Is democracy in the doldrums?

Boris Johnson Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Do the public prefer politicians who are considered mavericks, like Boris Johnson?

The UK election, the rollout of Hillary Clinton and the early rumblings in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Spring has brought with it a cloudburst of electoral politics, but voters appear to be in a state of hibernation.

Other than the buzz surrounding the Scottish nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon, the UK campaign appears to be limping towards an anti-climactic conclusion.

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Image caption Rand Paul is running for the Republican nomination

On this side of the Atlantic, the prospect of the race for the White House turning into a dynastic showdown between the Clintons and Bushes - families that between them have had tenancy for 20 of the past 27 years - is not for many voters particularly enticing.

The Tea Party favourites Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have made fairly listless starts to their campaigns, which would imply that even the most energised wing of the Republican Party is no longer that energised.

Lack of domination

Recently elected politicians have found it hard to dominate.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi achieved a great personal triumph in last year's Indian election, but his party, the BJP, suffered a rout in February's local elections in Delhi, the Indian capital.

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Image caption Francois Hollande and Tony Abbott have both had a rough ride in office

Less than 18 months after winning an election, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott suffered what he described as a "near death experience," when his backbenchers moved against him because of his unpopularity with the public.

Barack Obama, a once-in-a-lifetime candidate who in 2008 became the focus of so much hope and expectation, was rebuffed in last November's congressional elections, which handed control of Capitol Hill to the Republicans.

Francois Hollande, the French president, faces an uphill battle to secure a second term when France goes to the polls in 2017.

There has even been speculation that his Socialist Party might seek an alternative candidate.

Angela Merkel is rare among modern-day European leaders in her ability to keep winning elections.

Now in her third term, in November she will mark 10 years as chancellor.

Falling confidence

The global economic downturn has been accompanied by a global democratic downturn.

In America, the malaise is evident in public disaffection with Washington, which has reached historically high levels.

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Image caption Angela Merkel bucks the trend by repeatedly winning

Last year, a Gallup poll suggested that just 7% of Americans had confidence in Congress, a record low.

Confidence in the presidency also slumped to 29%, a six-year low.

In Britain, where the rise of smaller parties like the SNP and UKIP has shattered the traditional two-party system, it is obviously manifest in the fragmentation of politics.

In France, it is evident in the continued ascent of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front; in the Netherlands, the success of anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders.

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Image caption Geert Wilders has become popular in the Netherlands

Australia has not only witnessed the emergence of smaller parties, like the Greens and the Palmer United Party, but also historically high levels of "informal" voting, where voters compelled by law to cast a ballot do not vote for anyone.

So wretched has Australian politics become that polls conducted by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, have regularly shown ambivalence towards democracy itself.

Last year, for instance, it found that just 42% of Australians aged between 18 and 29 believed that "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government".

Low turnout

In Britain, voter turnout, historically speaking, is also low - 65.1% in 2010 compared with the high point of 83.9% in 1950 (although the nadir came in 2001, when it slipped for the first time below 60%).

Future historians may well be struck that as Britons prepared to go to the polls in the spring of 2015 the national question that seemed to stir the strongest passions among a significant demographic focused not on the occupant of Downing Street but rather whether Jeremy Clarkson should be fired by the BBC.

So what explains this political recession?

Across the democratic world, a gap has unquestionably opened up between a cadre of careerist politicians and the people they represent.

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Image caption Ed Miliband: a career politician

In Britain, it is particularly marked.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are essentially professional politicians, who decided to make Westminster the target of their ambitions early on and rarely deviated from that path.

Both studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford, the gateway degree for so many aspirant politicians. Both were special advisers for chancellors of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont and Gordon Brown.

Cameron worked for seven years in corporate public relations, but his curriculum vitae, like that of Ed Miliband, is full of political posts.

Extreme makeover

Britain's cliquey political class also tends to be self-perpetuating, because prospective MPs are increasingly expected to have political experience, as party workers, parliamentary researchers or aides.

A study published last November by University College, London of 700-plus candidates that had confirmed their intention to stand at next week's election found that 30% had worked in politics.

Back in 1979, just 3.4% of MPs were political professionals.

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Image caption Can Hillary Clinton energise her campaign for the presidency?

The rise of the career politician has been even more noticeable in Australia, where academics looking at the make-up of the parliament elected after the 2010 election found that for the first time, more than half the MPs had been previously employed in politics.

Professional politicians tend to be surrounded by political professionals: spin doctors, image-makers and polling experts.

Yet their efforts at making candidates electorally appealing often have the effect of making them seem phony.

In her second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has drawn fire for deciding to emphasise her femininity and newfound status as a grandmother because it represents such an extreme makeover from 2008.

Back then, she set out to demonstrate a toughness bordering on machismo to quell concerns that male voters would not countenance a female commander in chief.

The problem now, as then, is that it she appears to have adopted a campaign persona rather than simply being herself.

Passion problem

After being lambasted for listlessness on the campaign trail, David Cameron also stood accused of over-correcting.

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Image caption David Cameron has been accused of running a low-key campaign

Appearing before party loyalists in the City of London, he told them, passionately, that the election "pumps me up" and made him "feel bloody lively".

Yet the performance, rather than coming from the heart, seemed to be following a hastily rewritten script.

Like Hillary, he appeared to be captive to his image-makers and simply acting out a new role.

The irony here is that spin doctors carry on pretty much as if the merciless satires of their work, like The Thick of It and Veep, had never been put on air.

Nowadays, however, voters are familiar with the dark arts of their trade. - and they don't like being patronised or taken for idiots.

Bland delivery

Professionalisation has also given rise to a language of politics that can sometimes sound like Musak, the bland, uninspiring background melodies played in hotel lobbies and shopping centres.

Rare these days are politicians who, through their use of language, can cut through.

Two obvious exceptions in Britain are Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.

Both, in their differing ways, depart from the usual scripts and bromides.

Both are authors of their own soundbites.

This is also the age of the permanent campaign, which helps explain why elections don't generate so much enthusiasm.

The stage-managed photo-ops that dominate are an everyday feature of politics.

It is hardly surprising that the sight of yet another politician wearing yet another high-visibility vest fails to stir the soul.

Craving authenticity

At a time when so much seems choreographed and prefabricated, voters crave authenticity in their politicians, which may be why Nicola Sturgeon has been the undoubted star of the UK campaign.

Not only does she come across as being comfortable in her own skin, but finds it easy to explain why she entered politics.

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Image caption Nicola Sturgeon appears to have captured the public imagination

She was motivated by a hatred of Thatcherism and a determination to win independence for Scotland.

The political passions of her opponents - what made them enter politics in the first place - are not so easily identifiable.

To many voters, they seem more self-serving. Conviction politicians have arguably become something of an endangered species.

The SNP leader, as the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson pointed out last month, does not adhere to modern-day political rules.

She holds old-fashioned rallies and, seeking to harness the groundswell of support after the Scottish referendum, Sturgeon has also focused on building party membership.

Not only that, said Nelson, it has embraced its members rather than treating them as "embarrassing relatives".

Political isolation

The simple fact that so few people belong to political parties has increased the sense of political isolation.

In 1950, one in five Britons was a member of a political party. Nowadays, that figure is just 1%.

For the Conservatives, the sharpest decline in membership occurred in the mid-1960s, while for Labour it came at the end of the 1970s.

But Labour has seen a 40% decline in membership since 1997, when Tony Blair took office.

Tory membership has almost halved since David Cameron became leader in 2005.

Membership of UK political parties:

Labour: 190,000

Conservatives: 149,800

SNP: 93,000

Lib Dems: 44,000

UKIP: 42,000

Green Party: 35,500

(Estimates, January 2015)

Nor do the parties any longer have a monopoly on political activism, following the rise of pressure groups like the TaxPayers' Alliance, the Countryside Alliance, the Occupy movement and UK Uncut.

For those determined to change the world, or their local communities, there are options other than electoral politics.

Besides, the internet has also created new forms of empowerment and democratisation.

Thanks largely to the web, never before has the planet been so interconnected.

But the evidence from around the democratic world, from turnout at elections to political participation in between, suggests that rarely before in the age of universal suffrage have politicians seemed so disconnected.