Who predicted the rise of the populists? Part 4 – Peter Mair

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Democracy / Globalisation / Party System / Peter Mair / Politics / Populism

Peter Mair

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 Top-down processes had superseded the old bottom up ones.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.

The “Third Way” politicians of the late 1990s believed they had left politics, ideology and partisanship behind. They promised win-win solutions to political problems. Politics was believed to be essentially harmful. It was to be circumvented where possible. Leading politicians like Tony Blair claimed not to see themselves as politicians at all. They looked for ways to de-politicise decision-making by transferring their powers to technocratic bodies. The recipients included central banks, regulators, the WTO, the European Community and the Organisation of Budget Responsibility.

Such was their fear of grassroots politics, politicians sought to “tie themselves to the mast” and limit their own freedom of action. The mainstream’s centrist policy platform committed governments to free and open markets. There was to be no more ‘state aid’, ‘picking winners’ or defending prized industries. Politicians agreed international trade agreements that limited the powers of national governments. They ceded control of immigration to international bodies. Members of the Eurozone gave away management of their currencies and interest rates. Each one of these commitments limited the range of policies mainstream parties could offer to the electorate.

The mainstream willingly sacrificed rafts of policy options that it had once depended upon to appeal to grassroots voters. No one seemed to notice that popular policy options were in effect being handed to any party willing to renounce the globalist consensus. As more and more attractive policy ground was handed to the “populists” they began to float in from the lunatic fringe towards the centre ground. In the 80s and 90s the Front National in France was an explicitly racist and anti-semitic party. In 2016 it is simply an anti-EU party. Such is the extent of the territory ceded to the populists that if any mainstream EU party stood again on the manifesto it had put forward in the 1980s, it would have to do so as a populist party.  As recently as the mid-1980s the mainstream UK Labour Party also opposed Britain’s EU membership. Now that position has been taken by the populist UKIP.


“Third Way” politicians took a new view of the role of politics. The functioning of the political system was judged by one standard – “Could it deliver the economic policies of the international elite consensus plus their pet liberal social reforms?” The traditional role of elections in airing and diffusing social tensions was forgotten. With the threat of communism now gone, politicians lost interest in binding dissatisfied minorities into the political process. Efforts to secure buy in from the broader public to elite projects dwindled away. Government was about implementing the optimal solution, rather than the messy options chosen by the people. The elites were so confident in the success of the international centrist policy consensus they came to rely on “performance legitimacy”.

The elimination of upward decision making channels extended into government itself. The Blair government eliminated bottom-up cabinet decision-making, replacing it with “sofa government”.

The international centrist consensus appeared to deliver during the long expansion leading up to the Global Financial Crisis. But the mainstream parties were later implicated in a series of major policy errors. The failed policies were ones over which the electorate had often been given little or no say because all mainstream parties had bought into a single failed consensus. For example, both major parties in the UK supported its entry into the Second Gulf War in 2003.

The growing list of these blunders included:

• Financial deregulation in the lead up to the banking crisis
• The subsequent failure of anyone to pay for the banking crisis
• The deeply flawed architecture of the Euro and the Eurozone crisis
• The subsequent failure to clear up the Eurozone crisis and the enduring depression in Southern Europe
• The curtailment of national democracy in Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain
• The failure to resolve the migrant crisis
• Entering the Iraq War

Some nations avoided some of these errors entirely. But where a nation was implicated in the error, typically all of the mainstream parties had backed the wrong horse. Sometimes the issue had not been debated at all. Mainstream parties were progressively undermined. The political system was destabilised. Issues that should have been resolved between mainstream parties with differing positions were instead handed to the populists as ammunition with which to bombard the elite. The elite had chosen to rule by “performance legitimacy” but it had ceased to perform.

As the feel good era came to an end it became clear that the march to the centre had severed many parties’ links to their traditional constituencies. Centrists had locked themselves and their nations into globalist policies that either threatened, or appeared to threaten, the interests of their traditional voters. While they remained roped to the globalist mast mainstream parties were unable to generate any distinctive popular appeal. Increasingly the elite found itself pitted against the will of the people.

Once the role of a politician had been to represent their voters to government – to communicate the will of the grassroots upwards. Now their job was to communicate the inconvenient realities of the globalised world back down the line. As the failures of the centrist consensus grew in number, the electorate lost its willingness to listen to these lectures. Huge political opportunities opened for populists.

The growth of European institutions also increased political instability. Europe increasingly found itself in the condition of “Post-Democracy” – “you could change the people at the top, but you couldn’t really change the policies”. The development of European institutions had taken many policy options of the table for national politicians but failed to replace national democracy at the European level. Rather than raising democracy from the national to the European level, it had instead eliminated it. European integration created a growing ‘democratic deficit’.

Although the European Community retained the rituals of democracy in the form of elections to the European parliament, the substance was missing. The most important issues were scarcely debated at all. Most political divisions lay between nations rather than within them. For instance, all political parties in the UK oppose the Common Agricultural Policy, while all political parties in France support it. During a European election the pros and cons of CAP are debated neither in the UK nor in France. There are very few voices in favour of a European “transfer union” in German politics. There is almost unanimous support for a European transfer union in Greece. Without a shared forum in which to debate these issues, democratic control evaporates. Instead power is exercised through the interplay of elites in back-rooms in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Paris.

The democratic process within the European Union is further hobbled by the duplication of political controls. There are two channels for influencing the EU system: elections to the European Parliament and national elections. The European Parliament has an important voice and authority in the policy-making process and the outputs of the EU, but it has a limited say over constitutional structures or the appointment of the political executive. National elections control the arena with authority over constitutional questions.

In theory any question – whether of European policy or the institutional structure of Europe – could be routed through one of these two channels. But real world patterns tell another story. When we look at the debates within each of these channels we find the routing to be exactly inverted. Opposition to the institutional structure of Europe is routed through the European Parliament, although it has no power over it. Opposition to policy is routed through national elections, although they have no influence over policy.

The result is simple. The choices made in either channel are irrelevant to the outputs of the European system. The preferences and actions of European citizens exert no constraint over decision-making. In practice elites take decisions with a free hand. Electoral accountability is exceptionally limited. Europe appears to have been constructed to keep its processes safe from the demands of voters.

Why has Europe turned out this way? Political leaders prefer to contest elections on issues that they cannot decisively resolve. They choose to talk about the reform of European institutions during elections to the European parliament precisely because it is an irrelevant question. They prefer not to talk about reform in national elections precisely because it matters there. The dual structure of the European system has handed politicians a tool to evade a binding electoral mandate in perpetuity.

Europe’s institutional setup is now deeply unstable. As the question of European integration grows in importance it is becoming ever more difficult to keep the question of European integration out of national politics. Each time the mainstream acts to suppress it, it creates new opportunities for a populist assault. Hostility to EU integration has become the best imaginable weapon for anti-establishment forces. Eventually this sleeping giant must awake. The issue of European reform will re-enter national politics with drastic consequences.

The European system is inherently self-destabilising. The failure to provide for opposition within the political system can result only in the total submission of the people to the European system, or the mobilisation of opposition to the European system itself. The more the Europe integrates, the larger the anti-European opposition and the more widespread the Euroscepticism. Integration is not so much self-limiting, as self-catatrophrising.

Commentary:

When Peter Mair wrote “Ruling the Void” many people would have cavilled at his assertion that the political system of Western Nations were in crisis. After the Brexit vote and election of President Trump, few would now disagree.

The qualities of democracy in the European Community are still bitterly contested. The instability Mair predicted is not. The president of the European Council himself, Donald Tusk, has begun to sound a rather Mair-ite message.

we .. are responsible .. for confronting reality with all kinds of utopias. A utopia of Europe without nation states, a utopia of Europe without conflicting interests and ambitions, a utopia of Europe imposing its own values on the external world. 

Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe do not share our Euro-enthusiasm. Disillusioned with the great visions of the future, they demand that we cope with the present reality better than we have been doing until now.

Today, Euro-scepticism, or even Euro-pessimism have become an alternative to those illusions. And increasingly louder are those who question the very principle of a united Europe. The spectre of a break-up is haunting Europe and a vision of a federation doesn’t seem to me like the best answer to it

Peter Mair teaches us that the Blair/Cameron dream of a managed democracy in which views that we feel to be uncouth, nationalistic, vulgar or angry are edited out of the public realm is counterproductive. The effort to exclude our baser emotions from politics only serves to amplify them in the long run.

The understandable desire to keep abusive, insulting and offensive material out of sight should be resisted. The old saw “I disagree with what you say but I will fight for your right to say it in public” can not be displaced by “I disagree with what you say and I will fight for other’s right not to hear it”.

The fresh air of public debate purifies. We need grassroots movements and bottom-up politics. It may be messy, rude or offensive to some, but we all benefit in the long term. If this limits our ability to enter into international agreements – either at the European Union or global level – this is something we need to accept to preserve the health of our political systems and of our societies. A settlement that is economically optimal but politically destabilising will not endure. The health of national politics will trump global economics whether we like it or not.

Mair’s contention that Third Way politics was damaging and unsustainable has been confirmed by later events. The Third Way political strategy was created by Clinton in the early 90s. It was aped by both Blair and Cameron. It was arguably the dominant political force for two decades until its sudden death in 2016. The failure of Hilary Clinton’s election campaign and Theresa May’s public disavowal at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference mark the end to an era.

As insiders from the Blair government have confirmed, the strategy took the support of the working classes for granted. They had nowhere to go, either in the UK or in the US, but the Labour or Democratic parties. That gave Clinton and Blair the cover to go all out for the middle class vote.

Labour pollster James Morris says that the Clinton agenda so dominated that Labour began to think in social categories that barely exist in the UK (using US spelling) 

The party’s strategy was to take core supporters for granted while courting the middle classes. The one time in the run-up to the 2005 election that I was asked by the party to run focus groups with the less well-off, their view of Labour was so devastating that the decision was taken never to talk to them again. The target audience continued to be “soccer moms” (sic).

As a result, the party lost focus on the issues that these voters care about. Top of the list was immigration, where the party got tough with refugees while ignoring the ultimately much bigger issue of low-skill, high-volume, short-term immigration. Labour came to be seen as a party that puts migrants before British citizens.

The problem with the Third Way strategy is this – while it’s true the working class has nowhere to go in the short-term, this fact in itself creates a huge political opportunity. One way or another new actors will fill the vacuum. Scorned by the Left the working class will eventually find another home. As both Richard Rorty and Edwards Luttwak predicted, that new home would inevitably sit with the populist, patriotic Right.

In this sense, the rise of Trump and Farage, and the Brexit vote are blowback from the Left’s successes during the Clinton/Blair era. Strategies with short-term advantages and long-term costs will always be attractive to politicians working within the electoral cycle. The benefits of repeated Democratic and Labour governments are now over but the price for this electoral strategy is still outstanding.

Part 3 – Dani Rodrik

Part 5 – Bernard Connolly

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