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Beliefs in Government$

Max Kaase and Kenneth Newton

Print publication date: 1998

Print ISBN-13: 9780198294726

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198294727.001.0001

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(p.173) Appendix: Project Proposal for Decision by the General Assembly of the European Science Foundation on 2 November 1988

(p.173) Appendix: Project Proposal for Decision by the General Assembly of the European Science Foundation on 2 November 1988

Beliefs in Government
Oxford University Press


In May 1987 the ESF Standing Committee for the Social Sciences sponsored a Conference on Political Science Research in Europe which was held at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. The conference was chaired by Professor Jean Blondel in his capacity as chairman of the Government and Law Committee of the UK Economic and Social Research Council and was attended by representatives from 15 ESF member countries. The purpose of the conference was to discuss research priorities in political science with a view to possible collaborative efforts and the strengthening of links between research councils and academic researchers. From the perspective of the European Science Foundation, a particular concern was to identify research work on particular topics that could benefit greatly from being studied at the European level. The research topic of ‘Beliefs in Government’ was prominent among the recommendations arising from the conference concerning topics that held strong potential for fruitful research collaboration. It was felt that a substantial number of academics were undertaking research on this topic in individual countries using electoral survey and public opinion data. There was a strong case for linking leading scholars in this field to reinterpret their data and research findings, and to assess the compatibility of the nationally collected data for comparative analysis at the European level.

As a result of its discussion of the conference recommendations the Standing Committee for the Social Sciences agreed to hold an exploratory workshop on ‘Beliefs in Government’ as an early activity of its new programme for its third mandate (1988–92). Professor Max Kaase (University of Mannheim, FRG) and Professor Kenneth Newton (University of Essex, UK) were invited to consult widely and to prepare a proposal for a scientific programme which would focus on the secondary analysis of existing data. The present proposal has emerged from these consultations which included a final workshop held at the ESF in late September 1988. The research programme was planned to commence from January 1989.

Summary of Some European Trends in Public Attitudes to Government

There is growing evidence that the most fundamental beliefs about the proper role and scope of government in the democratic nation states of Western Europe are changing, and that these changes may, in their turn, have a (p.174) profound effect on the future shape of government. The nature and pace of these changes is still not well understood because systematically comparative data bases of a longitudinal nature, with one major exception discussed below, are largely lacking. Some of the most important developments in public opinion about the role of government in democratic societies which have emerged from the research literature may be summarized as follows:

There is a clear trend towards the strengthening of feeling among the public that citizens can have, if they desire so, an impact on the political process and on political outcomes. This increased sense of personal political efficacy is strongly related to the desire to have a larger say in political matters, beyond the act of voting itself. The inclination to get involved in acts of non‐institutionalized political participation (such as demonstrations and new political groups campaigning on specific issues) is visible in all liberal democracies.

Although there are differences between countries, there is good reason to believe that through processes of social and technological change, as well as through increasing education and the penetration of mass media communications into all sectors of post‐industrial societies, the traditional linkages between individuals as members of socio‐political interest groups and political parties have been weakened. It is unclear whether this process of dealignment will result in re‐alignment between (new) social cleavages and (new) political parties, or will create instead large parts of the electorate which have no firm ties to any specific political party.

One major new cleavage might be the idea of postmaterialism, combining a heightened sense of personal efficacy and desire for increased opportunities for political participation with a distinct change in priorities. In particular, there might be a change in emphasis from issues of personal economic well‐being to issues of a global societal nature—in the realms of war and peace, of control of new technological developments, of responsibility of present to future generations regarding the environment.

With respect to the role of government these changes in mass orientations are perplexing and paradoxical because they seem at one and the same time to imply expectations of a reduced role and of increased responsibilities of democratic governments.

At present there exists one data base starting in 1974, which permits empirical comparative and longitudinal analysis, at least, of some of the above claims: the Eurobarometer survey studies carried out twice every year in each of the EEC countries on behalf of the European Commission. In the following paragraphs some of the most interesting results of the Eurobarometer surveys pertinent to the overall research question of the future role of democratic government will be briefly discussed. It has to be kept in mind that, for many of the trend variables, the European average is not very informative, because the individual member states differ with respect to the values of the (p.175) variables and/or their development within the time span covered by the Eurobarometer surveys.

With regard to overall life satisfaction (asked 1975–87), there is a negative trend in Belgium and Ireland, a slightly positive trend in Italy, Luxembourg, and Denmark and a clear positive trend in Portugal. In the other member states of the EEC this variable remained more or less stable. The overall level of satisfaction is relatively high. (On average, almost four‐fifths of European citizens are very or fairly satisfied.) Nevertheless, clear differences can be found between the individual member states, Denmark (about 95 per cent satisfied) and Greece and Italy (about two‐thirds satisfied) being the extremes.

It is well known from previous research that there exists a substantial gap between personal life satisfaction on the one hand and satisfaction with public affairs on the other hand. Eurobarometer survey results are well in line with this finding that people are more pessimistic about public than private matters. In most of the countries, satisfaction with the way democracy works is considerably lower than overall life satisfaction. Concerning the results for the individual countries (1976–87), there is a slightly negative trend in Greece and a positive trend in Italy and Denmark. In Belgium, Ireland, and the Netherlands a negative trend exists until the early 1980s and then a slightly positive trend emerges. In Portugal a clearly positive development is to be found, whereas in France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom no long‐range trend can be identified. On the European average, about half of the citizens are very or fairly satisfied with the way democracy works in their country. The lowest level of satisfaction with democracy is still to be found in Italy, and the highest in Luxembourg, Denmark, and Germany.

One of the most stable and important findings in electoral sociology is the differential assessment of one's own economic situation and the general economic situation of the nation, which is most generally evaluated as far worse than the individual situation. These questions have not been asked in the Eurobarometer series. What has been asked, however, is the perception of changes in one's own financial situation and the general economic situation.

On examining survey results from questions seeking on assessment of changes in the country's economic situation over the past twelve months, there is a clearly positive trend on the European average, starting from a low level in autumn 1982 (14 per cent a lot or a little better; 62 per cent a little or a lot worse) and steadily increasing until autumn 1986 (36 per cent a lot or a little better; 30 per cent a little or a lot worse). In autumn 1987 the figures decreased for the first time, possibly owing to the October stock market crash. The positive trend occurs more or less in all the individual member states except Denmark and Greece, where a clearly negative trend is found.

The assessment of the changes in the financial situation of individual households over the previous twelve months at the aggregate level (in the same years, 1982–7) follows a similar development of the previous variable in (p.176) most of the countries (the clearest exception being Denmark), but with considerably lower variations. A comparison of the two economic variables shows that the assessment of changes in the financial situation of households is not systematically higher or lower than the assessment of changes in the country's economic situation.

With respect to the basic attitude towards society (1976–87), a clear majority (between 55 and 65 per cent) of European citizens claim that the respective society must be gradually improved by reforms. Since the beginning of the 1980s, this majority has increased on the European average. A positive trend can be found in two‐thirds of the individual member states (the exceptions being France, Luxembourg, Ireland, and Portugal) but with considerable differences in strength. Greece and Italy show the clearest increase, followed by Denmark and Germany. With the exception of Germany until the beginning of the 1980s, the percentage of European citizens stating that the present society must be defended strongly against all subversive forces is considerably lower (between 25 and 33 per cent) and slightly decreasing on the European average. Concerning individual member states, however, we find a clearly increasing trend in France, and since the 1980s the figures generally have increased also in Belgium and Luxembourg. The clearest decrease is to be found in Greece, Germany, and, since the 1980s, Italy. The percentage of European citizens stating that the entire way the society is organized must be radically changed by revolutionary action has never exceeded 7–8 per cent on the European average and has decreased to 4–5 per cent in the 1980s. Starting from the highest level, the clearest decrease can be found in France and Italy. In all other member states, except Spain, the percentages slightly decreased or remained stable.

Finally, turning to one of the questions asked only once (in the autumn of 1985), we find a relative low level of overall trust in government. Only between 5 and 8 per cent of organized citizens in France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and Spain answered that they ‘almost always’ trust the government to do what is right, whereas between one‐fifth and one‐fourth answered ‘almost never’.

At first sight, these survey results are puzzling if not actually paradoxical. A second look at the figures suggests an interpretation and possible explanation for these findings which, though tentative and approximate, may have considerable implications and ramifications for the shape and content of public affairs. It seems that Europeans understand their economic predicament, and have lowered their expectations and are looking for more satisfaction than before outside economic and occupational rewards. Although they are reasonably satisfied with the way democracy works and place some faith in their own political efficacy, their belief in the responsiveness of governments and in the capability of governments to improve general economic trends is extremely (p.177) limited. Unemployment, for example, is seen as a major problem, but the growing feeling is that governments can do rather little to control it.

These trends are not uniform across all nations or social groups, of course, but a general picture does seem to emerge from the survey results. Europeans seem to have accommodated to change by expecting and demanding less from both the economy and government. The result may be a degree of disengagement from politics, and an emerging privatized political style. This, perhaps, helps to explain why growing economic difficulties in many nations have not resulted in growing demands for political change, but rather in an increased electoral volatility which accepts and works within the existing political system, and its main political parties.

The Proposed Scientific Programme

The purpose of the programme is, first, to identify the nature and extent of shifts in mass opinion about the proper role and scope of government in Western Europe over the past one or two decades; secondly, to disentangle national patterns from general trends and, within as well as between nations, to look for similarities and differences in the orientations of social‐structural, ideological, and other subgroups of the population; and thirdly, on this basis to understand and explain the shifts in an attempt to try to foresee the likely course of future patterns and trends. To do so on a cross‐national comparative basis is to go a long way towards an assessment of the likely constraints which public opinion will place upon the future options of contemporary Western governments.

The scientific programme will not spend any time or money on generating new survey data. This is because the main emphasis is on studying changes over time and therefore looking at developments extending from the past into the present. In the second place, rich seams of survey data on the topic exist already and the intention is to exploit these data fully by re‐analysing them. Thirdly, we intend to give these data another life by systematically placing national surveys in cross‐national context. Some of the survey material is already in the form of comparative cross‐national surveys, including especially the Eurobarometer surveys already mentioned, which also have the advantage of permitting some time‐series analyses. In spite of all their pitfalls, they are an invaluable source of longitudinal cross‐national analysis, and they have the added advantage of having been processed and documented by the Belgian Academic Survey Data Archive (BASS). In addition, there are also other international studies (e.g. the Political Action project, the European Values Study, and the International Social Survey Programme) which are valuable but more limited in their longitudinal depth. Clearly, most work is national and cross‐sectional in nature, but comparable work on the same key topics has been done in most countries, including surveys of mass attitudes (p.178) towards expenditure cuts, economic privatization, faith in government, and satisfaction with economic trends and performance. Some of these surveys have been carried out as part of national opinion surveys, some as part of more specialized, and often more local, surveys of political opinions.

Although each nation has its own group of experts on survey material of this kind, there is at present no linkage on a European scale adequate to develop cross‐national analysis. The time is ripe to bring European scholars together, so that they can move on to the next and all‐important stage of systematic comparative work. A subsidiary aim of the programme, therefore, is to create long overdue research linkages between European scholars in survey research which could then stimulate further work of a national kind and more comparative research as well. Another benefit should be the refining and sharpening of survey instruments which will improve the quality of future work and act as a foundation for another decade of time‐series studies. In particular, the Eurobarometer survey, already mentioned as being so useful, might be refined and improved.

It is important that the work should not only be of a cross‐national comparative nature, but also inter‐disciplinary. This term is used in preference to multi‐disciplinary' because the latter often means little more than placing the work of different disciplinary experts side by side, whereas the former calls for a concerted effort to integrate the approaches of different disciplines. The programme is intended to be both cross‐national and inter‐disciplinary, covering all the major democratic nation states of Europe, and the different academic disciplines which could bring something to the subject, including political science, sociology, history and psychology.

Research Plan

Exploratory Workshop

This workshop was held at the European Science Foundation on 29 September–1 October 1988 and was attended by leading social scientists with research expertise in this field. A draft of this document was circulated beforehand to the workshop participants. Participants were asked to bring with them a short account of the work carried out in their own country and information on existing relevant material and data sets, plus a brief summary of their own work and interests in the field. In addition, a first appraisal of the amount of comparative longitudinal data available on the topic in the Eurobarometer studies and in other sources was also presented at the workshop. Workshop discussions produced agreement on the proposed framework for the scientific programme and the subgroup research topics for detailed study (see below).

(p.179) The Programme of Research: 1989–93

The programme will focus upon the work of four linked subgroups which will examine the following key aspects of the general topic:

Attitudes Towards Democratic Politics. Democracy is a political order which is based and thrives upon the free consent of the governed; in this regard it is a unique type of political system. Beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy on these grounds are a central element of citizen attitudes towards politics and society. Strangely enough, despite the practical and conceptual importance of this, empirical research has only more recently addressed it. Two general research findings are of great importance for the proposed programme. First, it has been found both useful and empirically tenable to differentiate between various objects (government authorities, political communities) and types of attitudes (specific and diffuse support as well as combinations of the two). These findings, however, are mainly drawn from analysis of a handful of countries (in particular, the United States and West Germany) and need to be broadened across as many democratic polities as possible. Secondly, we are now quite certain that the crisis of legitimacy claimed on theoretical grounds to have occurred in Western democracies in the late 1960s and early 1970s did not happen. An essential research question for this programme is whether there are more recent developments which may make the crisis of legitimacy take place in the 1990s.

Earlier in the proposal reference was made to a number of perplexing and sometimes contradictory developments in citizen attitudes towards politics. One strand of research findings points to a ‘participatory revolution’, which sees rising citizen demands for more say in political matters reflected in increased levels of uninstitutionalized political participation (i.e. activities such as political demonstrations or new social movements, for example the ecological movement). Growing pressure arising from such participatory activities is seen by many as a serious challenge to contemporary institutions of social and political mediation such as political parties and interest groups. These developments coincide with deep‐rooted changes in the social structure related to higher educational attainment, the emergence of modern technologies and their impact upon the economy and mass communications, and the internationalization of the modern world through communication (to name but a few). With respect to political parties, the research question challenging political scientists is to what extent these changes alienate or disentangle citizens from historically established ties with parties (de‐alignment), and whether these changes may eventually produce firm links between newly established groups and old or newly founded parties (re‐alignment), or leave citizens increasingly uprooted in political matters (high political volatility).

These developments may well be aggravated by two additional trends documentated in the political science literature. On the one hand, citizens (p.180) feel more politically competent, demand more of politics, and are more inclined to engage in politics. On the other hand, popular beliefs in the ability and willingness of political authorities to react properly to political demands from citizens seem to be on the wane. Obviously, such developments hold the potential of combining in an explosive mixture challenging the existing boundaries of the democratic state.

It is against this background that sub‐group I will set out to study empirically with available data from the broadest possible range of democratic nations whether the above‐described claims and trends are valid, and how common they are across nations. Answers to these questions will mark a major advance on the present state of research. From the outset, the work of this subgroup will have to be channelled regularly into the work of the three other subgroups because it is absolutely central to their own research concerns and that of the programme as a whole.

The Internationalization Of Government. One feature of the shift in attitudes which seems to be revealed by the Eurobarometer surveys is the fact that the public wishes a contraction of national government activity at precisely the same time that international government agencies are rapidly expanding their spheres of activity and authority. The European Community (EC) is most notable in this regard, so far as Western Europe is concerned, but the list includes NATO, GATT, the European Court of Human Rights, the IMF, OPEC, and the World Bank. How do these opposite and contradictory trends—that is, a wish to contract national government activity, but an apparent acceptance of a growth of international government activity—fit together? Particularly relevant here is an answer to the question of how public attitudes towards national governments as centres of legitimacy orientation square with the increasing international diffusion of political responsibility.

In spite of the emergence of increasingly powerful international institutions of government (or perhaps because of them), modern societies are also developing more local political units. For example, almost every Western European state is currently creating or strengthening a regional level of government, and many are experimenting with community government as well. Indeed, the EC often seems to prefer to bypass national governments and deal directly with subnational ones, thereby strengthening them in some respects. This simultaneous development of both international and local forms of government is part of a modern trend towards multi‐layered government the world over, but it is especially strong and advanced in Western Europe, and particularly worthy of research attention.

As 1992 approaches, attitudes towards the EC will once again become highly important. As an ideological issue, the EC has cut across many existing national political alignments, and the important question concerns whether the impact of major steps towards further European integration will encourage a tendency for political attitudes to continue to realign around pro‐ and anti‐market, (p.181) nationalist, and internationalist forces. Will this further weaken traditional ideological coalitions, and encourage building a sort of transnational consciousness which is unique in the modern world? This in turn prompts questions about what sorts of people most actively oppose and promote the new EEC ideal. How important is the whole matter on the agendas of national political groups? The research subgroup will monitor these trends, and will try to understand how they fit with the attitude changes being studied by other subgroups in the research programme.

The Scope Of Government. The proper boundaries of the political have always been subject to change, negotiation, and redefinition, and have often been the subject of fierce political battles. For the past one hundred and fifty years, however, the boundaries have generally expanded in Western societies as the state has taken on more responsibilities and sought to regulate or control more areas of social and economic life. Now, however, the tide of public opinion seems to be flowing in the opposite direction, with greater public support for ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’, for reducing public spending, and for state disengagement.

Public opinion has not simply reversed itself, however. Rather, it has shifted its weight so that the balance of opinion now seems to be generally in favour of cutting back on public activity and spending in some areas of life, but continuing to support state involvement in others. In other words, it is not true that public opinion is now contractionist where it was once expansionist, but rather it is more contractionist than it was, while maintaining its expansionist attitudes about some issues and policy areas. Moreover, these shifts in attitudes seem to be more emphatic in some countries or regions than in others. Equally, within each nation some social groups seem to show the new trends and patterns more strongly than others, while some adhere fairly faithfully to the old beliefs.

There are relatively few cross‐national comparative surveys, and the various national surveys have not yet been put together. Available material suggests that public opinion in most Western nations does not favour public expenditure cuts as a general principle, but rather picks and chooses among different services, favouring the protection of some, the cutting of others, and showing a degree of ambivalence about a third category. Nor does a tendency to favour something like private pension schemes necessarily mean unfavourable attitudes towards state schemes, but rather a willingness to let both co‐exist side by side. Although the embattled parties of government and opposition try to present public opinion in simple, for‐or‐against terms, the real state of public opinion appears to be more complicated and more subtle than this.

The issue of cutting public expenditure is rather different from those of economic privatization and deregulation because subjects such as welfare, health, and education are ideologically and historically endowed with symbolic importance, and yet they are also matters in which many members of the (p.182) public have an immediate and direct interest and experience. This raises the question of how attitudes on the two sets of issues relate to each other and, on the other side of the coin, what attitudes different social and economic groups take towards the two sets of issues.

For most people, however, these issues are remote, complex, and technical, and their impact is often uncertain. How do these people form their attitudes? Do they take their cues from general ideological orientations (socialist, liberal, conservative) or from the political parties? Since the issues are so technical and uncertain, and lack salience for a large proportion of the public, how much room for manœuvre does a government have to influence opinion, and is such influence, if any, long‐lasting or superficial? Do individuals who form a clear and strong opinion on an issue which directly affects them generalize this opinion to other issues which are remote? Do they distinguish between different sorts of privatization and deregulation? For example, do they make one sort of judgement about pension schemes, but treat banking or broadcasting as quite different matters? And do they qualify their approval of the changes in such a way that they might change their opinions if things do not work out as expected, or do they regard them as permanent and irreversible features of public policy?

The main task of this subgroup within the programme will be to fit the new contractionist trend in public opinion into a broad gauge historical picture to get a better idea of what is new and different about the 1980s. It will also compare and contrast the trends and movement in public opinion in different nations, and try to uncover the causal dynamics which lie behind them. Lastly, it will also seek to understand how and why different social groups vary in their expansionist and contractionist attitudes and in what sorts of areas the contrasts and similarities are most marked.

The Impact Of Values One of the most stimulating and controversial debates in political science over the last two decades is the claim made by Ronald Inglehart and other scholars that Western advanced industrial societies are characterized by trends involving substantial changes in socio‐political values with increased emphasis on non‐material and decreased emphasis on material values and issues. Previous studies of these changes have identified the most important value dimensions as: authoritarian–liberal; religious–secular; and materialist–postmaterialist. The Eurobarometer data have contained information since their beginning on the materialist–postmaterialist dimension and seem more or less to support the Inglehart claim. As more analytically and empirically refined analyses from national surveys accumulate, it becomes apparent that the emergence of the ‘new politics’, as it was once called in the mid‐1970s, may have a substantial, if not overwhelming, impact on the future conduct of political affairs in Western democracies.

The subgroup concerned with this topic will primarily address the question whether changes in the above value dimensions are resulting in new cleavages (p.183) and a systematic linkage between social groups and new political parties, or whether it will be accommodated within the given party systems. For instance, the emergence of Green parties has not followed identical paths in the various democracies under scrutiny, but the strength of the linkages between parts of the postmaterialist generation and Green parties makes such a re‐alignment a likely outcome.

This is also interesting because research shows a two‐fold distinction based on the conventional left–right political dimension, and the materialist–postmaterialist dimension. The second tends to cut across the first so as to challenge the social‐democratic and socialist parties. Consequently, they will either come under pressure to re‐align themselves around emerging ideological groups or suffer loss of support and perhaps a tendency to splinter.

This topic is important not only because of eventual changes in Western party systems. It is known that left postmaterialists are also carriers of decisively pro‐participatory political attitudes, up to the point of civil disobedience, and of challenges to the legitimacy of present‐day democratic regimes. It is, therefore, particularly important for this subgroup to bring together as much empirical evidence from national studies as possible in order to test the generality of the above‐claimed developments.

Other Aspects Of the Programme. Over and above these subgroups, the Steering Committee for the programme would be concerned with pulling together the various international surveys; for although these are often limited treatments of the subject, they also serve as a most useful framework on which the more subtle, penetrating, and detailed national studies can be made. These two types of data sets can be used to complement each other. In each case a major task of the subgroups will be to identify and explain national variations in opinion, and within each nation to identify and explain variations among different social and economic groupings. The programme is sensitive to the great importance of these national and social variations, and wishes to treat nations as a natural laboratory for research.

While the scientific programme will essentially adopt a European focus it is hoped that its findings will address wider questions. Of the approximately 170 nation states existing in the world, only between 25 and 30 are liberal democracies. The research will seek to improve our understanding of the conditions under which democratic governments can survive, and what the emerging status of public opinion towards this type of government is, and how it changes over time.

In addition, the research should produce substantial methodological pay‐offs from a unique kind of cross‐national work that for the first time will make a systematic effort to utilize existing national and cross‐national data sources. The research would also seek to make recommendations on the future design of survey questionnaires to ensure compatibility between questionnaires and (p.184) continuity in terms of questions and topics and hence strengthen the basis for longitudinal research.

Organizational Structure. The programme envisages the involvement of a maximum of thirty‐five scholars in the research who would be organized into the four linked sub‐topic groups mentioned above. A Steering Committee would be established comprising the programme directors (Professor M. Kaase and Professor K. Newton) and the group leader from each of the four sub‐topic groups. A research co‐ordinator would be appointed on a part‐time basis to work in liaison with the programme directors. It is planned that the research co‐ordinator will be based in an academic institution that houses a major data archive, as his/her important task will be to compile and prepare necessary data sets and make these available to the working groups.

Each subgroup would hold two working sessions per year and all the programme participants would meet three times over the five‐year period (1989, 1991, and 1993) at a scientific conference to integrate the results of the subgroups' work within the objectives of the research programme as a whole. Throughout the programme, particular attention would be given to involve young post‐doctoral scholars (and pre‐doctoral where merited) in the work of the subgroups where their research interests were identified.