Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 11 April 2022

The vulnerability of democracy in bad times


It’s a depressing time for democrats. Russia, run by dictator Putin, is attacking the fledgling democracy of Ukraine. Orban, who destroyed the pluralist democracy of Hungary, was reelected. In the UK the government is in the process of rigging elections in its favour, and giving itself powers to lock up anyone who demonstrates for up to 10 years. The mid-terms in the US seem set to see the advance of a Republican party that shows little respect for democracy when it loses. Those that chart these things (e.g. here or here) find more countries moving in an authoritarian direction than in a democratic direction.

Alongside the global movement towards authoritarian regimes is a growing dissatisfaction with democracy by people in democratic states. This is clearly tracked in this report from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge. As the charts in the report clearly show, globally this rise in dissatisfaction began during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and is clearest in established democracies rather than developing democracies. The United States shows this pattern clearly:

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK does not follow this pattern, in that satisfaction recovered from the dip during the GFC, but has increased substantially during the Brexit implementation period.

Of course there are many ways of interpreting these results. It could simply represent a reaction to bad times (as the rise since the GFC suggests), a reaction to the particular democratic system in place (e,g, first past the post), or a preference for some non-democratic alternative. Here a 2017 Pew survey is interesting.

The support for representative democracy is strong, and far outweighs rule by a strong leader or by the military. Reported dissatisfaction with democracy seems in part to be expressing a dislike or distrust of current politicians rather than democracy itself. For example a very recent YouGov poll showed that among every age group, when people responding to a question of whether “democracy in Britain as a whole addresses the interests of people like you” either well as badly, more thought badly rather than well, although it was close for the 65+ group.

Questions about how satisfied people are about democracy, or how they feel about politicians, may do little more than tell you how they feel about the political party in power, rather than the democratic system itself. Another 2019 Pew analysis found that in France, 85% of those who support President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party are satisfied with democracy, compared with 34% of those who do not support it. How people feel about the political party in power may in turn depend on major events, like the GFC.

Which brings us to the French presidential elections, and the rise in popularity of the far right. Latest results suggest Le Pen won 23.4% of the vote in the first round, compared to Macron’s 27.6%. That means that Macron and Le Pen will compete in the final poll on 24th April. Opinion polls conducted before the first round suggest that, unlike last time when Macron beat Le Pen easily, this time it will be a close race, although Macron’s first round showing is a little better than pollssuggested.

At first sight, Putin’s war against Ukraine should have dealt Le Pen a fatal blow. In the past she has been an admirer of Putin, and has taken money from Russian banks. She took Putin’s side over the annexation of Crimea and the fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Yet she was quick to condemn Russia over Ukraine, and has instead focused on bread and butter issues like the cost of living. She has effectively managed to detoxify her campaign.

In part this has been possible because in the first round there was another candidate, Zemmour, who took up even more right wing positions on immigration and Islam. It is Zemmour who has taken most of the criticism over admiration of Putin’s Russia. This could play to Macron’s advantage in the final vote, and it may yet be the case that the polls change as the second round vote approaches. In 2017 in the first round Macron got 24% compared to 21.3% for Le Pen, while in the final round Macron won easily, 66% to 34%.

The more worrying alternative view is that the French electorate is now much more open to a far right populist candidate than it was five years ago, particularly if it pretends to be something else. The first important point is that Macron is no longer a novelty, but the incumbent who can get the blame for how things are. Second, in 2017 Le Pen was the only far right candidate. Putting the Le Pen and Zemmour vote together (assuming the exit poll above is correct) you get that over 30%. Finally, despite a different policy on fuel costs to the UK, France is not immune to cost of living pressures caused by the pandemic and Ukraine war. 

But the big story of the first round voting is the further collapse of what were once the established parties of left and right. The collapse of party loyalty in established democracies generally goes together with growing disenchantment with democracy, and reflects a steady fall in the number of voters who closely identify with a political party. Voting has become much more like consumer choice, where voters are often willing to try something new instead of established brands. (In two party systems, such as in the UK and US, that desire for change is frustrated, perhaps increasing disenchantment.) Choices are often based on low information. 

This is an environment that allows right wing populists to thrive. Someone like Le Pen is able to detoxify her brand in just five years, and gain more votes as a result.  In difficult times these populists can pitch themselves as outsiders against the existing political elite, and can promise the unattainable and be believed (as happened in the UK with Brexit). Most voters who vote for far right populists are not deliberately choosing authoritarian leaders who could, like Orban and perhaps Johnson, end up destroying pluralist democracy, but that is where their disenchantment with democracy in bad times can sometimes lead.    

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