Márton Bene (Phd in Political Science) is a research fellow at the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence, and a lecturer at Eötvös Lorand University. His research focuses on political communication, social media and politics, and political behavior.
The rise of populism and illiberalism in modern democracies has deepened some feeling of dismay among public opinion and liberal policymakers. For political scientists, who have long researched the political phenomenon, what is left now is the challenge to offer new insights into countering populism. One of these is how to improve the democratic quality of political participation. The DEMOS project attempted to do that by developing a new concept called “democratic efficacy”.
This concept stems from an old idea in political behavior called ‘political efficacy’, which was originally formulated to capture citizens’ subjective attitudes toward politics; more specifically, their notions about their role and position within the political system.
Discussions about political efficacy became highly popular when political scientists found themselves trying to explain why political participation had steadily declined in most Western countries from the 1960s. People had started abstaining from political activities after noticing that political actors had not been responsive to their demands. That trend was noticed between the 1960s and 2000s in European countries like Germany, the UK, and France. Another reason for the decline was people’s belief that they did not have themselves personal capacities—such as knowledge or confidence—to make meaningful decisions in political matters.
While the concept of political efficacy is an important motivational background for political participation, it says nothing about its democratic quality—which DEMOS considers to be an important factor in countering the negative manifestations of populism. It was in order to meet contemporary challenges of political scientists and policymakers addressing this issue that we conceptualized democratic efficacy.
Supplementing political efficacy with a democratic component, democratic efficacy has been designed to capture the way subjective sentiments toward politics (political efficacy), are connected to ‘objective’ individual capacities that are assumed to promote democratic behavior.
Democratic efficacious people have high level of political efficacy, but also follow political news regularly, embrace democratic values such as tolerance, equality, and autonomy; have certain political skills; and are non-intensive partisan—i.e., they do not have strong emotional attraction toward any of the political parties.
Because of that, we expect democratic efficacious people to be more resistant to populist ideas and appeals. On the other hand, we expect that people who have lower levels of political efficacy, do not follow political news, and refuse the above-mentioned values, lack these political skills. Those are also more intensive partisans and usually more willing to support populist and antidemocratic political actors.
To uncover the role of democratic efficacy in political behavior we built a typology that is able to capture the different shades of the concepts. In our survey research covering 15 European countries, we found that only a minor segment of the voters have complete democratic efficacy (11%), but there is a lot of variety regarding the lack of certain democratic capacities. At the other end of the spectrum, the research shows that, for 21% of respondents, the low level of political efficacy is paired with incomplete democratic capacities. Incomplete democratic efficacy is more widespread in Eastern and Central European countries.
Our first findings also indicate that there is a direct relationship between people being democratic efficacious and at the same time able to react against populist attitudes. People with low level of democratic efficacy are the most receptive to populist appeals—such as anti-elite rhetoric, reference to ordinary people or “dangerous” others, while those with high level of it reject such ideas. Not only does democratic efficacy contribute to enriching our scientific understanding about populism and its challenges, but also serves as a starting point for effective policy options. Some key ideas that DEMOS will formulate include both the promotion of democratic education and democratic participation for youth in order to boost their democratic efficacy.