The political landscape has drastically changed all across the world over the past decade, with traditional political parties failing to franchise their core electorate, which in turn has slowly migrated towards alternative parties that have sprung up from seemingly nowhere. If ten or twenty years ago a clear distinct ideology was adopted by all parties, be them on the right or left of the political spectrum, nowadays more and more politicians are adopting a “populist” approach when building up their support. But why?
what is populism?
First off, we must understand something quite important – in the West, populism came as a reaction to decades of negligence by the political class towards their own constituencies. It didn’t matter if the right or left were in power, the mechanisms remained the same, every single time: run a campaign by promising things to the ordinary people, get elected with the help of their votes, completely vanish from the face of the Earth for the next few years, until the next election cycle came up. Rinse and repeat, and you have the perfect image of a career politician right in front of you. This whole charade has given birth to a growing discontent of the people themselves towards everything politically related, which in turn has paved the way for the so-called “populist surge”.
But what is real populism, you may ask yourself? If we were to look up the term, we’d find out that populism is an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force against “the elite”, who are perceived as corrupt and self-serving. The elite, in this situation, can range from political, economic, cultural and media establishments, all of which are accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups as well, above the interests of the people. Sounds familiar? Because this is exactly the message that we’ve been hearing resonating across the world, polarising our societies more and more by dividing the people between two very distinct camps: anti-establishment and pro-establishment. There is no in-between, no room for dialogue, not anymore.
“The rise of populism in Western Europe is, in large part, a reaction to the failure of the traditional parties to respond adequately in the eyes of the electorate to a series of phenomena such as economic and cultural globalisation, the speed and direction of European integration, immigration, the decline of ideologies and class politics, exposure of elite corruption, etc. It is also the product of a much-cited, but rarely defined, “political malaise”, manifested in steadily falling turnouts across Western Europe, declining party memberships, and ever-greater numbers of citizens in surveys citing a lack of interest and distrust in politics and politicians” – Albertazzi and McDonnel.
The political class is failing Democracy
Dissatisfaction with democratic politics among citizens of developed countries has increased from a third to half of all individuals over the last quarter of a century, according to a study published this week.
The University of Cambridge’s 2020 Global Satisfaction with Democracy report estimates that the number of people not satisfied with democracy in their countries has risen by nearly 10 percentage points since 1995, from 47.9 to 57.5 percent. The study looked at data from 154 countries.
The report notes, however, that while dissatisfaction exists both in developed and developing countries, it has increased mainly among citizens of developed countries.
Dissatisfaction with democratic politics among citizens of developed* countries has increased from a third to half of all individuals over the last quarter of a century, according to the largest international dataset on global attitudes to democracy ever made.
In fact, researchers found that across the planet – from Europe to Africa, as well as Asia, Australasia, both Americas and the Middle East – the share of individuals who say they are “dissatisfied” with democracy has jumped significantly since the mid-1990s: from 47.9% to 57.5%.
The research team, from the University of Cambridge’s new Centre for the Future of Democracy, say that the year 2019 “represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record”. Detailed stocktaking of global political sentiment began in 1995.
The report used a unique dataset of more than 4 million people. It combines over 25 international survey projects covering 154 countries between 1995 and 2020, with some dating back as far as 1973, and includes new cross-country surveys.
The report, along with the new Centre, which will be based at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, will be launched in Cambridge on Wednesday 29 January.
“Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise,” said the report’s lead author Dr Roberto Foa, from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS). “We find that dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed countries.”
Professor David Runciman, head of the new Centre, said: “We need to move beyond thinking about immediate crises in politics and take a longer view to identify possible trajectories for democracy around the world. This means distinguishing what is essential to democracy, what is contingent and what can be changed.
“The Centre for the Future of Democracy will be looking at the bigger picture to see how democracy could evolve,” he said.
The downward trend in satisfaction with democracy has been especially sharp since 2005, which marks the beginning of what some have called a ‘global democratic recession’. Just 38.7% of citizens were dissatisfied in that year, but this has since risen by almost one-fifth of the population (+18.8%) to 57.5%.
Many large democracies are now at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, as well as the United States – where dissatisfaction has increased by a third since the 1990s. Other countries that remain close to their all-time dissatisfaction highs include Japan, Spain and Greece.
The study, from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, has tracked views on democracy since 1995 – with the figures for 2019 showing the proportion dissatisfied rising from 48% to 58%, the highest recorded level.
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The authors suggest that the decline could stem from a series of crises, including the 2008 financial crash, the eurozone crisis and the 2015 European refugee crisis.
The US has seen a “dramatic and unexpected” decline in satisfaction, according to researchers. In 1995, more than three-quarters of US citizens were satisfied with American democracy, a figure that plateaued for the next decade. The first big knock came with the 2008 financial crisis, and deterioration has continued year-on-year ever since. Now, less than half of US citizens are content with their democracy.
“Such levels of democratic dissatisfaction would not be unusual elsewhere,” said Foa. “But for the United States it may mark an end of exceptionalism, and a profound shift in America’s view of itself.”
The report’s authors suggest that the 1990s were a better time for democracy, as the West emerged from the Cold War with renewed legitimacy, while multi-party elections spread across Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, repeated financial and foreign policy failures in established democracies, along with endemic corruption and state fragility in the Global South, have eroded trust in democracy over the last 25 years.
“The rise of populism may be less a cause and more a symptom of democratic malaise,” said Foa. “Without this weakening legitimacy, it would be unthinkable for a US presidential candidate to denounce American democracy as rigged, or for the winning presidential candidate in Latin America’s largest democracy to openly entertain nostalgia for military rule.”
“If confidence in democracy has been slipping, it is because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming. To restore democratic legitimacy, that must change.”