In almost all states of the European Union voter participation in local, regional, national, and European elections is declining – at least in the countries without compulsory voting.1 For some years now there has been talk of ‘precarious elections’ and of a ‘socially divided democracy’.2 For more than a decade in Germany the class behaviour of workers has not been expressed in an above-average probability of voting for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) but in a 50 per cent probability or more of not going to vote at all.3
There is no ‘party of non-voters’. It is an invention of political discourse intended to further delegitimise parties, parliaments, and democratic institutions within the neoliberal order in relation to economic forces and market processes. Voter abstention is seen as an expression of disenchantment and turning away from the party system and parliamentary-representative democracy. However, voter abstention is in fact socially and politically heterogeneous; it has many different motives and also diverse political party preferences.
Voter abstention can be tactical behaviour. In every election parties lose and win votes to and from non-voters. In the last Bundestag election of 2013 44% of the increased votes of the CDU/CSU came from former non- voters.4 These ‘tactical non-voters’ decide from one election to the next whether they will participate. Their behaviour is comparable to that of swing voters.
These ‘tactical non-voters’ become ‘notorious non-voters’ if they have not participated in more than two elections. They comprise the group that most often confesses to abstention when polled. They have actively turned away from the political system and are basically distributed throughout all social strata – the economically successful members of the upper social strata, who do ‘not need politics’ and are not interested in the commonwealth, as well as those who have a cumulative history of disappointment, alienation, and a conscious aversion to politics over years, even over generations. About 60% of these long-term non-voters come from the two lowest income fifths and 40% from the three highest.5 Alongside income, the level of formal education is an important indicator. People with low income and people with low- to middle-level formal education have a higher probability of not going to the polls than people with higher incomes and higher educational levels.6
This involves collective rather than individual decisions. Armin Schäfer’s studies show that an unemployed person who lives within a context of high voter participation will be much more likely to vote than would an unemployed or low-income person living in a neighbourhood with a low level of voter participation. The everyday living environment and the level of understanding of society, politics, the parties, and one’s own significance and position play a decisive role in this. The ‘social split within democracy’ is strongly coloured by social space, with participation in ‘precarious’ and ‘well-off’ neighbourhoods of a city differing by as much as 40%.
Along with the neighbours, family origin plays a role in shaping class electoral behaviour. The number of those who see the right to vote as a civic duty has been declining markedly amongst younger people for two generations now. If in 1983 82% of 21- to 25-year-olds still participated in the Bundestag election only 60% of them still did so in 2013. Of 60- to 70-year-olds eligible to vote 80% went to the polls in 2013 while almost 93% still did so in 1983. Some analyses see a declining interest in politics amongst the younger generation, others a diminishing overlap between the issues of interest to younger people and those of the political party establishments. Common to all, however, is the finding that non-voting amongst younger citizens with lower-level secondary school qualifications is twice as frequent as it is amongst those with higher-level secondary school qualifications and that there is a strong correlation with the experiences of their parents. Where parents do not vote the probability of their children doing likewise is very high.
A second group of ‘tactical’ voters draws a distinction between elections of the first-order and second- (and third-order) elections. Voter participation in Bundestag elections is by now 10 to 15% above participation in federal state parliament elections, and these in turn are usually higher than participation in municipal and European Parliament elections. A good sixth of eligible voters feel it is worth voting only in Bundestag elections. These levels of participation are heavily influenced by collective experiences of how important specific institutional levels are for people’s life worlds.7
In North Rhine-Westphalia the average participation (75%) in municipal elections from 1946 to 1966 was higher than in state parliament elections (73%) (while in Bundestag elections it was 86%). Starting in 1969 participation in municipal elections declined while participation in state parliament and Bundestag elections rose. From 1984 participation in municipal elections went down but only slightly, while participation in state parliament and Bundestag elections declined sharply. From 1999 a dramatic drop can be observed in municipal elections (53%) and state parliament elections (a bare 60% average) with a somewhat smaller drop in Bundestag elections (75%). Why did participation in municipal elections already decline when it was still rising in state parliament and Bundestag elections? Why does it decline differently at different institutional levels?
A possible answer is that participation reflects different class experiences. In the first 20 years of the Federal Republic policy fields important for dealing with everyday life were overwhelmingly located in the municipal area: residential housing undertakings, public utilities, the integration of immigrants (‘displaced persons’), the construction of local infrastructure in the context of locally based large industry. In the second half of the 1960s, these tasks were largely fulfilled; other tasks, located at the federal state level, became more important (educational policy, school and university planning, countryside and space planning). A first wave of district and administrative reforms led to the withdrawal of democratic institutions from local everyday life, a series of tasks were de-municipalised. At the same time, the promise of national democratisation, realised for example with the law on co- determination in enterprises, the policy of welfare-state inclusion and the resultant opportunities for upward social mobility drew more eligible voters to the polls. Welfare state inclusion and social insurance underlined the role of democracy and politics.
In the 1980s the neoconservative counteroffensive gained traction. A new mass unemployment grew, public debt increased, and the social security contribution ratio was publically discussed as being not sustainable. There was much talk of the new international division of labour and the exodus of capital to low-wage countries. In the lost battle for the maintenance of the steel industry and of large-scale industry in the Ruhr in general a new experience came to a head in many places, for example in West Germany’s textile and shipyard industries. Regional and national policy cannot and does not want to arrest the closing of collieries and steel factories. The democratic and welfare-state institutions are not halting the devaluation of skill and downgrading of social position and income. Increasingly, the lower-level democratic institutions, municipalities, and states are declaring that they are powerless or are not the relevant authorities. It was during the 1980s that voter participation began to collapse as a first social stratum saw that politics cannot or does not want to offer protection against the negative market consequences of neoliberalism. At the same time, the triad liberalisation – deregulation – privatisation became widespread in political discourse: the primacy of the economy, a fundamental criticism of the state, and the image of man as homo oeconomicus created a strong bulwark against all demands for welfare-state protection. Politically, the Social Democrats then lost former big-city strongholds, while traditional voter milieus no longer went to the polls.
In the 1990s this deterioration was extended to eastern Europe. Education no longer led to good jobs and upward social mobility. Unemployment was reinterpreted from being a problem of social structure to being an individual problem. A growing segment of younger people experienced the de-industrialisation of the old world of skilled labour, as their parents had. The devalorisation of these years was addressed by a new Social Democratic promise of guaranteeing inclusion in the welfare state, for example through industrial and active labour-market policies. The red-green8 labour market policy of the early 2000s then struck welfare-state inclusion of all ‘employees’ out of the programme of the modernised SPD. It pointedly declared itself to no longer be responsible for it and reinforced the threat of welfare-state exclusion. This was followed in 2009 by the second deep drop in voter participation at the federal level.
The creeping withdrawal of democratic institutions from everyday social life, the growing shifting of political responsibility to distant institutions, or so-called ‘practical constraints’, as well as the declining real power to shape things, due to privatisation and debt, constitute the framework within which belief in the influence and importance of one’s own vote withers. Added to this is the fact that improvement of the material and socio-cultural situation is at the bottom of the agenda of those parties to which voters previously felt bound. Thus collective experiences arise that produce voter abstinence as class behaviour.
Up to about 1980, according to the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, the proportion of those who agreed that ‘everyone makes their own luck’ rose to more than 69% of those questioned. When the dismantling of welfare- state security began, the proportion of those who shared the view that some are on top and others on the bottom, and that under today’s conditions the latter cannot rise, increased from one quarter to 42% in 2013. With this, a sense of ‘class destiny’ took precedence for the first time in 60 years over the ‘performance/achievement principle’ (38%). This is ‘not a question of marginal but of massive changes in perception’.9 People’s growing sense of the imperviousness of society corresponds to their sense of having no democratic influence and of being neglected by politics and parties.
These collective experiences are unequally distributed socially, and this is also seen in the decline of participation. The higher the educational level, income, or social status, the more likely voter participation becomes. In the 2013 Bundestag election, 39% of non-voters came from the lowest income quintile with another 23% located in the fourth quintile, which means 62% from the lowest two income quintiles. On the other hand, only 19% of non-voters were located in the upper two income quintiles.10 In an investigation of 28 big cities in the last Bundestag election, Armin Schäfer and the Bertelsmann Stiftung have established a difference between the voting districts with the highest and the lowest electoral participation of almost 30 percentage points and concluded: the 2013 Bundestag election was ‘socially precarious’.11
It is not the naked socio-economic data and situations that produce voter abstinence. Rather, in daily co-existence amongst unemployed and low-wage workers and immigrants and those who do not have the right to vote in city neighbourhoods with little public investment and neglected infrastructure, it arises from the way in which people in families, neighbourhoods, city areas, and milieus communicate with each other about these situations. The effect of co-habitation in such residential neighbourhoods doubles the social decoupling. Non-voting here is not individual behaviour but an at least implicitly collective activity. In addition, the electoral-campaign dynamic between parties and eligible voters is exacerbated in precarious neighbourhoods. Those who are hard to inspire to vote quickly fall to the margins of election campaigners’ attentions, and those whose interests would require another kind of income distribution policy threaten to become troublemakers instead of courted voter-citizens.12
Those who explain growing voter abstention as constituting ‘parties’ or as ‘disenchantment with politics’ block what is essential from our view, that is, that social inequality grows into political inequality. What is decisive is not the level of voter participation but the unequal distribution among social classes, the disproportionately high degree of abstention in the lower social classes. It seems to be a kind of vicious circle: participation rests on the feeling of being an equal citizen. Historically, this consciousness grew because ‘social property’ (Robert Castels) was created in the form of guaranteed legal welfare-state entitlements (as the working-class counterpart to bourgeois ownership of land and assets). It formed a protective fence against direct economic dependency. As economic dependencies grew again, the basis for democratic participation disappeared. Defending welfare-state protections, however, would have required stronger voter participation, for only then could a majority be found for an alternative distribution policy. But when prospects for the latter seem hopeless there is still less motivation for participation because one’s own interests are the last to be addressed, if at all. Left majorities, left-reform or left-socialist politics can in the end only be based on the force of large numbers. A sustainable reform policy will have to set itself the task of inspiring a readiness for participation precisely amongst those for whom left reformism wants to effect an improvement in the name of social justice.
‘We might better understand “interest” as well as “disinterest” in politics’, Bourdieu wrote, ‘if we were in a position to recognise that the inclination to make use of a political “asset” (voting, “arguing politically”, or “pursuing politics”), is measured against the realisation of this asset, or, if you will, that apathy is just another expression for powerlessness.’13
This powerlessness has various facets: the feeling of not possessing sufficient expertise to be able to have a say; the feeling of not having the right to express one’s own opinion; or also the feeling of not having the requisite attributes of status in order to be able to act, decide, have a say, and vote in the political arena. Powerlessness is rooted, on the one hand, in the uneven distribution of specific political competences such as education, language, habitus, etc.; on the other hand, it is the result of a specific structure and quality of the political arena. The asset of having mastered a special, mostly academicised middle-class use of language; possessing a set of information and skills that enable one to judge and act politically, to have one’s say and make oneself understood; the asset of being able to deal with media intervention in the political arena as well as with the delegation of political decisions to alleged scientific experts and technocrats – these are just some of the corner flags that define, limit, and segregate the political arena.
Added to this is the socially accepted and socially unequally distributed feeling of not being entitled to take part in the political process, for example among recipients of Hartz IV benefits. The expropriation of and alienation from the right to politics is at the same time rooted in feelings of powerlessness in the face of continual changes in one’s own lifeworld, which through no fault of one’s own occur in the name of higher powers such as ‘international competitive position’, ‘growth’, ‘trust in the markets’, or ‘generational justice’, all with the approval of politics. It is increasingly difficult to locate responsible authorities within democratic space, and consequently there is a lack of ‘democratic resonance’ (Hartmut Rosa).
A further aspect is the transformed self-conception and communication of parties. It is becoming continually clearer that they see themselves as vendors in a voter market, which is seen as something to research, in which voters become customers to which ‘political-product’ offers are made. In economic-democracy theory the customers make a purchase decision and pay with their vote. To the extent that politics is understood in this way by the voter-customers, disillusionment grows when the product is not delivered.
It will quickly become impossible to reverse what has grown as collective experience over two generations: the reciprocal reinforcement of social powerlessness, remaining silent politically, and the monopolisation of political discourse and action. In addition, a political actor has emerged in the form of right-wing populist parties in Europe, which are mobilising in the name of belonging to the people and the nation against the ‘elites’ and the ‘party- cartel’. Up to now, the Alternative für Deutschland has not particularly counted as part of the group of notorious non-voters nor as part of the lower social strata, but it has begun to get above-average results amongst the working population with skills training – that is, in those social milieus that once stood at the centre of social democratic politics. Furthermore, opinion polls show that declared non-voters share anti-democratic, authoritarian, and xenophobic attitudes with the same high probability that supporters of right-wing populist parties do.14
Possible ends from which a left-democratic politics could untangle the knot are:
1. The struggle for a legitimate view of the social world, for its interpretation, and for the realisation of political conceptions in it: it makes a big difference if one looks at society and economy from the perspective of an owner of assets or that of a simple performer of services, a member of the new much-prized ‘creative class’, or of the modern service proletariat; and the resultant notions of how a ‘good’ society would be shaped are consequently also very different. The distinguishability of legitimate world view must be won back. Only with common conceptions of the social division of the world can people take a side. Last year’s strikes in day-care centres and hospitals, at Amazon, and in the German postal service had strong features of a struggle for this ‘view of the social world’, for appreciation and recognition, for a sense of priorities in the social division of labour. They are waiting for an echo in political discourse and material and immaterial representation in the political arena.
2. Banish the economic model of politics from language and action! Progressive politics and parties develop projects that allow citizens to better shape their own life practices and appropriate social structures and institutions. This also involves, but is not limited to, questions of existential security, for only the ‘relief of pressure on life [allows] a restructuring of social space: the horizons are no longer restricted to the most immediate needs; space to move emerges’.15 Optimism and confidence in the possibilities of shaping one’s own life, not anxiety and pessimism, nourish the pleasure in change.
3. Strengthen local politics! In the end it is in local public spaces that the capacity and entitlement to be involved in politics is negotiated. This is where mutual recognition as being democratically equal has its basis in the interplay of social, public infrastructures, municipal economic enterprises, and locally present democratic institutions. Here it is possible to have experiences of ‘self-efficacy’. This is where the class-specific restrictions of the political arena can best be overcome, when it is really possible to ‘localise’ responsibilities and resources so that the confrontation over public affairs, over what is important for everyone, does not become a mock battle. ‘Political culture, without which there can be no long-term battle for the realisation of collective rights, is based on the recognition of reason and feeling, understanding and meaning in its practical context, and on coming up with concrete action for people in their everyday lives.’16
This road is long, difficult, and has uncertain prospects of success. It is difficult because the class character of voter abstention is completely expressed in terms of social space – neighbourhoods with a high abstention rate can be identified and described. Moreover, the difficulty is compounded by the great differences and boundaries between modern social underclasses, the only common element being the turn away from parties and the political system, and the experience of not being heard. There are exceptions everywhere where there are personalities in these geographic areas who are perceived as authentic and as entitled to articulate and represent experiences of the social arena, and who have established their approachability and trustworthiness. But these personalities are continually becoming harder to find amongst the left.
1. This article condenses the results of two bibliographic studies and frequently omits references, which can be located in these two studies: Horst Kahrs, Abschied aus der Demokratie. Zum sozialen Klassencharakter der wachsenden Wahlenthaltung und der Preisgabe staatsbürgerlicher Rechte, Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung 2012, and Horst Kahrs, Wahlenthaltung als Klassenwahlverhalten, rls-paper, Berlin 2015.
2. See various authors of the Bertelsmann-Stiftung in analyses since 2013, http://www.wahlbeteiligung2013.de/.
3. See Armin Schäfer, Der Verlust politischer Gleichheit. Warum die sinkende Wahlbeteiligung der Demokratie schadet, Frankfurt/New York: Campus, 2015.
4. See Kahrs, Wahlenthaltung als Klassenwahlverhalten, pp. 12-13.
5. See Schäfer 2015.
6. Calculations for Germany and European countries can be found in Michael Kaeding/ Stefan Haußner, Gut bekannt und unerreicht. Soziodemografisches Profil der Nichtwähler_ innen, Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2016.
7. There are exceptions, as in the most recent state parliament elections in 2016 in Germany. They were strongly informed by refugee policy, and the populist right- wing party Alternative für Deutschland highlighted them as a vote on Merkel’s refugee policy.
8. Ed. note: red-green refers to social-democratic/Green governments.
9. Thomas Petersen, Dominik Hierlemann, Robert B. Vehrkamp, and Christopher Wratil, Gespaltene Demokratie. Politische Partizipation und Demokratiezufriedenheit vor der Bundestagswahl 2013, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2013, p. 30.
10. See Schäfer 2015, p. 98.
11. Armin Schäfer, Robert Vehrkamp, and Jérémie Felix Gagné, Prekäre Wahlen. Milieus und soziale Selektivität der Wahlbeteiligung bei der Bundestagswahl 2013, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2013, p. 10, http://www.wahlbeteiligung2013.de/.
12. Schäfer 2015, p. 89
13. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984 (quoted from German edition: Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 632).
14. See Oliver Decker, Johannes Kiess, and Elmar Brähler, Die enthemmte Mitte. Autoritäre und rechtsextreme Einstellung in Deutschland, Gießen: Psychosozial Verlag, 2016.
15. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1965; new translation 2012 (quoted from German edition: Phänomenologie der Wahrnehmung, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1966, p. 506).
16. Oskar Negt, Der politische Mensch. Demokratie als Lebensform, Göttingen: Steidl-Verlag, 2010, p. 357.