"Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country." Franklin D. Roosevelt Declining Confidence and Engagement
Last year, the downgrading of the United States from a "full democracy" to a "flawed democracy" in the annual Democracy Index by Economist Intelligence Unit made waves across international media. Although many commentators rushed to point to the election of Donald Trump as the determinant factor of this decline, the report insists this was not a cause but a result of it, due to a "protracted and persistent decline in levels of popular confidence in political institutions and parties." (1)
The United States was hardly alone in this troubling trend--a direct result of the slow erosion of public trust in politicians, political parties, and political institutions. The 2016 Democracy Index, which incorporates 60 indicators across five broad categories--electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties--saw the scores of more than 70 countries decline compared to 2015. (2) Out of the 38 countries that improved their scores, the case of Great Britain stands out, which went from 8.31 to 8.36 thanks to the strong turnout for the Brexit vote, which is in itself hardly a success for democracy.
The decline in confidence has increasingly become a fixture in Western democracies. In 1964, 77 percent of American citizens said they trusted the government in Washington "always" or "most of the time." (3) In 2015, that figure sunk to 19 percent. (4) In every major poll conducted since July 2007, less than one in three Americans have expressed trust in the federal government. (5) Although not as well documented as in the United States, this is a widespread phenomenon in other Western democracies. In particular, Pharr, Putnam, and Dalton identify evidence of the decline in political support in three areas: disillusionment with politicians, political institutions, and political parties. (6)
To clarify, distrust and criticism of the government are not only not bad but a crucial component of the democratic process. Disaffection is a healthy part of democracy, and elections give constituents the chance to correct their choices every so often. The problem is when "dissatisfaction is generalized to the point where citizens lose faith in the entire political class... then the chances for democratic renewal are seriously diminished." (7)
Alienation from political leaders has come from a mutual withdrawal of career politicians and the general public. On one hand, career politicians at the helm of political parties are increasingly perceived as disconnected elites who retreat into institutions and direct their ambitions toward external public institutions, often using political parties as stepping stones to other offices. (8) On the other hand, the general public withdraws either into private life or into what Beck terms sub-politics, or "politics emerging-and hiding away-in new places: for instance, in the everyday activities and choices of people and in the often informal and spontaneous political actions of social movements." (9) On the same topic, Bennett writes,
What is changing about politics is not a decline in citizen engagement, but a shift away from old forms that is complemented by the emergence of new forms of political interest and engagement... Civic culture is not dead, it has merely taken new identities, and can be found living in other communities. (10) In any case, this mutual withdrawal has two major effects: the growing acceptance and legitimation of non-political or depoliticized methods of decisionmaking, which kindles a sense of disempowerment among the general electorate; and increased hostility toward the national political class, which has facilitated various populist challenges, and which possibly reached its zenith in 2016.
In the event that politicians do click with the electorate, it has less to do with their status as politicians or ties with any political party than with their personality and charisma. In fact, the "outsider" status is seen as a major asset in our current political climate: from former investment banker Emmanuel Macron and reality TV star and businessman Donald Trump to more bizarre examples such as German Chancellor-hopeful Martin Schulz, who after a life of public service in the European Union is selling his brand as an outsider to German domestic politics, and Senator Bernie Sanders, a seventy-six year old career politician who, after ten years serving in the United States Senate, positioned himself as an outsider vis-avis Hillary Clinton.
Although political leaders continue to be recruited by the party, they are less likely to be recruited through the party, with the choice of leader "often determined by the candidate's capacity to appeal to the media and hence to the wider electorate," (11) less so than by the candidate's support within the party. This trend can be seen clearly in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in British Labour politics. Twice challenged by the leadership of his own party, he has managed to cling to power through his direct link with the base.
The clearest way to assess the levels of disengagement with political institutions, which are generally harder to evaluate, is through participation in national elections. While there is much literature written on this topic, there is also ongoing academic debate over whether declining numbers represent the disengagement of existing voters or whether it is a generational issue. Regardless, it is clear that we are witnessing a pervasive, global phenomenon that signals a weakening of the democratic electoral process.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, average turnout in democratic elections in Western Europe scarcely varied, "increasing marginally from 84.3 percent in the 1950s to 84.9 percent in the 1960s and then falling slightly to 83.9 percent in the 1970s and to 81.7 percent in the 1980s." (12) Although slight, the decline from the 1970s to 1980s was noticeable among the 15 long-established European democracies for which there is long-term reliable data, according to Mair. (13) The case of France stands out, with a decline of over 10 percentage points.
This decline was the first symptom of a trend that began to accelerate in the 1990s. According to data presented by Mair, participation throughout Western Europe fell from 81.7 percent in the 1980s to 77.6 percent in the 1990s, and further to 75.8 percent in the first decade of the 2000s, reflecting steep declines in particular cases.
Once societies begin to take democracy as a given, with whole generations born into that system, it is difficult to maintain the enthusiasm and citizen-engagement characteristic of newly-born democracies. The decline of democratic momentum should be accepted as inevitable, barring unexpected crises or major upheavals to the system, which permit re-engagement. (14)
Nonetheless, some fear that in the same way that high participation deems a democracy to be more legitimate, consistent low turnouts throughout an extended period will undermine the democratic system, making it less legitimate and robust. (15) Authors like Heran and Muxel have described "the party of abstainers," (16) often the first political group in their countries. For example, in the first round of the French presidential elections, Macron won the presidency with 8.5 million votes, trailed by Marine Le Pen with 7.7 million votes. However, neither came close to the 10.2 million French citizens that abstained from voting altogether. (17) In the second round, out of the 47.5 million French...