All over the world, existing political systems and therefore democracy itself are in crisis. This takes a variety of forms, varying from country to country, from continent to continent. One sure indicator is the loss of faith in older established political parties; another is the rise of right-wing populist and nationalist parties accompanied by outbursts of xenophobia in search of someone to blame. Historically-formed allegiances have broken down as voters lose trust in political institutions and traditional parties.
Labour for example was not long ago the dominant party in Scotland, taking charge when the country regained its Parliament. In 1999 Labour won 39% of the vote and 56 seats in the Holyrood elections. Their support for the Union at the time of the independence referendum in 2014 quickly accelerated a sharp decline in support from Scotland’s voters, leading to a political meltdown. At the 2015 general election, Labour lost 40 seats (ending up with just one). Last year Labour’s share of the vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections was reduced to 22.6% and they came in third behind the Scottish National Party and the Tories.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the UK, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn has twice been re-elected as leader of the Labour Party largely because he did not represent the old politics but promised something altogether different and new. He is under constant attack from inside his own party, as well as the media, who fear a movement independent of the old party system.
In France, the failure of the Socialist Party presidency and government to tackle the profound economic and social problems facing the country is directly connected with the rise of the neo-fascist Front Nationale. In Spain, backing for the Socialist Party has evaporated and the left populist Podemos is challenging to replace it. Meanwhile, in Italy the disaffection with mainstream parties has resulted in a stratospheric rise for the Five Star movement, which is largely an online anti-establishment party without any firm principles.
In the Nordic countries, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats with roots in the Neo-Nazi movement, is currently challenging the government, while the Danish People’s Party became the country’s second-largest party in 2015 with 21 per cent of the vote. Far right parties have also made gains in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and Austria.
In the United States, the Democratic Party had long taken for granted that it would win in the industrial heartlands of the north-east and failed to campaign vigorously in the region during the 2016 presidential election. The rest is history. Donald Trump is in the White House because his populist message on jobs got through to workers whose living standards and employment prospects have plummeted while Hillary Clinton had little to say on these issues.
Trump built on the staggering loss of trust in federal government. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%). Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 – the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years. In 1958, when the American National Election Study first asked this question, 73% said they could trust the government just about always or most of the time. (see chart page 10)
Richard Edelman, head of the communications marketing firm of the same name, says that two-thirds of the countries surveyed each year are now ‘distrusters’ (under 50% distrust mainstream institutions of business, government, media and NGOs “to do what is right”), up from just over half in 2016. “This is a profound crisis in trust that has its origins in the Great Recession of 2008. The aftershocks from the stunning meltdown of the global economy are still being felt today, with consequences yet unknown,” he writes in the introduction to his firm’s latest report on trust.
More than three-quarters of respondents among both informed and general populations agree that the system is biased against ‘regular’ people and favours the rich and powerful. Government is now distrusted in 75% of the 28 countries surveyed. In the run-up to the referendum, the market-research firm YouGov found that ‘Leave’ supporters were far more likely than ‘Remain’ supporters to prefer relying on the opinions of ordinary people than on those of experts. On the question of Britain’s membership in the EU, 81% of ‘Leave’ voters said they didn’t trust the views of British politicians, compared with 67% of ‘Remain’ voters.
Behind the crisis of democracy
This present crisis of democracy is a reflection in politics of what has happened to people’s lives and the decline in any real control in terms of employment, wages, housing, education, public transport, social care and other services. Democracy has increasingly become an outer shell, the form of politics, while the content in the shape of previous achievements has been undermined.
Democratic gains are present in all aspects of life, from the National Health Service, education, social housing and welfare services, to race relations and gender rights. They were all made possible by the right of universal suffrage and the contesting of capitalist exploitation through using the state to make reforms. But since the period of modern globalisation from the 1980s, when transnational corporations and investment banks became dominant, these reforms have been rolled back and undermined to breaking point.
As a result, inequality has grown to unprecedented levels, average wages have fallen in real terms, housing has become a luxury that only a minority can afford, trade unions have been severely weakened and many services either privatised or contracted out to the ‘third’ or voluntary sector. The democracy that exists is also a kind of dictatorship by the corporatocracy in which people have no say and their voices are not heard. The transition from a welfare state to the present market-focused, corporate state, which transfers wealth from the mass of people to an increasingly elite group, is nearly complete.
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