why post-modern nation states do not need mass support

In Downsizing Democracy,* Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg suggest that 19th and 20th century nations needed mass support in order to field huge armies and float national debts. But postmodern nations need neither mass conscription in wartime nor huge numbers of their own citizens to buy bonds. Their governments really do not need mass support, and that is why turnout has fallen and the influence of wealthy donors has risen in countries like the United States. (One could also observe the apparent success of non-democratic countries like China.)

To buy this theory, you need not presume that “elites” are aware of any of the above and have deliberately orchestrated mass participation and then demobilization. A roughly Darwinian account–survival of the fittest–would explain the trends instead. (This is my conjecture, not directly out of Crenson and Ginsberg.)

Go back to 1600, and you will observe nation states in Europe and other parts of the world that are run by monarchs and aristocratic castes. A king must borrow money to hire professional soldiers to protect himself and conquer others. The ones who cannot borrow are at risk. King Philip II of Spain, for example–although he inherited the greatest empire of the age–went bankrupt in 1557, 1560, 1576, and 1596. It is not coincidental that both the Netherlands and England flourished at Spain’s expense during his reign.

The Dutch invented an alternative. They borrowed money from their own people to field a highly professional, permanent army and navy. Their people were willing to buy government bonds because their government was republican, hence accountable to the citizen-lenders. The Dutch economy, empire, and influence grew, only to be checked by England when it had adopted the same mechanisms–parliamentary government and a national debt. England became republican in the mid-1600s and then a constitutional monarchy in the 1700s not because its leaders saw that mass support would give them an edge in war, but for complex internal reasons. Regardless of the reasons, this change rendered them “fitter” than their competitors, and soon Britannia ruled the waves. The Glorious Revolution was like a random mutation that conferred evolutionary advantage on its organism.

The United States adopted the Anglo-Dutch model as we rose to global power. In 1900, 73 percent of American men voted (even though a significant number were effectively blocked by racial discrimination). The popular democracies had dangerous rivals in the form of dictatorships, which used a combination of authentic mass support and terror to mobilize their people. But the democracies prevailed in 1945 and 1989–voting seemed to work better than terror.

Since then, the world’s most powerful militaries have renounced conscription because they are deadlier using highly trained professionals and expensive technology. Governments no longer need large numbers of their own people to buy bonds, because they can borrow from institutions and millionaires around the world. Mass support no longer gives countries a Darwinian edge, and neither the European nor the North American democracies can really claim mass support any more.

That is a sobering thought if you favor popular democracy.

*Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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