‘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.footnote1 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.

When I first began to consider the notion of non-sovereignty, I associated it primarily with indifference—towards politics and, indeed, towards democracy. This had been one of the more neglected elements in the literature on political trust and mistrust that emerged in the late 1990s.footnote2 Arguably, however, the sense of hostility which some citizens clearly felt towards their political leaders was less important than the indifference with which many others viewed the political world more generally. Of course, the dividing line between indifference and hostility is not always very pronounced, and, as de Tocqueville once observed, the loss of function can easily breed contempt for those who continue to base their privileges on its exercise. But it seemed worth recognizing that politics and politicians might simply be deemed irrelevant by many ordinary citizens.

By the late 1990s, however, popular indifference was being compounded by a new rhetoric from the politicians themselves. A salient case was Tony Blair, who claimed during his first term as Prime Minister that ‘I was never really in politics . . . I don’t feel myself a politician even now’.footnote3 For Blair, the role of ‘progressive’ politics was not to provide solutions from above, by exercising the ‘directive hand’ of government, but to bring together ‘dynamic markets’ and strong communities so as ‘to offer synergy and opportunity’.footnote4 In Blair’s ideal world, politics would eventually become redundant. As one of his close cabinet colleagues was later to remark, ‘depoliticizing of key decision-making is a vital element in bringing power closer to the people’.footnote5 At one level, this was a simple populist strategy—employing the rhetoric of ‘the people’ in order to suggest that there had been a radical break with past styles of government. At another, however, it gelled perfectly with the tenets of what were then seen as newly emerging schools of ‘governance’—and with the idea that ‘society is now sufficiently well organized through self-organizing networks that any attempts on the part of government to intervene will be ineffective and perhaps counterproductive’.footnote6 In this perspective, government no longer seeks to wield power or even exercise authority. Its relevance declines, while that of non-governmental institutions and practices increases. In Ulrich Beck’s terms, the dynamic moves from Politics, with a capital ‘P’, to politics with a lower-case one, or to what he has called ‘subpolitics’.footnote7

Anti-political sentiments were also becoming more evident in the policy-making literature of the late 1990s. In 1997, an influential article appeared in Foreign Affairs expressing the concern that government in the us was becoming ‘too political’. Its author, Alan Blinder, a leading economist and deputy head of the Federal Reserve, suggested extending the model of independent Central Banks to other key policy areas, so that decisions on health, the welfare state and so on would be taken by non-partisan experts.footnote8 The role of politicians in policy-making would be confined to those areas in which the judgement of experts would not suffice to legitimize outcomes. Similar arguments were emerging in the European context. In 1996, for example, Giandomenico Majone argued that the role of expert decision-making in the policy-making process was superior to that of political decision-making in that it could take better account of long-term interests. Politicians, by definition, worked only in the short-term; to allow decisions to be dominated by considerations of the electoral cycle was to risk less optimal outcomes: ‘the segmentation of the democratic process into relatively short time periods has serious negative consequences when the problems faced by society require long-term solutions’. The solution, once again, was to delegate powers to what Majone defined as non-majoritarian institutions, ‘which, by design, are not directly accountable to voters or to their elected representatives’.footnote9 Experts were better able to deal with the technical complexities of modern law-making, which often confused elected politicians. As traditional forms of state control were replaced by more complex regulatory frameworks, specialist knowledge was likely to prove more effective than political judgement.footnote10 Here too, then, politics was becoming devalued.

By the late 1990s, in short, it seemed that neither citizens nor policy-makers placed much value on the role of political or partisan decision-making. But while the evidence pointed to a widespread indifference to politics and politicians, it was less clear that it indicated indifference towards democracy as such. Indeed, if one looked at the debates about constitutional reform during the late 1990s, as well as at the more theoretical literature, the impression was of a large and burgeoning interest in democracy, with more attention being paid to how democratic systems worked, and to what they meant in reality, than probably at any stage in the previous twenty or thirty years. Far from being treated with indifference, democracy had become a research priority within both empirical political science and political theory. The catalogues of academic publishers brimmed with new titles on the subject. Oxford University Press, for example, posted as the lead publication in the 2002 political theory catalogue Robert Goodin’s Reflective Democracy, closely followed by Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy, John Dryzek’s Deliberative Democracy and Beyond, and Henry Richardson’s Democratic Autonomy. Democracy was also becoming more of an issue on the daily political agenda: debates on institutional reform took shape in many Western polities; emphases on ‘participatory governance’ began to emanate from the World Bank and other international organizations. Discussions of the reform of the European Union polity achieved a degree of salience that would have been almost unimaginable ten years before. By the end of the 1990s, democracy—whether associative, deliberative or reflective; global, transnational or inclusive; electoral, illiberal or even just Christian—had become a hot topic.

Which leads to a puzzle: as we shall see, there is now quite consistent evidence of popular indifference to conventional politics and, more arguably, to democracy; and yet, at an intellectual level, and sometimes at the level of practical institutional reforms, there has been a distinct renewal of interest in democracy (if not necessarily in politics as such). How do we square these developments?

There are two possibilities. The first is that they are in fact related, and that the growing intellectual and institutional interest in democracy, its meanings and its renewal, is in part a response aimed at combating the expanding scale of popular indifference. Making democracy relevant, in other words, comes on to the agenda at the time when it otherwise risks becoming irrelevant. But while the timing suggests that this may be the case, the actual content of the discussion points to a different story. For, far from seeking to encourage greater participation, or trying to make democracy more meaningful for the ordinary citizen, many of the contributions on institutional reforms or democratic theory seem to concur in favouring options that actually discourage mass engagement. This can be seen in the emphasis on stake-holder involvement rather than electoral participation that is found in both ‘associative democracy’ and ‘participatory governance’, and in the emphasis on the sort of exclusive debate that is to be found in ‘deliberative’ and ‘reflective’ democracy. In neither case is there real scope afforded to conventional modalities of mass democracy. The new stress on ‘output-oriented legitimacy’ in discussions of the European Union polity, and the related idea that democracy in the eu requires ‘solutions that are “beyond the state” and, perhaps, also beyond the conventions of Western-style representative liberal democracy’, are equally geared away from mass involvement.footnote11 In other words, while there may be concern with the problem of popular indifference, making democracy more mass-user friendly does not seem to be the favoured answer. For Philip Pettit, for example, who discusses the issue of democratic renewal in the context of deliberation and depoliticization, the issue comes on to the agenda because ‘democracy is too important to be left to the politicians, or even to the people voting in referendums.’ For Fareed Zakaria, in his more popular account, renewal is necessary because ‘what we need in politics today is not more democracy but less.’footnote12