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

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - EUDEMOS (Constrained Democracy: Citizens’ Responses to Limited Political Choice in the European Union)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

The EUDEMOS project examines how the political choices offered to citizens in shape democratic perceptions and electoral behaviour in Europe. Political choice is central to the functioning of electoral democracy. The competition between political parties serves to reveal and aggregate voters’ preferences such that governments are responsive to citizens. Equally, a party system that restricts the choices offered by parties risks suppressing the preferences and interests of the people. Yet, despite the centrality of political choice to the functioning of electoral democracy, we know very little about the consequences of constrained political choices for citizens’ engagement in democratic processes. Across Europe, an increasing number of citizens are supporting extreme parties or declining to take part in democratic elections. This project offers the first systematic examination of how the range and substance of political choices offered to citizens in the EU shape democratic perceptions and electoral behaviour. Understanding how citizens perceive and react to the growing constraints on domestic politics is crucial to a diagnosis of European democracy and for an evidence-based debate on reform of EU institutions. EUDEMOS is a pioneering study of the consequences of constrained democracy. It combines a large-N cross-national analysis of citizens’ responses to mainstream party convergence and case studies of the ‘emergency politics’ of the Eurozone crisis with micro-level experimental work. It thus aims to transform the study of citizens’ democratic attitudes and behaviour by focusing on the importance of political choice. By developing and testing a theoretical model of heterogeneous citizen responses to the constrained political choice, the project provides insights into why citizens turn against mainstream parties or exit democratic process altogether. This further allows EUDEMOS to develop proposals for how institutions can be designed to facilitate citizens’ participation in and satisfaction with democratic processes in a multi-level European Union.
Commentators and scholars alike have reported worrying trends of declining turnout, increase in support for extreme parties, and reduced levels of trust in democratic institutions both at the national and the European level. Moreover, there is a growing concern about the constraints that European integration place on national parties and governments. The EUDEMOS project presents a path-breaking study of the consequences of constrained choice on the democratic attitudes and electoral behaviour of citizens in Europe.

During the first reporting period, EUDEMOS has developed a theoretical model of citizens’ responses to constrained choice to better understand when and why limited political choice leads citizens to challenge or abandon traditional democratic processes. Our core argument is that citizens’ engagement with the democratic processes is shaped not only by the differences between the parties (party polarization), but also by the closeness of parties to citizens’ own ideological position (congruence) and importantly by the instrumentality of congruent choice. In other words, citizens care about being able to vote for an ideologically congruent party that also has a good chance of implementing policies in government.

We have tested these propositions using an innovative research design that combines methods from comparative politics, political psychology and behavioural economics. The five interconnected project components of EUDEMOS examine the responses to constrained political choice both at the macro- and the micro-level. Combined these studies provide new insights into the importance of political choice and the transformation of European democracy today. The empirical studies focus specifically on how the properties of political choice shape turnout decisions, satisfaction with democracy, electoral behaviour and political preferences. We have also examined the appeal of challenger parties offering new issues and appealing to voters with their populist anti-establishment rhetoric. These empirical studies use a mixed-method multilevel design. At the macrolevel, a time-series cross-sectional study of the effects of party convergence on democratic attitudes and behaviour over time. At the micro-level, using innovative experimental methods, such as conjoint analysis, to examine the mechanisms of limited choice and the effects of elite framing of choice on behaviour.

The project has resulted in a number of publications and working papers, as well as numerous presentations at scientific conferences (for up-to-date details see:
EUDEMOS provides a pioneering study of the consequences of constrained political choice in the European Union on citizens’ attitudes towards democracy and electoral behaviour. The EUDEMOS project team, and its collaborators, has already made significant progress towards achieving the following objectives:

THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTION: EUDEMOS has developed a theoretical argument for understanding the impact of political choice on citizens’ perceptions of democracy and their electoral behaviour in the European Union.

EMPIRICAL CONTRIBUTION: The project has provided a series of innovative and path-breaking papers on how properties of political choice shape attitudes towards democracy, policy preferences, turnout and electoral behaviour. The project combines large-N analysis of developments in party positions cross-nationally over time with survey and laboratory experiments to test the impact of restricted political choice, focusing on democratic attitudes and electoral behaviour (turnout and vote for extreme parties).

METHODOLOGICAL CONTRIBUTION: Innovatively combining methods from comparative politics, psychology and behavioural economics, this project employs large-N cross-national and time-series analysis and experimental methods. Drawing on the Principal Investigator’s (PI) and post-doctoral researchers’ wide-ranging methodological expertise, this multi-level mixed methods strategy makes it possible to examine the implications of limited choice at the macro-level as well as exploring the micro-level mechanisms.

PROJECT OUTPUTS: The EUDEMOS team has produced two publications and several papers currently under review in top scientific journals. A monograph is also under preparation and the project team has organised a scientific workshop, bringing together leading international scholars of European politics. The aim is to maximise wider impact of the project findings through a knowledge exchange strategy that includes LSE public events, blogs, policy reports and workshops.

In the last part of the project, the EUDEMOS team will continue to work towards achieving these project objectives, and also focus more on dissemination and dialogue with the scientific and non-scientific communities.