Disaffection or Changes in European Democracies?

AutorWolfgang Merkel - Marcus Spittler
Wolfgang merkeL
Marcus sPiTTLer
Are democracies at risk? Is the quality of well-established OECD democra-
cies today worse than 20 years, 40 years or 50 years ago? Are democracies again
facing a crisis of legitimacy as Jürgen Habermas (1973) or the Trilateral Com-
mission (1975) have already diagnosed in the 1970s? Which are the symptoms,
which the causes of such a supposed risk for democracy? 1 Can we talk about the
democracy in singular even if we restrict our sample to the well-established de-
mocracy of the OECD countries? Or is there a difference between Denmark and
Greece or Germany and Spain? These are questions which we will address in our
paper from an empirical point of view. Our empirics are however based a clear
concepts. We will clarify what we mean by democracy and outline a mid-range
concept of democracy which is based on clear normative premises and is appro-
priate as an analytical concept for evaluating the state and quality of democracy.
We will distinguish between challenges to democracy and causes for an eventual
disaffection or even crisis of democracy? We will not take it for granted that
we are witnessing a crisis of democracy or that we are living in post-democratic
times. In order to answer these questions our paper will proceed in the following
— What do we mean by democracy? Which challenges is democracy facing?
Which parts (partial regimes) of democracy are particularly affected by
— How does the demos and how do experts judge the quality of our democ-
1 We will neither repeat nor paraphrase the abundant debate on the «crisis of democracy» since we
have done it already elsewhere (e.g., merkeL, 2013, 2015).
DESAFECCION.indb 61 10/11/15 17:37
— What do elections tell us about the state of democracy?
— Are political parties part of the problem?
— Is right-wing populism a risk or a cure for democracy?
Challenges to democracy are to be distinguished from the causes of a crisis
in democracy. Challenges develop into causes only if they are recognized and
addressed by the citizens and public opinion as important and if the procedures,
institutions, organizations, and persons put in place by the overall democratic
system prove unable to deal with them to the satisfaction of the demos, elites,
and the general public. For Claus Offe (1972) and Jürgen Habermas (1973),
it was the cyclical crises of capitalism that the «politico-administrative system»
was unable to process adequately, or was unable to resolve by the very nature
of things. To this extent, the crisis of capitalism as a political challenge almost
necessarily becomes a crisis of the state and of its democratic form. For Crozier,
Huntington, and Watanuki (1975) it was the chronical overload of citizen de-
mands on government.
Whereas forty years after his influential writing on the «legitimacy crisis in
late capitalism» (1973) Habermas no longer sees this as an insoluble conflict,
Wolfgang Streeck (2013) returns to the baseline of his argument. He interprets
the «history of the crises of late capitalism since the 1970s as the gradual devel-
opment of the very old and very fundamental tension between capitalism and
democracy —as the step-by-step dissolution of the forced marriage arranged be-
tween the two after the Second World War» (Streeck, 2013, 27). According to
Streeck, the challenge to democracy lies in the progressive immunization of the
economy against «mass democracy» (ibid.). It withdraws the most important
areas of decision making from the democratically elected representatives and re-
duces democracy to a «façade democracy» (ibid., 241). Colin Crouch (2004) had
argued along similar lines. He sees the democratic moment for the democracies
of Western Europe and North America as long past. Globalization, deregulation,
and the loss of collective organizational capacity in society have eroded democ-
racy from within. The formal procedures and institutions of democracy continue
to exist, but increasingly they are merely a formal game bereft of democratic
substance (Crouch, 2004, 22). The specific form of neoliberal globalized capital-
ism is driving established democracies into post-democracy. Claus Offe (2011)
similarly sees economic globalization (in the absence of international regulatory
regimes), the cultural hegemony of anti-state economic paradigms, and the fiscal
starvation of national democracies as the prime causes of the current crisis nar-
rative of democracy (Offe, 2011, 475). The challenge to democracy comes from
without, from the economy and from the specific form of spatially and socially
embedded capitalism. From a democracy theory point of view, it can be summed
up in the question: Who actually rules? Democratically legitimated institutions
or global firms, international financial markets, central banks, lobbies? What
Crouch, Offe, Streeck, and Merkel (2013) draw attention to and what econo-
mists such as Stieglitz (2012), Krugman (2012) and Piketty (2014) and political
DESAFECCION.indb 62 10/11/15 17:37
scientists such as Hacker and Pierson (2010) have recently underlined is the
rapid development of socio-economic inequality in the OECD world into one of
the greatest challenges facing democracy. This raises urgent questions about de-
mocracy. Does socio-economic inequality translate into political inequality? Who
is still participating? What interests are being represented? Are representative
democracies becoming «two-thirds democracies» in which the lower classes are
largely marginalized politically?
Conservatives consider that it is not capitalism but an overburdened state
that is behind possible crises of democracy. For them it is not the economy that
puts too great a strain on the democratic state; this strain comes from the dem-
ocratic mechanisms themselves. The report The Crisis of Democracy: Report on
the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission by Crozier, Hun-
tington, and Watanuki (1975) begins with the question: «Is political democracy,
as it exists today, a viable form of government?» (Crozier et al., 1975, 2). The
answer in brief is that, owing to the rapid increase in societal complexity, the
proliferation of wide ranging private interests, the erosion of traditional values,
and especially the growing demands of the citizens, democratic governments are
progressively losing the ability to articulate the common good or effectively im-
plement it politically. Excessive demands are being made of democratic govern-
ments, and they are losing their governmental capabilities.
For conservatives this challenge comes not, as it does for the left, from out-
side (capitalism): it is primarily endogenous. Democracy is challenged by those
development is has triggered on its own. Abundant political participation in con-
junction with unravelling interests in society, they claim, leads to inflationary
demands on the part of citizens, not least in the economic field and in social
welfare. Parties are driven to outbid one another and governments face ever
growing public expectations, which they can only inadequately satisfy. At the
worst, these excessive demands can make a democracy ungovernable. The result
is a loss of public confidence in political authority. An issue well-established in
conservatism, but in recent decades increasingly taken up in at election time by
the populist right is immigration. Ethnic heterogeneity is claimed to be destroy-
ing any sense of belonging in the political community. Mutual trust and solidarity,
the leaven of functioning communities, are believed to be crumbling. Democracy
is said to be losing its socially competent demos.
It is astonishing that holistic crisis theories about the crisis of democracy pay
hardly any attention to the core institutions and principle actors of representa-
tive democracy. Their implicit assumption is that they have become increasingly
anachronistic and impotent in the face of economic and social challenges. This
is particularly the case for political parties. Scarcely any notice is taken of polit-
ical party research, while this research devotes little space to general theories of
crisis. Nevertheless, party research can contribute important findings to general
research into crises (see, e.g., Katz und Mair, 1994; Dalton and Wattenberg,
2000; Mair et al., 2004; Mair, 2006). Peter Mair (2006) goes farthest in this
regard, positing that competition between parties is eroding and that they are de-
parting from their representative functions in society because they have primarily
become an appendix of the state.
DESAFECCION.indb 63 10/11/15 17:37

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