Long-Term Changes and the Crisis of Democracy in Western Society



Multiple and more frequent crises have been taking place in consolidated democracies where governments fail to solve problems, politics takes extremist directions, and entire institutional systems perform poorly.

In a few words, the performances of democracy have been disappointing, and these conditions of dissatisfaction and distress risk to undermine the legitimacy of our institutions. Despite the many differences between countries, this phenomenon is mainly related to both the European states and the United States of America. As Russell J. Dalton’s researches show us: “the cross-national breadth of this pattern suggests it is a general feature of contemporary politics in advanced industrial democracies, not the specific experience of only a few nations.” (Dalton 39).

Dalton was correct when publishing this research more than ten years ago. Today, we observe the emergence of a new type of contemporary policies, which represents a challenge for the stability of our institutions and their democratic nature. New colourless populisms are growing in these conditions of uncertainty. One of Alexis de Tocqueville’s lessonsis actually very important for our times. As the French political scientist and author of the famous book Democracy in America (1835) realized, new forms of despotism can develop themselves from the dysfunctions of modern representative democracy. The radicalization of politics poses important questions that still need answers: Why are our democracies changing so extremely? Why do we face a wave of populism? Why are our democracies under threats from movements that proclaim themselves opposite to everything our societies proclaimed to believe in? All these questions can be summarized as follows: what is wrong with democracy in western societies?

With reference to the main causes of this time of crisis and change, some plausible hypotheses can be proposed. They are not exhaustive, nor ranked, neither their impact can be considered as homogenous between consolidated democracies. Nevertheless, drawing on other previous researches, I consider three tensions of outmost importance, which have an effect on our institutions and their political development. They are related to citizens’ disengagement, new social imbalances, and pre-electoral definition of policies.

Western societies had been mainly committed to collective loyalties and material issues since the 1930s until the end of the 1960s.

First, western societies had been mainly committed to collective loyalties and material issues since the 1930s until the end of the 1960s. For many decades after World War II, political participation was highly ideological and based on collective loyaltiesas those ones of nation, democracy, union, party, etc. At the same time, policies were oriented to pursue material interests like economic rights and employment. Namely, the policy-making was aimed at developing a modern welfare state and addressing social problems in order to provide income maintenance, health care, and housing. Both collective loyalties and material issues made possible a condition of public engagement. Paul Pierson observed that “the expanded scope of government activity generated a range of linkages between state and society” (Pierson, 1995: 3). At the beginning of the 70s the economic turmoil created the conditions a new conservative political wave. Those linkages were becoming thinner and weaker than before because of the gradual retrenchment of the welfare state.

A historical shift happened when western political systems became more committed to identity issues rather than material ones, and to personal loyalties rather than collective loyalties. Both identity issues and personal loyalties opened the way to controversial political debates and individualism, dividing our societies in a clash of values and ethical judgments.

In other words, a historical shift happened when western political systems became more committed to identity issues rather than material ones, and to personal loyalties rather than collective loyalties. Both identity issues and personal loyalties opened the way to controversial political debates and individualism, dividing our societies in a clash of values and ethical judgments.

With reference to the radicalization of politics, a second hypothesis can be derived from the research made by the Harvard economist Branco Milanovic, who warned: “The existence and function of the middle class is under attack by rising inequality. The middle class in Western democracies is today both less numerous and economically weaker vis-à-vis the rich than it was thirty years ago” (Milanovic 20).

Milanovic’s findings on globalization and democracy are crucial, because they show who are the winners and losers of globalization. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the outset of the global financial crisis, real income did not grow for most people of industrialised economies of the OECD. The losers of globalization are middle classes in OECD countries, while the great winners have been poor and middle classes of Asia.

Since their democratization, this is the first time in which there is a contraction of the middle class in western societies. With reference to their political impact on democracy, its stability and chances to flourish, Milanovic follows Francis Fukuyama and other scholars who contributed to a complete understanding of the importance of middle class and civil society. Indeed, as Fukuyama explained, the existence of a broad middle class is extremely helpful in sustaining liberal democracy (Fukuyama). According to Milanovic: “People in the middle class favoured democracy because they had an interest in limiting the power of both the rich and the poor: to keep the rich from ruling over them and the poor from confiscating their property” (Milanovic 20). Namely, this shift in economic power away from the middle in favour of the top ones, made the former politically irrelevant. It is an unprecedented condition for our democracies which seem in trouble because of this great social imbalance. The decline of the middle class and the new social imbalance can be one of the main causes of the rise of populist movements. Indeed, if we consider Milanovic’s finding, it follows that democracies are instable not just because of the weaker role of the shrank middle-classes, but because of the stronger role of an ever extended part of society whose citizens cannot be considered within middle-class, nor within the upper class. On the one hand, this part of the society could reject moderate political parties and proposals, because their plans of reforms imply changes in the long-term and more uncertain perspective of the future. On the other hand, it could prefer to support the political extremes, which use a more charismatic than programmatic strategy and promise great changes in the short-term. In this sense, they simply want more in less time because a long term perspective of change is unaffordable for them. The above mentioned change of political behavior can be explained if we understand that this part of the population would like a change of their life in the short-term because it cannot wait a change that might happen only in the long-term.

Finally, particularly noteworthy are the changes engendered by both strategies of supranational/international integration and ever larger tendencies to policy convergence. These two main dynamics have substantially transformed functions, powers and roles of national governments and policy-makers. The main consequences are in terms of less responsiveness of policies and deviation from traditional sources of legitimation. Most of the researches on this issue are based on the common assumption of the decline of state autonomy. For example, Fritz W. Scharpf claims that globalization leads to a loss of political control and creates a dynamic whereby national governments are increasing blamed for policy outcomes that are beyond their control (Scharpf). These changes can be described as three parallel shifts. Firstly, there has been a shift from national to supranational decision-making processes. Policy-making processes are ever less national institutional ones and ever more mixed or supranational ones. Secondly, there has been a shift from political to independent technical institutions for the control of many decision-making processes, their policies and implementation. Finally, there is a third shift of power towards those states which are the primary actors writing the rules that regulate global or international convergence processes. This suggests that some states are privileged because they influence the formulation of rules and policies so as to avoid of altering their preexisting ones and adjustment costs. This is particularly clear if we consider the state of the European integration after the sovereign debt crisis—the recent reforms of the economic governance in the EU, which confer more powers to supranational institutions and technical ones. Today, the European Commission and new national independent fiscal authorities have more powers than before, while representative political institutions have ever less powers. For example, national laws have established new independent technical bodies which take part to the decision-making process before the approval of the budget by national parliaments.

These processes of policy convergence happened since decades, not just concerning with fiscal policies and not just in the case of the European integration.

These processes of policy convergence happened since decades, not just concerning with fiscal policies and not just in the case of the European integration. Similarly, policy convergence is the main strategy of action for financial policies, labor standards, environmental regulation, taxation, antitrust issues, consumer health, trade policies, and more in general of all the so-called regulatory issues. As Daniel W. Drezner clarifies: “They matter in world politics because of the way they affect the distribution of resources as well. Fundamentally, however, international regulatory regimes strike a political chord because they symbolize a shift in the locus of politics” (Drezner, 2007:5).

External constraints make the political participation less relevant because voters can change leaders, governments and majorities in parliaments, nonetheless their votes cannot change policies, because of a pre-electoral decision of many policies. With reference to this trend of evolution of both political participation and policy-making, Nadia Urbinati notes that “the transformation of political decision making into an epistemic process clashes with democracy quite dramatically” (Urbinati). Indeed, under these circumstances, citizens did not contribute to the policies they are subject to. In a few words, voters are left aside. This perspective of the pre-electoral definition of policies offers an opposite vision to that one by James M. Buchanan. The Economist Nobel Laureate observed: “The definition of democracy as “government by discussion” implies that individual values can and do change in the process of decision-making” (Buchanan). Hence, our institutions are failing in their primary mission, that is to meet the need of their citizens. That is why our institutions are less able to involve citizens and to provide effective measures against important problems of our times (inequalities, unemployment, crisis).

Political scientists have proposed many different interpretations of the crisis of democracy and useful insights and indications on its origins. This accounts, at least, for democracy in western societies as an analysis of the long-term evolution of the background conditions of our institutional systems, and of some patterns of change which cannot be ignored by any research on democracies under stress.

Matteo Laruffa is a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a PhD candidate at LUISS University (Rome). He is also a member of the Council for European Studies (CES) at Columbia University and the founder of World Nexus.


Photo: Busy City People on Zebra Street, Wayne0216 | Shutterstock


Bethke Elshtain Jean, Democracy on Trial (House of Anansi Press Incorporated, 1993).

Buchanan James M., Social Choice, Democracy, and Free Markets, (Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 62, No. 2, 1954).

Dalton Russell J., Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices, The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford University Press Inc., 2004).

Drezner Daniel W., All Politics Is Global: Explaining International Regulatory Regimes, (Princeton, New Jersey Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2007), 5.

Fukuyama Francis, The Future of History, Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?, (Foreign Affairs, 2012).

Mansbridge Jane, Self-Interest in Political Life (Political Theory, Vol. 18, 1990).

Milanovic Branko, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Harvard University Press, 2016), 11.

Pierson Paul, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Scharpf Fritz W., Interaktionsformen, Akteurzentrierter Institutionalismus in der Politikforschung (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2000).

Urbinati Nadia, Democracy Disfigured Opinion, Truth, and the People, (Harvard University Press, 2014).


Published on January 5, 2017.

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