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The Paradox of Democratic Reforms

Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have pursued reforms meant to bring politics closer to the people. Many political parties have adopted primaries, local caucuses, and other decentralized ways of choosing candidates. Districts have been redrawn to ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of ballot initiatives, referendums, and plebiscites. Many countries with legislatures elected by proportional representation (PR) are moving toward greater voter choice as well. Unlike closed-list PR systems in which centralized parties offer voters competing policy platforms, open-list PR allows voters to choose individual candidates, injecting an element of personal accountability. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements: they move decisions closer to the people and they elect politicians who are less remote from—and more responsive to—the voters they represent.

Paradoxically, however, this decentralization has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation from politics. In the U.S., poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties, and institutions—dramatically underscored by Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the U.S. presidency in 2016. Antiestablishment parties and candidates have surged in the polls in many other democracies as well. Voters reject government recommendations in referendums and plebiscites, and they elect antiestablishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago—though they can quickly fall out of favor. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on the politicians they elect.

Voter disaffection has many sources. A new Gilded Age has brought unprecedented wealth to the ultra-rich and decades of wage stagnation for the great majority. The 2008 financial crisis cost millions their homes and savings, yet their governments bailed out the big banks and paid multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who helped cause the mess. Corruption scandals have tarnished governments and forced leaders from office. The U.S. and other Western governments have poured trillions of dollars into failed wars in the Middle East, with little to show for it besides accelerating public debt, rolling refugee crises, and frightening increases in anti-Western terrorism. Low growth and aging populations add fiscal strains to government budgets, compounding anxieties about health insurance and pensions. Voters have many reasons to be angry.

Yet the apparent paradox is real: the decentralizing democratic reforms since the 1960s are a separate, and important, source of voter disaffection. They feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who advocate the decentralizing reforms. The seeming truism—that increasing voters’ direct control of decisions and politicians enhances democratic accountability—has, in fact, the opposite effect. The remedies turn out to be the political equivalent of bloodletting. Either they have no impact on the malady they are meant to address or—more often—they make it worse. Rebuilding well-functioning democracies means reversing this trend.

From Responsible Parties by Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Frances McCall Rosenbluth is the Damon Wells Professor of Political Science, and Ian Shapiro is Sterling Professor of Political Science, both at Yale University.

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