Anxiety about Democracy: Why Now?



Anxiety about Democracy: Why Now?
The Democracy Papers


As part of the Social Science Research Council's Anxieties of Democracy program, Peter Hall wonders why there is so much pessimism about representative democracy, barely 25 years past the 'End of History' triumphalism of the later 1980's and early 1990's. 

He begins by separating the question into two distinct issues: 

  1. Are the problems that confront democratic governments today more intractable than the past? and/or 
  2. Have the capabilities of democratic governments recently deteriorated and if yes, why?

In analysing the first issue, Hall sees three somewhat overlapping phenomenon that have created a series of significant challenges for democracies:

  • Rising private debt: in order to keep consuming in spite of stagnant incomes, privately-held debt increased significantly across most developed economies. Asset boom/busts and over-extended banks left governments with an enormous tab to pick up and the very difficult task of picking the winners and losers in the aftermath.
  • Increasing income inequality: a disproportionate share of the economic gains over the last thirty years have gone to the upper strata of society, placing increasing pressure on governments to redistribute resources more aggressively.
  • Ascendance of neo-liberal ideology: nearly all advanced democracies have adopted the ideology that markets allocate resources more efficiently than governments can. Paradoxically, this belief has both been a contributing factor to the two problems listed above and a strong limiting factor in governments being able to respond to them.

On the second issue of governmental capability, Hall notes the difficulties in making generalisations about countries with different political systems. He still sees a couple of issues that have put pressure on government's capability to meet the needs of their citizens. 

The increasing power and influence of national and trans-national corporate interests have left many states 'so colonised by some actors that they can do little more than deliver rents to them'. This has often left less affluent sectors of society disengaged from politics, a condition further worsened by the collapse of unions in most advanced democracies.

In the case of the EU, Hall also notes the impact of multi-level governance where member states have fewer policy tools at their disposal.

In conclusion, Hall believes that 'on balance', the source of contemporary anxieties about democratic performance can be found 'in the unusually challenging nature of contemporary problems rather than in changes in democratic governance over recent decades'.


Thumbnail image: Mariana Zanatta/Flickr

Peter Hall

Harvard University

Published Date
May 30, 2014