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Understanding and Addressing Democratic Malaise

This piece is a foreword I wrote to the third issue of the FEPS magazine Queries. I was guest editor of the “Focus” section of the magazine for the issue. 


The world changes and it has ever been thus. With change comes panic and fear of social, cultural and political degeneration as different interests and perspectives seek the last word in its interpretation. There is a palpable sense of distress at the ongoing financial crisis and its consequences. But even before the crash, there had been a growing sense of disenchantment with the institutions of governance at national, European and international level. This edition of Queries seeks to address some of the aspects of this “democratic malaise”. 


The common narrative is that the onslaught of globalisation heralded an era of post-industrial economies. The nature of political engagement changed and newly organised forces of post-materialist politics challenged mainstream mass party dominance. This coincided with an increase in identity politics as cultural identifiers gained greater political currency in everyday democratic discourse. Thus, since the 1970s there has been a significant increase in nationalist voting tendencies (both regionalist and populist radical right) and in mobilisation around specific ethnic and religious interests.

To explain this, many sociologists and political scientists refer to a division between “modernisation winners and losers”, wherein the former are cosmopolitan, confidant beneficiaries of globalisation while the latter have been largely sidelined by the workings of the service economy and liberal social norms. Some progressives approach this from a perspective of well meaning “modernisation winners” who want to free so-called “losers” from the shackles of anti-modernity.

Unfortunately, this is often tinged with a tone of bien pensant condescension, which underlies the elitist assumption of having all the answers if only people would listen. Furthermore, assessments of the ‘forces of reaction’ are often based on past experience rather than their current, more challenging, manifestations. This volume of Queries examines the shifting methods and perspectives of right wing populists and others who challenge liberal democracy, raising serious questions about our collective response.


Much of the current commentary on right wing populists describes a very narrow demographic of angry, uneducated men who refuse to accept the realities of modernity and changing social norms. Yet even extremists like Jobbik in Hungary confound stereotypes. Research by the FEPS Young Academics Network has shown Jobbik supporters to be young, university educated and IT literate. The party has been very successful in using 21st century tools to mobilise around their hateful and xenophobic agenda.

While a significant proportion of the far right uphold a traditionalist worldview when it comes to gender and LGBT issues, others actually place themselves as protectors of socially liberal values. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen have been very adept at utilising quasi-feminist discourse as a weapon for Islamophobic public commentary. Thus, they pose as the real defenders of women’s rights while those on the left acquiesce in the oppression of women amid the oppressive communalism that came with multiculturalism.

And what of Islamic politics in Europe? As an oppositional force, Islamism has also changed in its thinking and approach. Islamists’ narrative has significantly changed from the theocratic idea that democracy is wrong because “God told us” to a more political one that democracy is inherently unjust. Changing narratives and ongoing marginalisation have helped such versions of anti-modernist emancipation to gain a foothold.


Most assume that higher levels of education can protect our societies from the onslaught the worst effects of democratic malaise. Yet throughout Europe, the most politically disaffected demographic has been educated young people. Their level of trust in the ability of politics to improve their lives has plummeted. As youth unemployment rocketed amid the financial crisis, the pathetic dithering of many of our governments and institutions has done little to restore faith. It would be a mistake, however, to link this malaise solely to the financial crisis. Much depends on the pre-existing health of liberal democratic institutions and civic engagement.

The rise of the extremist Golden Dawn in Greece must be analysed in the historical context of long-term polarisation in Greek politics. By comparison, discontent in other Troika “programme countries” such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland has not been expressed in as violent a manner while “AAA” Austria, Finland and the Netherlands have significant populist radical right parties. This should remind us of the deep folly of short-term thinking when addressing more deep-rooted problems.


In the USA and Europe, suspicion of politics has been accompanied by a parallel suspicion of the apparatus of the state. The “revolving door” phenomenon wherein high-level officials secure cushy private sector positions after their tenure in public office exacerbates this. For Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, this creates the feeling that politicians make decisions based on the whims of private masters and not the public’s best interest.

At European level, the culture of technocracy and the reductionist vision of EU politics as between those who are “for or against Europe” have been detrimental to democracy.  The neoliberal surge has benefited from this trend as democracy is uprooted and the European social consensus is gradually broken. Economics has become depoliticised and politics has been reduced to discourse around cultural identity, disproportionally benefitting reactionary nationalists.

This presents particular problems for progressives, who seek to improve the lives of citizens through the use of an economically active state. As long as people are so distrustful of the state and the people who represent its institutions, the left faces an acute challenge. One sees similar trends in attitudes towards other large institutions. Surveys show that the most traditional pillar of the public sphere, the newspaper, is the least trusted among the mass media. So it seems the deficit of trust is shared by the Third and Fourth Estates.


It would be unjust, however, to imply that there have been no efforts to ameliorate the situation. The institution of the Ombudsman represents a significant pragmatic effort to bring transparency and accountability to the workings of our institutions. The problem is that too often responses have been “fanciful and ambiguous”. There is a dire need for a connection in people’s minds between democratic politics in Europe and the decisions that affect their lives.

This issue of Queries recounts a story of an Athenian women’s exhortations to decision makers in Brussels: “Tell them not to forget that we are human beings, not statistics!” No one should ever have to say this in a civilised society, let alone the birthplace of democracy! The sad reality is that the institutions of European democracy have come to be seen as links in the chains that bind our destinies to the interests of unidentified political and financial elites. We now face the grand task of making them the building blocks for a more equitable and empowered existence, where those with power seek democratic legitimacy at every turn.


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