Partied Out

Partied Out

There's growing distrust of political parties in many advanced democracies, not just the United States.

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the source: “Public Images of Political Parties: A Necessary Evil?” by Russell J. Dalton and Steven A. Weldon, in West European Politics, Nov. 2005.

What’s widely considered  essential to representative democracy, yet looked upon with growing distrust in modern democracies? The political party. No one’s writing its obituary yet, but the distrust has some unsettling implications, argue Russell J. Dalton, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and Steven A. Weldon, a graduate student there.

The pervasive distrust is obvious in opinion polls. Respondents in 17 of 20 Western democracies surveyed in 2004 identified political parties as the institutions most affected by corrup­tion. In surveys conducted between 1996 and 2000 in 13 advanced industrial democracies, only 30 percent of those polled (38 percent in the United States) said they believed that parties care what ordinary people think.

It’s not only the parties that are in bad odor with the public. But in the European Union, the public judged political parties the least trustworthy of a long list of institutions in annual surveys between 1997 and 2004. They won the trust of only an average of 17 percent of the EU population. Even big corporations, with the second-lowest trust level, did much better than that, passing muster with  33 percent of those polled.  

What difference does the distrust make? It reduces voter turnout, for one thing. Still, most people who are cynical about political parties continue to go to the polls. Some in Denmark and elsewhere opt for far-right “antiparty” parties. (Far-left parties seem to have much less appeal to distrustful voters except in countries where there’s no far-right alternative, such as Sweden.) Most distrusters tend to hold their noses and vote for an established party, usually one that’s out of power. In the 1996–2000 surveys of 13 industrial democracies, only 16 percent of the distrusters did not vote. In the United States, however, that number rose to 30 percent.

Particular national conditions and scandals explain some of what’s occurring, but the spreading dissatisfaction is “a general pattern across the Western democracies,” say Dalton and Weldon.  That dissatisfaction has spurred electoral reforms in the United States (e.g., term limits), Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and elsewhere. It’s also prompting “more involvement in nonpartisan forms of political action,” such as citizen interest groups and referendums. And, the authors believe, it will eventually lead to louder demands for direct citizen involvement in the details of policy administration. This “public skepticism about political parties is one piece of a general syndrome involving the public’s growing doubts about representative democracy, and a search for other democratic forms.”

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