Democracy Disconnected

Something has happened to democracy in the sense of popularly elected government, and it has happened all over the world. Somehow people have lost faith in elections.

Turnout is declining in many countries; in the case of elections to the European Parliament, the level of voter participation is so risibly low as to call into question the legitimacy of the result. But turnout apart, we have become accustomed to accepting that parties or candidates who receive 25% of the popular vote are "winners." From Holland and Finland to Argentina and Japan, majority governments are formed with minority support.

Nor are the apparent exceptions proof to the contrary. Few American Presidents have been supported by much more than 10% of eligible voters: half of the US's eligible voters, indeed, are not even registered to vote; of those who are registered, half do not vote; of those who do vote, less than half vote for the winning candidate. Even Tony Blair's "landslide" majority in Britain's House of Commons rests on shaky ground: Labour received just over 40% of the vote with a 60% turnout at the last election in 2002. So only 24% of the total electorate supported Blair's party.

In most countries, this is clearly very different from what elections looked like twenty, let alone fifty, years ago. What has happened?