A Crisis of Western Democracy. Can an Electoral Reform re-establish Faith in Democratic Institutions?

Master's Thesis, 2017
62 Pages, Grade: 1,4


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Context and Relevance
1.2 Literature Review
1.3 A Note on Methodology

2. Democracy and the Right to Vote
2.1 Definition and Development
2.2. Challenges to Democracy

3. A Crisis of Democracy
3.1 The Symptoms of the Crisis
3.2 The Diagnosis: Globalisation and Capitalism and their Effects on the Political System

4. Alternatives to the Current Model
4.1 Possible Reforms and Amendments
4.2 Theoretical Alternatives and Real-Life Attempts

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


This thesis sets out to examine the current crisis of democracy and discusses if a reform of the electoral system could restore faith in the democratic idea. Trust in democratic institutions has declined steadily over the past decades and a growing part of the population doubts the legitimacy of government and authorities. The political system in the Western world seems in turmoil. Therefore the history and development of democracy in the Western world are briefly touched before listing the symptoms of the current crisis – mistrust from the population against politicians and elites and from the governments against their citizens, increasing support for authoritarian rulers, mistrust against conventional media outlets and a growing disinterest in politics and current affairs combined with a lack of knowledge – and debating possible reasons.

The electoral system as the key feature of modern democracy is then scrutinised and different reforms, ranging from simple amendments, such as the lowering of the voting age, to more comprehensive approaches are discussed. Two alternatives to the current electoral system are presented, the exclusion of unknowledgeable voters and the drawing of lots. The drawing of lots is considered the most appropriate alternative; hence a system combining conventional elections and sortition is deemed the most feasible alternative to the current electoral system and a promising tool to re-establish faith in democracy.

1. Introduction

1.1 Context and Relevance

The year 2016 has seen two major surprises on the stage of politics; first, in June, British citizens voted to leave the European Union in a controversial referendum, then in November ex-businessman and TV personality Donald Trump was, against all odds and predictions, voted President of the United States. For many observers, these events marked a crisis of democracy and have prompted politicians, journalists and scholars to search for explanations. What has not been noted though is that these events were not entirely surprising but rather the most recent culmination in a series of events that slowly but steadily undermined the confidence in democracy in the Western world. The reasons for this decline are manifold and range from economic issues over cultural and historical disputes to questions of personal values and identity. There clearly seems to be a growing discrepancy between those in power and an increasingly vocal minority that fears globalisation, capitalism and modernity, and the recent advances in information technology, the rise of social media in particular, are adding further dynamics to the debate. Western values clearly are under threat at the moment, not only because public support for democracy and its institutions is fading and the mistrust against governments and authorities is increasing. Unfettered capitalism, powerful multinational corporations as well as violent conflicts and consequent migration flows pose serious challenges to states and the international system as a whole and a stable political system will be needed to tackle those challenges. Assuming that there are no viable alternatives to liberal democracy the question is how the current system needs to be reformed and amended in order to resolve democratic frustration and spark political interest among the population.

Although democracy has been continuously rethought, criticised and reshaped over the course of history, recent decades have seen a new confidence into the persistence of liberal democracy and the dominance of Western values and assumptions over others. When Fukuyama (1992) proclaimed the “end of history” and the victory of democracy and liberalism over all other ideologies, international developments seemed to support his claim at first. Starting already from the 1970s onwards, authoritarian regimes all over Latin America and Southern Europe ceased to exist and made way for democratic governments. Similarly, after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, most ex-USSR states introduced a democratic system. Many scholars followed Fukuyama’s reasoning and assumed democracy would persist endlessly in the Western hemisphere and spread to all other parts of the world. So for many it came as a surprise when Huntington (1997) predicted a decay of Western values and a “clash of civilisations”. Now, two decades after both authors’ influential works, Huntington’s thesis does not seem so improbable anymore. New violent hot spots have emerged, especially in the Middle East, and the West seems shocked and incapable of acting or resolving those crises. At the same time, most Western democracies are struck by domestic problems, such as economic and social issues and the rise of populism. Although the faith in democracy is still strong and the thought of an established democracy breaking down often seems unimaginable, recent developments have shown otherwise. In some EU-countries in Eastern Europe, democracy is obviously in decline while in Turkey, democratic institutions have been virtually incapacitated. Foa and Mounk (2016) have compared the results of the World Values Survey over two decades to show that democracies are not immune against decay and moreover that the early signs of democratic decline are already very obvious in the United States as well as most other Western countries. Their findings offer a shocking insight into the devastating image of democracy among the population and will prove to be a valuable tool for my research in order to analyse recent developments. Universal franchise has come more and more under focus following the most recent events and different possible reforms, amendments and alternatives are being discussed, most of which are rather technical changes to the current system and aim to increase voter turnout. It seems unlikely, though, that technical amendments can resolve the frustration and mistrust against from the population. An increasing number of scholars therefore vouch to rethink the concept of democracy and restructure the electoral system in its entirety.

This dissertation aims to analyse the crisis of democracy with a focus on the electoral system and hence examine if an electoral reform could strengthen the democratic system. The author will touch on the history of modern democracy and universal franchise with a focus on the impact of globalisation to understand the current crisis of democracy and offer explanations. Finally, certain amendments as well as alternatives to the current electoral system will be considered to determine if an electoral reform could re-establish faith into the democratic system.

1.2 Literature Review

The history and development of modern democracy and especially universal franchise have always been subject to research but only more recent events in the Western world have prompted scholars to look into a possible crisis of Western values and the decline of liberal democracy. This body of research overwhelmingly focused on political, social and economic reasons for the perceived crisis. At the same time, most research into franchise discusses the different election models and reforms with the general prospect to increase voter turnout. My focus will be to highlight the relationship between the shortcomings of democracy and the electoral system. Hence I am aiming to discuss if an electoral reform could resolve the current crisis of Western values and re-establish faith into democratic institutions and what such a reform could look like.

Extensive research has focused on the history and theoretical nature of democracy and consulting these works has helped me in developing a more thorough understanding of democracy. Fraser (1990) discusses the theoretical bases of democracy and its critiques drawing on Habermas’ idea of the “public sphere”. Many scholars (e.g. Kaplan 2001; Michta 2017) comment on the more recent developments over the past few decades and issues of security and argue that the nation-state is the most stable institution on a global scale and strengthening the nation-state is the only way to prevent the decay of the Western world. Other authors (e.g. Linz and Stepan 1996) look at possible problems states face when transitioning to democracy, which is very beneficial for my work as it highlights issues that could also occur in a transition to the opposite transition, namely from a democratic system to authoritarianism. Vorlaender (2017) uncovers the relationship between the history of democracy and current criticisms and touches upon post democracy and illiberal democracy. These phenomena have been examined more closely by Crouch (2004) and Zakaria (1997) respectively, whose works proved to be very helpful in explaining current developments in several democratic countries, which in turn provided welcome insights into the crisis of democracy.

As the key feature of modern democracy, franchise has undergone immense changes since its introduction to include various minority groups and make the process more efficient and transparent. Several scholars have investigated the flaws and shortcomings of the current election system with different emphasises and different conclusions. Norris (2016) discusses the problems faced by elections in the United States which ultimately explain the low public faith into the system and a comparatively low voter turnout and her finding sprovide implications for other Western democracies as well. Blais et al. (1997; 2001) compare different election systems worldwide and discuss the historical reasons behind the different systems. Burden et al. (2013) present a study into the direct and indirect consequences of election reforms with the astonishing result that reforms aiming to increase voter turnout often actually decrease it.

As previously stated, the main focus of academia hitherto was to outline the reasons of the current crisis of democracy and offer explanations as to how we got here. There is a wide set of literature on this subject. Most of the literature was written in 2016/2017 following the surprising results of the British EU referendum and the US election and was published mainly in blogs and daily or weekly newspapers. Scholars list various reasons for the current situation and voting decisions, ranging from personal values and identity questions (Kaufmann 2016) to the sensationalism of the media (Fichtner 2017). Most writers opt for a combination of factors with a strong focus on economic reasons (e.g. Porter 2017; Van der Reybrouck 2016). This leads to the proposed solutions, which vary from simple, rather technical changes to the voting system (e.g. Wagner 2012) to ground-breaking reforms and even a complete rethinking of the democratic system. There is a general consensus that voters are not informed enough to make sensible choices at the ballot box and hence tend to fall prey to propaganda and fake news. Nonetheless academia seems to deem educational reforms not sufficient enough to improve the electoral system since no scholar consulted for this thesis proposes educational reforms as a solution to the crisis. The most common alternatives offered are voting based on the drawing of lots (e.g. Van der Reybrouck 2016) and the exclusion of uninformed voters from elections (e.g. Brennan 2016). A significant body of research evaluates real, small-scale attempts to reform and better the electoral and political system, such as Jacobi (1999) who describes participatory budgeting in Brazil and Froehlingsdorf (2017) who discusses a recent attempt to involve ordinary citizens in the process of finding a final disposal site for nuclear waste in Germany. In Ireland, the hitherto most extensive and most successful attempt of sortition has taken place, which has been subject to several debates in parliament and extensive coverage in the media and academia (e.g. Arnold 2014). All these works were very helpful in assessing feasible alternatives to the current system. A small portion of writers dispute that democracy currently is in a crisis of democracy. Van der Meer (2017), for example, sees the rise of populism as an emancipation of the voter and evaluates current developments as very positive for democracy. Even van der Meer, though, attests that there is a crisis; he claims it to be a crisis of established parties more than of democracy as a system.

1.3 A Note on Methodology

In terms of methodology I have opted to rely on a wide set of methods and to consult both qualitative as well as quantitative sources in order to gain reliable and consistent findings and produce an informative thesis. Primary as well as secondary sources were consulted. Most of the works referred to in this research were published in English, however some sources were originally published in German and all quotes have been translated by the author.

Due to the nature and actuality of the research topic, mainly primary sources were consulted. These include newspaper articles and blog posts, mainly on the British referendum and the US election in 2016, that were published over the past few years (e.g. Clifford Grayling 2016; Porter 2017). These documents were used to obtain a general understanding of the most recent developments and current situation. The findings gained from consulting these works were compared to official statements and data issued by the government, such as a report from the Irish parliament on the workings of and proposals put forward by the constitutional convention and a report by the Office on Statistics on the distribution of wealth in the United Kingdom. Interviews with leading scholars on democracy and electoral reforms (e.g. Brennan 2017; Chomsky 2017) have also proven very beneficial for this work. All this information from primary sources was then compared to secondary sources to develop a complete image of the issue at hand and produce theses for my research. The secondary sources referred to in this work include works on the history and development of democracy (e.g. Bollen 1979) and on the state of the Western world (e.g. Fukuyama 1992; Huntington 1997; Kaplan 2001). These works were very helpful in obtaining an understanding of the concept of democracy and its workings. The compiled theses were compared to quantitative data, such as data on the activity of Trump/Clinton supporters on social media (Bovet et al. 2016), direct and indirect consequences of election reforms (Burden et al. 2013) or the public image of democracy (Foa and Mounk 2016) and capitalism (Foroohar 2016). Since the subject matter is heatedly debated with many opposing opinions and proposals circulating, it was essential to consult many different and even contradictory sources. This helped to obtain a very sophisticated understanding of the matter.

Due to the rather short timeframe for this project it has been decided not to use human participants. Fortunately a large set of research has focused on this topic so I could rely on quantitative studies conducted by fellow researchers (e.g. Gilens and Page 2014). I was therefore able to gather all information and data needed for this work from other sources. All information gained from consulting quantitative sources was collated wit qualitative sources.

2. Democracy and the Right to Vote

2.1 Definition and Development

The term “democracy” is very commonly used in our language yet only few realise how many different definitions there are and how greatly these definitions differ from one another. According to the Merriam Dictionary (2017), democracy means “government of the people; especially: rule of the majority”, which already poses questions in itself, but the term could also refer to “the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges“ or express that the power is exercised by the people “through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”. This shows a certain confusion with the correct understanding of the term and highlights how much interpretation and reality of democracy have changed since the concept was first introduced. Many different states throughout history have called themselves democratic and in this process many different forms of democracy have been established. The model as it can be found in many Western states of today’s world is therefore neither the best nor the final form of democracy, and this realisation will be crucial in determining how faith in democracy can be restored. The rise in illiberal democracies in recent years suggests that democracy and liberalism are not bound together and moreover illiberal tendencies might be accepted in non-Western countries that do not have a longstanding history of democracy. The key features of democracy and its development need to be examined and understood properly, in order to decide if the concept of democracy is in crisis and how the crisis can be resolved.

In the academic discourse as well as the public, the nation-state is commonly regarded as the only possible state form and the debate is shaped by the perception of nation-states as “the most enduring and successful idea that Western culture has produced […] [offering] security, economic growth, and individual freedom at levels unmatched in human history” (Michta 2017: para.3). It is easy to overlook that the concept of nation-states is as new as the idea of universal values and arguably just as contested in non-Western cultures, and the Western world has been slow to defend both (Michta 2017: para.3). Nowadays concepts like the European Union already attempt to move beyond the nation-state and with further advancing levels of globalisation this trend is thought to progress rather than regress. According to Linz and Stepan (1996: 19), “democracy requires statehood” and a functioning democracy can only be established in a nation-state. This poses certain problems to societies that are organised in different ways, in tribes or clans for example like in many parts of Africa. If one follows this line of reasoning it would furthermore be impossible to introduce democracy to the international system although the design of the world order is based on the idea of democracy and equality. In our globalised and interconnected world, this inevitably entails certain risks as most people, no matter how dissatisfied they may be with their national governments nonetheless demand democratic structures, certainly on the international level. The missing transparency on the international level as well as seemingly undemocratic or illegitimate practices and decisions have negative consequences on the public perception of the system as a whole and social cohesion (Vorlaender 2017: 72).

One important factor for the emergence of democracies is the level of development the country finds itself in. The further a society is developed, the easier it seems to establish democratic institutions. Indeed, there is an “unquestionable relationship between economic development and liberal democracy” (Fukuyama 1992: 125). This theory has been proven after the collapse of the Soviet Union when East Germany, reunited with the economically and politically stable West Germany, developed quickly much stronger democratic structures than most other former USSR states. The consumption habits of elites in authoritarian societies are very much like Westerners’ and the population usually longs for products and the consumer culture in the Western world (Fukuyama 1992: 38). This could very well be observed during the collapse of the Soviet Union when the hope for freedom and human rights was just as big as the call for Western goods (Kopstein 1997: 6). A capitalist and free economy therefore seems to be favourable for the democratic process (Bollen 1979: 584) although nowadays the risks and dangers of unfettered neoliberal capitalism dominate the public debate (Assheuer 2017: 1). Indeed, social inequality poses a huge risk to the stability of states and their continued existence also relies on their ability to minimise social inequality (Fraser 1990: 77). All seemingly stable, economically strong states that were neither capitalist nor democratic have so far always been reformed fundamentally or perished over time.

The public is another key factor and a strong civil society is an important requirement for functioning democratic structures (Fraser 1990: 76; Linz and Stepan 1996: 7). In fact, the people’s willingness to assimilate, integrate and compromise is the best indicator in determining the success and stability of a democracy (Linz and Stepan 1996: 30). History has shown that civil society can release the crucial impulses to “destroy a nondemocratic regime” (Linz and Stepan 1996: 8) and also help to set up democratic structures after the collapse. The importance of economic development and civil society explain how the concept of democracy could, over time, even spread to parts of the world with different cultural, religious and political traditions (Fukuyama 1992: 50). Over the course of time, society and politics became much more intertwined and the current model of democracy underlines this development. Were the subjects completely separated from and at the mercy of their rulers in the middle ages so do they enjoy a wide array of rights and obligations nowadays and are able to shape politics according to their own wishes and ideas. The gradual empowerment of women and minorities in most societies created a set of publics rather than one, all-encompassing public (Fraser 1990: 66) and this process is further accelerated by new communication technologies and conventional as well as social media. Hence it is impossible in today’s interconnected world to imagine a sharp and clear divide between the society and the state but this realisation has not yet been incorporated by all authorities and officials and the failure to accept this poses a threat to the stability of the system. The public will have to be included in decisions and processes if the governments do not want to risk losing the support of their people.

One tool to include the people in democratic decision-making processes, and at the same time arguably the main feature of modern liberal democracy, is free elections. Franchise has been continuously reformed over the past centuries, yet there are still certain doubts and reforms outstanding. The current electoral-representative system has been introduced after the American/ French revolutions in the late 18th century and what is often perceived as the foundation of democracy was actually introduced by its ideological forefathers as a means to contain the democratic spirit and distinguish the government from simple citizens; an “aristocratic reflex [that] lay at the basis of today’s democracy” (Van der Reybrouck 2016: 63). The electoral college in the United States, for example, “gradually transformed from an autonomous decision-making body into a mere formal device for registering popular vote” (Blais et al. 1997: 442), hence originally there was even less citizen participation planned than we have now. History has shown that fair elections only succeed in countries with a long tradition of multi-ethnicity and assimilation, such as the United States. In countries that do not meet this criterion, candidates organise support along racial or religious lines and play out one group against another once in power to sustain their own power (Zakaria 1997: 35). This procedure is hard to break. Comparing international standards among democracies, there is only little consensus on electoral laws and most countries prefer their own rules and legislations on how to conduct elections whereby respective history, culture and geography play a role too (Blais et al. 2001: 58). Even the question whether to elect the head of state directly or indirectly is debated and there is no relationship between economic/democratic development and preference for direct elections (Blais et al. 1997: 449). The introduction of universal franchise is a slow process with most countries opting for indirect elections because of existing monarchies and more importantly the fear that too much citizen participation would lead to disaster or dictatorship (Blais et al. 1997: 443). This fear of the common people has survived till the present day and Foa and Mounk (2016: 14) conclude the “newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm”. After being vehemently defended for decades, now first doubts are being raised regarding the electoral system, both in academia as well as by the public. In recent years, the voter turnout is decreasing massively, especially in the United States, where turnout is usually lower than in most European countries (Norris 2016: 14). Numerous reforms have been introduced to increase voter turnout although it is often overlooked that election reforms have direct and indirect consequences and can therefore decrease turnout in the long-term. Burden et al. (2013) have compared different electoral reforms in the United States and learnt that the early voting option, introduced to offer more flexibility to voters, actually decreased turnout. A combination of different reforms, on the other hand, has the potential to increase turnout by up to 5% (Burden et al. 2013: 96). At the same time, more innovative initiatives have been launched hoping to increase public engagement in politics. The concept of direct participation has always found many supporters and has already been launched in many small-scale projects. In 1989, participatory budgeting was introduced in Brazil where citizens then had a say in the allocation of city funds (Fox and Leindecker 2008). One major problem faced by the electoral system is the question whether foreign citizens living abroad should have the right to vote. Not having the right to vote leaves people “seriously disadvantaged” (Rosberg 1977: 1135), an evaluation that has only worsened over the past decades. Thus far there is no international consensus but in an increasingly mobile and interconnected world this is becoming a more pressing issue and a real threat to democracy and therefore will need to be discussed thoroughly (Blais et al. 2001: 59).


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A Crisis of Western Democracy. Can an Electoral Reform re-establish Faith in Democratic Institutions?
University of East London
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democracy, elections, crisis, electoral reform, political science, Trump, Brexit, Epistocracy, Sortition, Van Reybrouck, Brennan, Western democracy, Liberal Democracy, globalisation, capitalism
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Katherine Kretshmer (Author), 2017, A Crisis of Western Democracy. Can an Electoral Reform re-establish Faith in Democratic Institutions?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/513895


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