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How Europeans View and Evaluate Democracy$

Mónica Ferrín and Hanspeter Kriesi

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198766902

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198766902.001.0001

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Introduction: Democracy—the European Verdict

Introduction: Democracy—the European Verdict

(p.1) 1 Introduction: Democracy—the European Verdict
How Europeans View and Evaluate Democracy

Mónica Ferrín

Hanspeter Kriesi

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the basic model of liberal democracy, which constitutes the focus of the entire study, as well as the two models going beyond this basic model—social and direct democracy. In addition, it situates our approach with respect to the rich literature on the study of democratic support, it provides an introduction to our explanatory strategy, and it provides an overview of the content of the volume. The discussion of our approach introduces the basic distinctions between views, evaluations, and legitimacy beliefs, while the presentation of the explanatory strategies first distinguishes between individual and context characteristics, and then focuses on political and economic (as opposed to cultural) characteristics of the context.

Keywords:   views of democracy, evaluations of democracy, democratic legitimacy, models of democracy, democratic support explanatory strategies, basic model, social democracy, direct democracy


In today’s globalizing world, a general and abstract idea of democracy is finding support worldwide. A subtle, cross-cultural understanding of democracy as freedom from despotic rule and as self-determination seems to prevail, an understanding that approximates to the concept of liberal democracy. Democracy—despite great differences in the details—has become a universal value. The historical record indicates that democracies are highly adaptable and can cope with whatever challenge they may face. Since the 1970s, when the third wave of democratization began to sweep across Europe and across the globe, democracy has achieved unimagined triumphs. This volume sets out to show to what extent this optimistic outlook of democracy is echoed by citizens across Europe today.

Defying this optimistic view of democracy as a success story, there is an alternative story of pessimism and fear to be told about democracy (Runciman 2013). According to this alternative story, even if the process of democratization is underway worldwide, many of the new democracies have not yet consolidated, and some countries have fallen back into their previous autocratic ways. Even the most successful democracies are currently struggling to cope with the Great Recession and its political fallout. This pessimistic story is well portrayed in a recent Economist article titled “What’s gone wrong with democracy?” (The Economist, March 1–7, 2014).

In Europe’s current economic situation, democracy is being challenged. Most conspicuously, the quality of European democracies is undermined by the fact that, as a result of globalization, European integration, economic developments, and power shifts within the political systems, the scope for action by democratically elected national governments is becoming increasingly limited. To an increasing extent, supranational agencies and other unaccountable actors such as central banks, the “Troika,” panels of experts, major enterprises, investors, and the “bond market” are calling the shots. (p.2) National European politics—which is where democratic decisions have traditionally prevailed—have become increasingly dependent on external constraints and, ostensibly, more technocratic and less democratic (Scharpf 2011; Streeck 2012). This is graphically illustrated by the travails experienced by European politicians in the management of the euro crisis. Once again, the idea of democracy is being radically challenged within the European context.

Now, what about the European citizens? Since the late 1990s we have seen the rise of populism in electoral politics as well as extensive popular mobilizations reacting against the alleged erosion of national democracies, especially in the European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis. Withdrawal from politics is another important indicator of citizens’ discontent with the way democracy functions in their countries, as is rampant political cynicism. So far, however, we know little about the real impact of the economic and political challenges on Europeans’ attitudes towards democracy. In such a critical context, how do Europeans view and evaluate democracy?

For the first time in Europe, we can rely on adequate data to answer this question. Round 6 of the European Social Survey (ESS), conducted in the fall of 2012 in most European democracies and some neighboring countries, provides us with unique data which allow us to answer many of the open questions in political support studies. Even if it is true that a multitude of publications have been dedicated to the study of democratic support, there is still much to discover, since classic indicators of political support have provided only partial information. In addition, the special moment in which the new data were collected makes them particularly relevant. At a moment when European democracies are being put under strong pressure, is democracy still a universal value for Europeans? Is liberal democracy still their ideal standard, or do they want more in terms of democracy today? What are the features of their democracies that Europeans are dis/satisfied with? And most critically, how legitimate are European democracies in the eyes of their citizens today?

What democracy? From the liberal model to more extended views of democracy

There are as many versions of democracy as there are democracies. Likewise, there are as many definitions of democracy as there are individuals. We attempt to take this variety into account by conceiving of democracy as a multidimensional concept. Contrary to the general trend in political support studies, which is to distinguish only between “democrats” and “non-democrats” or to investigate whether citizens embrace or reject liberal democracy in general, we aim at capturing the variety of conceptions of democracy (p.3) that exist among Europeans. To do so, we start out from a broad list of democratic attributes to cover a wide range of principles people may associate with democracy.

This list of attributes is based on three visions of democracy that we intended to operationalize in the European Social Survey (ESS Round 6) 2012: the fundamental model of liberal democracy, and two visions going beyond this model—social democracy and direct democracy. These three ideal visions are grounded in political theory and provide us with models against which to compare the citizens’ evaluations of the actual European democracies. Most of our attention will focus on the model of liberal democracy, which not only dominates political theory, but which also constitutes the dominant way in which democratic ideals have been implemented in Europe and elsewhere. A brief excursion into political theory will provide the reader with a rough idea of the multiple dimensions and principles that are at stake in the three visions of democracy that we shall be studying in this volume.

Liberal Democracy

There is widespread consensus among democratic theorists about the merits of a procedural definition of democracy. Schumpeter (1975) led the way by defining democracy as a political method, a certain type of institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions. For Schumpeter, this method boils down to a competitive struggle for the people’s vote. Many theorists followed in his footsteps, adding more elements to the core notion of electoral competition. Dahl (1971, 1989, 2000a) is perhaps the political theorist who has provided the most influential definition of procedural democracy. According to Dahl’s definition, all members of the polity are to be considered as politically equal, meaning they are all to be included in the electoral process, which must provide each of them with effective participation, equal voting rights, enlightened understanding of the issues at stake, and an equal share in the control of the public agenda.

Procedural definitions of democracy are all centered on the electoral process—the election of the political decision-makers at regular intervals. To get a better idea of the multiple elements of this process, we can think of elections as establishing a double link between the citizens and the public policies adopted by their representatives, which is provided by the combination of the “chain of responsiveness” with the “chain of accountability” (Bühlmann and Kriesi 2013). The “chain of responsiveness” links the citizens’ preferences to the results of policy-making, while the “chain of accountability” links the public policies of the representative government back to the citizens’ preferences.

The “chain of responsiveness” is made up of four different stages (Powell 2004): the formation, mobilization, aggregation, and implementation of (p.4) preferences. As has been pointed out by the deliberative theory of democracy, the citizens’ preferences are not exogenous to the democratic process, but are the result of an open-ended process in and through which people come to terms with the range of issues they need to understand in order to hold a sound and reasonable political judgment (see Held 2006: 233). This is underlined by Dahl’s (2000a: 37–8) notion of “enlightened understanding.” To the extent that not only a few, but all the citizens share an “enlightened understanding,” two of Dahl’s other criteria—effective participation and voting equality—are also likely to be fulfilled. Note that the adequate formation, mobilization, and aggregation of the citizens’ preferences presupposes competition between political parties that are capable of structuring the citizens’ preferences by providing distinctive, viable political alternatives, and that are vulnerable to the electorate’s choices (Bartolini 1999, 2000). The final step in the chain of responsiveness requires the formation of a government that is committed to and capable of implementing the policies that citizens want.

Vertical accountability refers to the obligation of the incumbent government to assume responsibility for its acts and to enable voters to respond with sanctions, if the political output does not correspond to their preferences. Accountability combines an obligation of information and justification on the part of the representatives with the possibility of control on the part of the voters, who can sanction their representatives if they do not deliver. As formulated by Schedler (1999), being accountable involves the obligation of decision-makers to answer questions regarding their decisions and/or actions, that is, it requires answerability and transparency. Answerability goes beyond the simple provision of facts and figures. It also demands explanations and justifications of actions and decisions, that is, a dialogue between account-holders and accountees. Ideally, democracy is characterized by ongoing debates between representatives and those represented—an interactive or communicative form of representation (Mansbridge 2009). The combination of responsiveness and accountability guarantees that Dahl’s fourth criterion—the exercise of final control over the agenda—is fulfilled.

The inclusiveness of elections corresponds to Dahl’s (2000a: 37–8) fifth and last constitutive criterion of the democratic process—the “inclusion of all adults.” In the early stages of democratization in Europe, large parts of the population were excluded from political rights, mainly on the basis of economic criteria. Still today, many countries that practice elections exclude one or more segment of the native population from electoral participation. In Europe, immigration poses the question of the inclusiveness of the national political community, of political equality and the universality of suffrage in a new way. In addition, the process of European integration raises the question, to what extent the national political process should take into account the rights and demands of other, democratically constituted national political communities in Europe, and possibly elsewhere. National democracy is put (p.5) into question by the idea of a multilateral democracy, or demoicracy—the joint sovereignty of several “states-peoples” (Cheneval 2011).

It is important to note that these election-centered procedural definitions also imply the existence of civil liberties and a functioning public sphere, which make up the core liberal element of liberal democracy. Even Schumpeter’s minimalist definition of democracy was not as narrowly centered on the electoral process as is commonly assumed (O’Donnell 2007: 6). Schumpeter was aware that for free competition to exist, some external conditions must be met, including civil liberties such as freedom of expression for all and freedom of the press. Dahl explicitly lists several civil liberties as necessary conditions to satisfy the criteria for the democratic process: freedom of expression, freedom of association, and access to information. Other authors posit, more or less explicitly and in detail, similar freedoms. Even if it is not theoretically possible to come up with a clearly defined inventory of freedoms that are implied by the criteria of free and fair elections, the important point is that civil liberties constitute an integral part of the democratic ideal as defined by political theory.

In addition to the democratic and liberal traditions, there is a third tradition that has contributed to the theory and practice of modern democracies—republicanism (O’Donnell 2007: 52). This tradition stresses above all the obligations of those who govern and puts the emphasis on institutional mechanisms that allow for checking whether the authorities meet their obligations—the so-called “checks and balances” or the “division of labor” allowing for horizontal accountability. Moreover, all three traditions, each in its own way, support yet another fundamental aspect of democracy and of the constitutional state that is supposed to coexist with it—the rule of law: all citizens are equally entitled to participate in the formation of collective decisions under the existing institutional framework (a democratic requirement); no one, including those who govern, should be above the law (a republican injunction); and certain freedoms and guarantees should not be infringed (a liberal guarantee). Without the rule of law, “rights are not safe and the equality and dignity of all citizens are at risk” (O’Donnell 2005: 3). In spite of their relevance for all three traditions, we shall subsequently include the rule of law and horizontal accountability together with the civil liberties under the liberal components of liberal democracy.

Moeller and Skaaning (2010: 207, 2013: 144) provide a typology of democratic regimes that summarizes this discussion of liberal democracy, even if its classification glosses over some of the details just discussed. They distinguish a hierarchy of democratic regimes which, in line with Schumpeter, treats the mere presence of electoral competition as the minimum requirement for democracies. Adding inclusion of all members of the polity and high electoral integrity makes for a “thicker” version of democracy—“electoral democracies.” Embracing both competition and inclusion, and adding civil liberties, (p.6) defines an even more demanding version of democracy—Dahl’s “polyarchy” (a relatively, but not completely, democratic regime). Liberal democracies, finally, are defined as “polyarchies” that also include the rule of law. To add the rule of law as the last element may come as something of a surprise to Western Europeans, who experienced the introduction of the rule of law before the introduction of universal suffrage. From the vantage point of the contemporary emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe (and elsewhere in the world), however, this makes sense: in these countries, equality before the law is often incomplete, although the electoral process guarantees regular free and fair elections.

Two Visions Going beyond the Basic Model of Liberal Democracy

Similar to Huber et al. (1993), we introduce two additional visions of democracy—the social democratic vision and the direct democratic vision, which go beyond the basic model of liberal democracy. First, the procedural focus of democratic theory has been criticized by those who argue that political equality cannot simply be guaranteed by the institutionalization of civil liberties and political rights. Thus, Diamond and Morlino (2005: xxvii) point to a fundamental dilemma: to enjoy political equality, citizens must have some measure of social and economic equality; however, this only comes about as a result of the very same democratic process. As a matter of fact, as Gaxie (1978: 255) and many other empirical studies of electoral behavior have argued, the social and economic conditions function as a “hidden census” (un “cens caché”) that tends to exclude certain social groups (“les femmes et les classes dangereuses”) from political rights. According to Held (2006: 275), the problems are twofold: on the one hand, the structures of civil society do not create conditions for equal votes, effective participation and deliberation, proper understanding, and equal control of the political agenda. On the other hand, the structures of the liberal democratic state do not create an organizational force which can adequately regulate “civil” power centers.

According to Held, the double problem has to be tackled by a process of double democratization: the independent transformation of both state and civil society. A bill of rights, including a broad bundle of social and economic rights, is needed. In other words, a right to equal membership of a democratic political community “would entail not only the responsibility of the state to ensure formal equality before the law, but also that citizens would have the actual capacity…to take advantage of opportunities before them” (Held 2006: 278). We call a concept of democracy that adds the notion of distributive justice (broad social and economic rights) to the concept of liberal democracy the social democratic vision of democracy. This vision is akin to T. H. Marshall’s (1963) concept of “social citizenship.” Poverty reduction and (p.7) the pursuit of social equality are considered to be part and parcel of this complementary model of democracy. The social rights introduced by the expansion of the welfare state have, of course, contributed to the reduction of political inequalities—in some countries more than in others. However, structural inequalities of the kind invoked by Held can never be entirely eradicated and therefore political decision-making can never be fully emancipated from the inequality of power resources. Accordingly, “democratic equality is a goal that can only be approximated at a considerable distance” (Rueschemeyer 2005: 59).

Our second vision of democracy pointing beyond the basic model takes its inspiration from the participatory theory of democracy (Barber 1984; Pateman 1970). More specifically it refers to one particular “democratic innovation” (Geissel and Newton 2012; Smith 2009)—direct legislation. Even if representative forms of democracy dominate today, direct democratic forms of political participation have become increasingly prominent in Europe in the recent past. Several new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe have introduced such forms of participation in their constitutions (Auer and Bützer 2001), and the European integration process has given rise to a considerable number of referenda in the nation-states (Hobolt 2006; Hug 2002).

Under contemporary conditions, direct democratic forms of participation do not replace the representative model, but they complement it by allowing groups of voters (a) to launch initiatives which put certain issues on the political agenda and require a vote by all the voters, and (b) to challenge single decisions of those who govern by referenda. The referenda may be initiated from above (the “plebiscitary version”) or from below (the “populist version”). The difference between the representative model and direct democracy is limited to the extent that direct democratic forms of participation are also likely to be mediated by political organizations and their representatives. As Budge (1996: 43) has pointed out, even the Athenian Assembly probably created something like a crude party system. The Swiss example illustrates that, under conditions of contemporary “party democracies” and with an appropriate institutional design, direct democratic procedures are guided and controlled by political parties and related political organizations.

Hierarchies and Trade-offs

Given that democracy is a multidimensional concept, it is important to recognize that there are tensions between and within the different visions, that different elements of the three visions of democracy can be institutionalized in different ways, and that existing national models of democracy may not be able to do justice to the normative ideal of democracy with respect to all dimensions at one and the same time.

(p.8) The tensions between the different visions may be settled in theory and in the citizens’ views of democracy by a hierarchical order between the visions and their respective elements—one vision imposing limits on the other. This can be illustrated by the obvious tension between the liberal and the electoral process components of liberal democracy. Thus, the majority might decide to infringe on the rights of minorities. But, as Dahl (2006a: 16) argues, “it seems obvious that the fundamental rights necessary to democracy itself cannot legitimately be infringed by majorities whose actions are justified only by the principle of political equality.” Such infringements would harm political equality, that is, the very principle which justifies majority decisions in the first place. In other words, the liberal principle limits the democratic principle to the extent that the citizens may exercise their popular sovereignty only within the constraints imposed by the civil liberties and the legal order.

With respect to the implementation of the different visions, there are trade-offs between the different elements of democracy, which we should also take into account when we ask about its meaning for the citizens. Thus, constitution makers may want to limit the liberal principles of freedom of expression and freedom of association in order to protect the democratic principles from their detractors. This has been the choice, for example, of the German “militant democracy” (wehrhafte Demokratie) implemented after World War II in the Federal Republic, which has resorted to such drastic measures as the prohibition of radical right and left parties and the prohibition to exercise as a public official (“Berufsverbot”) in order to protect the Federal Republic against its enemies. This is an example of a trade-off between the liberal principle of freedom of expression and the democratic principles of political equality and popular sovereignty.

The electoral process may also be institutionalized in different ways. Most importantly, the way the votes are aggregated, the kinds of governments that can be formed, and the sort of policies that will be possible, crucially depend on the electoral system: majoritarian systems tend to concentrate power in the hands of single parties, while proportional systems tend to lead to power-sharing between different parties (Lijphart 1999). Majoritarian systems facilitate accountability, while proportional systems are better suited to ensure responsiveness. There is, in other words, a trade-off between accountability and responsiveness (Powell 2000).

Third, and equally important, the capacity of the government to act responsively with respect to its citizens crucially depends on the set of additional stakeholders to whom it is also accountable. As a result of the European integration process, the supra- and international interlocutors of the governments of the European nation-states have become increasingly important stakeholders to whom national governments are held to be accountable. Accordingly, as Mair (2009) has convincingly argued, there is a trade-off shaping up between a government’s responsiveness to its citizens and its (p.9) accountability (responsibility) to the other, democratically elected European governments and to the European institutions at the supranational level.

Citizens’ views and evaluations of democracy: re-composing legitimacy

Previous research of the way citizens view and evaluate democracy has largely relied on the concept of political support. This book is not an exception, although—since we rely on a more precise set of indicators than have previous studies—we propose a more subtle conceptualization, focusing in particular on the concept of democratic legitimacy, or the combination between citizens’ views and evaluations of democracy.

Building on Easton (1965a, 1965b), most scholars have used the concept of political support in order to describe and explain people’s orientations to democracy (e.g., Dalton 2004; Klingemann and Fuchs 1995; Norris 1999, 2011). Easton (1975: 436) defined support as “an attitude by which a person orients himself to an object either favourably or unfavourably, positively or negatively.” Famously, he distinguished between diffuse support, which “refers to evaluations of what an object is or represents—or to the general meaning it has for a person —not of what it does” (Easton 1975: 444), and specific support, which is related to “the satisfactions that members of a system feel they obtain from the perceived outputs and performance of the political authorities” (Easton 1975: 437). According to Easton, support, be it diffuse or specific, is fundamental to ensure the stability of the different objects of the political system, namely: the political community, the political regime, and the political authorities (Easton 1965a: 177–212).

With slight adjustments, the concept of political support has been used by many scholars since Easton first introduced the term (Booth and Seligson 2009; Campbell 2011; Dalton 1999, 2004; Norris 1999, 2011 etc.), although it has been contested in different ways. The first issue concerns the relationship between objects of support (political community, regime, and authorities) and types of support (diffuse and specific). The two are confusingly intertwined (Norris 1999, 2011). Easton (1975: 445) suggested that “whereas specific support is extended only to the incumbent authorities, diffuse support is directed towards offices themselves as well as towards their individual occupants. More than that, diffuse support is support that underlies the regime as a whole and the political community.” As some scholars have argued, however, every political object might be subject to both diffuse and specific support (Dalton 2004; Montero and Torcal 2006), and a clear separation between political objects and type of support could facilitate better understanding of the concept of political support.

(p.10) Second, there is confusion in the literature between how political support is defined and how it is explained; or between “what political support is” and “what the sources of political support are.” For example, trust is defined by Easton (1975: 453) as a component of diffuse support, but at the same time it has been used as an independent variable to explain levels of support for the democratic system (e.g., Rose, Shin, and Munro 1999; Shin 2007). Third, and related to the issue just raised, there is no agreement on the relationship between the different types of support or attitudes towards democracy. Thus, critics have questioned the assumption that a person who professes to support democracy as an ideal necessarily supports the democratic regime as such or the specific democratic regime of their country (Canache 2006; Inglehart 2003). Last but not least, as a consequence of conceptual ambiguity, the operationalization of political support has proven to be very difficult (Canache et al. 2001).

In order to simplify this discussion, we propose two alternative concepts that we believe are much easier to identify empirically. We will distinguish between views and evaluations of democracy. Views of democracy refer to the citizens’ normative ideal of democracy, their ideas about what democracy should be. Evaluations of democracy, instead, refer to the citizens’ assessment of the way the democratic principles have been implemented in their own country—their evaluation of the way the different aspects of democracy work in their own country. This distinction between views and evaluations of democracy is crucially related to another key concept of the scholarly debate on democracy—legitimacy. As has been pointed out by van Ham and Thomassen (2012: 9), it is the comparison between the democratic ideals and the actual functioning of democracy that makes for a judgment about the legitimacy of a democratic regime. If norms and reality match, the regime will be considered legitimate; if reality falls short of the ideal, there will be more or less of a legitimacy deficit or a democratic deficit (a similar idea is used by Norris (2011)). Legitimacy is therefore composed of these two concepts: views—the normative yardstick against which democratic reality is evaluated, and evaluations—the assessment of the practice of democracy in one’s country (Figure 1.1).

Introduction: Democracy—the European Verdict

FIGURE 1.1 The three attitudes to democracy

(p.11) Views, evaluations, and legitimacy of democracy: new measures to answer old and new questions

High levels of support for democracy all around the world have been well documented, as they have been in Europe. According to most recent data, almost 90 percent of Europeans agree or strongly agree with the statement that “democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government” (European Values Study 2009). Paradoxically, much less is known about what citizens think democracy should be like, how they evaluate their own countries’ democratic regimes, and what their perceptions are of the legitimacy of their democratic regimes. In fact, support for democracy might have different meanings in different countries, depending on how national democracy has been institutionalized and depending on the national political legacies. It is not surprising, therefore, that the use of single general indicators to measure democratic support has been increasingly criticized.

Regarding citizens’ views of democracy, scholars have begun to question whether the general, abstract kind of support that is assessed by these general indicators effectively counts as support for democracy. On the one hand, expressed general support for democracy of the kind we find in surveys is neither equivalent to support for democratic values (Inglehart and Welzel 2005; Welzel and Klingemann 2007), nor is it equivalent to the rejection of autocratic forms of government (Ariely and Davidov 2010; Ferrín 2012). A person might well affirm that she supports democracy, and at the same time sympathize with some authoritarian form of government. On the other hand, more recent research suggests that the specific type of democracy which is supported varies a great deal from one country to another and from one citizen to another (Canache 2012a, 2012b; Carlin and Singer 2011; Chu et al. 2008; Diamond and Plattner 2008; Moreno and Welzel 2011; Schedler and Sarsfield 2007; Shin et al. 2007). Indeed, most citizens do not adopt a single theoretical model of democracy, but hold views which are compatible with several models at one and the same time.

In spite of the relevance of these more recent findings for the study of citizens’ attitudes towards democracy, literature on citizens’ views of democracy is rather scarce. In addition, given data availability constraints, these more recent findings have hardly been taken into account in the study of Europeans’ views of democracy (some exceptions are Ferrín 2012; Norris 2011; and van Deth et al. 2006). And what is more, existing studies have come up with different conclusions, depending on the type of items which have been used to measure citizens’ views of democracy—either open-ended (Bratton et al. 2005; Dalton et al. 2007a, 2007b) or closed items (Crow 2010; Welzel 2011). Neither type of item, however, has proven to be fully adequate (p.12) for measuring citizens’ views of democracy. Open-ended items, on the one hand, fail to uncover the multidimensional character of the concept of democracy, since respondents are compelled to give their first thought about what they consider democracy to be. A restricted battery of closed-ended items, on the other hand, may neglect possible dimensions of democracy respondents may have had in mind. Unintentionally, these types of measures induce respondents to hold a specific definition of democracy. In the light of these problems, we advocate a broad conception of democracy which includes a large array of attributes of democracy.

Evaluations of democracy, too, are usually captured by means of a single indicator, namely satisfaction with how democracy works in a given country (SWD). All over the world, people have been asked to express their level of satisfaction (either on a four-point scale or on an eleven-point scale) with the way democracy works in their country. In spite of its widespread use, there is no agreement on what exactly SWD measures (Canache et al. 2001), nor is there agreement on the meaning of SWD. For some scholars, low levels of satisfaction with democracy are a symptom of a regime’s lack of legitimacy (Montero and Torcal 2006), whereas others consider that dissatisfied citizens are simply the most critical citizens, who still see their democratic regimes as legitimate (Norris 1999). Given the confusion surrounding SWD, Canache et al. (2001) recommend avoiding the use of SWD as a measure of political support altogether.

Despite the negative assessment of SWD, the majority of studies still rely on the traditional indicator of satisfaction with democracy, while only a few projects have incorporated the general public as an evaluator of the different aspects of democracy (e.g., Gómez Fortes et al. 2010; Magalhães 2009; O’Donnell et al. 2004). A more precise measure of how citizens evaluate the different components of their democratic systems would certainly provide a better estimate of the citizens’ satisfaction with their democracies, and it would definitely help to better understand the contested indicator of SWD.

As for the concept of legitimacy, the omission is even greater in empirical research. Most of the time, legitimacy is conceived as a formative concept defined either by a set of evaluations of the political system (Levi, Sacks, and Tyler 2009; Weatherford 1992) or by several indicators of support for different objects of the political system—such as trust in political parties and regime performance (Booth and Seligson 2009). Still others derive legitimacy indirectly from the citizens’ attitudes to democratic values and their evaluation of democratic performance (Fuchs and Roller 1998). With a few exceptions (Norris 2011), however, there has been little effort to provide a direct measure of citizens’ democratic legitimacy beliefs, which are crucial in the study of political support.

With these limitations in mind, the authors of this volume have tried to improve on classic measurements of individual attitudes to democracy. The (p.13) module on “Europeans’ understandings and evaluations of democracy” of Round 6 of the European Social Survey (ESS) is the outcome of our efforts. The module includes up to forty-five items (a detailed description of the questionnaire design can be found in Chapter 2), which overcome the limits of previous studies in two main respects. First, the concept of democracy has been expanded to take into account different models of democracy that can be found both in political theory and in reality. Second, the module provides separate measures of the citizens’ ideal views of democracy and of their evaluations of democracy. With data from ESS Round 6 collected in fall 2012, we obtain precise information on what democracy should be like from the point of view of the citizens, a more refined assessment of the citizens’ effective evaluations of their democratic system, and—by combining these two—a direct measure of the citizens’ democratic legitimacy beliefs.

The data cover twenty-nine countries from different parts of Europe and its neighborhood. Northwestern Europe is represented by twelve countries—Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland), and the English-speaking countries (Ireland and the UK). Nine of these countries are EU member-states. Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland are closely associated with the EU. The Southern European region includes five countries—four EU member-states (Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) and neighboring Israel. The group of Central and Eastern European countries, finally, is composed of twelve countries—eight EU member-states (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia), and neighboring Albania, Kosovo, Russia, and Ukraine.

Explaining views, evaluations, and legitimacy of democracy

There is a large empirical literature explaining political support for democracy. Until now, however, most analyses have been limited to two main variables: support for the ideal of democracy, and general satisfaction with democracy. Since we can rely on precise indicators of the citizens’ views, evaluations, and legitimacy beliefs, this volume undertakes two novel tasks. First, we investigate which factors account for variation in each of the three dependent variables presented above: views, evaluations, and legitimacy beliefs. So far, the existing literature has tended to pack together the determinants of different types of attitudes to democracy. The individual chapters in this volume examine in detail which factors matter for these three types of attitudes. The second task is to assess the validity of the classic indicators of (p.14) political support—namely, support for the ideal of democracy and satisfaction with democracy.

Figure 1.2 provides a graphical representation of these two tasks and introduces the main variables and relationships we deal with in this volume. Figure 1.2 identifies the three dependent variables—views, evaluations, and the combination of these two, legitimacy beliefs—and the relationship between them. Chapters 5 and 6 are devoted to explaining Europeans’ views of democracy, while Chapter 9 analyzes the reciprocal relationship between views and evaluations, and Chapter 10 focuses on the explanation of Europeans’ evaluations of democracy. Legitimacy beliefs are explained in Chapters 11 and 12.

With regard to the independent variables, the figure distinguishes basically between two sets of factors—contextual and individual characteristics. This distinction is of major interest in our approach. We cannot study citizens’ (p.15)

Introduction: Democracy—the European Verdict

FIGURE 1.2 Explaining and assessing

attitudes about democracy independently of the country in which they live: one’s own experiences with democracy are a key source of one’s democratic attitudes. In addition, individual characteristics certainly play a role as well in determining how citizens view democracy as an ideal, how they evaluate the way democracy works in their own country, and how legitimate they consider their country’s democracy to be. The interaction between individual characteristics and contextual factors is one of the main focuses of the empirical analysis in this volume. We briefly summarize here some of the explanatory factors which will be introduced later on in more detail.

Regarding the contextual factors, the literature on democratic support has put the accent on cultural context conditions. Two competing theories of political culture have argued that factors related to political culture drive the way democracy works. On the one hand, in a revised version of modernization theory, Inglehart and Welzel (2005) have singled out value change as the driving force for democratization and effective democracy. On the other hand, in a new version of de Tocqueville’s theorizing about democracy, Putnam (1993) has argued that social capital is the driver of support for democracy: dense social networks foster interpersonal trust (social trust) and civic engagement (associational activism), which ultimately underpin democratic attitudes and the institutional performance of democracy. In our attempt to account for democratic support, we shall put less emphasis on political culture and rely much more on two other sets of factors that have played a more limited role in this literature—political and economic context conditions.

First, we would like to suggest that the quality of democracy in a given country plays a key role in accounting for what citizens think democracy should be like. On the one hand, the quality of a country’s democracy is expected to shape the citizens’ experience with democracy, which, in turn, is likely to influence the way they view democracy. Thus, Magalhães (2014) has shown that effective governments increase support for democracy in democratic countries, while they decrease support for democracy in non-democratic countries (as is illustrated by the Chinese case (Shi 2008: 209)). On the other hand, the quality of democracy has been shown to have an impact on how citizens evaluate their democracies. Wagner et al. (2009), indeed, found that quality of governance indicators for rule of law, well-functioning regulation, and low corruption enhance satisfaction with democracy more strongly than economic considerations. Anderson and Tverdova’s (2003) landmark study also showed that corruption breeds discontent: it gives rise to more negative evaluations of democratic performance and to reduced trust in civil servants. Linde’s (2012) study of democratic support (support for regime principles and satisfaction with democratic performance) in ten post-communist democracies based on the New Europe Barometer (2004) confirms for a different set of countries that perceived equal and fair treatment by authorities, and perceived (p.16) corruption among civil servants, are crucial determinants of support for democratic principles and of satisfaction with the way democracy works. Finally, Dahlberg et al.’s (2013) preliminary analysis of “dissatisfied democrats” in twenty-four countries based on the CSES (2001–06) data shows that the evaluation of government performance has the strongest overall effect on dissatisfaction with democracy, suggesting that the output side of democratic policy-making might be more important in determining democratic legitimacy than the input side of democratic politics. The effect of government performance turns out to be equally strong in established and newly emerging democracies. By contrast, perceived corruption and subjective representation have stronger effects in established democracies, suggesting that “there are greater expectations in terms of performance, both on the input as well as on the output side of the democratic system in older more established democracies” (Dahlberg et al. 2013: 21).

The literature on institutional learning similarly points to the importance of the citizens’ own experience with democracy. Thus, the participatory theory of democracy has long insisted on the mechanism of institutional learning by claiming that participation in democratic procedures has an educational effect (Barber 1984; Pateman 1970): participation in democratic procedures makes for good citizens. This claim has been confirmed by a recent experimental study by Esaiasson et al. (2012). Studies of the communist legacy in post-communist countries also show the powerful effect of the length and intensity of regime exposure as well as of possible resistance factors against regime exposure on the adoption of democratic attitudes (e.g., Pop-Eleches and Tucker 2013; Rohrschneider 1996). Referring to citizens’ evaluations of democracy, Lijphart (1999: 286f.) famously suggested, and several subsequent studies (e.g., Bernauer and Vatter 2012) sought to substantiate his suggestion, that citizens in consensus democracies are significantly more satisfied with democratic performance in their countries than citizens in majoritarian democracies.

Second, the state of the economy is another key contextual factor, especially in the shadow of the current economic crisis. The importance of the state of the economy for democratic support is illustrated by Americans’ trust in the federal government (e.g., Dalton 2004: 26; Norris 2011: 65). After a steep decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s, trust in the US government followed trendless ups and downs between the late 1970s and the late 2000s. In Stimson’s (2004: 154) interpretation, the Americans’ trust in the federal government is part of a “generic approval and trust, a spirit that moves up and down over time and seems to respond to generalized satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the state of things.” As Stimson shows, the fluctuations of this generic approval and trust are broadly moved by economic performance, even if there are some additional influences as well, as is illustrated by the impact of a crisis like 9/11, when Americans “rallied around the flag” (see (p.17) also Dalton 2004: 49–52), or by the impact of President Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal. While Stimson’s interpretation can account for the short-term fluctuations around an equilibrium value of “generic approval,” it cannot account for the steep shift in the equilibrium of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such a shift may be the result of a cultural change, or, we would like to suggest, it may also result from a deep economic crisis.

If, instead of oscillating up and down, economic conditions decline for a more extended period of time, as has been the case in some countries during the Great Recession, this may have long-term effects as well—effects that cannot be easily repaired by possible future upswings. In other words, the question is whether an economic crisis like the euro crisis may be able to challenge the stability of democracy to a considerable extent—even in established democracies. Of course, the experience of the Weimar Republic in particular, and of the interwar period in general, reminds us of the devastating potential of economic crises for democratic legitimacy. In an attempt to gauge the impact of the current crisis on satisfaction with democracy and trust (an index including trust in politicians, parties, and national parliaments), Polavieja (2013) has shown that, so far, the erosion of democratic legitimacy has been most pronounced in Greece, where it has, indeed, reached alarming proportions. It has also been sizeable, but not alarming (yet), in countries such as France, Ireland, Slovenia, and Spain. More detailed analyses indicate that the recession effect has been restricted to eurozone countries. Given the cross-sectional nature of our data, we will not be able to make any assessments of trends in democratic support over time, but comparisons across countries will allow us to check whether there is any relationship between the extent to which a country has been hit by the crisis and the level of democratic support in that country.

At the individual level, there are two main types of factors which may influence the way citizens view and evaluate democracy: resources and political attitudes. As for resources, increasing levels of education in advanced democracies seem to have led to rising aspirations with regard to what democracy should provide (Norris 2011). Moreover, high socio-economic status generally appears to have a positive impact on the overall satisfaction with democratic performance (Anderson and Guillory 1997; Anderson and Tverdova 2003).

With respect to individual political attitudes, we would like to emphasize that the citizens’ support and legitimacy beliefs have been shown to be a function of partisan considerations. There are at least two ways in which partisanship matters for the way citizens perceive how democracy works. First, independents view the representation process differently from partisans. Thus, focusing on beliefs of being represented, Anderson (2011) shows that, in general, median voters, whom we could consider to be the equivalent of independents, feel less represented than the rest. It is possible that in other (p.18) respects as well, independents are less satisfied with the way democracy works in their country than partisans. The second way partisanship matters for the citizens’ perception of how democracy works refers to the effect of election outcomes on the perceptions of winners and losers. As is argued by Anderson et al. (2005: 3), “the experience of winning and losing and becoming part of the majority or minority leads people to adopt a lens through which they view political life.” Losers tend to develop more negative attitudes about the political regime than winners—partly because losing gives rise to negative feelings in general, but partly also because cognitive processes of dissonance reduction lead to more negative evaluations of the regime. Magalhães’s (2006) study of confidence in parliament confirms the previous results: his indicator for winners (supporters of the incumbent party) has the greatest explanatory power of all the variables in the model. Winners have more confidence in parliament than losers, even after controlling for ideological self-placement and the overall macro context.

Overview of the volume

Our volume is divided into three parts corresponding to the three concepts briefly described in this introduction: Part I focuses on Europeans’ views of democracy, Part II examines citizens’ evaluations of European democracies, and Part III deals with the complex concept and measure of democratic legitimacy beliefs. Prior to Part I, however, Chapter 2 provides more details on the way in which the ESS Round 6 module on “understandings and evaluations of democracy” was constructed, and on the problems that were encountered in operationalizing the concepts presented in this volume. The reader who is not interested in these technical details may skip this chapter. We do believe, however, that these technical details are sufficiently important to provide the reader with a clear idea of how we have tried to measure our key concepts. All too often in the social sciences, issues of measurement are given short shrift, in spite of the fact that the results crucially depend on it.

Part I is dedicated to the study of Europeans’ views of democracy. Chapter 3 provides a general overview of what democracy means for Europeans. In this chapter, we discover how knowledgeable citizens are about democracy and its different aspects, and most crucially, what is truly important in a democracy for most European citizens. Two aspects of democracy stand out as the most important characteristics all across Europe: rule of law, and free and fair elections. There is a shared understanding among Europeans about the minimum that should be provided by a democratic regime, which constitutes the basic model of liberal democracy. Contrary to previous (p.19) literature, however, Chapter 3 also reveals that Europeans’ views of democracy go beyond the liberal democratic model, and encompass additional dimensions which are not taken into consideration in most normative democratic theories. Thus, social justice turns out to be another fundamental characteristic of democracy for many Europeans.

Chapter 4 analyzes the models of democracy the citizens have in mind: the liberal democracy model, the social democracy model, and the direct democracy model. If Chapter 3 concluded that the rule of law and free and fair elections are the most important aspects of democracy in Europe, Chapter 4 builds on the previous chapter to demonstrate that Europeans’ conceptions of democracy are hierarchically structured. Rule of law and free and fair elections constitute the minimalist conception of democracy, which is enlarged by other democratic components as conceptions of democracy become more demanding. Remarkably, with very few exceptions, the same hierarchy can be found all across Europe. Combining the three models of democracy (liberal, social, and direct democracy), Chapter 4 concludes with the presentation of a classification of the types of democrats which can be found in Europe.

Explanations of Europeans’ views of democracy are provided in Chapters 5 and 6. More specifically, Chapter 5 investigates the reasons why citizens adhere to a particular model of democracy rather than another, whereas Chapter 6 delves into the impact of generational changes on citizens’ preferences for a specific type of democracy. Chapter 5 puts particular emphasis on individual resources as the main determinants of Europeans’ views of democracy. Accordingly, it explores under which contextual conditions citizens of a particular socio-economic status will prefer a particular model of democracy. Chapter 6 focuses on Europeans’ views with regard to how democracy ought to be implemented in terms of political representation: either as trustee or mandate representation. In this chapter, the authors investigate whether Europeans’ preferences for the type of representative democracy differ depending on the period in which they were socialized. Generational change is the main explanatory variable in this chapter.

Chapter 7 concludes Part I with an assessment of the validity of one of the classic indicators of political support—support for democracy as an ideal—in the light of our more detailed data on citizens’ conceptions of democracy. The validity assessment relies on a comparison of the three democratic models presented in Chapter 4 with the standard indicator for the importance to live in a democratic system. The chapter shows what exactly underlies this contested indicator.

Part II is entirely devoted to the scrutiny of Europeans’ evaluations of democracy. It starts again with a descriptive chapter (Chapter 8) that shows how the different aspects of democracy are evaluated across Europe. Not all components of democracy are rated equally by Europeans. In general, and (p.20) throughout Europe, the liberal and electoral aspects of democracy receive the best evaluations, whereas aspects of direct and especially social democracy are more critically evaluated. In addition to a general assessment of the various aspects of democracy, this chapter provides a tentative analysis of the relationship between the citizens’ evaluations of the different aspects and some of the established indicators of democratic quality. Chapter 9 presents the citizens’ evaluation of the democratic models constructed in Chapter 4, and incorporates an in-depth comparison of the evaluations of the three democratic models with established indicators of democratic quality. It also analyzes in more detail the relationship between citizens’ views and their evaluations of democracy at both the aggregate and the individual level. Building on the results of Chapter 9, Chapter 10 elaborates the factors that explain Europeans’ evaluations of their countries’ democracies. The individuals’ political attitudes and resources, together with contextual factors, prove to be essential determinants of how Europeans evaluate the three different models of democracy.

Part III introduces the concept of legitimacy. Chapter 11 presents a theoretical discussion of this concept, which provides the background for the empirical operationalization of the citizens’ legitimacy beliefs. After inspection of several measurement alternatives, this chapter ends with an overview of the extent to which European democracies are legitimate in the eyes of their citizens. Chapter 12 tries to explain Europeans’ legitimacy beliefs, with a special focus on the impact of the economic crisis. This chapter attempts to provide an answer to the contested question of whether the deep economic crisis experienced by most European democracies since 2008 is undermining democratic legitimacy in Europe. It is the task of the last empirical chapter, Chapter 13, to assess the validity of the standard “satisfaction with democracy” (SWD) indicator. First, it turns out that SWD is interpreted differently both across and within countries, because people hold different views of democracy. This means that SWD lacks comparability. Second, SWD is shown to be influenced by factors which do not relate to the performance of democracy itself, which means that it cannot be used as a valid indicator of political support. Chapter 14 summarizes and discusses the findings of this volume and points out some directions for further analyses of the ESS data on democracy.