Economic evaluations, procedural fairness, and satisfaction with democracy

By Pedro Magalhães.

Do we need really another paper about “satisfaction with democracy”? We already know a lot about it. On the one hand, we know that citizens’  satisfaction with the way democracy works in their country is affected by how the economy is doing, or at least by how people perceive it to be doing: evaluations of economic performance have “a strong and highly significant effect (…) on support for national democracy.” On the other hand, we also know that when citizens perceive that politicians and public officials are corrupt or when people don’t trust they will be treated fairly and honestly by the state, support for the regime also suffers. In a sense, what this tells us is people’s relationship with the political regime is no different from the one they have with other institutions and organisations, including the workplaces or courts that social psychologists have studied for a long time: authorities, above and beyond their ability to deliver favorable outcomes, are also evaluated on the basis of the perceived fairness, transparency, and impartiality of their policies and decisions (see, for example, classics such as Thibaut and Walker 1975 or Lind and Tyler 1988). We all want good outcomes and fair procedures.

However, one thing that social psychologists have also shown but political scientists have largely disregarded is that the effect of “favourable outcomes” and “procedural fairness” in satisfaction with authorities  is not merely additive: it is interactive. In particular, “across a wide variety of studies, high procedural fairness has been found to reduce the effect of outcome favorability on people’s support for decisions, decision makers, and organizations, relative to when procedural fairness is low.” Why should that be the case? It may be that, if people feel they are given voice in decisions and policies, they will tend to discount present negative outcomes and trust more in future benefits. Fair procedures may also help changing the very nature of the relationship with authorities, making individuals care less about tangible and immediate benefits and more about intangible and long-term ones. Perceived unfairness may even lead people to think more about the outcomes that would ensue had procedures been fairer, feeding more resentment if outcomes are negative. And perceived unfairness may contribute to hold authorities more accountable for outcomes than they would have been if rules and procedures had been impartial. There are different theoretical approaches about this, but the empirical point is the same: outcome favourability and procedural fairness interact in the explanation of satisfaction with, and support for, authorities.

Does that also happen at the macro-political level, at the political regime level, for example? That’s the question I asked in this paper, forthcoming at Political Research Quarterly. Using European Social Survey data, round 6, and particularly the module on “Understandings and Evaluations of Democracy” contained in that round, the paper looks at the perceived neutrality of the regime (“free and fair elections”, “courts treat everyone the same”), citizens’ perceived standing before authorities (“government explains decisions to people”) and people’s trust in authorities (particularly, trust in parliament), three central elements of the concept of procedural fairness. Then, it examines, using multilevel models, the extent to which such procedural fairness moderates the impact of economic evaluations on satisfaction with democracy across 29 countries. The main result is in the graph below, and the answer is clearly yes: the more the regime is perceived to be procedurally fair, the smaller the effect of economic evaluations on the extent to which people are satisfied with democracy.

Figure 1

There’s more in the paper, including tests of other hypotheses in the literature (some confirmed, some not). But the main points are three. First, the procedure/outcome interaction familiar in organisational psychology studies seems to extend to the macro-political realm. Second, such interaction may help explaining why the gap between North and South in terms of political support widened so much during the economic crisis: besides economic performance being worse in the South, political support in countries with worse quality of governance may be more vulnerable to economic performance downturns. Finally, the message that democratic satisfaction is a “performance driven-attitude” may need to be further qualified: this is true when regimes are thought to lack in transparency and impartiality, but when overall quality of governance is higher, support seems to be more insulated from economic performance. Take a look if you’re interested, comments very welcome.


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