Political instability, defined as volatility in electoral politics, is on the rise in Western democracies and shows no signs of abating. Granting the premise just for the moment, why is this happening? Political cultures are complex, with lots of moving parts and difficult-to-establish relationships between institutions, attitudes, material realities, and external influences. But in this case, the data suggest that the answer is relatively straightforward: The perturbations of globalization best explain the variance. As we shall see, those perturbations are large or small, and more or less politically disruptive, as a function mainly of institutional arrangements. But those differing institutional arrangements among democracies are not themselves the cause of the instability.
Let us now establish the premise, taking the United States as the first example. In 1992, when the Democrats regained full control of the government for the first time since 1980, many scholars and pundits concluded that the end of divided government would enable the country to move forward on pressing problems like health care, the recession, and the restoration of those who “played by the rules” (as Bill Clinton once called them) to their rightful place.1 The joy was short-lived, as the 1994 off-year elections gave Republicans, touting their “Contract with America,” control of both the House and Senate for the first time in forty years. The Clinton presidency looked as though it would be a one-term job, with Republicans set after 1996 to control all branches of government for the first time in 44 years and only the second time in 68. Clinton’s victory, with the Republicans holding the House and increasing their numbers in the Senate, yielded divided government with a different face: Democratic President, Republican Congress.
George W. Bush’s victory over Gore in 2000, albeit with a minority of the votes cast, gave Republicans their first unified control of government since Eisenhower won in 1952, and they hoped it would last longer than Ike’s mere two years. The Bush victory in 2004 added another two years of undivided Republican control of government, leading some to speculate that Bush and Karl Rove had pulled off a William McKinley-like realignment favoring the Republican Party. But the war in Iraq and other issues gave Democrats a huge win in 2006, stripping the Republicans of both houses of Congress.
Barack Obama’s major win in 2008 gave the Democrats their first sixty-seat Senate majority since Jimmy Carter and their highest House total since 1990. These sweeping victories led pollster and pundit James Carville (and two co-authors) to write a book entitled 40 More Years: How Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.2 Apparently generations do not last that long, because in the 2010 Democratic debacle, Republicans gained Senate seats and retook the House, driving the Democrats from 257 seats down to 193. Again Republicans had high hopes, and many believed they could regain control of the government in two years. The 2012 election continued the stalemate, however, with Democrats keeping the presidency and the Senate while the Republicans held the House. The 2014 elections yielded 1994-like results, with both houses going solidly Republican. With 247 members, the Republicans had achieved their greatest share of the House since 1928.
In short, in the years between 1992 and 2014, the United States saw a level of instability or flip-flopping of electoral results comparable to the 1874–1894 period. Judging by the longitudinal evidence, it is as if the electorate is restless, trying first to sleep on its left side, then on its right, then on its left again, and so on, without finding true repose. And just as with individuals, this restlessness has made the electorate a bit cranky as of late.3
Contemporary instability is not limited to the United States. In Great Britain, the mother of parliamentary democracy, electoral politics is less stable than it has been in more than fifty years. And this definition of instability does not even take into account the near loss of one of its constituent parts.
In 1948, Britain abolished plural voting, university constituencies, and the remaining two-seat constituencies, resulting in the current system. In the 1950 and 1951 elections, won respectively by Labour (Clement Atlee) and the Conservatives (Winston Churchill), more than 97 percent of the electorate voted either Labour or Tory, with Conservatives winning almost 50 percent in Scotland in 1951. In the 2015 elections, by contrast, those two parties were down to slightly more than two thirds of the vote: 67.3 percent. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), the anti-European Union party, garnered 12.6 percent, while the Liberal Democrats (LD), the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), and the Greens (GRN), took 7.9, 4.7, and 3.8 percent respectively. In a little more than sixty years, Britain had moved from two to six parties.
In France, the Front Nationale (FN) won .05 percent of the vote in 1973. In 1981, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the FN tried to run for President, but failed to meet the minimum requirements. Consider what thirty-some years have done. In 2012, Marine Le Pen received 18 percent of the presidential vote. Two years later, the FN won 12 cities in the 2014 mayoral elections and finished first in the European parliamentary elections with 24.9 percent of the vote and 24 of France’s 74 seats. Today, the FN has 1,546 and 459 councilors over two levels of French government, and, according to a June 2015 survey, 31 percent of voters feel closest to the Party, higher than the numbers for either the UMP or the Socialists. As in the United States and the United Kingdom, most voters feel the country is not doing well, with 67 percent saying the economy has gotten worse.
The rise of rightist, anti-immigrant parties is not exclusive to France. In the June 2015 elections in Denmark, the anti-immigration, anti-Brussels People’s Party won a quarter of the vote, while in Austria, the Freedom Party won more than 20 percent in the September 2013 elections, the country’s most recent. Finland, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Switzerland all have similar movements and parties, while the south of Europe has not escaped either, as evidenced by the rise of the Northern League (Lega Nord) in Italy. Just before the 2008 economic crisis, the Northern League won less than 5 percent of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. By 2010, it had doubled its share and become Silvio Berlusconi’s major coalition partner.
This instability is not limited to the anti-immigrant Right; it has also affected the European Left. Dissatisfaction with stagnant economies and European Union-imposed austerity policy has led to the rise of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Meanwhile, the UK Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in 2015. Corbyn is a man of the Old Left—a Labour socialist who wants Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons and quit NATO, remains skeptical about the European Union, and aspires to renationalize certain key market sectors, such as rail transport and coal.
Why does political instability afflict Europe and the United States? The answer is that just as the great transformation of the world economy between 1850 and 1890 generated political instability, so too does the globalization of the present era. In addition, the second great transformation of the world economy is larger than the first, and thus, not surprisingly, generates greater churn.
In the second half of the 19th century, technology increased agricultural productivity while transportation costs dropped, leading to a twentyfold increase in shipping capacity. Increases in industrial capacity allowed Europe to export many more manufactured goods while importing farm goods and raw materials from around the world. The telegraph’s introduction of near-instantaneous communication linked markets from Tokyo to Argentina to London. Great Britain’s leadership in this technological revolution led the world to adopt its gold monetary standard, which enhanced global trade by ensuring that debts and earnings were paid in one predictable currency.
While the 19th century wave of globalization made people wealthier overall and increased standards of living, it also generated immense problems. The fall in farm prices devastated rural areas in Europe and parts of the United States. Crafts of many kinds became obsolete, and craftsmen had to find other ways to make a living. The Great Depression of 1873–96, actually a gradual decline of prices, exacerbated the problems, and the gold standard and the bankers responsible for it received the blame. Italy, Spain, and Portugal abandoned the gold standard, while in the United States the Democrats adopted an anti-gold plank.
By the turn of the century, the thirty-year period of economic productivity and growth had ended. Free trade and the gold standard behind it were at risk. Many nations—including the United States—turned to protectionism, passing anti-immigration policies to keep jobs for native-born citizens. Income inequality and the wealth of bankers became core political issues. The Democratic Party’s 1896 platform, for example, took advantage of the populist sentiments evoked by the first great transformation of the world economy. It proposed the free coinage of silver at a 16–1 ratio to gold, and denounced the issuance of notes by the National Bank. On immigration, it opposed “the importation of pauper labor” while bemoaning “the absorption of wealth by the few” and demanding an end to trusts and pools. The platform sounds eerily similar to the reaction to big banks, income inequality, the loss of low-skilled jobs, and mass immigration of today.
Major transformations or convergences of economic systems generate great efficiencies and wealth, and the larger the global market, the bigger the payouts to winners.4 Unfortunately, these benefits come with the costs of changes in jobs, markets, and ways of life. The current convergence of world economies is more difficult than the first not only because vastly more people and polities are involved, but also because climate change calls into question the sustainability of growth.
A standard measure of political instability used by European political scientists takes the same parties’ vote totals from election to election and calculates the swings in the vote, adds them across parties, divides by 2, and voila!—an instability index, as shown below.
Those data show that in both large and small European democracies, as in the United States, political instability has risen since the 1970s and especially after 2008. What, to return to the main question, could account for this increase?
One answer is, of course, the upheaval caused by the transformation or convergence of economies, especially in social and economic structures. But the changes wrought by the current transformation are not the same as those of the 19th century, due to differences in a number of conditions. By 1900 a new class had come to prominence: the blue-collar industrial worker. While the two most common types of workers in 1900, farm workers and household servants, were geographically scattered and therefore hard to organize, factory employees worked and lived together in large towns, such as in St. Denis, outside Paris, in the valleys of Pennsylvania and Germany, and in Manchester, England. They were not, contra Marx, a majority, but through their ability to organize, they would come to dominate politics in the industrial world.
These workers of the early 20th century did not get overtime, pensions, vacations, sick days, or health insurance, and they had no job security. By 1950, however, industrial workers were the largest single group in every Western democratic country and, by and large, unionized workers had attained middle-class living standards. They enjoyed job security, pensions, paid vacations, unemployment insurance, and health plans. And they had, in large part, attained these things because they had gained political power, either by forming parties composed of trade unions, such as Labour in Britain, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, and the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) in France, or by using their union base to influence left-of-center parties, such as in the United States.
Sixty years later, the number of industrial workers in the United States has declined from more than 40 percent to less than 20 percent. The disappearance of blue-collar jobs has been slower in most other Western democracies, but by the 1980s others showed declines similar to the United States. Thus, in Europe today, the percentage of the labor force in blue-collar or industrial jobs is well below half of what it was in the 1950s. In short, industrial workers no longer dominate political parties. They have become just another interest group.
Economists differ on when the shift began, but it seems clear that in the 1970s the loss of blue-collar industrial jobs accelerated. American companies automated everything they could and exported capital overseas where production costs were lower. Other countries faced a choice: keep the jobs by fiat and lose out on productivity, making the economy worse off; or allow automation and export, enjoy increased productivity, and suffer the wage problems that afflicted the United States. The effects of their choices had profound consequences for political parties and systems.
By the 1950s, manufacturing workers across Europe and the United States were well organized, and political parties revolved around them. In the United States, Harry Truman could win re-election in 1948 by campaigning against section 14B of the Taft-Hartley Act (which permits states to pass right-to-work laws), while in the United Kingdom politics was divided into two categories: Labour and anti-Labour. From 1945 through 1957, the French Left, both Communists and Socialists, never fell below 40 percent popularity and averaged about 45 percent of the vote for the six elections of the post-World War II Fourth Republic. In Italy, labor-based parties never had less than 35 percent of the vote and rose to 40 percent in the late 1950s. Their main rival, the anti-Left-labor Christian Democrats, went from 36 percent in 1946 to 49 percent in 1948, and throughout the 1950s never fell below 40 percent or failed to be in government. In Sweden, Socialists and Communists had majorities in every post-World War II election until 1973. The politics of Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and other European countries were essentially contests between labor-Left parties versus Christian Right parties. In West Germany, the first postwar election in 1949 yielded a narrow win—by less than 2 percent—for Konrad Adenauer of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). Socialist Party leader Kurt Schumacher refused a grand coalition, thus putting the leftist parties in opposition, where they remained throughout the 1950s. Again, politics could be described as Left-labor versus Christian Democratic conservative. At present, leftist parties are quite different. They can no longer be elected largely by their base of manufacturing workers and thus have had to accommodate some conservative market principles: witness Gerhard Schroeder, the most recent SPD Prime Minister, on reforming the German economy.
Because the labor/anti-labor divide no longer dominates political systems in Europe, parties have to build majorities by adding other constituencies. In the United States, the Democratic Party added minorities, cultural liberals, and others, but in the process created Reagan Democrats as pro-labor but socially conservative voters abandoned the Party. In Britain, the Labour Party lost voters overall from 2010 to 2015, but gained among voters aged 18 to 30, especially if they were urban and socially liberal. They also did well with minorities and non-native UK voters. Labour paid a price, however, losing voters over 65, who have the highest turnout rates (about 80 percent), to the Tories. Labour also lost votes to UKIP, the Liberals, and the Greens. In short, putting majorities together is difficult in a diverse, heterogeneous economy, because economic interests diverge while social and lifestyle issues now matter a good deal more than they once did.
In France, the Socialist Party has been undergoing a similar change. In 2015, activist François Sabado called it “an acceleration in the bourgeois transformation of social democracy . . . [T]he socialist parties have become less and less working class and more and more bourgeois.”5 As is the case in the United States, Britain, and other Western countries, these bourgeois, socially liberal, urban partisans don’t always see eye-to-eye with their blue-collar fellow leftists. In Spain and Greece, parties of the Left have seen revivals: Podemos in the former and Syriza in the latter. Both parties seek to renegotiate their countries’ debt structure and to ease the austerity requirements imposed by the European Union, and both draw support from younger, urban voters. Syriza managed to take power in Greece and even retained it despite failing to persuade the European Union to abandon its austerity program.
The globalization of economies has generated changes in parties on the Right as well. Buoyed by the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, right-wing parties gained ascendance in the 1980s. In Germany, Helmut Kohl and the CDU dominated national politics from 1982 to 1996; they liberalized the political agenda and put moral issues up for debate. In France, the Right lost the presidency to François Mitterand in 1981 but won departmental, municipal, and European parliamentary elections in 1982, 1983, and 1984 respectively. In 1986, it won the National Assembly. Moreover, while Mitterand followed a radical economic policy from 1981 to 1983—which included nationalizing some key industries, increasing the minimum wage, and establishing a five-week vacation period, among other reforms—he made a “tournant de la rigeur” (shift to the right) when the economy worsened.
In Italy, according to scholar Paolo Morisi, “the turn from the mass to a catchall party was the result of the blurring of class divisions under the unprecedented economic growth of the 1960s. Both working class and conservative parties lost their raison d’etre as unique representatives of particular social groups.”6 The Socialists, under Bettino Craxi, kept the Communists out of government and formed the governments of the 1980s with the Christian Democrats. The conservative, anti-centralization Lega Nord came to the fore in the 1990s, and Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia came to prominence in 1994.
The turn away from the Left was not, of course, universal, and differed from country to country. However, as the labor base of industrial workers declined, the basic premises of politics shifted, and the parties of both Left and Right had to find new majorities in a changing economic and political reality. Parties of the Left from Sweden to Germany to Italy had to adjust their policies to keep their economies competitive, in light of capital’s growth in prominence relative to labor. On the Right, parties had to deal with rising inequality and job losses in the new sharing economy, and some began favoring government aid. Overall, the changing economy has driven many Socialist parties in Europe to support economic programs that differ only slightly from those of conservative parties. Conversely, European conservative parties, while generally defending markets, have endorsed comprehensive welfare programs (see the CDU/CSU in Germany and France’s neo-Gaullists, for example). Since no party, country, or individual leader has discovered the policy path to achieve economic growth while substantially mitigating the ills such growth engenders, we should expect to see political instability grow, not decline, and with it distrust of government.
Such instability will vary depending on economic well-being. Though political instability has risen across Europe and the United States, some have it worse than others:.
The contrast between the relatively healthy economies of Switzerland, Norway, Germany, and Denmark and the less prosperous economies of France, Greece, Italy, and Spain is obvious. Political instability has risen in the prosperous economies since the late 1970s, but not nearly as steeply as it did in the four poorer economies. This is unsurprising: Since employment opportunities, expendable income, and job stability are more prevalent in good economies, voters are more likely to stick to their traditional political preferences. Where unemployment levels are high and expendable income is lower, voters shift preferences, looking for alternatives to provide economic stability in their lives.
In sum, as economic modernization decreased the number of manufacturing jobs that paid middle-class wages, political stability declined. Over time, the Left could not win with its labor base alone and had to modify its appeal in order to create majorities. Parties on the Right benefited early on, but over time also had problems creating majorities with old policies. The type of political system and electoral rules affected the strategy of political parties. In first-past-the-post, two-party systems like that of the United States, parties have to scramble for majorities. Thus, in the United States, Republicans picked up some blue-collar workers who had guns and traditional values, as well as voters who opposed abortion. Democrats picked up minorities and pro-choice voters who had been Republican, but neither party has created a stable majority. In multiparty systems, with forces opposed to globalization, the new economies, and the free flow of immigrants, movements like the People’s Party in Denmark and the Front Nationale in France arise. In Italy, the neo-fascists came and went and came again, while Lega Nord rose to prominence on a platform of separating the non-productive South from the efficient North.
One burning issue that arises under increasing globalization in both Europe and the United States is immigration. When the economy is shifting and inequality is rising, the influx of outsiders generates controversy. In the United States, a Donald Trump tries to capture the anti-immigrant vote through the Republican Party primaries, while in France an entire party, the Front Nationale, represents this view. In Italy, Lega Nord has increased its vote shares by focusing on immigration. However, anti-immigration voters and movements, regardless of the specific arrangements, need not be right-wingers on other issues, as attested by the Front Nationale’s position on social welfare and protection for French workers, or the Danish People’s Party’s position on cruelty to animals, school funding, and aid for the elderly and the needy. Other examples abound, but suffice it to say that the political instability observable in Europe and the United States takes multiple forms depending on the nature of the political system and the electoral rules that obtain in it.
However, the cause is the same: the transformation of the world economy. As we move toward ever more interconnectedness, an economy in which employees take their skills from one company to the next and both parents work, the challenge of forming coherent, stable political parties is magnified. Those countries able to keep unemployment and inequality within bounds will be more stable. The greater the levels of inequality and unemployment, the greater the political instability and the smaller the chance of achieving stable economic growth.
1See Beyond Gridlock?: Prospects for Governance in the Clinton Years—and After, ed. James L. Sundquist (Brookings Institution Press, 1993).
2Simon & Schuster, 2009.
3Morris Fiorina, “America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight,” American Interest, February 12, 2013.
4See Michael Spence, The Next Convergence: The Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011).
5Sabado, “The Changes in the Political Landscape in France,” International Viewpoint, June 11, 2015.
6Morisi, “The Resurgence of the European Extreme Right,” Amerika, August 29, 2011.