< Back to previous page
Pragmatic citizens. A bottom-up perspective on participatory politics
Book - Dissertation
Many citizens in western democracies are dissatisfied with the way politics works in their country. Among academics, journalists and politicians there is a deep concern about a deficit in perceived democratic legitimacy, indicated by a lack of trust in political institutions and representatives, lack of compliance and cooperation, support for protest parties and a general sense that politics is an elite affair where the ordinary citizen is not heard. Finding ways to address such popular dissatisfaction is a crucial challenge of contemporary democracies. Participatory processes are seen as instruments that could tackle this perceived legitimacy deficit (Fung, 2015). The idea, advocated by participatory and deliberative democratic theorists such as Benjamin Barber and Carole Pateman, is that involving citizens in the political process can foster a sense of efficacy, responsiveness and acceptance of decisions, and can reconnect citizens to their political institutions and representatives. Especially the past decades have seen a renewed interest in such participatory processes, which can range from nationwide referendums to small-scale deliberative citizen assemblies. Prominent examples are the Irish Citizens' Assembly and subsequent referendums on abortion and gay marriage, participatory budgeting processes in Latin America, and state-level referendums in California. Some scholars expect that the rapid expansion of participatory processes will alleviate public dissatisfaction with politics. But is this actually the case? Can participatory processes play a part in the major task of addressing political dissatisfaction and strengthening perceived democratic legitimacy? To gain insights into this question, this dissertation zoomed in on the perspectives, perceptions and opinions of citizens. What do citizens think of these participatory processes? What is the effect of these processes on citizens' perceptions of legitimacy? To evaluate the potential of participatory processes to address deficits in perceived legitimacy, it is paramount to focus on the perspective of those people whose opinions about the political system are expected to improve through such processes. In this thesis, I studied both citizens' preferences for participatory processes as well as the effects of these processes on perceived legitimacy. In doing so I focused specifically on understanding why these processes would be appealing for citizens. What is in it for them? Past research has studied participatory processes through the lens of normative democratic theory, and has hence narrowed our understanding of how citizens think about these processes. I investigated both large-scale participatory processes, such as referendums, and small-scale participatory processes, such as citizens' forums. I employed a variety of study designs, in particular large-scale surveys, survey-embedded experiments and in-depth interviews, to address the question from multiple perspectives. The overarching conclusion of this dissertation is that citizens hold much more pragmatic views about participatory processes than previously known. They do not consider participatory processes as an all-encompassing cure for democracy's ills. Instead, their preferences for and reactions to participatory processes are complex and driven by different motivations and expectations. More concretely, five core findings emerged from the empirical studies conducted in this dissertation that I will briefly summarize. 1. Preferences for referendums are driven by pragmatic considerationsConcretely, I found in Chapter 3 that citizens consider participatory preferences such as referendums as a solution to some, but not all problems that they see in politics nowadays. Specifically, dissatisfaction with government not listening to its citizens was positively associated with support for referendums, whereas dissatisfaction with a government's capability to lead was associated with less support for referendums. Furthermore, I theorized that citizens do not only think about referendums in the context of normative ideas about how democracies should work but also consider the potential policy outcomes of such a process. Chapter 4 shows that particularly people who would like to see policy change or who expect to win are more in favor of referendums. This finding was robust across different policy issues on different levels of governance. It indicates that instrumental considerations play a substantial role in shaping support for referendums. 2. Populist citizens are more principled in their support for referendums than non-populist citizensIn a next step, I investigated whether a certain subgroup of the population, namely populist citizens, are especially instrumental in their support for participatory processes. The analysis of the 2018 Dutch Information Law referendum in Chapter 5 indicated that populist citizens base their support for referendums less on instrumental considerations than non-populist citizens. After the referendum, populist citizens were also more willing to accept the outcome in the referendum compared to non-populist citizens, even when they lost. These results suggest that populist citizens hold more principled attitudes toward direct decision-making than non-populist citizens. 3. Process preferences are volatileIn addition, several chapters provided insights into the dynamic nature of these process preferences. Whereas previous literature for the most part considered citizens' preferences about democratic decision-making as rather stable attitudes that are driven by normative ideas about democracy, the findings of this thesis offer new empirical insights on this matter. First, process preferences vary across issues. As Chapter 4 shows, citizens' preferences for decision-making through referendums vary substantially within the same individual across different issues. Second, process preferences depend on the socio-political context. More specifically, Chapter 3 shows that the association between dissatisfaction with the listening function of government and support for referendums differs between countries, which in turn is partly explained by the level of experience with referendums in these countries. Accordingly, for people in countries where referendums are less prevalent, there is a closer connection between dissatisfaction with responsiveness and support for referendums. While this is not a direct test of whether this relationship would change over time within a country that conducts referendums more frequently, it does indicate that the reasons to support referendums can change depending on contextual factors. 4. Participatory processes have positive effects on perceived legitimacy, even when the outcomes are unfavorableThe second part of the thesis focused on the effects of participatory processes on citizens' perceptions of legitimacy. Previous research has shown that these effects are often conditional on outcome favorability, meaning that decision losers exert lower levels of perceived legitimacy than decision winners. The 12 experiments in Chapter 7 and 8 confirmed the described outcome favorability effect. However, the evidence from both chapters also showed that participatory processes have a positive effect on legitimacy perceptions across a range of experimental designs. Even when the outcome is unfavorable and the topic highly controversial, such as the opening of a refugee shelter, participatory processes exerted higher legitimacy perceptions than the status quo of representative decision-making. Importantly, this was also the case when citizens did not participate personally in such a process but merely heard about it, like in Chapter 7. At least in an experimental context, the positive impact of participatory processes on legitimacy perceptions can transcend beyond people who are directly involved. 5. Citizens (also) value participatory processes because they feel listened to by politiciansThe study of the Bürgerdialog in Belgium in Chapter 6 added more qualitative insights into why citizens might value small-scale participatory processes and what role the outcomes of such processes play in citizens' perceptions and evaluations. The interviewees predominantly appreciated the relational aspects of the SSPP. They felt heard and respected through the process of the SSPP, and considered respect and recognition by politicians as the most important elements and a condition for a positive evaluation of the process. Further, this case shed light on the potential entanglement between instrumental and relational considerations. While participants expected a political uptake of their recommendations, they prioritized serious engagement with the proposal and accepted deviations or even rejections as long as they were justified. In sum, this thesis has shown that participatory processes are no magical solution to legitimacy deficits. Instrumental concerns play an important role in shaping citizens' expectations, preferences and reactions to decision-making processes, but by including citizens in the process, legitimacy can be improved even among decision losers and among populist citizens. This seems to be especially the case when political authorities can convincingly signal to citizens that the process is not for show but based on genuine interest, respect and willingness to take citizens' perspectives into account.