Political satisfaction

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
June 2020

Politics is, arguably, the core institution in modern societies. Policy makers have the authority to set the rules and procedures that govern our lives. We want the political system to operate well. We want to be satisfied with how democracy is performing.

Public satisfaction may also help to ensure democracy’s survival. Democratic political systems tend to be self-sustaining, particularly in rich nations.1 Once people become accustomed to democracy, most want to keep it. It’s likely, however, that a democracy will be healthier, and hence more likely to survive, when citizens are happy with how it is functioning.2

The standard indicator of political satisfaction is people’s response to the question “On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?”3 This question has been asked over multiple decades in all of the rich democratic nations, in some as far back as the early 1970s. Figure 1 shows average satisfaction in each country. There is considerable variation across countries and over time within some nations.

satisfactionwithdemocracy-21countries-1973to2019-country1to8b

satisfactionwithdemocracy-21countries-1973to2019-country9to16b

Figure 1. Satisfaction with the way democracy works
Average response to the question “All things considered, would you say you are very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?” Scale of 0 to 10. Data sources: Eurobarometer; Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES); Pew Research Center; AmericasBarometer; General Social Survey. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero.

What affects people’s perceptions of how well their political system is functioning? How can democracies do better?

DETERMINANTS OF CITIZENS’ SATISFACTION WITH THE WAY DEMOCRACY WORKS

The most significant contributor to how people feel about their political system is the success of their preferred party in recent elections. Political winners tend to be happier with how the system is functioning. The main source of variation in political satisfaction, whether across countries or over time, is how political losers feel.4

The political satisfaction of electoral losers is likely to be a function of three things: government performance, citizens’ representation in government, and citizens’ opportunity for political efficacy.

Government performance

People want their government to act effectively, and if it does so they are likely to be happier with the political system. A key indicator here is how well the economy is doing. People tend to assume that a healthy economy reflects a government that is doing something right, regardless of government’s actual contribution.5 As we see in figure 2, across the rich democratic nations there is a strong positive correlation between GDP per capita and public satisfaction with the way democracy works. This also likely accounts, in figure 1 above, for the sharp drop in satisfaction after 2007 in the countries hit hardest by the great recession — Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

Figure 2. Economic performance and satisfaction with the way democracy works
Satisfaction with democracy: average response to the question “All things considered, would you say you are very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?” Scale of 0 to 10. Average over 2000 to 2019. Data sources: Eurobarometer; Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES); Pew Research Center; AmericasBarometer; General Social Survey. GDP per capita: adjusted for inflation and converted to US dollars using purchasing power parities. “k” = thousand. Average over 2000 to 2019. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria. The line is a linear regression line. The correlation is +.67.

Citizens may also respond to actual government performance.6 A common measure is the World Bank’s “government effectiveness” indicator, which attempts to gauge public and expert perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies. Figure 3 shows that this too is strongly correlated with political satisfaction.

Figure 3. Government effectiveness and satisfaction with the way democracy works
Satisfaction with democracy: average response to the question “All things considered, would you say you are very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?” Scale of 0 to 10. Average over 2000 to 2019. Data sources: Eurobarometer; Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES); Pew Research Center; AmericasBarometer; General Social Survey. Government effectiveness attempts to capture perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies. Average over 2000 to 2016. Data source: World Bank, “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria. The line is a linear regression line. The correlation is +.89.

Citizens’ representation in government

Proportional representation electoral systems allow a relatively large number of parties to have seats in the legislature. In majoritarian systems, with their winner-take-all elections, typically just two or three parties win seats. With more parties, citizens are more likely to be able to vote for one that closely matches their policy preferences. And because proportional representation allows many parties that don’t win the election to nevertheless end up with some seats in parliament, voters who lose the election are less likely to feel alienated from the political system.7

Figure 4 shows that the degree of proportionality in the electoral system is positively correlated with political satisfaction, particularly if two outliers, Belgium and Italy, are excluded.

Figure 4. Electoral system proportionality and satisfaction with the way democracy works
Satisfaction with democracy: average response to the question “All things considered, would you say you are very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?” Scale of 0 to 10. Average over 2000 to 2019. Data sources: Eurobarometer; Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES); Pew Research Center; AmericasBarometer; General Social Survey. Proportional electoral system: composite indicator. Data source: Julian Bernauer and Adrian Vatter, Power Diffusion and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2019, ch. 3. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria. The lines are a linear regression line. Solid line: all 21 countries. The correlation is +.36. Dashed line: Belgium and Italy excluded. The correlation is +.66.

Citizens’ opportunity for political efficacy

People want an effective government, and they want representation. Many also are likely to want the opportunity to directly influence government policy, even if they seldom make use of that capability. There are a variety of ways to do this in a democracy, including voting, contacting a legislator, donating money to a campaign, signing a petition, participating in a demonstration or protest, and more. But citizens may wish for a more direct impact.

Education is likely to help. People with greater literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to feel capable of contributing politically. Figure 5 shows a positive correlation across the rich countries between adults’ average literacy and numeracy level and their political satisfaction.

Figure 5. Education and satisfaction with the way democracy works
Satisfaction with democracy: average response to the question “All things considered, would you say you are very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?” Scale of 0 to 10. Average over 2000 to 2019. Data sources: Eurobarometer; Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES); Pew Research Center; AmericasBarometer; General Social Survey. Literacy and numeracy: average literacy and numeracy score on the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills, 2013. Data source: OECD, Skills Outlook, 2013, tables A2.2a and A2.6a. Data aren’t available for New Zealand, Portugal, and Switzerland. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria. The line is a linear regression line. The correlation is +.54.

Even well-educated citizens may to have limited ability to exert much influence on the national government. One potential mechanism is via referendums. Only one of the rich democratic nations, Switzerland, makes significant use of referendums in setting national government policy, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Switzerland has a comparatively high level of political satisfaction.

Local government is a better bet, as it tends to handle matters that have an immediate bearing on people’s day-to-day lives.8 Where local government is involved in the planning and/or delivery of more services and benefits — schools, roads, parks, regulation of electricity and water, childcare, eldercare, pensions — people are more likely to see themselves as capable of exerting political influence. Figure 6 shows that citizens tend to be more satisfied with the way democracy works in countries where subnational governments account for a larger share of total government spending.

Figure 6. Government decentralization and satisfaction with the way democracy works
Satisfaction with democracy: average response to the question “All things considered, would you say you are very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [your country]?” Scale of 0 to 10. Average over 2000 to 2019. Data sources: Eurobarometer; Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES); Pew Research Center; AmericasBarometer; General Social Survey. Government decentralization: subnational governments’ share of total government expenditures. 2016. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria. The line is a linear regression line. The correlation is +.43.

The largest sustained increase in citizen satisfaction with democracy over the past half century occurred in Denmark (figure 1 above). The most likely cause, according to a careful analysis by Quinton Mayne, was a significant decentralization of control over various public services.9 “Ultimately,” writes Mayne, “the key to understanding the spectacular rise in citizen satisfaction in Denmark since the early 1970s lies in the municipalization of Denmark’s cradle-to-grave welfare state, and in the increasing openness of Danish local government to citizen influence at and between the municipal ballot box…. The upward trend in aggregate levels of (country-wide) citizen satisfaction among national electoral losers in Denmark has been primarily driven by the fact that over the past four decades national electoral losers have seen their influence over the direction of salient public policies increase.”

What changes did Denmark make? It shifted the planning and delivery of health, sick pay, family allowances, pensions, childcare, and eldercare to municipal governments. By the 1980s, local governments accounted for approximately 75% of public sector workers in Denmark.

Elections for Danish local governments switched from nonpartisan to partisan. When candidates for mayor or city council or other positions run as representatives of a political party, citizens are better able to know what they are voting for and to hold officials accountable for fulfilling their campaign promises.

In the mid-1980s, city governments began delegating responsibility for management of many public services to the delivering agencies. This brings decision making even closer to citizens, enhancing their ability to exert influence.

And beginning in the 1990s, local governments in Denmark facilitated involvement in planning and delivery by “user boards,” which are elected by service users, and by “sectoral committees” composed of representatives of interest group organizations.

HOW TO INCREASE CITIZENS’ SATISFACTION WITH THE WAY DEMOCRACY WORKS

How can affluent democratic countries such as the United States increase political satisfaction? Of the four key determinants identified above, three may prove difficult to change. Most governments would love to increase economic growth but have little understanding of how to accomplish that.10 Government effectiveness has been relatively stable in nearly all of these nations in the two-decade period for which the data exist. It surely can be altered, but here too we don’t know how. Shifting the electoral system in the United States from winner-take-all to proportional representation would require a constitutional amendment, which is a near impossibility at a moment when the country is evenly split between left and right.11

That leaves citizens’ opportunity for political efficacy. Fortunately, here there are many possibilities.

Begin with national politics.12 We should make it easier to vote. Voter registration should be automatic. Elections should be on a weekend day, or election day should be a national holiday. Voting by mail should be available everywhere. Efforts to suppress voter eligibility should be thwarted. People with criminal convictions should be permitted to vote.

We should reform campaign finance. Many who rightly decry the influence of private money from interest groups and wealthy individuals in American elections focus on ways to restrict the flow of this money. A better strategy might be to increase transparency, allowing everyone to know what interests are supporting which parties and candidates, and to offset the impact of private money with public money. Particularly helpful in enhancing citizens’ sense of political efficacy might be to give each adult a small amount of money they could donate to a campaign of their choice.

Gerrymandering of House of Representatives districts should end. Each decade, following the census, these districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts. To ensure that this process doesn’t intentionally tilt the playing field toward one of the two parties, it should be handled by independent commissions rather than by state governments.

The Senate should pare back the filibuster. Requiring a supermajority to pass most legislation is fundamentally anti-democratic. It should be reserved for only a small number of Senate decisions.

The evidence reviewed in the previous section suggests that political decentralization boosts citizens’ sense of their ability to influence policy making. The United States already has a considerable degree of decentralization. About half of government expenditures in the US come from state and local governments, a larger share than in many other affluent democratic nations. Yet there is opportunity for additional progress at the local level.

In about half of the states, Americans regularly cast yes or no votes on an assortment of initiatives and referendums, making policy decisions directly rather than indirectly through elected representatives. This very likely enhances people’s feeling of political efficacy.

But direct democracy has drawbacks: those with lots of money have a greater advantage in swaying voters to pass a ballot initiative than in getting lawmakers to follow their wishes, citizens frequently vote in favor of populist but shortsighted reforms such as term limits and tax cuts, and the yes-or-no format of direct democracy weakens the quality of policy outputs.13 A helpful way to address these shortcomings of referendums is via advisory deliberative citizen assemblies (sometimes called “minipublics”). A random, demographically-representative sample of 10 to 150 adults is drawn from the relevant population, provided with extensive information about an issue, and given a few days, a week, or more to meet and discuss the issue, with guidance from experienced facilitators. Their charge is to determine the most useful formulation of the question that will be put to the citizenry, and to convey the relevant considerations to voters in a short, simple, readable format. Advisory assemblies of this type have been used to good effect in Ireland and the Netherlands, in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, in the state of Oregon, and in a variety of cities.14

Advisory assemblies could also be used to guide legislative policy making, at both the local and national level.

Like citizen trial juries, deliberative citizen assemblies are likely to enhance the impartiality of decision making, reduce the influence of private money in politics, and increase people’s satisfaction with the way their democracy works. A recent overview concludes that “many deliberative minipublics work as intended by their designers. They feature supportive institutional features, such as balanced information materials, experts on both sides available for questioning, facilitation, and sessions with different functions, as well as deliberative norms. Minipublics that are well-designed and well-supported are proving conducive to surprisingly high levels of deliberative quality as well as to opinion change driven by argument rather than by undesirable group dynamics.”15

Danish-style user boards are another mechanism that can enhance citizens’ political influence. These bodies are directly elected by the users of services such as educational institutions, job training agencies, and eldercare providers. They have the authority to guide the overall direction of service delivery, though the administrative personnel who make day-to-day decisions continue to be appointed by subnational governments.

Also as in Denmark, local governments can include representatives of interest groups and organizations in the decision making process. There is a long history of this at the national level in rich democratic nations, mainly featuring labor and business representatives discussing or negotiating economic and social policy together with government officials (“corporatist concertation”).16 This type of participation can be just as valuable and meaningful at the local level, and the groups represented can extend far beyond business and labor to include organizations for minority groups, the disabled, the environment, retirees, and many more.17

SUMMARY

The key contributors to people’s satisfaction with the way their democracy is working are government performance, citizen’s representation in the government, and citizens’ opportunity for political efficacy. A promising strategy for boosting political satisfaction may be to increase the role of local governments in the planning and delivery of services and other programs and to institutionalize mechanisms for greater citizen influence over local government. In the United States, there also are some simple reforms at the national level that seem likely to help.


  1. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stephan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996; Adam Przeworski, Michael E. Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development, Cambridge University Press, 2000; Pippa Norris, Democratic Deficit, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 
  2. Christopher Claassen, “Does Public Support Help Democracy Survive?,” American Journal of Political Science, 2020. 
  3. Measures of confidence in government correlate very strongly with this satisfaction measure across countries. See Tom van der Meer and Armen Hakhverdian, “Political Trust as the Evaluation of Process and Performance: A Cross-National Study of 42 European Countries,” Political Studies, 2017. 
  4. Christopher Anderson and Christine Guillory, “Political Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy: A Cross-National Analysis of Consensus and Majoritarian Systems,” American Political Science Review, 1997; Quinton Mayne, The Satisfied Citizen, unpublished, 2016. 
  5. Arthur Miller and Ola Listhaug, “Political Performance and Institutional Trust,” in Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Government, edited by Pippa Norris, Oxford University Press, 1999; Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists, Princeton University Press, 2016; Richard Wike and Shannon Schumacher, “Democratic Rights Popular Globally but Commitment to Them Not Always Strong,” Pew Research Center, 2020. 
  6. Stefan Dahlberg and Soren Holmberg, “Democracy and Bureaucracy: How Their Quality Matters for Popular Satisfaction,” West European Politics, 2014; David Sanders, Harold Clarke, Marianne Stewart, and Paul Whiteley, “Output-Oriented Legitimacy: Individual- and System-Level Influences on Democracy Satisfaction,” in Elections and Democracy, edited by Jacques Thomassen, Oxford University Press, 2014; van der Meer and Hakhverdian, “Political Trust as the Evaluation of Process and Performance.” 
  7. Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, 2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2012; van der Meer and Hakhverdian, “Political Trust as the Evaluation of Process and Performance”; Julian Bernauer and Adrian Vatter, Power Diffusion and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2019. 
  8. Joel Rogers, “Productive Democracy,” The Nation, 2015; Mayne, The Satisfied Citizen. 
  9. Mayne, The Satisfied Citizen. 
  10. Lane Kenworthy, “Economic Growth,” The Good Society. 
  11. Lane Kenworthy, “Is America Too Polarized?,” The Good Society. 
  12. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia, Simon and Schuster, 2016; Phil Keisling, “Vote from Home, Save Your Country,” Washington Monthly, 2016; Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America?, University of Chicago Press, 2017; Sam Wang and Brian Remlinger, “Slaying the Partisan Gerrymander,” The American Prospect, 2017; Brennan Center, “Automatic Voter Registration”; Brennan Center, “Money in Politics”; Brennan Center, “Redistricting.” 
  13. David Broder, Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, Harcourt, 2000; Achen and Bartels, Democracy for Realists, ch. 3. 
  14. Andre Bächtiger, John S. Dryzek, Jane Mansbridge, and Mark Warren, “Deliberative Democracy: An Introduction,” in Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, edited by Andre Bächtiger et al, Oxford University Press, 2018; Graham Smith and Maija Setälä, “Mini-Publics and Deliberative Democracy,” in Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, edited by Andre Bächtiger et al, Oxford University Press, 2018; Tom Arnold, David M. Farrell, and Jane Suiter, “Lessons from a Hybrid Sortition Chamber: The 2012-14 Irish Constitutional Convention,” in John Gastil, Erik Olin Wright et al, Legislature by Lot, Verso, 2019; Yves Sintomer, “From Deliberative to Radical Democracy: Sortition and Politics in the Twenty-First Century,” in John Gastil, Erik Olin Wright et al, Legislature by Lot, Verso, 2019; John Gastil and Katherine R. Knobloch, Hope for Democracy, Oxford University Press, 2020. 
  15. Bächtiger et al, “Deliberative Democracy: An Introduction,” p. 14. 
  16. Lane Kenworthy, “Employee Voice,” The Good Society. 
  17. Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, “Secondary Associations and Democratic Governance,” Politics and Society, 1992.