Many political commentators are preoccupied with a threat to democracy from unruly barbarians at the gates, like the supporters of Donald Trump who rioted on Capitol Hill to prevent Joe Biden’s inauguration. But if the institutions of liberal democracy seem vulnerable to an external challenge, that’s largely because the citadel has been hollowed out from within. When far-right politician Giorgia Meloni surged to victory in the Italian election this fall, turnout was lower than ever before. Indifference to what passes for democratic politics is far more widespread than a desire to experiment with dictatorship.
There is little question that democracy is in trouble.
Outside the electoral cycle, the membership of political parties has declined sharply. As well as lacking a mass base, parties no longer have strong ties to organizations like trade unions that formerly kept them in touch with society. Without members and affiliated groups to assist their efforts, party leadership teams become ever more reliant on donations from corporations and wealthy individuals to fund their campaigns. Politicians also look to the world of business for lucrative forms of employment after their careers are over, reinforcing mass disillusionment with a political class whose members appear to be tied to private economic interests and mainly concerned with feathering their own nests. This emaciated form of democratic politics has proved to be highly vulnerable to sudden shocks, especially since the Great Recession of 2008–9. Outsider candidates like Donald Trump can take over existing parties and bend them to their will. New political forces, or old ones that have subsisted on the margins for decades, can push their way to the front of the stage, like Italy’s Five Star Movement or the Scottish National Party. Traditional parties of government can suddenly implode, from Ireland’s Fianna Fáil to the French Socialists or PASOK in Greece.
Writers like Colin Crouch and Peter Mair who have analyzed this phenomenon have contrasted the landscape of recent times with the postwar decades, when levels of popular engagement with mainstream politics were much higher. But that was a very specific historical moment made possible by conditions that no longer exist today. We can only make sense of what’s been happening to political democracy by linking it with the development of capitalism since the 1970s. As sociologist Göran Therborn once observed: “Democracy developed neither out of the positive tendencies of capitalism, nor as a historical accident, but out of the contradictions of capitalism.”
For many years, it was generally believed that capitalism and democracy were incompatible. Defenders of capitalism resisted universal suffrage because they thought that workers would use their voting power to expropriate the propertied classes; opponents of capitalism supported it and looked forward to the same outcome. The experience of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suggested that both sides might be wrong: white men of all classes gained the vote at an early stage, but the social order remained intact. Yet it still took thirty years of war and revolution between 1914 and 1945 to establish capitalist democracy as the dominant political form in Western Europe.
It was pressure from labor movements that forced the ruling classes of Europe to concede universal suffrage after a long, bitter struggle. After the defeat of fascism, those ruling classes came to accept that a form of democracy could be reconciled with the capitalist system, but they knew that workers would not be satisfied with voting rights alone. The postwar social compromise between labor and capital was supposed to make a return to the conditions of the 1930s impossible. Full employment, the extension of public ownership, and much higher levels of social spending were essential features of this new political model. At the same time, trade unions in the United States pushed the Democratic Party to establish a thinner version of the European welfare state.
In the words of Therborn, capitalist democracy only proved to be viable “because of the elasticity and expansive capacity of capitalism, which were grossly underestimated by classical liberals and Marxists alike.” But the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s greatly reduced that elasticity. A regime of full employment had encouraged workers to become more assertive and pose demands that capitalists and their political representatives deemed totally unacceptable, including plans for democracy in the workplace and social control over investment. The neoliberal backlash that followed was intended to put democracy back in its box.
It was no longer feasible to impose straightforward restrictions on the right to vote. Democracy had become such an important rallying cry for the United States and its allies in their Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union that there could be no formal renunciation of its basic principles. Instead, the neoliberal counterrevolution sought to preserve the forms of democratic rule while emptying out their content.
People could still vote for whomever they pleased, but control over economic policymaking was transferred to unelected bodies, whether inside the state (like the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England) or outside it (like the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank). The deregulation of financial markets gave them the whip hand over national governments, while the increasingly mobile nature of big corporations made it harder to constrain their activities.
At the same time, there was a concerted push to disorganize the working class. Trade union membership steadily declined, partly because of anti-union laws and employer offensives, and partly because industries where unions had traditionally been strong were shedding workers at a dramatic rate. Strike rates also fell to historic lows. There were scattered exceptions to the rule, but the overall picture was clear.
Against this backdrop, traditional parties of the Left could still win elections, but they found it very difficult to carry out the most basic reforms while in office. More often than not, they didn’t even try. By the 1990s, the most that people could expect from social democratic governments was some very cautious tinkering with the neoliberal economic model. In the United States, where the New Deal version of regulated capitalism had always been weaker, it was also easier to roll back, and the Democrats gladly swapped their partnership with organized labor for close ties with Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
After the 2008 financial crash, center-left parties took a meat cleaver to what was left of social democracy in Europe, and the Democrats under Barack Obama exerted might and main to restore the financial system exactly as it was before. This wasn’t the beginning of dealignment — the process began much earlier — but it painfully exposed the shallow roots of these long-established political forces. Center-right parties also suffered at the ballot box when they implemented austerity policies in government, but their social base had always been more affluent and did not bear the brunt of mass unemployment and public spending cuts, so the Great Recession didn’t put them through the electoral wringer to the same extent.
Like nature, politics can’t abide a vacuum, and there has been no shortage of challengers attempting to fill this one. On the Left, various forces have tried to represent the constituencies that traditional social democratic parties have abandoned. There have been some spectacular advances that seemed hard to imagine before 2008. Syriza’s electoral support rose from less than 5 percent of the vote in 2009 to over 36 percent six years later, enabling it to supplant Greece’s center-left party, and Podemos came agonizingly close to overtaking the Spanish Socialists in the two elections of 2015–16. La France Insoumise has become the dominant force on the French left after two high-impact presidential campaigns by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
But so far, the new left in Europe and North America hasn’t made the transition from being a symptom of democratic crisis to offering an effective cure. In government, parties like Syriza and Podemos have been able to deliver marginal improvements at best, and certainly no paradigm-breaking shift away from neoliberalism. Sudden electoral gains can be lost just as rapidly in a volatile political environment. Recent social movements like the Spanish Indignados or the gilets jaunes in France don’t possess the long-term organizational weight of the trade unions that supported twentieth-century workers’ parties.
Organizing the void left behind by the hollowing out of democratic politics would be hard enough without the simultaneous challenge of right-wing national populism. By artificially reducing political polarization at a time when social polarization has been sharply increasing, the mainstream parties have created ideal conditions for those who want to explain declining living standards by reference to race or national identity instead of class.
From Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni, right-wing demagogues will continue to exploit this opportunity for as long as it remains open to them. Since their political agenda is based on scapegoating vulnerable minorities, it is much easier to translate that agenda into government policy without facing strong opposition than it is to implement a left-wing program that conflicts with powerful economic interests.
The crisis of democracy is ultimately a crisis of capitalism, and there is no way of addressing it without confronting the exorbitant power of the capitalist class.