Knowledge about Democratic Silence: Political Science and the Rise of Electoral Abstention in Postwar Switzerland (1945–1989)

In recent decades, a diagnosis of democratic crisis or even of a post-democratic condition has emerged in public debate in many Western states. The rise of electoral abstention, particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, often serves as statistical evidence for this assessment.1 Yet what exactly can abstention tell us about the state of democracy? My current research project proposes to historicize abstention, not as a political phenomenon per se but rather as an object of contention leading to multiple interpretations and practices in the political sphere. To that aim, I inquire how political actors—politicians and officials, but also journalists and political scientists—have handled abstention through the postwar decades in France, West Germany, and Switzerland. Knowledge played a significant role in the ways abstention was framed in public debate. It was accompanied by the development of various forms of expertise on the topic, ranging from emerging political science to electoral surveys.2 Public discourse on abstention became a matter for experts, journalists, and established politicians—none of whom were prone to abstaining from voting themselves.

Their interpretations of abstention may therefore have said less about this complex phenomenon than about their own take on it and, by extension, the postwar understandings of democracy circulating among Western European elites. This piece presents initial results about how the rise of abstention was discussed in Switzerland throughout the postwar decades. The public and intellectual space of postwar Switzerland is instructive for understanding the interplay between debates specific to a particular polity, on the one hand, and the ideas and research methods on democracy that were circulating transnationally, on the other. The former entailed above all culturalist discourses constructing an exceptional Swiss democracy, from which women were excluded until 1971. The latter became manifest in the work of the first generation of Swiss political scientists, who drew largely on the research of their Anglo-American, German, and French colleagues.3 Looking at social-scientific studies and media pieces that discussed abstention, I ask when and how it becomes an issue for political scientists and intellectuals. I then look for recurring and diverging interpretative frames.

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In the first postwar years, a series of official statistical studies on abstention were conducted, which focused on the phenomenon’s prevalence among specific statistical categories, mostly young, working-class, urban voters.4 The statisticians explained abstention as “laziness” or “disinterest,” and hence as a moral failure to fulfill one’s duties as a Swiss man along the lines of the “citizen-soldier” model.5 For statisticians, but also for intellectuals, the increase in abstention (from about 20 percent in the 1920s to more than 30 percent in the 1950s) appeared to threaten Swiss democracy in the long run. This early construction of abstention as a danger to democracy differed from neutral or even positive framings circulating in international political science, which depicted such behavior as a normal or sound form of “apathy”after the mass mobilizations of the interwar and war years.6

Starting in the 1950s, Swiss political scientists drew on international abstention scholarship to link the relatively high levels of abstention in Switzerland to the country’s many electoral and direct-democratic votes.7 At the same time, they continued to interpret abstention as a shortcoming, this time of society as a whole. Their holistic models of “participation” linked the decline in voting to the weakening of “social integration” as a consequence of suburbanization and internal migration.8 This explanation coincided with a transnational trend to diagnose a “decline in community,” but it also resonated with widespread nostalgia for intimate, unmediated “town politics” among Swiss political elites at the time.9

The late introduction of women’s suffrage in 1971 doubled the electorate and further disturbed this ideal of a small-scale democracy. As in other countries, Swiss politicians, intellectuals, and political scientists feared a further rise in abstention rates would follow women’s enfranchisement because they assumed women were neither interested in politics nor well informed. Because women’s enfranchisement was supposed to rejuvenate Swiss democracy, measuring abstention became highly politicized in the run-up to the first elections open to women. The advent of women’s enfranchisement in Switzerland coincided with the growing importance of electoral statistics and surveys, which themselves became subject to public dispute. The suffrage movement successfully opposed the introduction of gender-based electoral statistics based on color-coded ballots, denouncing the proposal as a continuation of gender discrimination in voting practices. Thus, pundits were left to speculate on female abstention by comparing abstention rates of 1971 with those of the previous election. Abstention had indeed risen (43.1 percent instead of 34.3 percent), yet the lack of gender-based statistics prevented pundits from attributing the increase to women. In any case, male turnout had been declining long before women obtained suffrage.10

Fears over female abstention were not just about women’s political behavior but mirrored widespread concern over an apparent state of “democratic unease” among male citizens, a phrase that circulated among Swiss intellectuals, journalists, and politicians throughout the 1960s.11 Abstention, steadily on the rise and higher than in other European democracies, was now described as a clear “symptom” of a “sick” Swiss democracy.12 No longer merely an individual shortcoming, abstention had become a social problem that had to be addressed, namely, with the introduction of explanatory brochures before elections and referenda or by broadening absentee voting possibilities throughout the 1970s.

The framing of voter abstention shifted still further as new participation practices challenged conventional politics. Abstention could not merely result from disinterest or poor information when simultaneously opposition parties and nonparliamentary forms of participation in the 1968 movements —such as demonstrations and sit-ins—were gaining momentum. Political scientists and pundits now took the possibility of a protest-driven abstention seriously and added statements in this vein to their surveys for people to agree or disagree with: “Those at the top do whatever they want.” “Very few people decide in politics.”13 The circulation of such statements made tangible feelings of discontent with politicians. It revealed a tension between representatives and represented that was normally brushed aside by the usual mythologization of direct democracy. Abstention itself revealed the constructed and changing character of the usually reified concepts of “people” and “people’s will” that referenda were supposed to manifest14

These cognitive dissonances might explain why the public debate on abstention continued into the 1970s. Not only did prominent politicians publically declare the rise of abstention to be a “crisis of government,” as the Bundesrat (Federal Councilor) Willy Ritschard did in a 1975 television broadcast, but ordinary citizens now asserted their own voice on the matter. They reacted in the media or with letters to the authorities and proposed their own takes on abstention, often blaming “the Messieurs,” that is, the predominantly male politicians themselves.15 At the turn of the 1980s, 50 percent abstention rates became the “new normal,” and a new generation of social movements, particularly the autonomous youth movement, further contested institutional politics. Following a turn in international participation research, Swiss political scientists now extended their conceptualization of political participation beyond voting to include nonelectoral forms of participation. They also incorporated nonvoting as a form of what Albert O. Hirschman termed “exit.”16

From a mere display of laziness to a legitimate form of political participation and protest, knowledge about nonvoting, through the transnational circulation of research methods and approaches, played a central role in shaping public debate on abstention in postwar Switzerland. The early problematization of abstention in Switzerland thereby shows how its own version of a postwar “constrained democracy,”17 centered on male civic and military participation, was heavily challenged by the arrival of Swiss women on the political market and the new social movements of 1968.

This untitled cartoon by André Paul accompanied an article entitled “Les apatrides de l’isoloir” (the homeless of the voting booth) in a popular francophone Swiss weekly before the 1983 federal elections. The article discusses a study by Swiss political scientists Hanspeter Kriesi and Gilbert Ganguillet, who pointed to many disfunctioninal aspects of Swiss political parties that were responsible for the rise of nonvoting, “homeless citizens” (Contrary to this somber diagnosis of Swiss politics, the cartoon mocks both a pompous male politician and a bored, uninterested, stereotypical, male “citizen” wearing a cap bearing the cross of the Swiss flag. Sources: L’Hebdo, October 13, 1983, 12 (image), and Gilbert Ganguillet and Hanspeter Kriesi “Der heimatlose Bürger im Leistungsstaat,” Annuaire suisse de science politique / Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Politische Wissenschaft 23 (1983): 141–60 (“homeless citizens”).

Zoé Kergomard is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Paris. Her Twitter handle is @zokergomard

  1. A central reference in this regard is Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Malden, MA: Polity, 2004). Viewed from this perspective, the act of voluntarily abstaining from voting is usually distinguished from nonvoting due to nonregistration. This phenomena does not exist in countries such as Switzerland or Germany, where registration happens automatically when declaring a new residence. ↩︎
  2. Philippe Riutort, Sociologie de la communication politique (Paris: Editions La Découverte2007); Anja Kruke, Demoskopie in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Meinungsforschung, Parteien und Medien, 1949–1990, 2nd ed. (Düsseldorf, Droste, 2012). ↩︎
  3. Philippe Gottraux, Pierre-Antoine Schorderet, and Bernard Voutat, La science politique suisse à l’épreuve de son histoire: genèse, émergence et institutionnalisation d’une discipline scientifique (Lausanne: Réalités sociales, 2000). ↩︎
  4. Die Nationalratswahlen 1943 im Kanton Zürich, ed. Statistisches Amt des Kantons Zürich (Zurich, 1944). ↩︎
  5. Regula Ludi, ‟Gendering Citizenship and the State in Switzerland after 1945,‟ in Nation and Gender in Contemporary Europe, ed. Vera Tolz and Stephenie Booth (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005), 53–79. ↩︎
  6. Paul Felix Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet, The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign (New York: Duelle, Sloan and Pearce, 1944). ↩︎
  7. Roger Girod, ‟Facteurs de l’abstentionnisme en Suisse,” Revue française de science politique 3, no. 2 (1953): 349–76. ↩︎
  8. Jürg Steiner, ‟Einige Hypothesen zur Stimmbeteiligung,” Jahrbuch der Schweizerischen Vereinigung für politische Wissenschaft 3 (1963): 56–62. ↩︎
  9. Mario König, ‟Politik und Gesellschaft im 20. Jahrhundert. Krisen, Konflikte, Reformen,” in Eine kleine Geschichte der Schweiz: Der Bundesstaat und seine Traditionen, ed. Manfred Hettling (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998), 82–90. ↩︎
  10. See Zoé Kergomard, ‟An die Urnen, Schweizerinnen! Die Erfindung der Wählerin im eidgenössischen Wahlkampf von 1971,” in Kultur und Praxis der Wahlen: Eine Geschichte der modernen Demokratie, ed. Hedwig Richter and Hubertus Buchstein (Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2017), 237–65. ↩︎
  11. Max Imboden, Helvetisches Malaise (Zurich: NZZ Verlag, 1964). ↩︎
  12. For example : Daniel Duc, ‟La participation civique est-elle contestée?,” Erneuern und beharren: Nationales Jahrbuch der Neuen Helvetischen Gesellschaft 41 (1970): 78–92. ↩︎
  13. Testmark AG Zürich, eds., Die Frau an den Nationalratswahlen: August 1971 (Zurich, 1971). ↩︎
  14. Hervé Rayner, ‟Participationnisme d’État,” Gouvernement et action publique 2 (2016): 79–99. ↩︎
  15. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 24, 1975; Letter from Mary Charlotte Meissner to Benno Schneider, March 27, 1979, Swiss Federal Archives, Federal Chancellery, E4110B1989/3110. ↩︎
  16. Dominique Joye, ‟La mobilisation partisane est-elle en crise?,” SVPW Jahrbuch = Annuaire ASSP 86 (1986): 47–62; Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty : Responses To Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970). ↩︎
  17. Jan-Werner Müller, Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (New Haven: CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 143–71. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Zoé Kergomard, “Knowledge about Democratic Silence: Political Science and the Rise of Electoral Abstention in Postwar Switzerland (1945–1989),” History of Knowledge, June 1, 2019,