Political Science in Turbulent Times

March 16, 2017 

2016 was a roller coaster of a year for democracy, and also for political science. Last spring, most British political scientists felt that the majority vote in the EU membership referendum would be for ‘Remain’, and most US political scientists didn’t see Trump surviving the primaries. The general consensus in political science was that the rise of populism in recent elections across the world, while significant, would reach a natural ceiling: mainstream political forces would continue to hold the line.

One year on and so much has changed: the British opted for Brexit, the Americans for Trump; inconclusive elections in Ireland and Spain (in Spain’s case following in the wake of inconclusive elections a few months earlier) resulted in tortuous inter-party wranglings leading ultimately to the installation of zombie governments. In Italy, Matteo Renzi, the reformist Prime Minister, lost an important constitutional referendum forcing his immediate resignation and threatening to plunge Italy (and the eurozone) back into crisis. On the same day as the Italian vote, Austrian voters narrowly avoided electing the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, as President with almost half of the electorate voting for him. Meanwhile, regional elections in Germany over the course of the year also saw far-right gains – most recently in Berlin last September when the Alternative für Deutschland won over 14 per cent of the vote.

And these are just examples from the world’s established democracies. Across the globe democracy seems in retreat: newer, more fragile democracies are under threat, including EU member states like Hungary and Poland; and Putin’s Russia is in the ascendancy. We’re back to the cult of ‘the strong rulers’; the phenomenon of the ‘illiberal’ democracy is now becoming more commonplace, resulting in some serious rethinking by analysts (and some quite heated debates between them) as to what we actually mean by ‘democracy’ in today’s world.

In its latest report the influential international think tank Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org/) noted the 10th consecutive annual fall in overall measures of ‘freedom’ (particularly in the areas of freedom of expression and rule of law), with the rate of decline becoming more dramatic in the past year. We are a long way from the halcyon days of the New Millennium when the belief, at least in some quarters, was that we were at the ‘end of ideology’ and that democracy (and capitalism) had prevailed. All of this brings the vital research on ‘quality of democracy’ – most notably the work of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg (http://qog.pol.gu.se/) – into the limelight.

Threats to parties and the media

Two of the main standard bearers of democracy – the free press and political parties – are in great stress the world over. In the former case, newspapers and broadcast news, already gravely weakened by incursions from online competitors (many of these blithely ignoring long established media norms and leading a race to the bottom in terms of standards in balance) are now fair game for ‘charismatic’ political leaders and new generations of media barons pushing their own personal agendas. The aggressive first press conference by the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, was illustrative of the scale of the challenge. Described as a ‘whip lashing’ of the media, it brought into sharp relief the new reality of ‘alternative facts’ and open threats to media access being faced by the established media in the USA. In a joint statement by the US Press Corps (http://bit.ly/2jGVBkE), published on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, media organisations promised to rise to the challenge: we can only hope they succeed.

There are also serious questions to be asked about the future of political parties particularly the mainstream ones. In his influential study on the state of political parties, Ruling the Void, late Peter Mair opined that ‘the age of party democracy is past’. Events in the four years since his book was published have moved at a dramatic pace and would seem to add much credence to Mair’s predictions: a prominent example close to home being the travails in the British Labour Party associated with the election (and re-election) of Jeremy Corbyn, which has seen a dramatic swelling in party members matched by an even more dramatic plummeting in the party’s opinion poll support. Serious questions are now being asked about the long term survival of one of the world’s longest established political parties.

The British trends may be among the more dramatic, but by no means are they unique: across Europe; social democracy seems in crisis as voters shift allegiances to populist forces on the left and right of the spectrum. There are other worrying signs for mainstream political parties generally. The Political Party Database Project (http://www.partydatabase.net/) provides the most up-to-date evidence on the declining health of political parties across a wide range of the world’s established democracies, showing – among other things – an unrelenting drop in membership numbers and parties’ heavy reliance on other sources of financial support. As the established parties weaken – both organisationally and electorally – new populist forces on the hard left and hard right are filling the void left in their wake.

It is difficult not to paint these trends in a dramatic light. The old certainties are gone: the familiar comfort blanket of democracy is starting to look quite weather beaten not least in this ‘post-truth’ age. Mainstream political parties are in retreat in the face of rising support for populist forces on the right and the left of politics. Election outcomes are becoming ever more unpredictable as voters lash out against the establishment.

Challenges for political science

Political science needs to rise to the challenge of these uncertain times in at least four respects.

As social scientists we strive to be objective, seeking to develop evidence-based analysis, to make arguments based on facts. Of course this is not fool proof. We are all human after all; opinion can creep in, especially when the subject matter lends itself to it – and arguably when needs must we should feel free to express our views as professional social scientists. But we must not let our dislike of certain election outcomes or our abhorrence of some political actors prejudice our analysis: for instance, many of those voting for Brexit or Trump (some of these – heaven forbid! – political scientists) did so for well-considered reasons. This needs careful analysis to understand what are the factors that are driving people to vote this way.

Secondly and relatedly, recent election outcomes also raise important questions about the polling methodology that underlies so much of our analysis. In the 2015 UK general election, the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential elections the pollsters got it wrong. I am sure that I’m not the only pundit to have predicted the wrong outcome of a recent election on air!

Certainly there were many of us who predicted that Clinton would win the 2016 US presidential election. With hindsight it is now clear that we under-estimated Donald Trump’s support base, downplaying the factors that drove millions of US citizens to vote for him. With such a reprehensible candidate topping the Republican ticket (repulsive even to mainstream Republicans) spouting what to most was a toxic campaign message, it was easy enough to believe that Trump would ultimately fail. He broke the campaign rulebook by refusing to move into the centre-ground after the primary season; he insulted every possible reference group (women, migrants, army veterans); his campaign lacked an effective get-out-the-vote strategy on polling day; the main media outlets and all manner of experts were queuing up to condemn him as a candidate unfit for office; and, as polling day approached, the poll predictions were consistent in predicting that Clinton was in the lead both nationally and in terms of electoral college votes. The pundits – many of these prominent political scientists – were largely at one in predicting a Clinton victory.

In the end, they were close: the final outcome was within the margin of error, and Clinton did win in terms of the popular vote. Just as in 2000 (which saw the election of George Bush despite the fact that Al Gore had more votes), it was the vagaries of the Electoral College system in the US which meant that she was the loser.

But the more important point is that the mood music from expert punditry had predicted Clinton was going to win. That mood music was over-blown. This reflected a problem with how political scientists (and others) interpreted the data, but more seriously it also reflected inherent weaknesses with the quality of the data themselves.

If we’re going to continue to use survey research in a predictive capacity then some thought needs to be given to how to improve the methodology: we need to tread ever more carefully in our efforts to survey voter attitudes and behaviour. In an age of low partisan attachment and high electoral volatility the predictive potential of voter surveys needs careful calibrating, and warning notes about ‘margins of error’ need to be taken more seriously. The frustration for political scientists is that we know how polling can be done better – the one survey that got it right in Britain in 2015 was the British Election Study – but good survey work does not come cheap and political scientists are not always successful in attracting the funding to do this.

This is more than just a problem of skewed samples and poor weighting models; questions also need to be asked about survey designs that are failing to tap important opinion shifts. The fact that one of the wealthiest people in the US – a man with his own private jet decked out with gold and gaudy glitz – should attract 46 per cent of the popular vote and such a large base of ‘anti-establishment’ support, particularly from among the less well-off, is symbolic of highly significant tectonic shifts in voter opinion. The norms that underlie representative democracy as we know it – most notably perhaps the nature of ‘class politics’ – appear to be breaking down: the old assumption that, for instance, the working class vote for parties of the left no longer applies quite so readily – as shown, for instance, by how Ukip is competing successfully in Labour heartlands. It is time for all of us, political scientists included, to wake up to this challenge and give more thought to how best to measure these new trends with our existing approaches.

Finally, at this time of democratic challenge we need to redouble our efforts to analyse and audit the state of our system of representative democracy, including the integrity of the electoral process. This need is particularly acute in the US where Trump’s election (its manner and its outcome) threatens the fundamentals of one of the longest standing democracies in the world. Vital research on electoral integrity, led by Pippa Norris and her colleagues at the Universities of Harvard and Sydney, shows just how bad things have become in the US, with a number of states mostly in the South of the country (among them Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin) performing worse than many new or partial democracies. And the problem is not unique to America: more generally, the electoral integrity projects also points to shortcomings in the electoral process in other countries, including the United Kingdom.

The perfect storm

In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th US President serious questions are being asked over the future of democracy in one of the longest established democracies in the world. If it can happen there it can happen anywhere: we have nothing to be complacent about.

As democracy limps into 2017 where will we be a year from now? Who is to say what will transpire in the French, German or Dutch elections, how trends will develop in Italy, whether vulnerable governments will survive in Ireland or Spain. And what of the EU? The migration crisis isn’t going to be resolved any time soon; the ticking economic time bombs in Greece, Italy and a number of other EU member states could explode at any moment threatening the fundamentals of the Euro; and then there’s the Brexit fallout. In combination these three threats amount to an existential crisis for the EU and its remaining member states, a crisis that will undoubtedly have a wider impact on electoral politics across the Union.

Whether we like it or not, we’re certainly living in interesting times!


David Farrell is chair of politics at University College Dublin.