Are ‘Good’ Citizens ‘Good’ Participants?

Article by Catherine Bolzendahl and Hilde Coffé recently published at Political Studies (2013):

Are ‘Good’ Citizens ‘Good’ Participants? Testing Citizenship Norms and Political Participation across 25 Nations. 


Whereas research on political participation typically investigates a variety of socio-economic and attitudinal characteristics, this cross-national study focuses on the relevance of norms when explaining political participation. We examine respondents’ normative beliefs about the importance of various measures of ‘good citizenship’, and their relationship to three modes of political engagement (activism, party membership and voting). We find assigning higher importance to paying taxes/obeying the law is negatively linked to all forms of participation, whereas the opposite is true for norms about the importance of voting and being active in associations. Greater emphasis on norms about understanding others and shopping politically is positively associated with political activism but not with more institutional forms of participation. The relationship between norms and participation differs somewhat across nations, with the most differences between Eastern European respondents and those from Western European and Western non-European respondents. In line with theories on democratic learning, we find that the relationship between citizenship norms and participation is often weakest among Eastern Europeans. Conclusions about the subjective and variable nature of democratic citizenship are discussed.

An interesting finding is the weak link between the duty to “keep a watch on the actions of government” and most types of participation (i.e. political activism and electoral participation). I cannot help but speculate about the extent to which these findings may help to explain why generally it is relatively easier to engage citizens in participatory processes (e.g. participatory budgeting) than have them monitor the outcomes of these same processes (e.g. oversight of budget execution).

Another possible reading is that the citizen who participates is different from the citizen who monitors. One of the practical implications of this would be that we should consider segmenting audiences (and outreach efforts) according to specific stages of the policy cycle.

Read the full article here.

A Dynamic Model of Protest

A nice animation based on a paper by Adam Meirowitz (Princeton) and Joshua Tucker (New York University). The video explains why citizens who take action to overthrow bad governments might eventually lose hope  and decide to stay home.


The paper was published this year in the American Journal of Political Science. Here is the abstract:

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a crucial question is whether popular protest is now likely to be a permanent part of Middle Eastern politics or if the protests that have taken place over the past two years are more likely to be a “one-shot deal.” We consider this question from a theoretical perspective, focusing on the relationship between the consequences of protests in one period and the incentives to protest in the future. The model provides numerous predictions for why we might observe a phenomenon that we call the “one-shot deal”: when protest occurs at one time but not in the future despite an intervening period of bad governance. The analysis focuses on the learning process of citizens. We suggest that citizens may not only be discovering the type or quality of their new government—as most previous models of adverse selection assume—but rather citizens may also be learning about the universe of potential governments in their country. In this way, bad performance by one government induces some pessimism about possible replacements. This modeling approach expands the formal literature on adverse selection in elections in two ways: it takes seriously the fact that removing governments can be costly, and it explores the relevance of allowing the citizen/principal to face uncertainty about the underlying distribution from which possible government/agent types are drawn.

The authors’ highlighting of the need to “get it right” in the first transitional elections comes as a reminder of how frail electoral democracy may be in recently transitioned countries. A snapshot from the conclusion (ungated version):

In the aftermath of events like the Arab Spring and the Colored Revolutions, we are once again confronted with the question of what the long-range effects are likely to be of regime change ushered in by citizens taking to the streets. Such moments are often filled with optimism about the potential for people to seize control of their own destiny and finally demand accountability from their governments. The model we present in this article does not deny that this optimistic chain of events can come to fruition, but it does lead to important insights as to when such a scenario is more or less likely.

First, there is likely to be a fundamental difference between what happens following a protest that leads to regime change as opposed to one that leads merely to a change of government without changing the regime. So a protest in France that leads to a change in the government—for example, the 1968 protests and subsequent resignation of de Gaulle (Cerny 1970)—is not likely to change citizens’ minds about the overall distribution of the quality of governments available through French democracy. Citizens may feel that they have received a “bad” draw from this distribution, and thus it is worth trying to throw the current government out of power and replace it with a new draw from the same distribution. In these circumstances—provided the cost of protesting remains constant—there is no reason not to expect French citizens to take to the streets to protest against their government in similar numbers in thefuture.

In a new democracy, however, we suggest that citizens may be simultaneously updating about the quality of the current government and the potential quality of all governments available under a democratic regime. This learning may be rather dramatic during the first governments of the new regime. If these initial governments after a democratic transition should prove to be little better than previous nondemocratic governments, citizens might be unlikely to take costly actions in order to curtail new abuses or even deter a blatant disregard for the new rules calling for periodic elections. Thus, we are probably most likely to see a one-shot-deal scenario when the initial governments following a democratic transition are perceived as no better than the ones that preceded the transition. Conversely, repeated protest might be more likely if there are afew “good” governments—thus leading respondents to think that the average quality of government is indeed better under democracy—before a government that might threaten democracy appears again. The bottom line is that if the type of learning that underlines our model is indeed occurring in newly democratic regimes, then the stakes for these regimes during the initial post-transition governments are likely to be high indeed.

Taken together, these points suggest the potential for the following patterns to emerge. The size and strength of protests may increase over time in a nondemocratic regime, but once the initial goal of removing the old regime from office is accomplished, the ability of prodemocracy forces to bring their supporters to the street may diminish significantly. The intuitive explanation for such a pattern would normally be that “the goal has been met,” but our model suggests a different story: it may not be so much that the goal has been met as the goal no longer seems to be quite so valuable. Again, this points to the importance of “getting it right” in the first transitional elections.

You can read the full paper (ungated version) here [PDF].

HT The Monkey Cage. 

Eurobarometer: Citizens Engaged in Participatory Democracy

A new report by Eurobarometer on citizen engagement in participatory democracy has been recently published. Here are some of the findings:

A third (34%) of respondents say that they have signed a petition in the last two years. However, the proportion of people who have done this ranges considerably, from 53% in the UK to 7% in Cyprus. Other relatively popular forms of engagement are expressing one’s views online (28%), expressing one’s views with an elected local representative (24%), and taking part in a public debate at local or regional level (18%).

Men are more likely than women to have attempted to express their view using most of the means under discussion; they are also more likely to be members of an NGO or similar association.

A fifth of respondents (20%) are members of an organisation with a specific economic, social, environmental, cultural or sporting interest, while 17% are in another organisation with a special interest, and 16% are Trade Union members. 

The Nordic countries demonstrate a very high level of participation in NGOs and associations, especially Trade Unions. However, in 18 Member States, more than half of the respondents say that they have not had any involvement with this type of organisation. 

Respondents who have expressed their views or joined an NGO are more likely to believe that ways of influencing political decision-making, such as voting, are effective, and also that NGOs can influence political decisions.

And a bit more on socio-demographic traits and participation (highlights are mine):

According to the socio-demographic data, men are more likely than women to have used various means of expressing their views, including taking part in a public debate at local/regional level (22% vs. 15% for women), expressing their views to a local elected representative (27% vs. 20%), and expressing their views via the Internet or social media (32% vs. 25%). However, equal numbers of men and women (both 34%) say that they signed a petition. Overall, 45% of women say that they did none of these things in order to express their views, as opposed to 38% of men.

People in different age groups demonstrate preferences for using different means of expressing their views on public issues. Younger respondents are more likely to use the Internet or social media: 42% of 15-24 year-olds did this during the past two years, but this falls to 17% among people aged 55 or over. Respondents aged 40 and over (26-27%) are more likely to express their views with their local or regional elected representatives than 15-24 year-olds (16%), while people in the 25-39 age bracket (40%) are the most likely to have signed a petition (only 28% of respondents aged 55 and over did this). Respondents aged 55 or over are the most inclined to say that they did not do any of these things: 48% say this, compared with 37-39% of people in the other three age groups. 

Respondents with a higher level of education are more likely to try to express their views via all the means under discussion than people who finished their education at a younger age. For example, 42% of people who finished their education aged 20 or over have  signed a petition in the last two years, compared with just 16% of those who left school aged 15 or below. While 62% of people in the latter group did none of these things in order to express their view, only 34% of people who finished their education aged 20 or over say this. 

In terms of occupation, employees and self-employed people are more likely to seek to express their views using the various available means than manual workers or people who are not working. Nearly half of manual workers (49%) and people who are not working (47%) did not do any of these things, compared with 35% of employees and 34% of self-employed people.

The full report is available here [PDF]. 

Can Informed Public Deliberation Overcome Clientelism? Experimental Evidence from Benin

picture by geezaweezer on flickr

Brilliant paper by Leonard Wantchekon

This paper provides experimental evidence on the effect of “informed” town hall meetings on electoral support for programmatic, non-clientelist platforms. The experiment takes place in Benin and involves real candidates running in the first round of the 2006 presidential elections. The treatment is a campaign strategy based exclusively on town hall meetings during which policy proposals made by candidates are “specific” and informed by empirical research. The control is the “standard” strategy based on campaign rallies followed by targeted or clientelist electoral promises. We find that the treatment has a positive effect on self-perceived knowledge about policies and candidates. The data also suggests a positive effect of the treatment on turnout and electoral support for the candidates participating in the experiment. The results suggest that new democracies may contain electoral clientelism by institutionalizing the use of both town hall meetings in electoral campaigns and policy expertise in the design of electoral platforms.

Read the full paper here [PDF]

On Political Efficacy and Occupy Wall Street’s Postage Paid Protest

One of the strongest predictors of participation is what political scientists call “political efficacy”. Broadly speaking, one of the components of political efficacy refers to an individual’s perception of his/her impact through his/her political actions. In other words, all other things equal, the greater your perception that your actions are likely to have an impact, the greater your political efficacy. And the greater this sense of efficacy, the more likely you are to engage. Furthermore, political scientists often refer to the generation of a virtuous cycle in which participation leads to more participation.

A while ago, through a post on techPresident by Micah Sifry I came across this brilliant story about an alternative form of protest in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Below is an excerpt from Micah’s article that summarizes the idea put forward by Artie Moffa, a “part–time poet and SAT tutor”:

“His idea,which he described in a short YouTube video that has had more than 400,000views in just six days, steals a page from both Saul Alinsky and Abbie Hoffman.You know all those credit card solicitations banks send you all the time, he asks, sitting at his couch in a shirt and striped tie. Take the business reply envelope and stuff it with a message back to the bank, or if you’re feeling like it, add a wood shim or something firm to add to the cost of the return mail. “Every hour banks spend responding to us is an hour banks don’t spend lobbying Congress figuring out how to screw us,” he notes. “If you can’t occupy Wall Street, you can at least keep Wall Street occupied.”

The post includes an interesting and entertaining interview with Moffa. Both the story and the interview present two interesting (although anecdotal) illustrations of how political efficacy can operate.

The first one refers to the action in itself. My hunch is that the reasonable popularity of the idea is a result of the fact that it generates an immediate sense of political efficacy. Although one can question how efficient the practice may be in terms of furthering the causes of the movement, by sending back the envelope individuals know that their action will have a tangible impact: the return mail will have to be paid for by the sender of the correspondence. Making a rough – and maybe unfair – comparison, by sending back the mail with a message or a wood shim inside the envelope gives citizens a stronger – or more immediate – sense of political efficacy than signing an online petition.

The second element corresponds to the virtuous cycle, in which participation, resulting in increased political efficacy, will lead to even more participation. As Artie Moffa puts it it:

“About a month ago, I wrote a letter to the editors of The Economist, teasing them about a bad layout decision they made with the cover for their “Hunting the Rich”issue (Sep 24). I couldn’t believe they printed my letter. I guess that experience itched the bug bite. I wanted to say a little more.”

That bug bite, that made Artie want to say more, was political efficacy.