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The problem of passive politics in Europe and America

By George Sumner - posted Sunday, 15 July 2001

Last month I mentioned that the UK had its lowest general election turnout since 1918 when only 59% of the electorate turned up at the polls. While securing a landslide majority within Parliament, Tony Blair received the support of only a quarter of all eligible voters, putting claims of a decisive mandate on shaky grounds.

This trend is not confined to the UK. In the last US Presidential election the turnout was 51%. While better than the previous presidential turnout (49%), the figure has remained in this region for the past 25 years. These developments have been no surprise, least of all to the politicians themselves. Tony Blair spoke out against the view that ‘all politicians are the same’, and argued that the government’s actions have been a result of clear choices rather than chance. Such talk directly mirrors speeches made by Al Gore in the US presidential campaign. Gore pleaded with young voters not to take the easy option of cynicism. True to the open discussion of the Oprah age, Gore equated the current feelings of disillusionment with other youthful fears of commitment, and argued that their fears of being hurt or let down should not discourage them from a passionate participation in politics. The trend away from traditional political activity is clear, but its causes are open to debate.

Harvard Professor Robert Putnam's thesis of 'Bowling Alone' has received much interest in relation to declining participation. According to Putnam, America has witnessed a growing trend of social isolation in which people are less likely to know neighbours, invite friends home, and belong to trade unions or professional associations. Under the theory the decline in social capital is leaving communities more vulnerable to crime, drug use, poor schooling and poor health. The low voter turnout is seen as part of this trend in which people are no longer interested in political issues that serve the community, but instead put their own interest first. People would rather devote time to their careers or recreation than think about politics.


The name of Putnam's thesis, 'Bowling Alone', comes from the chosen sport of Homer Simpson and Al Bundy, 10-pin bowling. While many people in America still bowl, they choose not to do so within the once flourishing organised leagues, but take to the alleys alone. From the times I have donned the mandatory unfashionable shoes and attempted to play this game, the most puzzling question to me is why anyone wants to bowl at all. But I'm not an American.

Putnam's work and other studies provide examples of the decline in civic participation. I have even heard reports of a paper presented to an American Psychological Association conference last summer that found the two private activities that a group of Wall Street brokers spent most time on were jogging and masturbation – which maybe explains their dexterity in the rapid hand gestures seen on the stock market floor. In Europe the jury is still out on this theory. Putnam claims that the situation is not as dire as in the US, but is heading in the same direction. However, another Harvard academic, Peter Hall, has argued that British citizens have managed to maintain a level of sociability and community involvement consistent with the 1950s. Trade union membership in the UK has increased for the first time in recent years. So what may be true for America is not necessarily true across the Atlantic. Yet voter turnout has declined consistently in both. If Putnam's theory explained the disillusionment with politics, then the turnout figures would have declined more rapidly in the US, where the move toward social isolation has been greatest. Turnout in the US may have been lower, but it has been consistently low over the last couple of decades.

Some of Putnam's observations should come as no surprise in countries that have been governed under the neo-liberal economic model over the last 20 years. Mrs. Thatcher once famously remarked that there is no such thing as society. Under the Thatcher approach, if each individual looks after themselves, the community will look after itself. Society is viewed merely as an aggregate of individuals, and the interest of the individual is thereby allowed to take precedence. This model does not encourage people to become involved in any community activity unless some material reward is promised. Politics therefore becomes just another area in which the citizen is a consumer, voting according to the outcomes that are most favourable to the individual. Elections are concerned with collective decisions where each individual has a relatively minor impact. Consequently it comes lower down on the consumer's list of priorities according to the individualist model.

In the US, Putnam is viewed as left wing. He certainly stands opposed to the individualist model by calling for people to act other than for self-interest. However, in Europe his recipe for civic engagement to take responsibility for social programs is more appealing to right wingers wishing to soften their image, as it does not resort to the governmental programs traditionally associated with socialists and social democrats. In the US, greater reliance on community groups may be more acceptable as the Americans have never had the same level of state-run social programs as in European countries. In the US, social policies have had a much greater dependence on volunteers, charities, philanthropists and religious groups. In Europe, Putnam's approach would seem to devolve power away from the elected bodies, rather than empowering the community. That is not to say everything must be run from the centre, but that if power is to be devolved shouldn't it be devolved to the elected authorities – groups that are responsible to the community as a whole, rather than serving a sectional interest. This would surely be a more obvious way of re-engaging the public with the democratic process.

Putnam's argument that community involvement leads to a better standard of living seems to get it the wrong way round. The more prosperous a community, the better its schools and health facilities, and the more likely they are to have the time, resources and commitment for community groups. The better conditions lead to greater civic engagement rather than vice versa. The communities that are the most deprived are the least likely to produce the volunteers and social entrepreneurs. Yet these are the communities that need the help most.

The political arena is now more separate from the community-level activities that Putnam talks about. Politics is no longer rooted in the local candidates and organisations. The television coverage has elevated politics onto a national level in which leadership and national policy count more than local interests. Again, this is true of the US more than the UK, which may explain why Putnam's thesis has been taken more seriously in the States. In the UK disillusionment in politics is put down by some writers to globalisation taking power away from the central government, rather than Putnam's argument for devolving power away from the centre. The attack on globalisation advanced by people like Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Noreena Hertz is aligned with the traditional left-wing suspicion of business and the side effects of the free market. The argument claims that competitiveness in the global market takes priority to the detriment of environmental and labour standards, among other concerns. In the global economy big business rather than government is the chief shaper of society. Governments are thought to be impotent in the face of business interests to make improvements in people’s lives.


The argument continues that rather than voting in an election, young people believe more can be achieved through Internet campaigns and consumer boycotts. While no one would dispute the value of such cause-based politics, it does not explain why fewer people participate in the traditional politics. The role of such movements is to supplement rather than to replace the conventional democratic process. No one can envisage a system where a number of single-cause movements form a complete political landscape. Such a system would call for government a la carte, where the most popular, visible or emotive causes are addressed, but where others equally worthy but less glamorous or more controversial are neglected. The appeal of single-interest politics lies in the simplicity of focusing on one single outcome. That approach does not call for any coherence or unity in an approach to solving society’s problems.

Despite the perceived radicalism of the anti-globalists, the observation that governmental power is limited is nothing new. It has long been known that government policy is shaped by business and that the actions of a corporation may have a massive impact over a community. An increased awareness of the power of big business should provide an incentive to participate in the democratic process in order to end any passiveness on the part of the government.

The declining interest in politics can be explained by many other theories, to which it is impossible to do justice in this space. With more demanding careers and less job security, people have less time to devote to thinking about political issues. In previous months I have touched upon the changing nature of political rhetoric moving towards a language of administration. Such a trend is linked with the consumerism of modern politics in which people judge political parties according to the promised outcomes. As a consequence, the differences between the parties in methods and priorities go unnoticed, and the seeming lack of choice in the political market turns voters away. The decline in political participation has been witnessed throughout the world and no single theory can offer a complete explanation. Some merit lies in Putnam's and the anti-globalisation accounts, which among the other factors have varying impact according to country and context. However, it seems that it will take more than a resurgence in bowling leagues to get people back into the ballot booths.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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