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New Left Review 42, November-December 2006


The hollowing of democracies, as ruling elites retreat and voters abstain from mass electoral politics. Peter Mair on the paradoxes of its ‘third wave’ triumph and emergence of a governing class bereft of legitimacy, as parties become appendages of the state.

PETER MAIR

RULING THE VOID?

The Hollowing of Western Democracy

‘A semi-sovereign people’ was the term coined nearly half a century ago to suggest that control over political decision-making might lie beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. [1] E. E. Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, Chicago 1960. An earlier version of this argument was rehearsed in ‘Democracy Beyond Parties’, Center for the Study of Democracy, uc Irvine 2005, available online: repositories.cdlib.org/csd. Schattschneider’s thesis was a familiar theme in the sixties, discussed by a variety of critical scholars in the so-called pluralist-elitist debate. It seems to me to remain highly relevant—albeit now in a stronger and less equivocal form. For today even semi-sovereignty appears to be slipping away, and the citizenry are becoming effectively non-sovereign. What we see emerging is a notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component—democracy without a demos. In what follows I examine the twin processes of popular and elite withdrawal from mass electoral politics with particular focus on the transformation of political parties. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of this process for Western liberal democracies.

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