A Crisis of Democracy?

David Marsh

Professor Marsh is the Director of Research at the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

In my view there is a crisis of democracy, although I acknowledge that others would disagree. Here, I focus upon three significant changes that there have been in democratic practices and processes over the last few decades which have contributed to this growing crisis: the decline in formal political participation; the growing power of the corporate sector; and, the growth of depoliticisation and anti-politics.


Changes in Political Participation

The mainstream literature on political participation focuses upon its decline and often suggests that this reflects an increase in political apathy, particularly, but by no means exclusively, among the young.  In my view, shared by many others, apathy is not the only ‘other’ of participation; indeed, alienation from, and cynicism about, the political system as it currently operates are at least as important. At the same time, the emphasis on the decline of political participation results, in large part, from a narrow, ‘arena’ definition of politics. If we broaden our understanding of ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, then we can see that people, particularly young people are involved in a variety of actions, and indeed ‘organisations’, as diverse as GetUp, Anonymous, MamaBake and Occupy, to name but a few examples.

One way to view that change is to emphasise the move from political actions based on duty norms, so people are involved because that is what they think they should do as citizens in a democracy, to political actions based on engagement norms, so people are involved on their own terms, where and when they want to. This argument can be extended to emphasise that, in terms of political identity, there has been a shift from legitimating or oppositional identities, involving support for, or opposition to, political authorities, towards project identities, where the motivation for actions comes from support for, and involvement with, a particular project here.

The overall point here for the future of democracy is that, to the extent that the nature, form and reasons for political action are changing, then the result is a decoupling of government and citizens. From this perspective, it is not that citizens are never involved in mainstream political activity, or don’t attempt to influence government policy.  Rather, governments have to find some way of rearticulating with citizens, in an era of ‘anti politics’.


The Growing Power of the Corporate Sector

Charles Lindblom argued that politics in contemporary capitalist society involves a continual process of negotiation between government and business occurring on terrain which favours business, but where government, using its resources, can bargain away some of the structural power of business. However, contemporary capitalism is significantly different. David Beetham succinctly identifies four changes which have significantly increased the power of business in relation to the contemporary state and, although he uses UK evidence, his argument has broad resonance:


  • The rise of neo-liberalism has strengthened the position of big business and weakened the position of the state, given the mantra ‘markets good, states bad’.
  •  Globalisation and financialisation makes regulation by individual states, particularly of financial capital, more problematic and threats of capital strikes more believable.
  •  In the UK, large corporations pay relatively little tax, which leads to significantly reduced government revenues.
  • These lower revenues lead to a decline in government’s organizational capacity and expertise.


So, to the extent that there was an exchange relationship involved, the balance has moved significantly in favour of business and to the extent that democracy is, or should be, rooted in a pluralist distribution of power, that distribution is under threat, which is a major concern.


Policy Success or the Lack of it

The state has been weakened in both discursive terms, as a result of the dominance of neo-liberal arguments, and institutional terms, as a result of the decline in capacity. At the same time, we can also point to an increased role for the media (both new and old) in setting the political agenda, and, crucially, imposing a frantic media cycle which has led to the speeding up of the policy process.

There has been a related focus in the literature on policy failure. So, for example, in the UK, Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s recent book focuses, almost with relish, on the policy failures of British Governments. While it is important to acknowledge that there have been significant policy failures, focusing exclusively on them seems to me to provide succour to the neo-liberals who want to shrink the state. In this context, Mariana Mazzucato’s (2013) work on the major contributions which states have made to economic development needs to be taken very seriously.

Rutter, Marshall and Sims (2012) work on cases of policy success in the UK provide ample evidence that there is a disjuncture between quick policy-making and successful policy-making. The problem is of course that the temporal scale involved for good policy-making and the temporal scale within which politicians, and increasingly public servants, operate are out of sync. Short electoral cycles, accompanied by almost permanent campaigning and a 24-hour news cycle is not conducive to good policy-making.

One might ask why this is important for the future of democracy, but it seems to me to be crucial. The problems facing government are greater at a time when its capacity to deliver is reducing and long-term policy-making is in decline. This process clearly exacerbates the disconnection/decoupling between government and citizens.


Depoliticisation  and Anti-Politics

Relatedly, there is a growing literature on depoliticisation and anti-politics, particularly in the UK. In essence, the thrust of most of this literature emphasise that depoliticisation is both an example of, and a cause of, negative responses to politics and politicians. In most of this literature, government and politicians are seen as the cause of this ‘anti-politics’.  The growth in anti-politics among observers, the media, academics and citizens seems to me to be a real problem for democracy. We need politicians and the ‘demonisation’ of politics and politicians cannot help us recruit better ones.

As such, I think democracy is facing difficult times. What can be done about it? That will be the subject of another blog.

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