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More or Less Equality? National Referendums in Europe from 1990 to 2015

Democracy
Referendums and Initiatives
Social Policy
Empirical
Anna Krämling
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Anna Krämling
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Lars Paulus
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Abstract

Direct democratic instruments are currently discussed as a very popular means to “bring citizens back in”. Following the general argument of supporters of direct democracy, such instruments can contribute to enhancing political trust and legitimacy, thus solving some of the most severe problems of the current “crisis of democracy”. While some authors, in this context, claim that direct democratic instruments have the potential to foster equality within democratic societies, others have a more negative view. In current research on direct democracy and its effects on inequality three major gaps can be identified: 1) most studies only focus on single countries, namely the US and Switzerland; 2) the effects of direct democracy are merely examined with regard to socio-economic aspects of inequality, other (in-) equality dimensions are neglected; 3) a great majority of studies in the field only looks at legal options of direct democracy and not on the effects of citizen-votes themselves. This paper aims to fill these gaps by analyzing the impact of actual direct democratic decisions on multiple dimensions of inequality. We do so by comparing the results of all national referendums and initiatives in European democracies between 1990 and 2015 (514 in total) in a large-n, comparative study. Do referendums promote or hinder equality, or do they have no effect at all? Our analysis will look at the concrete outcomes of direct democratic decisions, and assess how they affect inequality. The results are important for the evaluation of direct democracy as a means to complement representative democracy and shaping democratic institutions in the future. As equality is one of the basic values of liberal democracies, the potential of direct democracy in fostering or impeding it should be a central criterion for the assessment of potential extensions of popular decision-making.