Citizen’s Views of Our Representative Democracy

Dr. Theresa Reidy, Lecturer in the Department of Government in University College Cork, looks at our representative democracy and the nature in which politics is practiced in Ireland today.

There is a problem with our representative democracy. The financial crisis brought the failings of the political system into sharp focus. But it is important to remember it is not just the financial crisis that brings us to this point, there were deep rooted problems and extensive concerns about our representative democracy long before the crisis. It’s just that it was possible to ignore these until the financial crisis overwhelmed the political system, circumscribing our democracy and challenging the way in which politics is practiced in Ireland.

We are not alone in our concerns for representative democracy. In 2009 a special issue of the journal Representation, Revitalising British Politics was published. The edition was dedicated to the problems of political disaffection and disengagement in Britain. The editors wrote of a “profoundly anti political culture” where there was a deep “disenchantment, even hatred of politics and politicians.” The financial crisis has no doubt amplified the situation in Ireland, but the words of Colin Hay and Gerry Stoker could be most likely used to describe the condition of Irish citizen’s views of our democracy in the same way.

The crisis of representative democracy has been simmering for several decades. Declining trust in political institutions, coupled with falling turnout at elections and what has been described as a thinning of political participation have led many to conclude that democracy is coming under pressure from citizens. On the institutional side, the international environment has become ever more complicated through processes of globalisation, trans-national policy making and monitoring of embedded global, social and political norms, all of which contribute to a decline in the autonomy and power of the state. This has led to what has been termed the rise of the intermediary state. The intermediary state acts as a type of middle man negotiating between the policy demands of its domestic citizens while trying to deliver on the requirements of international business and global civil society. It has led some to ask if democracy can really work in this complicated environment where the state is no longer sovereign and democratic decisions can be overturned. The crisis of democracy has increasingly come to grip political elites in the face of a global depression which is bringing the realisation that past political certainties no longer apply. A Council of Europe (2012) report described the financial crisis as having “aggravated public distrust in, representative democracy.”

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Declining trust in political institutions, coupled with falling turnout at elections and what has been described as a thinning of political participation have led many to conclude that democracy is coming under pressure from citizens.

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There is a great deal of evidence available to us for an examination of citizens and their opinions of the political system. In addition to the regular opinion polls we also have national and cross-national social surveys which give us reliable and comparable data on the citizens’ opinions of politicians, parliament and political parties. The evidence does not paint a pretty picture.

If we start by looking at our politicians, it is clear that this is a profession which does not enjoy a great deal of trust from citizens. Politicians were never exactly popular but we find that politicians have seen their popularity decline to new depths since the crisis. The Irish Times letters page from July had some pieces quoting Jonathan Swift’s disdain for his public representatives. The difference with the 1700s is that we have been able to measure this disdain for a while now. Politicians find themselves in a bizarre position, their profession is deeply unpopular, yet they are entirely dependent on being popular with the citizens to secure political office. Some analyses of politics suggest that this leads to politicians promising ever greater benefits from politics in an effort to curry favour with the electorate. When these benefits do not materialise, voters are disillusioned and dissatisfied. Flinders (2009) has written about this expectation gap in politics, the problem occurs when citizens develop expectations beyond the capacity which the state has to deliver.

A more complex and more critical picture becomes evident in the examination of political institutions. Survey data from waves of the European Values Survey, European Social Survey and the Irish National Election Survey all point in the same direction. There has been a sharp decline in trust in political institutions, particularly in parliament and political parties. Politicians will come and go but political institutions are the fundamental organisation blocs of democracy. When citizens lose trust and confidence in these institutions, it poses a significant challenge because it undermines the legitimacy upon which the system is dependent. In particular, the European Social Survey tells us that countries impacted most severely by the financial crisis have seen the sharpest falls in trust in their political institutions.

Hay and Stoker (2009) warn against simplistic solutions in addressing the problems of “anti” politics. They point out that political reform is very often about changing the power balance between elites. Their description of political reform as a solution brings ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic’ to mind. Efforts to address declining turnout at elections are described as treating the symptom while ignoring the disease. They call for a complete transformation of supply and demand side politics. Ireland has struggled with some minor political reforms while the gap between the citizen and their democracy continues to grow and the disease at the core of Irish democracy remains undiagnosed.

A version of this work was delivered at the Macgill Summer School in Glenties, Donegal in July 2013.