For the People and by the People : The Perception of Citizen’s Political Power in Modern Democracies and its Measurement
To what extent citizens are satisfied or dissatisfied with their institutions in modern Western democracies? Scholars have long stressed the need to assess citizen support for their political institutions in order to monitor the legitimacy of democratic regimes. Since the first report from the Trilateral Commission (Crozier, Huntington and Wataunki, 1975), modern survey research has widely examined the theme of the crisis of democracy (Norris 2011, Ferrin and Kriesi 2016, van Ham et al 2017, van Beek 2019), pointing towards disappointment with the regime performances but strong beliefs in democratic principles. Doing so, several indicators have been conceptualized, operationalized, and integrated into major international social surveys so as to enable comparative research and to follow trends across time.
Recognizing the benefits of such measures, in this paper I would like nonetheless to put in perspective their intellectual origins. I argue that the postwar “minimalist”, “procedural” and “realist” view of democracy which has been dominant among political science scholars in the legacy of J. Schumpeter has contributed to minimizing the popular component of democracy, even though popular control over public decision-making is at the core of democratic principles (Beetham 1994, Saward 2003). In consequence, validated measures of support for democracy have likely been tailored at the time according to criteria that are most important for a procedural perspective. This normative imprint has led to focus on collecting data on the functioning of representative democracy through electoral institutions and the rule of law, and reversely it has contributed to set aside the study of the role of the citizens.
Building on this observation, the paper offers an attempt to shift back the focus on citizens ‘power (and their own perception of it) to evaluate the functioning of democratic regimes. I first define the notion of “perceived political power” and I show how it can integrate both the framework of regime support (Norris 1999) and system framework (Easton 1965). Then, I propose a method of operationalization using data from the democracy module in the 6th round of the European Social Survey. After selecting a series of item that tap into citizens' power, I run exploratory factor analyses and I aggregate the variables to build a synthetic indicator of “perceived political power”. In order to test the robustness of the new indicator, I present a replication of the operationalization, using an ad hoc dataset (a cross-national survey, fielded online in March 2019 in six West European countries with an average sample of 1,200 per country). Finally, I display how the new measure relates to existing indicators such as political trust, populism, political efficacy, and satisfaction with democracy. I then discuss the implications and limits of such an endeavor.