2. What Crisis of Liberal Democracy?
A number of indicators point to a state of dysfunction in democracy in Europe. Satisfaction with democracy has been declining. The party system has changed dramatically with the rise of radical political parties, which has increased the overall number of parties in many European legislatures and may diminish the effectiveness and ideological coherence of governments. Over the past few decades, there has been a general decline in voter turnout in many European countries, particularly among groups such as younger or less well-educated voters. There has also been a decline in the membership of political parties – and a rise in electoral volatility as voters have become more likely to change affiliation. As a result of these trends, some fear that Europe may be part of a worldwide ‘democratic recession’.
However, it is worth remembering that the perception of a crisis of democracy has existed for as long as democracy itself. As David Runciman puts it, ‘the onward march of democracy has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat of intellectual anxiety’. One of the strengths of democracies seems to be their ability to reform and renew themselves – indeed, crises can be the catalyst for such reform and renewal. In these moments, it can be quite difficult to distinguish a democracy that is working well from one that is working badly. Advanced democracies do currently seem to be going through just such a moment. Yet if there is a crisis in at least this sense, there is little consensus about its causes and how to solve it. This chapter discusses three distinct ways of interpreting the situation.
Perhaps the most prevalent prism through which the crisis is often seen is the concept of ‘populism’. At a famous conference on populism at the London School of Economics and Political Science in May 1967, Richard Hofstadter gave a talk entitled ‘Everyone is talking about populism but no one can define it’. Although political scientists such as Cas Mudde and Jan-Werner Müller have since come up with precise definitions, there is still no shared definition. Moreover, academic definitions often exclude some of the figures, movements and parties, particularly on the left, that are routinely described as populist in policy debates. In practice, populism is often used as a ‘label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like’, as Francis Fukuyama put it.
In the past few years, the concept has been applied to an extraordinary range of figures, movements and parties in Europe – and even, in the case of Brexit, to a decision. The effect of this inflationary use of the term has been to obscure the heterogeneity of populism. Analysts have tended to emphasize the similarities rather than differences between the diverse figures, movements and parties, whether on the left or right, that are sometimes described as populist. This has prompted misleading generalizations about what such actors and/or organizations stand for. For example, scholars of populism and other analysts who think of the crisis of liberal democracy in terms of populism often talk about a generic ‘populist playbook’ as if all populists operated on the basis of identical political logic.
The complexity and heterogeneity of populism mean that it is difficult to generalize about its implications for democracy in Europe.
Analysis of the causes of populism has been divided between explanations that focus on cultural factors and those that emphasize economic factors. Cultural factors include opposition to changes in values since the 1960s, anger about immigration, and racism and Islamophobia. Economic factors include wage stagnation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, growing inequality, and economic insecurity or ‘precariousness’. Yet in no national or regional context can support for populist figures, movements or parties simply be reduced to either set of factors, though their relative weight may differ from one context to the next. Instead, populism is a function of a complex interaction between both sets of factors – as well other factors such as digital technology – that we are only beginning to understand.
The complexity and heterogeneity of populism mean that it is difficult to generalize about its implications for democracy in Europe. So-called populists are often seen as a threat to liberal democracy. But left-wing parties that are described as populist are unlikely to restrict minority rights, for example, in the way that many fear far-right parties will. Many left-wing parties, such as Spain’s Podemos, emerged out of protest movements against austerity and actually stand for a radical deepening of democracy. However, because some of the leaders of parties such as Podemos admire South American socialist leaders like the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, some observers fear that, if elected into government, they would seek to abolish checks and balances and consolidate power in their own hands. Some argue that Syriza sought to do this while it was in power in Greece between 2015 and 2019.
Even to describe all right-wing populists as straightforwardly ‘anti-democratic’ is too simple. In Germany, for example, politicians and media outlets often characterize the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) as demokratiefeindlich, or ‘hostile to democracy’, and refer to the other parties as ‘democratic forces’ by contrast. But in some ways the AfD has revitalized democracy in Germany: 1.2 million of the 5.9 million people who voted for it in the 2017 general election were previously non-voters. As a result, the AfD helped raise turnout from 72 per cent in 2013 to 77 per cent in 2017. Other populist parties in Europe, including those on the far right, have had a similar effect in reintegrating alienated voters into the democratic process. Thus, however abhorrent their views may be, there is nevertheless, as Yascha Mounk puts it, ‘something democratic about the energy that propels ‘populist’ parties’.
Seeking a more precise definition, many analysts have adopted the term ‘illiberal democracy’ in talking about populism in Europe. The concept was first used by Fareed Zakaria in 1997 to describe non-Western democracies whose elected governments were ‘routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms’. Many fear that left-wing and right-wing populists in Europe could do the same, though it is not clear whether this view interprets illiberal democracy as a stable model or simply as a stage on the way towards authoritarianism. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has explicitly embraced the idea of ‘illiberal democracy’. But analysts like Jan-Werner Müller argue that it should be rejected altogether because it allows figures such as Orbán to claim democratic legitimacy.
A second way to understand the crisis is through the concept of ‘democratic deconsolidation’ – that is, the transition of a democracy into an authoritarian state. Political scientists used to believe that a democracy was irreversibly consolidated once power had changed hands peacefully several times, as this signalled it would no longer revert to authoritarianism. Democratic consolidation was widely believed to be closely linked to economic development – no established democracy with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita over about $14,000 in today’s terms had ever collapsed – and was thus understood as part of the process of a state’s modernization. This made democracy in Europe seem extremely stable. But in recent years, this confidence has been challenged.
Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have drawn attention to data suggesting that, across the West, the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has plummeted. People have become ‘more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives’. In particular, Foa and Mounk identify a ‘democratic disconnect’ among millennials (those born after 1980) that cannot be attributed to an ‘age’ rather than ‘cohort’ effect – that is, they are not likely to change their views of democracy over time. There is no reason to think that this generation will become more committed to democracy as its members get older.
These findings are a matter of some dispute, however. Some have argued that overall support for democracy and for non-democratic alternatives has not changed much in the past two decades. In particular, millennials in Western democracies are not very different in their views of political systems than young people in the mid-1990s were. Others have argued that young people are actually more enthusiastic about democracy than older people are. There is also a lack of clarity about the relationship between democratic deconsolidation and populism. Many assume that those less committed to democracy might tend to vote for populist figures and parties. But some have also suggested that centrists are actually more hostile to democracy than populists are.
Whatever the truth about attitudes to democracy in Western Europe, democratic deconsolidation or ‘backsliding’ is already a reality in Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, Hungary and Poland seem to be deconsolidating as liberal democracies. If Hungary should now be categorized as an autocracy, as many analysts argue, it has already disproved the idea that democracies with per capita GDP over about $14,000 in today’s terms can been seen as safe. Not all of the populists in Europe should be seen as identical to Orbán, of course. But whether or not democracies elsewhere in Europe are also likely to deconsolidate, developments in Central Europe suggest that this is at least possible.
In part because it is unclear who exactly is becoming more hostile to democracy, the causes of democratic deconsolidation are even less clear than the causes of populism. If there is a growing indifference towards democracy, it may be related in part to the development of technology – particularly for young people who, for example, are used to the immediacy of social media (see Chapter 3). To some extent, it also may be a function of the political systems of particular European countries or of ‘Europeanization’ (see Chapter 4). But it may also be a response to the way that the quality of democracy has deteriorated, which brings us to another way of thinking about the current crisis.
A hollowed-out democracy
A third way of thinking about the crisis of liberal democracy is the idea that, throughout the West, democracy has been gradually hollowed out over several decades. Although, according to this argument, democracy continues to function in formal terms, it has become increasingly empty – and is now what the British sociologist Colin Crouch called ‘post-democracy’. Crouch’s version of this argument focuses on the rise in the power of corporations to influence decisions that were previously taken by national governments in response to popular pressure. This version of the idea of post-democracy is closely linked to debates about neoliberalism. Other versions of the argument emphasize that the phenomenon of ‘hyper-globalization’ described by Dani Rodrik has hollowed out democratic decision-making at the national level.
Whatever the explanation, it seems that there is an increasing disconnect between citizens and government. In an influential book published in 2013, the Irish political scientist Peter Mair argued that a ‘void’ had emerged as the political class had abandoned its representative function and retreated into the institutions of the state, and as citizens had retreated into apathy. In particular, the decline in membership of political parties and increase in political volatility showed that parties no longer functioned as vehicles of social interests that mediated between citizens and government. ‘The zone of engagement – the traditional world of party democracy where citizens interacted with and felt a sense of attachment to their political leaders – is being evacuated,’ Mair wrote.
One of the key empirical indicators on which Mair’s argument was based was the apparently chronic decline in turnout in elections throughout Europe. For much of the post-war period, voter turnout had remained relatively stable. However, from the 1990s onwards, turnout began to fall sharply everywhere in Europe. In this sense, the hollowing out of democracy is closely related to the idea of democratic deconsolidation, which also focuses on the increasing indifference of voters towards democracy. But hollowing out goes further by explaining this indifference as a somewhat understandable response to a structural failure of liberal democracy in Europe.
Similarly, the idea of a hollowing out of democracy reframes populism as a symptom rather than a cause of the crisis of liberal democracy. Some analysts see ‘post-democratic’ tendencies as a driver of the rise of populism and ‘illiberal democracy’. For example, Cas Mudde writes that ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism’. If one understands populism in this way, it also changes the extent to which one views it as a threat to democracy. In fact, in some cases it may be less an attack on democracy than a corrective. The key question is how centre-left and centre-right parties respond to populism as defined in this way – in particular, whether they are able to reconnect with alienated voters.
The idea of a hollowing out of democracy reframes populism as a symptom rather than a cause of the crisis of liberal democracy.
Another interesting version of this argument emphasizes the increasingly technocratic nature of governance – again often as a function of hyper-globalization. In this analysis, populism is seen as a kind of complement to, or in a dialectical relationship with, technocracy. This is particularly relevant within the EU, which is perhaps the ultimate experiment in technocratic governance. It is therefore unsurprising that populists should emerge to challenge technocracy and seek to restore a sense of popular control. In this context, debates about democracy in the EU can be understood as an expression of a European version of the increasing tension between ‘responsive’ and ‘responsible’ governance identified by Mair.
Although each of these three paradigms explains the crisis in a different way, and there are some tensions between them, there is also some overlap. In particular, the idea of a hollowing out of democracy can be seen as a way to explain populism and democratic deconsolidation. The different analyses also share some elements: in particular, many of those analysts who see the crisis, respectively, in terms of populism or a hollowing out of democracy share the view that there is something fundamentally problematic about the structure of the EU itself, whether because the bloc is too technocratic or because it is an example of ‘undemocratic liberalism’. Chapter 4 further explores the role of the EU in the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe.
Each of the three paradigms also reflects different normative assumptions about how liberal democracy ought ideally to function. In particular, each differs on the extent and kind of polarization that is good for democracy. Those who understand the crisis through the prism of populism tend to see polarization in rather simple and negative terms. But those who see the crisis through the prism of ‘hollowing out’ distinguish more clearly between polarization on economic issues and on cultural ones, and argue that there has not been enough polarization on economic issues in the past few decades – a deficit that in turn has shifted political debate, and polarization, to more toxic cultural issues.
There is no apolitical or technocratic way to understand the crisis – or, rather, attempts to do so themselves reflect centrist assumptions about liberal democracy.
These normative differences on the question of polarization correspond to some extent to differences between more adversarial and more consensual political cultures in Europe, which, as Chapter 4 will show, are reflected in the variety of democratic institutions and processes present in different European countries. But they also reflect ideological differences. Put simply, centrists tend to believe in consensus and see polarization as a threat to democracy, while those further on the left or right of the political spectrum tend to see it as necessary – or even as the essence of democratic politics. These differences illustrate that there is no apolitical or technocratic way to understand the crisis – or, rather, that attempts to do so themselves reflect centrist assumptions about liberal democracy.
The question of the role of technology in the crisis, on which the next chapter focuses, adds yet another layer of complexity. It is not just that there is so much uncertainty about the effect that digital technology is having on democracy at present or will have in future. Much of what is written about the role of technology in the crisis of liberal democracy is flawed because it does not make explicit its assumptions about the nature of the crisis, or about how liberal democracy ought to function. In order to understand exactly the role of technology in the crisis of liberal democracy, one needs to connect technological developments with the difficult political questions discussed in this chapter about how the crisis itself can be understood.