The Winner Takes it All: Revisiting the Effect of Direct Democracy on Political Support

Sofie Marien and Anna Kern

Declining levels of turnout and engagement in political parties as well as widespread political distrust have raised concerns about a democratic legitimacy deficit in advanced democracies. To address citizens’ novel participation preferences and to foster political support, proposals to give citizens more voice in the political decision-making process have been launched increasingly. Citizen involvement is expected to foster political support because citizens value voice and influence in political decision-making processes. However, despite these strong theoretical expectations, empirical studies on the effect of citizen involvement on political support remain scarce and the findings are inconsistent.

In our recent article in Political Behavior we aim to enhance our understanding of how and why citizen involvement affects political support. We gathered panel data in two comparable Belgian neighborhoods (with and without local referendum) in 2015. The data was collected using postal surveys in the month before the local referendum and in the three months following the referendum. This research design enables us to conduct a stronger causal test than previous cross-sectional studies with higher levels of ecological validity than experiments. We find an increase in political support in the aftermath of the local referendum. However, the driving force behind this increase is having voted for the outcome that has received the majority of the vote. As, in a direct democratic process, winners are by definition the majority, this explains the overall increase in support. Hence, the increase is not the result of satisfaction with being involved but merely with getting what one wanted as an outcome. Moreover, outcome favorability also shapes the process evaluations as winners think the referendum was fairer than losers.

Remarkably, however, and despite the contested nature of the issue, we also find that losers retained their political support. This is particularly noticeable, because a recent study in Sweden, for instance, showed that when trying to make a decision on a contested issue using a representative decision-making process, decision losers became less supporting of the political system and this negative effect proved to be remarkably stable over time (Esaiasson et al. in press). In contrast, in our study of a direct democratic decision-making process, losers’ support levels did not decline. In sum, involving citizens is not sufficient to increase their political support. Citizens deeply care about the outcomes of decision-making processes. Yet involving citizens does seem to be a powerful way to make contested decisions while keeping the support of decision winners and losers.

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