To govern or not to govern ourselves? That is the ultimate political question. Can we afford to risk having no government, thus allowing the unscrupulous to take advantage of others? Or dare we leave our fate in the hands of arbitrary rulers, when so many of them throughout history have turned out to be clueless, capricious, or simply self-serving?
Democracy is supposed to offer us a way out, so we can take charge of our own destiny and govern the institutions, neighbourhoods, cities, and countries to which we belong. Whether we make the decision on any given issue by ourselves directly, delegate it to a subgroup, or elect representatives to deal with it, democracy is meant to give us a framework to shape our own governance.
So why is despair in the air? Amid the widespread talk of our entering the age of anti-politics, is the idea that we can govern ourselves actually a hopeless pipe dream? At one level, the symptoms are indeed worrying. Research published in 2016 found that over 70% of people born in the US and UK in the 1930s believed it was ‘essential to live in a democracy’, but barely 30% of those born in those countries in the 1980s share that view (Taub, 2016). Previously, from the early 20th century on, when universal suffrage was secured in most Western, developed countries, citizens had looked to one or another established political party to take their concerns into account and put forward a programme that could command the majority support of the electorate so as to become the basis of how their country would be run until the next election. But from the late 1970s, four notable trends can be discerned.
First, the extent to which people identify with a major political party has steadily declined. In all European countries (bar Austria, Cyprus, and Finland), the average percentage of the electorate who belong to a political party is just 5%, with both France and the UK under 2% (Van Biezen et al, 2011; Keen & Audickas, 2016). In the US, more Americans now consider themselves ‘independent’ (42%) than either Democrats (29%) or Republicans (26%) (Jones, 2016).