make them even more likely to stay away from the processes of politics in the future.

What about the idea that political involvement that used to be mediated by traditional organs of participation such as trade unions and political parties is now being channelled through ‘new’ forms of participation related to consumer politics, lifestyle issues and the environment?

I think that this idea is pretty implausible and that the mobilisation around these issues is very small. Indeed, if you look at the percentages of the population involved in these activities they are very, very low. I do think though that as people get older and become more settled in their communities, they are more likely to become active in their communities - in schools, neighbourhood, and voluntary associations - so there’s some voluntary participation but only at the micro, local level and it’s not something young people get passionate about - or at least not in any sustained fashion.

To conclude, what would you say are the greatest problems facing democracy today?

The greatest problem today is for elected politicians, in that they must find a way in which they can restore their legitimacy. In other words, to reach the stage where people do not immediately dismiss them, or treat them with contempt. But I don’t know how they’ll be able to do that at this stage.


Peter Mair is professor of comparative politics at the European University Institute, Florence and co-editor of the journal West European Politics. He is on leave from Leiden University in the Netherlands, where he holds the chair of comparative politics. He is co-editor of The Enlarged European Union (2002), Political Parties and Electoral Change (2004), and co-author of Representative Government in Modern Europe (4th ed. 2005). His earlier book with Stefano Bartolini, Identity, Competition and Electoral Availability (1990) was awarded the ISSC/Unesco Stein Rokkan Prize. His current research interests focus mainly on the complex relationship between democracy, indifference, and the challenge to popular sovereignty. This project aims to identify and to analyse the variety of different ways in which contemporary political processes are being shorn of popular democratic control.

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