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Constrained Democracy: Citizens’ Responses to Limited Political Choice in the European Union

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Understanding political choice in Europe, post-war to pandemic

Choice lies at the heart of what distinguishes democratic systems from non-democratic ones. The EUDEMOS project, funded by the European Research Council, examined the evolution of political choice in Europe and the implications today for citizen engagement.

Society

The last two decades have seen increasing political fragmentation and polarisation, dropping levels of citizen satisfaction in democracy and the rise of parties that have challenged – in some countries quite successfully – the established order. “Like disruptive entrepreneurs, these challenger parties offer new policies and defy the dominance of established party brands,” says Sara Hobolt, the principal investigator of the project and professor of Government at the London School of Economics (LSE).

The paradox of political choice

The decline of mainstream parties means Europeans have more choice than ever when it comes to the menu of party options offered by their national political system. In the last 15 years Germany has evolved from being dominated by four ‘traditional’ parties to six, and at one point the radical right Alternative für Deutschland was the third largest party in the Bundestag. “On top of this, there has also been a rise in the number and variety of issues on the public agenda, such as immigration and the environment,” continues Hobolt. “Citizens also have many more opportunities to express their political voice, for example in referendums. Challenger parties have in particular been very innovative in mobilising these issues to obtain electoral success.” Paradoxically, political choice has become more constrained as nations have become increasingly interdependent. “Integration has given citizens more democratic opportunities, such as European Parliament elections. Yet it also implies that national governments in Europe operate under the growing constraints of European integration that limit the choices they can offer citizens and the policy instruments they can use,” she adds.

The politics of COVID-19

EUDEMOS (Constrained Democracy: Citizens’ Responses to Limited Political Choice in the European Union) has documented that European voters increasingly resemble critical consumers rather than party loyalists. “The political sphere has become more market-like,” continues Hobolt. “And this can also provide some interesting insights about political choice and the current COVID-19 crisis.” When the pandemic first swept through Europe in March 2020, dominant mainstream parties were gifted an opportunity to showcase their competence and long experience in governance, and this boosted their popularity, at least in the short term. “European citizens rallied around their political leaders and institutions, at the expense of the populist challenger parties,” Hobolt explains. These groups failed to excite electorates with their usual policy staples, such as immigration, because citizens were now prioritising a competent response to the health crisis. So, will the pandemic be the death knell of the populist political phenomena that we’ve experienced over the last decade? “Don’t be so sure,” Hobolt says. “It seems highly unlikely that the demand for these parties will simply dry up, especially as the pandemic has triggered a deep global recession that populist challengers could eventually exploit.”

Punishing misdemeanours

Some of her most recent work includes a large-scale survey that tested whether citizens punish ‘bad’ politicians, and especially illiberal behaviour, such as lack of respect for political opponents, opposition to freedom of the press, and opposition to an independent judiciary. “We found that voters do indeed punish such behaviours, but do not distinguish between ‘illiberal’ tendencies and more general misdemeanours, such as not answering constituents’ emails or claiming too much in expenses,” Hobolt says. The team also investigated the impact of criticism from other politicians. Hobolt notes that voters responded much more strongly if the criticism came from politicians belonging to the same party as the wrongdoer, rather than the opposition. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, EUDEMOS was extended by a further 6 months. “Conducting research during the pandemic has been very difficult, especially when it comes to research that involves direct contact with participants,” Hobolt explains. “This allowed me to transform the final major aspect of the project – a comprehensive laboratory experiment on how political attitudes are formed – from an in-person to an online setting.” Overall, it’s clear that EUDEMOS has been a joy to work on for Hobolt. “It has been an immense privilege to work on such an important research project with such excellent young scholars, especially alongside such monumental real-time events, such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and now of course the COVID-19 crisis,” she concludes. “I have many plans to continue this line of research in the years to come!”

Keywords

EUDEMOS, political choice, populist, political system, challenger parties, immigration, COVID-19, pandemic, EU, European Research Council

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