Why liberal democracy is falling apart— and how to rescue it

On the professionalisation of politics, the decline of democratic legitimacy, and the return of populism

Photo by Frederic Köberl on Unsplash

Liberal democracy can be seen to be constituted by two competing logics; a site of tension between the “liberal tradition”, comprised of the “rule of law, the defense of human rights and the respect of individual liberty”, and the “democratic tradition” embodying “equality, identity between the governing and governed, and popular sovereignty.” The latter component, which provides democratic legitimacy to the former, is today losing its prominence. In recent decades, the tentative combination has lost its adherence. Before us emerges a “notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component”, as party structures are vacated through both an absence of popular engagement and the retreat of representatives into the cocoon of the state; morphing into a distinct and disconnected ‘governing class’.

Yet for Joseph Schumpeter, this reduction of the role of popular sovereignty is merely how democratic politics has always worked. Representative democracy has never had as its impetus the achievement of the ‘common good’, nor motivated by a ‘common will’ emerging from the people. In the Schumpeterian frame, the democratic component has always been secondary to the true logic of democracy — a procedure in which professional politicians vie for and manipulate electoral acceptance; an institutional arrangement whereby ‘competing teams of leaders’ use the majority vote to secure power. Democracy is thus reduced to the deliverance of great leaders to their rightful positions of power, with popular sovereignty subordinated to the professional aims of the governing class.

It is my contention that, far from being an accurate portrayal of the essential model of democratic politics, Schumpeter’s ‘aggregative’ theory amounts to a conception of politics that corrodes the very basis of democracy. To the extent that democracy is concerned only with the instrumental theatre of competitive leadership, devaluing popular mobilisation and political agency, legitimacy for such a state of affairs withers away. The link between the people and their representatives becomes more strained, and oppositional demands vanish amidst a miasma of ‘consensus’ politics. And as governance becomes less responsive; as the status-quo is solidified into an ugly permanence, the backlash from such a ‘democratic deficit’ portends the ‘return of the political’ — to borrow from Chantal Mouffe — where an authentic vision of sovereignty is channelled into populist movements determined to reformulate the status-quo. When the professionalisation of politics is consolidated, then, we observe the following pattern: the “hollowing out” of representative democracy, as Peter Mair documented, which, in its replacement of vibrant engagement with tepid technocracy and spectator politics, may lead in turn to a turbulent resurrection of popular sovereignty in the form of antagonistic populism.

Democracy, argued Schumpeter in his work Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, has no intrinsic and independent value. Even for those ideologies that are the putative defenders and extenders of the democratic principle, it amounts only to a means; an instrument that should be discarded if it prohibits political goals. Thus, it is no more necessary than any other process. Rather, its continuation and preeminence is contingent upon its guaranteeing of other values and aims, upheld “if … and when it serves their ideals and interests and not otherwise.” Through this heterodox premise, Schumpeter foregrounds the bland procedural struggle for electoral success, with the central agent of politics as teams of leaders — the rest of us falling in line behind them. For, if democracies status as an end is premised upon the ‘traditional view’ of it as rule by the people — a veneration of the value of self-determination, with politicians elected to enact the common will toward the common good — and if, as Schumpeter contends, the plurality of views and indeterminacy of wills prevents there from being such a common good or will in the first place, then what is left is merely the aggregation of disparate and malleable inclinations into the election of rulers. In this view, democracy is a “team of horses harnessed to a carriage driven by an aristocrat with a whip”, as Gerry Mackie potently argues. “A second aristocrat might seize the team from the first one, if he is stronger. The horses accept, they do not approve.Stripped of its normative qualities deriving from popular sovereignty, Schumpeter leaves us with a definition of democracy as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle of the people’s vote.” Sidelined, the people exist in this tepid formulation only to “produce a government.”

And so, in the place where the people once stood remains a coterie of professional politicians; linked through party structures whose “first and foremost aim … is to prevail over others in order to get into power and stay in it.” Indeed, this idea of professionalisation is an idiom that Schumpeter takes care to emphasise, writing how politics is invariably a “career,” where, just as the businessman is “dealing in oil,” our rulers are “dealing in votes.” One can readily see this type of politician throughout our electoral landscape, whose positions change as often as the weather. But for Schumpeter, such concern only with electoral expediency is not indicative of a particular perversion of democracy, but it’s generalised true form, shed of any normative pretenses. He is aware of its downsides, though, attentive to the way in which the immediate interests of politicians are often incongruent with the decisions that would “produce the results most satisfactory to the nation,” with the emphasis on short-term success condemning the governing class to a perennial myopia. In essence, this competitive struggle amounts to the leadership of a “horseman who is so fully engrossed in trying to keep in the saddle that he cannot plan his ride.” But contrary to Schumpeter’s pessimistic insistence that this — the flaccid tyranny of a class of self-interested politicians — is democracies inherent form, Peter Mair’s study of the slow emaciation of Western democracy points to a different reality. Here, we can see that popular engagement and embedded politicians are no chimera of democratic romanticism, but were a key component of many post-war European states — and that it is the contemporary professionalisation of politics that has driven, in part, the recent vanishing of collective sovereignty.

Amalgamating research tracking electoral turnout, the stability of voting preferences, and party engagement over time, Mair’s Ruling the Void, is a sobering portrayal of contemporary politics. Through various indicators, he finds that the political world of the 50’s to the late 80’s was a vastly different place to the one we occupy today; one defined by record low turnouts stretching across western Europe, unprecedented volatility in political loyalty and affiliations, and a momentous collapse in party membership. As just one example of these trends, Mair notes how across the democratic sphere, “the absolute party members had fallen” to such an extent that it is “almost impossible to imagine further decline” without the implosion of “the party organisations concerned.” In sum, Mair ominously concludes that there is an undeniable “withdraw[al] and disengag[ment]” from politics. “Even when they vote, which is less … than before,” he writes, “their preferences emerge closer and closer to the moment of voting itself, and are now less easily guided by cohesive partisan cues.”

As the mediating link between the state and the people, the condition of the party structure is a useful barometer through which to judge the wider health of democracy. And if we take Mairs thesis to be accurate — that over time parties have detached themselves from civil society, no longer embedded within a distinct social group, and politicians have proceeded to burrow into the state — then representative democracy appears very sick indeed. The reasons behind this phenomena, however, are not clear cut. Mair urges us to take the decline of popular engagement and the retreat of politicians as part of a “process of mutual reinforcement”; both fleeing from the genuinely political, leaving an anemic democracy in their wake. Nevertheless, Mair identifies the professionalisation of politics as an integral factor for the withdrawal of representatives, thus making the Schumpeterian notion a powerful catalyst in the ‘hollowing’ process.

Whereas, during the “golden age of party democracy”, parties were rooted in “support networks” comprised of “closed social communities” enmeshed in “organisational interventions”, today this popular mobilisation and loyalty broadly ceases to exist. The beginning of the now evident decline can be traced to the rise of the ‘catch-all’ party, a more competitive model that overcame the old emphasis on strong representative links, seeking to “exchange effectiveness in depth for a wider audience and more immediate electoral success.” Consumed by the goal of “office-seeking”, elections soon became an end in itself. Structural antagonism in the form of opposing visions subsided, as representation and hegemonic ambitions gave way to the decrepit “overriding competitive goal.” And as they began to further and further emulate the Schumpeterian notion, “the party organization outside of the institutions of the polity, and the party on the ground in all its various manifestations, gradually wither[ed] away” leaving only a “governing class.” The result of the zenith of Schumpeter’s theory is that “the party … becomes the government’s representative in the society rather than the society’s bridgehead in the state.” In essence, what remains is “the party as spin doctor,” afraid to challenge the status-quo, their spectacle of leadership making injustice palatable.

The formation of politics as the reserve of career political operators, as oriented entirely around such actors inserting themselves into the organ of governance, is a profoundly alienating one; severely degrading the idea of popular sovereignty. Yet the stretching of “party-voter distances” and the ensuing spread of disaffection is not the only implication here, but is interlinked with the growing indistinguishability between previously antagonistic parties. As Mair observes, “party-party differences have shrunk” as parties become ever more “closely associated” with their political competitors. This ideological convergence, embodied by the sterile ‘Third-Way’ politics of Blair, Clinton and Schroder, portends a further corruption of democracy, as politics is stripped from its essential belligerence. Often linked to the Habermasian/Rawlsian models of ‘deliberative democracy’, one can see how professionalised politics can mutate easily into such political despondency. In that, in constantly and primarily searching for electoral success, parties may find themselves clambering on top of each other to capture that majority position. The mediation of ambition — ‘office-seeking’, not society-changing or common-good-chasing — thus leads to an homogenisation of politics. As if every party is trying to catch-all, then the centre is where they must be. Ideological poles are hastily evacuated, and opposition, as Kirchheimer argued, is therefore ‘eliminated’ — with rule by the people becoming “government by cartel.”

This party form of the cartel — characterised by the “interpenetration of the party and the state and a tendency toward inter-party collusion” — can be considered the final evolution of catch-all parties, as Schumpeterian electoral preeminence absorbs politicians into the state, and collapses the conceptual boundaries of the parties. But for Chantal Mouffe, this reticent centrism is the apogee of what she refers to as ‘non-politics’: that sterile vision of democracy that is unable to acknowledge the “ineradicable character” of politics — one of insurmountable antagonism between conflicting visions. As she writes in The Democratic Paradox, the authentic model of democracy is that of ‘agonistic pluralism’: a landscape of “various interpretations of the common good” engaged in adversarial combat for the construction of ‘hegemony.’ Counterposed to the ineffectuality of Schumpeter’s narrow aggregative model, and the hubristic rationality of deliberative democracy, Mouffe’s agonism sees social blocs democratically colliding in order to reconstitute the existing “social objectivity,” thus renegotiating “liberal democracies constitutive paradox.”

If we take Mouffe to be correct, then the impotent and static tyranny of the cartel professionals should give way to a wave of counter-hegemonic populisms; movements that embody the essential us/them distinction of politics, riding waves of popular mobilisation toward the creation of a new ‘common-sense’, to use Gramsci’s formulation. Indeed, all it takes to see the merits in Mouffe’s theory is to glance around. As the political sphere is gripped by convulsions from both the left and the right, we may do well to heed her warning that “the refusal of confrontation” may deny democratic channels to “collective passions”, leading to an “explosion of antagonisms that may tear up the very basis of civility.” Such a future may already be rearing its head. Perhaps the gutting of popular sovereignty may already be complete, pushing us beyond the point in which liberal-democracy can survive. I don’t think it is. But if we wish to resurrect democratic politics; to free it from the listless impotence it is caught in, we must push aside Schumpeter’s model, and break the grip of the governing class. For the key to democratic politics “is not how to arrive at consensus without exclusion”, but the “different way in which it is established.” The challenge, then — and the final implication of professionalised politics — is the establishment of this “us/them distinction in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy.” To not do so is to gamble with the very foundations of liberal-democracy itself.

Caught in the cold hands of technocrats, democracy is under threat. Mass disengagement has caused parties, and in extension, representative democracy itself, to atrophy; driven in large part by the consolidation of a class of myopic politicians, addicted to temperance and cautiousness. A deeply fractured and inadequate hegemony is allowed to ossify into the limits of political possibility as challenges to its dominance subside. But growing discontent with the fissures of this temporary arrangement, converging with disaffection against this pitiful professionalised politics, has ushered in an age of instability. Populism now rocks politics awake from its slumber, disturbing the cartels confabulation of democratic consensus. Slurs and delegitimization of such challengers ensue; but, in the words of sociologist Marco d’Eramo, “Just as the adulterous spouse is always the one most suspicious of their own partner, so those who eviscerate democracy are the most inclined to see threats to it everywhere.” As Mouffe predicted with eerie accuracy, “the blurring of the frontiers between left and right … are jeopardizing the future of democracy.” To secure its future, then, we must meet both nativist illiberalism and the anti-democracy of professionalisation with a populism of the left; reaffirming the political in the noisy, but legitimate, contestation of the social order.

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Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor

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22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.