It's a kind of democracy, but not as we know it

February 16, 2007

The trend for close elections will continue as new technology changes the nature of politics, says David Runciman

When George W. Bush and Al Gore in effect tied in the contest for US President in 2000, it looked like a freakish event, the kind of blip democracy throws up once in a while. Now, however, we can see it was the start of a trend, one that has really picked up since Bush squeaked past John Kerry in 2004.

General elections in well-established democracies have suddenly become absurdly tight contests almost everywhere. It happened in Germany in 2005, where the closeness of the result led to almost a month of deadlock; it happened in Italy in 2006, where the result of Silvio Berlusconi v Romano Prodi was even closer than Bush v Gore. Canada's last election was close, as was Sweden's, and this was also the case in Britain (Labour 35 per cent, Conservative 34 per cent, a fact concealed only by the absurd inequality of our electoral system). And it's not just well-established democracies that are following this trend. The election in Mexico this year was also a technical tie.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Political parties are in decline, and new technology has opened politics up to great cascades of information that the party machines cannot control. This is the age of issue-based politics, in which uncommitted voters are meant to be sniffing the air, looking for a cause to rally behind and ready to sweep away the old guard. Yet as party membership has tailed off, so the hold of parties on their voters appears to have strengthened. Opinion washes through the new media in great waves, but the opinion polls are remarkably hard to shift. Clearly, the party machines have found some way to hold back the tide.

What seems to have happened is that, as information technology has given us new ways to find out about them, so it's given them even more ways to find out about us. In a post-ideological age, in which voters no longer huddle together according to class, the parties can fashion a message that will appeal to different people in different ways. Voters can be treated like supermarket shoppers, each with a distinctive set of preferences ready to be accommodated so long as we agree to come into the store. In most democracies (even relatively unregulated ones such as that of the US), the parties have similar amounts of money to spend, and the competition is usually binary (even under proportional representation systems, it organises itself around two rival blocs). The competing electoral machines pick us off, if not one by one, then interest group by interest group, until we are divided up nicely between them.

Why do we let them get away with it? Again, the new technology seems to be crucial. There may be unprecedented amounts of information out there but, as individuals, we are increasingly immune to its political effects. We get our news from where we want, which means a lot of us choose news that neatly fits our existing prejudices and interests.

Once upon a time, if something went wrong for those in power, we would all hear about it. Now, if something goes wrong, those who don't want to know can sign up for e-mail alerts from Fox News. Maybe Berlusconi did not come as close to surviving as he did in Italy because he has a monopoly of news media, perhaps he almost survived because no one has a monopoly of news media any more, and none of us has to listen to anything we don't like, least of all Berlusconi supporters.

The advent of close elections has at least meant one thing: voter turnout, which was in decline everywhere, has picked up a bit in the past few years, as the parties find ever more ingenious ways to get their vote out. But they still find it hard to draw in people who just aren't interested in voting, since we are also free to inform ourselves from news sources that contain no political information at all.

Meanwhile, democratic politics itself looks increasingly bathetic. The inevitable closeness of the contest raises the stakes to absurd levels, as each gaffe could be the one that costs the few thousand votes that make all the difference. Yet each gaffe, indeed each major scandal, seems to make no difference at all. This is why the TV series The Thick of It looks like a documentary, not a satire.

The next French election appears to be heading for a draw, despite the incompetence of the rival candidates. The next British general election will almost certainly result in a hung parliament. In America, people are already talking about the most exciting presidential election for a generation - will it be Hillary Clinton v Rudolph Giuliani? Or Barack Obama v John McCain? Or John Edwards v Mitt Romney? So here is a prediction. It doesn't matter. Whoever the candidates are, the final result will be too close to call. This is the politics we had better get used to - democracy, but not as we know it.

David Runciman is a politics lecturer at Cambridge University and author of The Politics of Good Intentions , published by Princeton University Press, Pounds 18.95.

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