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The Democratic Challenge: Shifting Responsibility and Electoral Volatility

Programme group Challenges to Democratic Representation

Over the past two decades, Western societies have witnessed two major transformations that have significant consequences for the role of parties in representative democracies. The first is the substantial diminishment of the role of national governments: various jurisdictions and responsibilities that once belonged to governments have been shifted to other arenas. The second transformation concerns the increased volatility of electoral support for political parties.

Parties with governing potential have lost support to populist or radical parties of the left and right, or to protest parties without an ideological profile, such as Pirate Parties and Beppe Grillo’s movement in Italy. Electoral volatility is not only indicated by the successful rise of new political parties or movements but also by the erosion of the traditional electoral basis of the existing parties. This means that voters are now more likely to switch between the mainstream parties. The electoral risks for government parties are high, while turnout is decreasing.

Whilst electoral volatility increases the need for political parties to find large and stable electoral support for their policies, the possibilities of distinguishing oneself from electoral rivals are undermined by the erosion of power of national governments resulting from trans-nationalization, decentralization or privatization. And while elected politicians thus have increasingly less influence, they are increasingly held accountable by the electorate.


Very little is known about the ways in which shifting responsibility and increasing volatility affect support for the democratic regime, its core institutions (such as governments, parliaments and political parties), and the actors in these institutions. The purpose of this research project is thus to study these relationships empirically, as well as normatively. The research programme consists of 4 PhD projects, two studies focusing on the empirical relations between on the one hand increasing volatility and shifting responsibilities and on the other hand specific and diffuse support. The two theoretical projects conduct a normative analysis of these relations, evaluating the nature of the changes that we are confronted with and the demands that are placed on political elites and citizens as a consequence.

Funding : NWO TOP Grants 

Project duration: 2014-2019

prof. dr. W. (Wouter) van der Brug

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation