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  • The Western Allies 50 Years LaterMalaise and Resiliency in America
  • Seymour Martin Lipset (bio)

Ironically, the victory of the democracies in the Cold War has been followed by a decline in their major democratic institutions. One of the most disturbing trends has been a widespread falloff in the strength of political parties. As Joseph Schumpeter noted in his classic Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, the masses’ principal tool for affecting the composition and policies of governments is their ability to choose among organized alternatives—that is, parties. In the more established democracies, institutionalized political parties are becoming increasingly fragile. Electorates around the world have become much more volatile, less loyal to particular parties, and more prone to shift among them. And yet, as Schumpeter and Stein Rokkan emphasized, strong partisan loyalties that can survive political disasters are a necessary condition for stable democracy.

The demise of parties has in fact been a frequent occurrence in emerging democracies, whose new organizations necessarily lack a loyal base. The Federalist Party, one of the first parties to appear in the United States, lost power in 1800 and soon ceased to be a major contender for presidential office. Similar developments have been seen in post-Franco Spain and postcommunist Poland, where Solidarity, which once claimed ten million members, is now a shadow of its former self. Even older, more established democratic systems are not immune. In Canada, the formerly dominant Conservative Party captured only 16 percent of the vote and two seats in the parliamentary elections of 1993. [End Page 4]

In Italy, a series of scandals has nearly eliminated the two parties that dominated most postwar administrations, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists.

The weakening of parties is but one indicator that even well-established democracies are currently facing difficulties. Across the developed world, opinion polls show that citizenries are increasingly distrustful of their political leaders and institutions. When asked about their level of confidence in government, large majorities in almost every country report that they have “none,” “little,” or “a fair amount.” Those who report a high degree of trust generally constitute a small minority.

The United States provides a striking example of this universal breakdown of respect for authority. Opinion surveys indicate that confidence in U.S. political institutions has declined precipitously and steadily since the mid-1960s. The Louis Harris Poll, which has investigated the subject since 1966, reported in 1994 the lowest level of confidence ever in political leaders. Those expressing “a great deal” of confidence in the executive branch of government constituted only 12 percent of a national sample in 1994, as compared to 24 percent in 1981 and 41 percent in 1966. Trust in Congress was even lower, with only 8 percent strongly positive in 1994, as compared to 16 percent in 1981 and 42 percent in 1966.

A study undertaken by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center has been asking: “Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” In 1964, 29 percent of respondents said it was run for the benefit of a few big interests. By 1980, the proportion so replying had increased to 70 percent; in 1992, fully four-fifths of respondents expressed this cynical view. A Gallup poll conducted for the Times Mirror organization in 1994 found that 66 percent of a national sample agreed with the statement “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.” A similar percentage felt that “most elected officials don’t care what people like me think,” up from 47 percent in 1987, and 33 percent in the 1960s.

Such doubts about government have manifested themselves in numerous ways, including a decline in voter participation. At one time, the United States could boast that the overwhelming majority of eligible voters cast ballots. The situation changed after World War I, with the figure dropping to around 50 percent, partly as a result of women gaining the vote. It reached a post-World War II high of close to two-thirds in 1964 before dropping again. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a new wave of...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 4-18
Launched on MUSE
1995-07-01
Open Access
No
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