Looking at who predicted the victory of the populists before 2016 helps us sift through the deluge of ex post facto rationalisations.
Fourth in this series is the Irish political scientist Peter Mair. Like Richard Rorty, Peter Mair’s politics were the Left but his critique now appears to anticipate views now more common on the Right.
Mair believed European democracy to be in crisis. The rituals of democracy remained, but its substance had been lost. Popular democracy depends upon bottom-up decision-making – the elite responds to the views of the grassroots. But, unnoticed by most, the political system had been put into reverse gear. Top-down processes had superseded the old bottom up ones. The elites had instead come to see their role as communicating the inconvenient realities of the new global order down to the grassroots.
Dani Rodrik’s globalist trilemma outlined in part 3 of this series tells us that globalisation erodes national democracy. Mair meticulously documented the mechanism of its destruction.
Globalisation was not the only process working against democracy. The 1990s politics of the “Third Way” pushed mainstream parties towards the centre. All major parties began to offer the same policies. This made the political system progressively more unstable. When the mainstream consensus failed to deliver, all the mainstream parties lost out. “Populist” parties were the beneficiaries, as the only parties to reject the consensus policy agenda.
The weakening of mainstream parties further damaged national democracy. They lost their connection to their voters. Enthusiasm for global integration had driven mainstream politicians to surrender the policies that had once defined them – the policies that originally attracted their grassroots supporters to them. A growing set of ever more moderate and attractive policy options were handed to the populist opponents of global integration.
Many aspects of Mair’s analysis played out during the UK’s Brexit referendum. The Remain campaign found itself out of touch with voters’ concerns. “Remain” received almost unanimous support from the elite, while failing to generate any enthusiasm outside of it. Remain campaigners responded to growing evidence of failure with ever sterner lectures delivered d’haut en bas. Mainstream UK politicians had fought for decades to keep the EU question out of UK national politics. Fatally, the referendum had let it back in.
Published posthumously in 2011, Peter Mair’s book “Ruling the Void” declared that the era of party democracy in Europe at an end. Political parties were growing ever weaker and popular democracy was dying with them. Mainstream parties chased the same voters with virtually identical messages. Parties were so detached from voters that they were increasingly vulnerable to attack from real grassroots movements.
It wasn’t always this way, parties once ‘gave voice to the people’. From the advent of universal suffrage onwards, mass-membership parties with strong, hierarchical structures dominated. They offered voters a joint identity – unifying them with shared social experiences and collective hopes. The party’s role was to translate its voters’ interests into government action. They recruited political leaders capable of exercising executive power and competed for control of the state via national elections. Parties were the conduit between people and politicians.
Judged by membership, mainstream parties have been in retreat since WWII. But the rate of decline increased sharply with the arrival of “Third Way” politics in the 1990s. The “Third Way” represented a new and radically different approach to politics. The left gave up on the representation of the industrial working class. It evaded traditional left-right social divisions. Instead it expanded its electoral appeal to the middle classes. The parties of the right responded to this intrusion onto their home turf by also moving towards to the centre. This was the era of “political cross-dressing”. All mainstream parties began to offer essentially the same programme. In the short term it appeared that it had dissolved old social tensions. But in the long term newly created divisions became apparent. Slowly but surely, the mainstream’s pervasive centrism set the “people” against the elites, and the populists against the establishment.
With all parties crowding the centre, elections ceased to be about policy. There was a choice between competing teams of leaders, but there was less and less choice in policy terms. Political competition was an “opposition of form rather than content”. It was intense and hard-fought, but it resembled a football match or a horse race – sharp, exciting and pleasing to spectators, but ultimately lacking in any substance.