EU elections – the nature of democratic fatigue

In march I wrote a lengthy piece on voter turnout in developed nations, particularly ones with low corruption. My ultimate explanation for the phenomenon of declining voter turnout was what I dubbed democratic fatigue. Google shows that I’m not the first writer to come up with this phrase, but I’m one of very few. It’s a good definition of the problem, so I will continue to use it. Perhaps it will catch on.

The European Union elections concluded last week, one of the largest democratic events on Earth. Ever since direct elections to a European Parliament started, turnout has decreased significantly. Good news in 2014 came not from a positive growth in participation but a stagnation. It was basically the same as it was the last time around in 2009.

Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html
Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html

What this figure means is an open question. It could mean that 43%, on aggregate, is the bottom. What may be more likely is that there was an increase in interest from far-right and Eurosceptic parties, which propped up an otherwise shrinking electorate. Certainly this may explain some results in countries like France – it’s not just a big shift from other parties, but rather that the National Front electorate is just more interested in these elections. Looking at a party like UKIP, which won the UK elections, one has to see their history of success with EU elections alongside their zero Members of Parliament.

That’s an interesting modifier when looking at democratic fatigue – belief that the election results will change power relations. This applies locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. The perception is that the European Parliament is basically powerless, so voting is more an intellectual (or anti-intellectual) exercise. I find the whole process interesting as an outsider from a two-party country, but it’s quite different from the inside. There’s a thirty point difference between this year’s European elections and the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom. The split between presidential and midterm elections in the United States is well-known. It’s clear that it’s a continuum – people view the President as a clear power player, Congress as a lesser and more nebulous institution, and it goes down the line. The European Parliament at this point has more in common with the UN General Assembly; it is adjacent to power in several directions but is clearly not the group in charge of things.

How to make the EU more engaging and increase participation (an article with some of that conversation is here) is not sure- the disillusion with the elections is nearly total in Slovakia, for instance, while turnout in other countries is robust and healthy. The current state of things seems to be sliding towards a negative election, where people vote for anti-EU parties in increasing numbers, rather than groups that want to build the EU into something larger and better. This isn’t a majority of the vote but it’s headed that way. In my original post I talked about how turnout declines when things are working more or less okay; the Eurozone crisis perked some people up a bit, going against the prevailing feeling that the EU elections are pointless.

There are lessons with last week’s elections all over Europe that can apply on the local and national level. What the European Parliament lacks in power and reach may apply to other governments, and turnout may be lower because of those same issues. Overall turnout for these elections was about the same as for Egypt’s election of their new military general-turned-politician, despite an opposition boycott. Perhaps everyone has found a reason to not show up.

Free nations don’t vote. Why? And is it important they do?

Why do the the most politically free countries have an electorate uninterested in the idea of democratic elections?

It’s a dynamic I’ve been wrestling with for almost a year now. I have my own theories, and a pretty good idea of how to conduct some empirical investigation, but it demands attention. After all, political science is devoted in large part to the nature and process of democracy. In a US college, the three fundamental courses are American politics (tracing the evolution of one country’s democracy), comparative politics (gauging relative democratic strength over distance), and international relations (analyzing the issues of pan-national government). The inherent slant is that democracy is the best way to run a country. A key consideration is what makes a good form of government. How do you compare?

In this list (PDF) ranking political freedom by Freedom House (score from 1-7, low scores are better), you can see a country like Switzerland that gets the best possible rating. But like most other countries with a sterling reputation, there is a very familiar graph:

Source: SFSO, political statistics.

It’s far from unique. Canada has a trend- a drop of about twenty points since the sixties. US presidential elections are a much longer-term story- the years of Canada-like turnout were a century ago. At its nadir in 1996, less than half of the voting age population cast a ballot. This was also strange given another trend shown in the link- voter registration is making better inroads, so more people were able to vote but did not choose to.

Election turnout in Canada since 1962

Why? One blogger suggests it’s linked to the creep of corruption in developed nations, and an erosion of popular faith in the process. But the actual damage to the election process itself is often minimal- in the 21st century the EU, Japan, and others are not throwing elections. The consensus is that the election results, if not representative of the public’s political views, are at least show the correct results given those that did vote.

With that it would seem that it’s not the simple fear that one’s ballot will just end up in a shredder somewhere. The issues start long before someone thinks about whether to vote this election cycle. Stephen Colbert once wrote in America: The Book that an individual voter’s influence could be compared to the size of a deer tick to the Asian landmass. Humans prefer to see their actions having tangible consequences. It’s understandable.

Also many of these nations that score well in political freedom also score high in transparency. On the objective measures, Switzerland scores very highly, but even there public opinion shows a majority think their anti-corruption efforts are ineffective.

A theory I forward is the idea of democratic fatigue. That is, that participation will decline over time as a stable democracy matures. Perhaps the US has such a long-term decline because its elections have been free (for at least some of the populations) for well over a century now. Abundant data exists for the new clutch of democracies carved out of the USSR- hopefully over time they will show us how participation changes in places where democracy emerged only in the last decade of the 20th century.

Why democratic fatigue? I posit that a very well-run nation will eventually lose the attention of the public. A comparison: when an employee you are supervising is new and learning, you watch them very closely and intently. As time goes on and their body of work shows quality, you stop paying so much attention. At some point, you eventually hand them the keys and tell them to lock up. They can do this job on their own.

If Switzerland has high economic growth, a good environmental record, and high levels of happiness, why would elections have huge, universal importance? Besides making sure a party of nutters doesn’t seize control, good results mean less and less scrutiny. Certainly high corruption would alienate people, but very low corruption doesn’t catalyze a nation to be active in politics.

In a long-running democracy the point of comparison changes. To an American, the point of comparison isn’t the tyranny of King George III, it’s another era of democratic elections and similar turnout. A middle-aged person from Estonia, or Poland would remember when there were no free elections, a foreign power had final say on any decisions, and complaining about corruption wasn’t a luxury people had. As more of the population loses that point of comparison, the sense of complacency grows. Perhaps entropy means all countries end up tailing off- more or less depending on where participation peaked, but a constant state.

And of course, the question must be- is participation essential for democracy? It seems obvious given the name, but high participation doesn’t seem to correlate that high with good government, at least in developed democracies. Italians vote in very high numbers given the context, but they are also the poster child for corruption in the EU. And if turnout is important to democracy, how does it increase, given that the current political systems do not seem to mandate or encourage it.