What Shapes Political Efficacy in Europe?

December 12, 2019 7:49 AM

Eglė Butkevičienė (1), Kaunas University of Technology.

Vaidas Morkevičius (2), Kaunas University of Technology.


Political efficacy has been studied for quite a long time as it has been found to correlate with political participation and, more generally, with the quality of governance in democratic polities around the world. Theoretically, political efficacy has two sides: internal and external. Internal political efficacy deals with citizens' beliefs that they have competences to understand and effectively participate in politics. And external political efficacy is related to public perceptions of responsiveness of governmental institutions. Low political efficacy means that citizens distrust governmental institutions and do not believe thta their actions will have an effect on governance. Therefore, low political efficacy is related to political alienation, which is detrimental to the health of the democratic political system.

Scholars approached studies of political efficacy from various perspectives and many of them analysed factors promoting internal and external political efficacy (for some recent attempts see Kim 2013; Marx, Nguyen 2016) as both of them are important for the quality of democratic governance. For the H2020 project DEMOS, the research team at Kaunas University of Technology has analysed data from the European Social Survey (ESS) Round 8 to identify trends and determinants of political efficacy in Europe. The ESS is one of the important pan-European surveys for exploring political attitudes, including political efficacy. This data source is well-known for its excellence in cross-cultural methodology allowing for rigorous cross-country comparisons. 

In the ESS Round 8 internal political efficacy has been measured by asking respondents two questions: (1) How able do you think you are to take an active role in a group involved with political issues? (5 point answer scale: from 1 - Not at all able to 5 - Completely able); (2) And how confident are you in your own ability to participate in politics? (5 point answer scale: from 1 - Not at all confident to 5 - Completely confident). 

External political efficacy has been measures by another two items: (1) How much would you say the political system in [country] allows people like you to have a say in what the government does? (5 point answer scale: from 1 - Not at all to 5 - A great deal); (2) And how much would you say that the political system in [your country] allows people like you to have an influence on politics? (5 point answer scale: from 1 - Not at all to 5 - A great deal).

These indicators of internal and external political efficacy have been combined into a general index of political efficacy.

The analysis of trends of political efficacy across countries included into the ESS Round 8 showed that people from Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden and Germany are among those who express highest levels of political efficacy, while residents of Lithuania, Russia, Italy, Slovenia and Estonia are among those who show the lowest levels of political efficacy (see Fig. 1). These findings indicate that political efficacy is lower in Southern as well as Eastern and Central European countries, while it is higher in Western European countries that are well- and long-established democracies.

Fig. 1. Trends of political efficacy in European countries: country means of political efficacy index (range of values of the index: 1-5).
Source: European Social Survey Round 8 Data (2016).

Trying to infer the reasons of variation of political efficacy across individuals and countries, we performed multilevel regression analysis including various socio-economic explanatory variables at the individual level (gender, age, education, place of residence, income, social class etc.) and some of the country level variables (GDP pc, income inequality, quality of democratic institutions and cultural values).

The findings showed that both socio-economic factors on micro (individual) level and different macro (country) level factors affect citizens’ perceptions about their competences to effectively participate in politics and public perceptions of government responsiveness. On the individual level, political efficacy is higher for persons who:

  • are male,
  • have higher education,
  • reside in big cities,
  • are single,
  • do not have children,
  • are not retired,
  • have higher household income,
  • belong to higher social class.

Political efficacy is higher in countries that could be characterized as having higher levels of individualism and lower levels of uncertainty avoidance (both of these value orientations were measured employing Hofstede’s conceptualization). Also, political efficacy is higher in more economically affluent (measured by GDP per capita) and equal (measured by Gini index) societies. Finally, people in countries with stronger democratic institutions (measured with the Quality of Democracy index produced by the Democracy Barometer) showed higher levels of political efficacy.

These results show that political efficacy is highly related to individual socio-economic positon of individuals as well as on the quality of social, cultural, economic and political institutions. To be sure, some individuals are quite politically efficacious in countries with institutions not conducive to higher levels of political efficacy. At the same time, there are individuals in countries with high levels of political efficacy that do not feel that they are competent to effectively participate in politics and influence decisions of the government. However, different micro and macro factors constitute the environment where citizens function as political actors. Changes in these micro (personal social position) and macro (institutional settings) factors affect public views on themselves and functioning of polities. And since low political efficacy leads to political alienation which may incentivise various protest behaviours, political efficacy (especially, external) may be one of the important factors shaping populist attitudes and voting. Therefore, further studies of the links between political efficacy and populism seem to be a promising and important research field.

(1) Butkevičienė, Ph.D., is a full Professor and Vice-Dean for Research of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at Kaunas University of Technology. Her research interests include civil society, public policy, social innovations, social entrepreneurship, community development, non-governmental organizations, and cross-cultural comparative data analysis. Her recent publications include articles in Public Performance & Management Review, chapters in books Green European: environmental behaviour and attitudes in Europe in a historical and cross-cultural comparative perspective, Global encyclopaedia of public administration, public policy, and governance.

(2) Morkevičius is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Kaunas University of Technology. His research interests include public and elite attitudes and behaviour, social stratification, political and media discourse, text analytics, and social data analysis (applied statistics, qualitative data analysis, and qualitative comparative analysis). His most recent book publication is The Europe of Elites: The Kaleidoscope of Identities and Interests (co-authored with Irmina Matonytė).

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