31 May 2014

The Party's Over

Jan-Werner Müller

Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy by Peter Mair
Verso, 174 pp, £15.00, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84467 324 7

The word ‘party’ – as in ‘political party’ – is in bad odour across the West, though for different reasons in different places. In the United States, everyone from the president down seems to lament the polarisation of politics and the rise of partisanship. But then hostility to parties is nothing new in American history; ‘if I could not go to heaven but with a party,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘I would not go there at all.’ Europeans tend to be less in thrall to the ideals of the one indivisible nation. They worry about the opposite problem: that the parties are all the same. So there’s a problem when parties have distinct ideologies, and there’s a problem when they don’t. What, then, do we really want from them?

Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void offers some disturbing answers to this question. We remain in the dark about the strategies Mair might have recommended to address the crisis of Western democracy – he died of a heart attack in 2011 before his book was finished – but his brilliance as a political scientist comes through clearly, as does the magnitude of the challenge posed by the passing of the ‘age of party democracy’.[*] Modern democracy, Mair tells us, simply cannot work without parties, so that when parties cease to play their proper role, democracy itself is at stake.


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