Ira Katznelson focuses on the United States, but the state of democratic institutions is just as worryingly fragile on the other side of the Atlantic. Voter turnout is down across European democracies, party membership is at a historically low level, and citizens are increasingly distant from and distrusting of their elected representatives. Politicians seem to be the emissaries of government, telling citizens how things are going to be, rather than the representatives of the people, holding government to account. As the late Peter Mair put it in Ruling the Void (2013), “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The health of democracy is further imperilled by the perverse incentives generated by electoral systems. The recent British election provides a case in point: Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives achieved an unexpected absolute majority of parliamentary seats on the basis of just 36.8 percent of votes cast, winning the support of less than 25 percent of eligible voters. If the did-not-vote party had been awarded seats, it would have won the election comfortably. The Conservative victory was achieved, as the system demands, by appealing to a few hundred thousand swing voters in a few dozen marginal constituencies. This sort of strategy involves an avoidable violation of the political equality of citizens, as most people lose any chance to make a difference with their vote. It is not surprising that political engagement is so weak under such conditions.
Money in politics also blemishes British democracy.
The 2015 British election also sheds light on another failure of representative democracy that Katznelson mentions: the problem of realizing what Claus Offe calls the principle of non-convertibility—the idea, in Katznelson’s terms, “that unequal social and economic assets should not convert into unequal political influence.” In the wake of Citizens United, wealth converts into political power more easily in the United States than it does in any other advanced democracy. But the disfiguring interplay between wealth and politics also blemishes British democracy. With lavish backing from their friends in hedge funds and investment banks, the Conservatives were able to run a more sophisticated and targeted campaign than their opponents. Serious reform of the financial services industry is in consequence unlikely to be on the current government’s political agenda.
Still more importantly, the sponsorship of plutocrats such as Rupert Murdoch assured the Conservatives rabid support in most of the British print media and more subtle but just as effective backing from Murdoch’s Sky television station. Tabloid attacks on the Labour Party and its leadership were stunning in their viciousness and unscrupulousness, with The Daily Mail even calling Labour leader Ed Miliband’s dead father, Ralph Miliband, “the man who hated Britain.” Instead of helping citizens “develop informed views about key issues,” as Katznelson puts it, the media instead busy themselves trying to demonize and demoralize anyone who might counter the interests of media business owners. Murdoch and his fellow press barons have already reaped their reward, as the Conservatives launched an assault on the future of the BBC within days of their election victory. The more government undermines neutral media venues, the harder it will be for politicians and activists opposed to the positions of the wealthy to get a fair hearing within the informal processes of politics.
When John Rawls sketched the contours of a “property-owning democracy” in his final book, Justice as Fairness (2001), he thought that, in order to protect political equality, it would be necessary both to reduce the background inequalities of wealth that can disfigure the conduct of politics and to build up layers of insulation between politics and the market, so that those remaining inequalities would not fall foul of Offe’s principle of non-convertibility. Following Rawls’s dual approach would in practice require much more aggressive regulation of political funding and media ownership and the protection of political equality through a reconfigured electoral system, all against a background of a less economically divided society.
This is a compelling account of the goal and the means of attaining it, but it is very difficult to see how to get there from here. The political system is sick, and its maladies reinforce one another as they metastasize. We can only do our best in the hope that the condition is not terminal.