Amol Rajan: Democracy has become a joke – and it's not funny

The French are revolting. The Greeks, too. And it's about time. Both countries held elections on Sunday that were in effect referendums on the current European economic strategy, and in both countries voters turned two thumbs down. It's far from clear how soon the votes will lead to changes in actual policy, but time is clearly running out for the strategy of recovery through austerity – and that's a good thing.

The above paragraph could appear without much contention in any Western newspaper or website over the past week. In fact, it already has. It is lifted from the most recent column of Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate and economist whose thumping Keynesianism for the New York Times has been consistently vindicated over the past few years.

Alas, not this time. It has already become commonplace to suggest that recent election results across Europe reflect a considered rejection of austerity politics. That is myopic and wrong. These results manifest a mood not of anti-austerity, but anti-incumbency.

In a post for the excellent New Statesman website, Guy Lodge and Will Paxton explain this with reference to an article by American academic Larry Bartels for Juncture, the new journal for the Institute of Public Policy Research (which they edit). Bartel writes: "[Great Recession] election outcomes have provided little evidence of meaningful judgments on ideologies or policies, and a good deal of evidence suggesting that voters have simply, and even simple-mindedly, punished incumbents of every stripe for hard times." As Lodge and Paxton observe: "Rather than witnessing any shift in the underlying preferences of voters, today's electorates might be better understood as being disgruntled with governments' – of all political persuasion – failure to protect and improve their living standards, or respond to their anxieties and concerns."

Trust in the political class has never been lower. Turnout in Britain last week was 32 per cent. Independents (such as Siobhan Benita) and extreme parties (as in Greece) are therefore thriving – as are eccentric candidates. In Edinburgh, a man dressed as a penguin out-polled the Lib Dems. In Italy, a comedian called Beppe Grillo triumphed in local elections.

You might say: so what? Voters are having the last laugh, and hurrah for that. But something far more profound is going on: the erosion of parliamentary democracy itself. That modern European politics has literally become a joke is really no laughing matter.