The ongoing debate over economic globalization usually focuses on such issues as living standards, inequality and environmental degradation. But newly published research raises a different question entirely: Is the free flow of goods, jobs and money across national borders detrimental to democracy?
That’s the troubling conclusion German political scientist Nils Steiner reaches in the journal Electoral Studies. His research suggests globalization — and the resultant loss of control over the economy by national governments — is “a central cause of the general decline in turnout within established democracies” in recent decades.
“There is good reason to be concerned with the consequences of economic integration for national representative democracy,” writes Steiner, who is on the faculty of The Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. “On the one hand, doomsday scenarios of a race to the bottom (with globalization lowering incomes and working conditions worldwide) have not come true.
“But on the other hand, the constraining effect of economic integration on national politics seems clear enough to negatively affect the willingness of citizens to participate in the electoral process.”
Steiner bases his conclusion on a complex set of calculations. To gauge voter turnout, he looked at elections to the lower house of parliament (or, in a few cases, the unicameral legislature) in 23 established democracies between 1965 and 2006. He focused on countries in the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most nations in Western Europe.
To determine levels of economic integration, he applied three different measures, including a composite index from the KOF Index of Globalization.
“Results clearly support the basic hypothesis that economic integration is bad for turnout,” he reports. “This finding holds up for three different indicators for economic integration and for two different measures of turnout.”
Although evidence is limited, Steiner proposes a likely reason for this relationship: “Individuals who think that economic integration significantly constrains national politics should have a lower inclination to vote than those who perceive little or no constraints.”
In other words, if the economy is a key factor determining whether and how people vote, and if people sense that their political leaders have less control over that economy, they are less likely to bother to cast a ballot.
While further work needs to be done to confirm and refine this hypothesis, it provides a new answer to the vexing question of why voter participation has declined in so many established democracies since the 1980s. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s a lack of control over the economy, stupid.