A Quarter-Century of Declining Confidence
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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 5-25

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A Quarter-Century of Declining Confidence

Susan J. Pharr, Robert D. Putnam, and Russell J. Dalton


Trouble in Advanced Democracies?

A quarter-century ago, Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki argued that the nations of Europe, North America, and Japan confronted a "crisis of democracy." 1 Their starting point was a vision, widespread during the 1960s and 1970s, of "a bleak future for democratic government," an image of "the disintegration of civil order, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders, and the alienation of citizens."

The central thesis of the subtle, nuanced, and wide-ranging analysis by Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki (hereafter CH&W) was that the Trilateral democracies were becoming overloaded by increasingly insistent demands from an ever-expanding array of participants, raising fundamental issues of governability. Within that common framework, the three authors offered somewhat distinct diagnoses of the problems facing their respective regions. In Europe, Crozier emphasized the upwelling of social mobilization, the collapse of traditional institutions and values, the resulting loss of social control, and governments' limited room for maneuver. Huntington asserted that America was swamped by a "democratic surge" that had produced political polarization, [End Page 5] demands for more equality and participation, and less effective political parties and government. His provocative therapy was to "restore the balance" between democracy and governability. By contrast, Watanuki argued that Japan did not (yet?) face problems of "excessive" democracy, thanks in part to rapid economic growth and in part to its larger reservoir of traditional values. Whatever the regional and national nuances, however, the authors sketched a grim outlook for democracy in the Trilateral countries: delegitimated leadership, expanded demands, overloaded government, political competition that was both intensified and fragmented, and public pressures leading to nationalistic parochialism.

In historical perspective, the sense of crisis that permeated The Crisis of Democracy may have reflected the confluence of two factors: first, the surge of radical political activism that swept the advanced industrial democracies in the 1960s, which began with the civil rights and antiwar movements in United States and was then echoed in the events of May 1968 in France, Italy's "Hot Autumn" later that year, and student upheavals in Japan; and second, the economic upheavals triggered by the oil crisis of 1973-74 that were to result in more than a decade of higher inflation, slower growth, and, in many countries, worsening unemployment. The Trilateral governments were thus trapped between rising demands from citizens and declining resources to meet those demands. Moreover, the legitimacy of governments was suspect in the eyes of a generation whose motto was: "Question Authority." CH&W warned that these ominous developments posed a threat to democracy itself.

A quarter-century is an opportune interval after which to revisit the issue of the performance of our democratic institutions. The intervening years have witnessed many important developments in our domestic societies, economies, and polities, as well as in the international setting.

Most dramatic of all, of course, was the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If it did not signal the end of history, the removal of the communist threat surely did mark the end of a historical epoch. It transformed the fundamental underpinnings of security alliances and eliminated the principal philosophical and geopolitical challenge to liberal democracy and the market economy. In some of the Trilateral countries it also coincided with, and to some extent triggered, an intellectual and ideological revolution. In each country it transformed domestic political calculations and alignments in ways that are still being played out.

Economically, the decades that followed the appearance of the CH&W volume were distinctly less happy than those that preceded it. The oil shocks of 1973-74 and 1979-80 drew the curtain on that fortunate early-postwar combination of high growth, low inflation, and low unemployment. Although economists differ on the origins of the pervasive slowdown, virtually all econometric analyses confirm the view [End Page 6] of...