Crisis of democracy? Party politics and representation in times of austerity (2014-)

Crisis of democracy? Party politics and representation in times of austerity (2014-)

Funding: Swiss National Science Foundation
Project leader: Prof. Dr. Silja Häusermann, Post-Doc: Denise Traber

The research project analyses the European parties’ policy strategies during the recent economic crisis. After 2008 the crisis has quickly spread from the United States to Europe, causing public debt to rise to unsustainable levels in many countries. With a number of European countries now repaying their bail-out loans, others taking the risk of being affected by the continuing recession and slow growth of the most severely hit countries, it is not at all clear what leeway national European parties still have in choosing macroeconomic policy. In other words, the current crisis, which triggered an unprecedented integration of the eurozone, puts into question whether political parties are still able to provide voters with meaningful democratic choices. At the same time, there is a debate in the literature whether with economic globalization parties will converge and function as “cartels”, no longer interested in representing their voters demands (Katz and Mair 2005). According to this argument, parties “externalise” decisions in macroeconomic policy. The counter-argument offered by “realignment” theory posits that to the contrary parties are still responsive to their voters but adapt to socio-structural changes in the electorate and preference shifts. This research project will first investigate whether we find convergence or polarisation of the parties’ policy offerings with regard to macroeconomic policy, and second analyse the parties’ responsiveness to their voters’ demands. The existing literature on party congruence tends to focus on a “macro” argument, that is, to study party policy without taking voters into account. The research on party-voter linkages, on the other hand, looks more deeply into the micro-foundations of party policy, but tends to neglect the macroeconomic context. The research project will combine both approaches in order to draw conclusions about the state of European representative democracies in times of economic crisis. The quasi-experimental setting of the economic crisis offers a unique opportunity to study the cartel party argument. It can be considered a “test case” for the question whether parties can still fulfil their representative function, whether they still offer a meaningful choice to their voters, or if we observe – as argued by cartel party theory – a hollowing of representative democracy. More specifically, we study two aspects of parties’ policy strategies: the issues they emphasise and their macroeconomic policy positions shortly before and during the crisis. Thereby, we argue that parties are constrained in their policy choices not only by the impact of the crisis but also by their status. The government parties face more restrictions than opposition parties. The second step of the research project entails studying voters’ issue priorities and their preferences with regard to the role of the state in the economy. The use of different datasets from surveys before and during the economic crisis will allow us in a third step to study the linkage between voter preferences and parties’ policy offerings, as well as possible changes in this linkage in times of austerity. The research draws on a variety of different data sources from 25 European countries in the time period between 2005 and 2012.