In 1975 a book was published entitled „The Crisis

Prof. Dr. Hartmut Wasser, Pädagogische Hochschule Weingarten
Symptoms of Distress: What’s Troubling
Democracies in Europe and the US?
In 1975 a book was published entitled „The Crisis
Huntington, Michel Crozier and Joji Watamaki had
Commission, and detailed at some length the
problems with the governability of democracy
confronting Japan, the US, and Europe. The report
democratic countries: contextual challenges arising
from the external environment, such as the security
threats posed by the Soviet Union and communism,
the oil price increases, and imbalances in the
international economy; social trends, including the increasing power of populist movements,
the media and other forces; and intrinsic characteristics of democracy that, as highlighted by
Tocqueville, Lippmann, and Schumpeter, were likely to contribute to its weakening or
undoing. These were, the authors of the report said, „a key element in the current pessimism
about the future of democracy“. These challenges, according to their opinion, were leading to
the delegitimation of governmental authority, mounting political demands that pointed to the
overloading of government, the fracturing and disaggregation of political parties, and
intensified parochialism and disagreements on international issues. The volume concluded
with a series of recommendations designed to deal with these problems, including measures
for promoting sustained economic growth and the reduction of poverty, strengthening
executive and legislative institutions, reinvigorating political parties, restoring a more
balanced relationship between government and media, achieving more participation of
workers in the organization and management of the work place etc. etc.
Last year Susan J. Pharr and Robert D. Putnam edited a volume, posing the title „What’s
Troubling the Trilateral Countries?“ (Princeton, N.J., 2000). Compared to the situation that
existed in the 1970s, one is tempted to answer, „Not much“. In contrast to the 1970s, the
1990s have been a time of widespread and understandable optimism about democracy and its
future as the political system destined to take hold everywhere in the world. The advanced
industrial democracies not only triumphed in the Cold War but have also created an integrated
global economy, achieved unmatched material prosperity for most of their people, and virtually eliminated the possibility of fighting wars with each other. Significant ideological or institutional alternatives to democracy are nonexistent among industrialized societies. As Pharr
and Putnam point out, there is „no evidence of declining commitment to the principles of
democratic government... on the contrary, if anything, public commitment to democracy per
se has risen in the last half century“. (op. cit. p. 7)
Although serious challenges to democracy are currently lacking, this does not mean that none
will appear in the future. The challenges that arose in the 1970s were in considerable measure
a product of the demographic explosion (“Baby Boom”). The current combination of more or
less effective democratic institutions and widespread lack of confidence and political participation may well reflect the middle-aging of the Boomers. Different problems for democracy
are likely to arise as this huge generation becomes elderly. All democratic governments are
already concerned with their ability to provide the pensions and other retirement benefits that
have come to be expected. That problem, however, may be exacerbated by another development. In Europe and North America, the Boomers are overwhelmingly native-born, white
Christians. In varying degrees, the work force is becoming non-native and nonwhite in
America and non-native and non-Christian in Europe. Ethnic, racial, and cultural divisions
could thus coincide with a generational division and reinforce the differences between generations over their responsibilities to each other. This could be a central challenge confronting
Western democracies in the years to come – let us just believe in the popular wisdom that
prophecies of disaster are more likely to be self-nonfulfilling than self-fulfilling.
In the contemporary sea of democratic achievement and well-being, however, Pharr and Putnam find one perplexing island of failure: the low confidence in government in America and
other Trilateral countries, already existing in the 70s, has not only continued but deepened.
I am going to concentrate on three crucial issues in my presentation,
(1) point to the symptoms of crisis in political confidence and participation,
(2) try to find a few answers to the question, why, given the widely hailed “triumph of democracy”, people in most advanced industrial democracies have become more disillusioned with their politic leaders, political parties and institutions, why they are less inclined to participate in politics;
(3) name a few suggestions of how to overcome the obvious crisis of “disaffected democracies”.
Let me begin with some introductory remarks. First, I concentrate on symptoms of crisis
within the political systems – I do not ask, whether a decline of participation in politics might
be balanced by growing participatory readiness in the societal sphere.1 Second, I realize that
combining the U.S. and Europe in my overview is to a certain degree doubtful, given the fact
of different political institutions and political cultures: in some ways, the U.S. seems to be a
deviant case, in so far, to give just an example, that its people hold much more traditional
values and beliefs than do those in other equally prosperous societies. Third, speaking of
„Europe“ in context of my presentation is a bit of swindling; mainly I have to focus on the
FRG and some outlook to Western Europe. And fourth, within the remaining minutes I cannot
even try to present a complete portrayal of the political scenery but have to concentrate on a
few facts and trends.
One factor deserves special emphasis at the outset. 25 years ago citizens in the Trilateral
world were still primarily concerned about market failure in sectors as diverse as social services, culture, and the environment, and demands for government intervention to redress those
failures were ascendant. By the early 1980s however, as symbolized by the advent of
Thatcher, Reagan, Nakasone, Kohl, and similar figures elsewhere, public concern had shifted
from market failure to government failure. Responding to this tremendous change in public
opinion, conservative leaders proposed a reduced role for government, and this ideological
shift to the right was accelerated everywhere by the discrediting of state socialism after 1989.
Even a relatively liberal Democratic president in the US has proclaimed that „the era of big
government is over“; and the same is true with Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder. We are confronted with an growing ambivalence: people seem to have concluded throughout the western
world, with different intensity though, that government action is not the answer to all their
problems; yet the same citizens still hold government responsible for their social and economic well-being, and cutting „entitlement“ programs remains difficult everywhere. And
there exists a growing public unhappiness with government and the institutions of representative democracy throughout Europe and the US, which does by no means indicate that democracy itself is at risk in the sense of being supplanted by an alternative, but means that most of
these democracies are troubled: public disaffection with representative institutions and growing refusal of political participation damage the efficiency as well as the legitimacy of those
Among the specific indicators of public disaffection I focus on trends in
See Josef Janning, Charles Kupchan, Dirk Rumberg (eds.), Civic Engagement in the Atlantic Community,
Gütersloh 1999 (Bertelsmann Foundation Publishers).
• assorted evaluations of political trust,
• assessment of the “political class” (politicians and political leaders),
• attachment to and judgements of political parties, and
• approval of parliaments and other political institutions.
I omit the most well-known indicator, the most spectacular expression of public dissatisfaction, namely “electoral behavior”, but want to just mention three reasons for my argument that
serious democratic problems arise from boycotting elections: problems with regard to the legitimacy of political institutions and decision-making processes; problems stemming from
unequal turnout that is systematically biased against less well-to-do-citizens; and problems of
unequal political influence due to unequal turnout.2
The onset and depth of public disillusionment vary from country to country, but the downtrend is clearest in the U.S., where polling has produced the most abundant evidence.3 When
Americans were asked in the late 1950s, “How much of the time can you trust the government
in Washington to do what is right”, three-quarters of them said “most of the time” or “just
about always”. Such a response seems unheard of to most people today. Only 39 % felt this
way in 1998. In 1964 only 29 % of the American electorate agreed that “the government is
pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves”; by 1998 fully 63 % of
voters concurred. In the 1960s two-thirds of Americans rejected the statement “most elected
officials don’t care what people like me think”; in 1998 two-thirds of Americans agreed. This
negative assessment applies to virtually all parts of the apparatus of government. Those people expressing “a great deal” of confidence in the executive branch fell from 42 % in 1966 to
only 12 % in 1998, from 42 % for Congress to only 11 % in 1998.4
Almost every year since 1966 the Harris Poll has presented a set of five statements to national
samples of Americans to measure their political alienation:
• The people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.
• Most people with power try to take advantage of people like yourself.
See Arend Lijphart, Unequal Participation. Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma, in: American Political Science
Review, vol. 91, 1977: 1-14.
The most comprehensive assessment of the evidence for declining confidence in government in the U.S., is
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Philip D. Zelikow, and David C. King (eds.), Why People Don’t Trust Government, Harvard
Data for the 1960s and 1970s, in S.M. Lipset/W. Schneider, The Confidence Gap. Business, Labor and
Government in the Public Mind, New York/London 1983.
• You’re left out of things going on around you.
• The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
• What you think doesn’t count very much anymore.
Every item on this list has won increasing assent from Americans since the opinion series
began, from barely one-third of Americans to nearly two-thirds.
Comparable trends in public opinion in Europe are more variegated, but there, too, the basic
picture is one of spreading disillusionment with established political leaders and institutions.
Trust in them has fallen over the last quarter century in countries as diverse as Britain, Italy,
France, and Sweden. Especially striking are the patterns for the postwar democracies of Germany and Italy. Political support has eroded significantly from the 1970s on. For instance, the
percentage of Germans who said they trusted their Bundestag deputy to represent their interests declined from 55 % in 1978 to 34 % by 1992; throughout the EU only 42 % believe in the
integrity of the national parliaments.5 In Italy, the percentage of citizens who say that politicians “don’t care what people like me think” increased from 68 % in 1968 to 84 % in 1997.
If public doubts about the polity surfaced only in evaluations of politicians or the government
in power at any particular point in time, there would be little cause to worry. It would be a
healthy part of the democratic process, if citizens would “throw (specific) rascals out”. But if
dissatisfaction, as the data show, is generalized to the point that citizens lose faith in the entire
political class, then the chances for democratic prosperity are seriously diminuished. When
data for recent decades are assembled today, the picture that emerges is stark. Overall, there is
evidence of decline in confidence in politicians in all of the Trilateral democracies for which
systematic data are available – and the same seems to be true for political parties.
Because of their centrality to democracy, people’s feelings of attachment to or identification
with political parties are one of the most widely studied of political attitudes. Signs of the
public’s waning attachments to political parties first emerged in several western democracies
during the 1970s. The collapse in citizen engagement with political parties over the decades
since is as close to a universal generalization as one can find in political science.6 Card-carrying membership has always been less important for Americans than for European parties,
but the proportion of Americans who reported that they engaged in party work at least once
Data are available in „Eurobarometer“, which ist regularly published by the European Commission and reflects
„The Public Opinion within the European Union“.
See Russel J. Dalton, Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies, in: Pippa Norris (ed.), Critical
Citizens. Global Support for Democratic Governance, Oxford 1999: 57-77.
during the previous year fell by 56 % between 1973 and 1993, and the proportion who reported attending a campaign rally or speech fell by 36 % over the same period. Comparably
massive declines in party membership have been registered in most Trilateral countries over
the last 25 years. As attachments to political parties have eroded, electorates have become
more volatile and skeptical. While this trend is nearly universal, the only major variation is
the timing of the decline. Dealignment in the U.S., Great Britain, and Sweden has been a
long-term and steady process. In other countries the change has been more recent. French and
German partisanship began to weaken in the late 1980s and dropped off markedly in the
1990s. If party attachments represent the most fundamental type of citizen support for representative democracy, as many scholars assert, then their decline in nearly all advanced industrial democracies offers disturbing evidence of the public’s disengagement from political life.
Citizens’ skepticism about politicians and political parties extends to the formal institution of
democratic government. It is one thing for citizens to be skeptical of the president or the
prime minister; it is quite different if this cynicism broadens to the institutions of the presidency and the legislature. Because of its abundance of long-running public opinion surveys,
the best evidence once again comes from the U.S. In the mid-1960s a large proportion of
Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court, the executive branch,
and Congress, but that confidence dropped dramatically in the following decades; by the mid1990s barely a tenth of the American public had that confidence in the people running the
executive branch or Congress.
Separate national survey series, the 1981 and 1990 World Values Surveys and the Eurobarometer series demonstrate the same pattern: in most of the Westeuropean countries confidence
in parliament has declined. Not to the same degree as in the U.S., but still to an alarming level
where not even half of the citizens believe that they can rely on either their national governments or parliaments.
Why have people become politically disillusioned in the last decades, why worry? Some observers argue that there is no need to worry. They maintain that a critical citizenry signals no
illness in the body politic, but rather the health of democracy, and that the real challenge is to
explain not the long-term decline in confidence, but why it was as high as it was in the 1950s
and early 1960s.
A second objection – of high importance for our conference – holds that while established
forms of political participation like party activity etc. have suffered a loss of support, new
forms such as referenda and “town-hall”-style fora and an upsurge in certain types of grassroots activism including social movements that are more broad-based than in the past have
supplanted previous forms of political engagement. And a third objection argues that the task
of government is to give citizens not necessarily what they want, but what they need, and thus
sound and appropriate policies are the best measure of governmental performance. Confi-
dence levels are immaterial as long as the public supports the government enough to comply
with its laws, pay taxes, and accept conscription.
Although each of these arguments has merit, we, as political educators, should see enough
reason to worry. We do not believe that the critical, or cynical, mood of the citizens is a precursor of the collapse of Western democracy. But we should feel compelled to consider why
they are increasingly distrustful of, and discontented with, their political institutions – a difficult task, because it demands insights into the national factors for democratic distress, and
because it challenges us to seek more generalizable explanations. Let me just mention a few
aspects for explaining declining public trust and political participation across the Atlantic democracies. A general framework of interpretation for the causes of such decline must at least
embrace three different variables, which I am just going to mention (not to describe in detail).
Political scientists, first, assume that the accuracy and comprehensiveness of publicly available information about democratic performance might have changed. The most common interpretation in this context is that voters have over time become better informed about their governments’ performance, particularly about the leaders’ conduct in office (e.g. corruption).
Second, the public’s criteria for evaluation of politics and government might have changed in
ways that make it objectively more difficult for representative institutions to meet those standards. This in turn might be due to either or both rising and diverging expectations. Some
experts suggest that growing heterogeneity of voters’ views about issues on the evolving public agenda has necessarily increased the distance between government policy and the preferences of the average citizen. Others argue that many voters’ criteria for judging government
have evolved in a “postmaterialist” direction, thus increasing the discrepancy between their
aspirations and government performance. Third, the performance of representative institutions might have deteriorated. Unfortunately, there is little agreement over which dimensions
of performance are relevant across countries, time, and individual citizens. Some political
scientists argue that cyclical fluctuations in citizens’ evaluation of incumbents and institutions
correlate with macro-economic indicators (inflation, unemployment, growth etc.); others point
to gains or losses in social welfare and try to prove that levels of confidence have remained
higher in countries in which social welfare guarantees have been relatively secure (e.g., in the
North European democracies) while they have dropped elsewhere as a result of rollbacks of
the welfare state. Testing such hypotheses runs into many methodological problems, though –
objective measures of policy performance have their inherent limits. Perhaps, the capacity of
political agents and institutions to act on citizens’ interests and desires has declined; one factor that may have undermined the ability of national governments to implement their chosen
policies might be internationalization or globalization creating a growing incongruence between the scope of territorial units (national states) and the issues raised by interdependence.7
The second broad political explanation concerns declines in the fidelity with which incumbents act on citizens’ interests and desires. Within this category fall arguments about failures
of political leadership, failures of political judgement on the part of voters, and deterioration
of the civic infrastructure (or social capital) by means of which interests are articulated and
aggregated. A key issue – and if I understand the subject of our conference correctly, a topic
of this conference – is how an erosion of social capital8 and social trust may affect citizens’
confidence in government. Though it is doubtful that a person’s degree of civic engagement
has a direct effect on his or her confidence in government, it seems pretty clear (from individual-level as well as aggregate-data) that social trust does indirectly affect political confidence levels. Low levels of social capital in any given society contribute to poor governmental performance, which in turn adversely affects all citizens to varying degrees; as a consequence, they will give the government low marks.
Let me quickly proceed to my last question or topic: What to do in order to rebuild governance, to overcome those moral crises in western democracies revealing not only a broad distrust of political leaders and institutions but also a feeling of historical and political disorientation? Benjamin Barber advocates “Strong Democracy”: The remedy of our problems is not
just better leaders but better citizens; and we can become better citizens only if we reinvigorate the (American) tradition of strong democracy that focuses on citizenship and civic competence. Participatory institutions at all levels of the political system are needed, a reorientation of democracy away from mere representation. Barber’s demand is echoed in Westeuropean countries, especially in Germany, but is simultaneously challenged by other scholars as
neither desirable nor practicable. Just recently, the Washington Post journalist David Broder
has rejected plans and proposals for advancing plebiscitary instruments with impressive arguments drawn from the recent history of “direct democracy” in the U.S. – arguments which
have to be taken seriously in other Western democracies as well.9 Government by initiative –
advancing in half of the American states, including California, and in hundreds of municipalities – “is not only a radical departure from the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, it is also a big business, in which lawyers and campaign consultants, signature-gathering
See Carl Lankowski (ed.), Responses to Globalization in Germany and the United States, AICGS Research
Report No. 10, 1999; Lankowski (ed.), Governing Beyond the Nation State. Global Public Policy, Regionalism
or Going Local?, AICGS Research Report No. 11, 1999.
Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work, Harvard 1993; Putnam (ed.), Gesellschaft und Gemeinsinn –
Sozialkapital im internationalen Vergleich, Gütersloh 2001.
David S. Broder, Democracy Derailed, New York/San Diego/London 2000.
firms and other players sell their services to affluent interest groups or millionaire do-gooders
with private policy and political agendas. These players – often not even residents of the
states whose laws and constitutions they are rewriting – have learned that the initiative is a far
more efficient way of achieving their ends than the cumbersome process of supporting candidates for public office and then lobbying them to pass or sign the measures they seek” (p. 5).
Broder observes a widespread revolt against representative government in the U.S. “It is a
command to ‘Clear out of there, you bums. You’re none of you worth saving. We want to
clean house of the lot of you. And we’ll take over the job of writing the laws ourselves’” (p.
21). After many encounters and experiences with people’s initiatives, the referendum, recalls
of errant officeholders etc. he comes to the following conclusion: “I would choose James
Madison’s design..., the Constitution and its checks and balances over the seductive simplicity
of the up-or-down initiative vote... The experience with the initiative process at the state level
in the last two decades is that wealthy individuals and special interests – the targets of the
Populists and Progressives who brought us the initiative a century ago – have learned all too
well how to subvert the process to their own purposes. Admittedly, representative government
has acquired a dubious reputation today. But as citizens, the remedy to ineffective representation is in our hands each election day. And whatever its flaws, this Republic has consistently
provided a government of laws. To discard it for a system that promises laws without
government would be a tragic mistake” (p. 243).
I know that Broder’s and the American people’s experiences with “direct democracy” cannot
simply be transferred to West European countries, especially not to Germany with its still
relatively strong political parties. But David Broder’s book hits the nerve of our present
debate about the future of democracy at a moment when change is the order of the day, when
computer and internet are revolutionizing the economy (and soon the sphere of politics?),
when the speed of communications and the reduction in barriers to trade are making national
boundaries less and less meaningful, when public impatience with established political systems has grown all over the Western world.
Crises, with their sense of collective disillusionment, from which our democracies suffer currently, can generate opposite results: either a deepening distrust of institutions, deepening
cynicism about politics, deepening resentment of elites (heightened xenophobia included); or
the provoking of societies to recover the public commitments they earlier abandoned. The
politics of resentment and of a renewed (or new) sense of civic mission are both possible re-
sponses to democratic crises – let us reflect upon ways and means of how to revitalize and
strengthen civic engagement and participation in the concerns of the commonwealth.