How do people vary in their expectations of democracy?
Having considered what the British public as a whole expect from democracy, we now examine whether and how the strength of people’s commitment to democracy and the nature of their priorities vary across different groups in society. Which groups have particularly high expectations of democracy? Are there certain groups with a weaker commitment to democracy which might place them at risk of disengaging from the democratic process?
What role does education play?
There has been a trend in many established democracies, including Britain, towards growing dissatisfaction with democracy (Dalton, 2004; Norris, 2011). Dalton (2004) argues that one reason for this trend may be that an increasingly educated and well-informed public now has higher expectations of what democracy can and should entail. These rising expectations have led to the emergence of “critical citizens” (Norris, 1999) whose dissatisfaction with the political system does not reflect disillusionment with democracy per se but rather a desire to reform the current political system so that it becomes even more democratic.
Table 1.3 provides evidence that the more educated people are, the higher their expectations of democracy tend to be. Reporting on the same issues as in Table 1.2, Table 1.3 shows the average importance score (out of 10) of people with no qualifications; those with GCSE or A level qualifications (or equivalent); and those educated to degree level or above. Most aspects of democracy asked about in the European Social Survey are rated as being more important by those educated to degree level or above. There are three exceptions to this. The expectation that governments should take measures to reduce differences in income levels is seen as being more important by those educated below degree level. Also, citizens having the final say in referendums and punishing governing parties in elections when they have done a bad job both receive similarly strong support across all educational groups. The expectations gap between the more and less educated is largest with respect to the importance attached to the broad principles underpinning liberal democracy such as freedom of expression and equality before the law.
However, while expectations of democracy are generally significantly lower among those with no qualifications compared to those educated to degree level this is not to say that those with no qualifications do not have high or wide-ranging expectations of democracy. Even among the least educated group, all aspects of democracy are rated important with scores, on average, of at least seven on the importance scale. Furthermore, ordering the different elements of democracy based on the average score assigned reveals similar rankings across the different educational groups: all three groups, for instance, rate free and fair elections, courts treating everyone equally and government explaining its decisions to voters as among the most important things for democracy.
Are young people committed to democracy?
Levels of political engagement are particularly low among young people. Turnout among 18 to 24 year olds in the 2010 general election was only 45 per cent compared with 69 per cent among the population as a whole (Lee and Young, 2013). Young people are less likely to be interested in politics or feel a duty to vote (Butt and Curtice, 2010). Is this political apathy also reflected in a weaker commitment to democracy among young people?
Table 1.4 shows that young people under 25 attach less importance to some aspects of democracy compared with older age groups. For example, they attach less importance to opposition parties or the media being free to criticise the government or to the media providing citizens with reliable information. On the basis of data collected at just one point in time it is impossible to know whether this represents a generational shift in attitudes, with young people today perhaps being more inclined to take democratic rights and freedoms for granted compared with previous generations, or whether becoming politically aware and recognising the value of democracy is simply something that comes with age. Previous studies of political attitudes among young people suggest that both factors may be at work (Lee and Young, 2013).
It is important, however, not to overstate the extent of young people’s apathy towards democracy. They generally have relatively high expectations of democracy, rating all items seven or higher on the importance scale, and their expectations are similar in several respects to those of other age groups. For example, like the rest of the population, young people expect citizens to be involved in the democratic process, seeing it as very important that governments explain their decisions to voters and that citizens have the final say on important issues via referendums.
Is there a left-right divide in expectations?
Given that policy makers have the potential to shape the nature of democracy through constitutional reform it is worth considering the extent to which there is consensus across the political spectrum regarding the essential attributes of democracy, or whether people on different sides of the political divide prioritise different things. Consistent with the strong association between left-wing ideology and support for redistribution and welfare provision (Jacoby, 1994), we might expect those on the left to attach more importance to social justice. People placing themselves on the right of the political spectrum have traditionally held more authoritarian views and tended to be more socially conservative (Kitschelt, 1994). This may mean that they attach less importance to people having the freedom to challenge authority or the protection of minority rights.
Table 1.5 compares the expectations of individuals who place themselves on either the left or the right of the political spectrum. There is a great deal of consensus across the political divide with both groups attaching similarly high importance to aspects of democracy including the role of the courts, the need for free and fair elections, the government explaining its decisions to voters and citizens having the final say via referendums. However, as predicted, there are also differences between those on the left and the right. Those on the left demonstrate, on average, a stronger commitment to liberal values including freedom of expression for the press and opposition parties as well as protecting the rights of minority groups. Those on the left also rate the achievement of social outcomes – particularly taking steps to reduce differences in income levels – as being more important than those on the right. It is notable though that even those placing themselves on the right of the political spectrum see protecting citizens against poverty as important, scoring above eight on the importance scale. This emphasises the importance that the public in general attaches to a democratic political system which looks after the basic material needs of its citizens. Of course, those on the left and right may disagree on the best means to achieve this including, for example, the importance they each attach to income redistribution.
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- Blair, T. (2000), speech on Britishness, London, Mar 28. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.guardian.co.uk/britain/article/0,2763,184950,00.html. Brown, G. (2006), “The Future of Britishness”, speech presented to the Fabian Society’s New Year Conference, London, 14 January. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.fabians.org.uk. Cameron, D. (2011), speech on radicalization and Islamic extremism, speech presented at the Munich Security Conference, Munich, 5 February. Retrieved 27 March 2014, from www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=329.
- The European Social Survey provides nationally representative probability samples of all residents aged 15 and over in a number of European countries and covers a wide range of social and political topics. Six rounds of the survey have been carried out to date. Unlike the British Social Attitudes survey, the European Social Survey collects data for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. However, NI cases are excluded from the analysis presented here and the remaining respondents were asked to evaluate democracy in Britain. The data for this chapter are from Round 6 of the survey conducted in the UK between September 2012 and January 2013. European Social Survey Round 6: European Social Survey Round 6 Data (2012/13). Data file edition 1.2. Design weights were applied in all analyses. Post-stratification weights were not available at the time of analysis but have since been added to the data file (Edition 2.0). Further information about the survey can be found at: www.europeansocialsurvey.org.
- European Values Study (2011): European Values Study 2008: Integrated Dataset (European Values Study 2008). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA4800 Data file Version 3.0.0, doi:10.4232/1.11004.
- European Social Survey Round 6 data were available for 24 countries. A second data release in May 2014 included data from further countries.
- The full question wording was:
Now some questions about democracy. Later on I will ask you about how democracy is working in Britain. First, however, I want you to think instead about how important you think different things are for democracy in general. There are no right or wrong answers so please just tell me what you think
- The four groupings are informed by theory and have been shown to work well empirically, producing high Cronbach’s alpha scores. Electoral dimension α = 0.80. Liberal dimension α = 0.82. Social dimension α = 0.74. Participatory dimension α = 0.71.
- Bases for Table 1.2 are as follows:
Mean scores are based on the average response given by all those expressing an opinion. There is obviously a question regarding how reasonable it is to expect people to have thought about and formed meaningful opinions about all of the specific aspects of democracy asked about in the European Social Survey questionnaire. However, although around 5 per cent of respondents did answer “don’t know”, the vast majority of respondents were able to give an answer European Social Survey data showed.
Respondents with no educational qualifications are also less likely to hold an opinion about the requirements of democracy – with levels of “don’t knows” ranging from 9 per cent to 15 per cent across items – as are young people under 25 (7 per cent to 14 per cent “don’t knows”).
Whether people would actually participate in a referendum is another matter. Support for direct democracy in principle is not always matched by high turnout in practice. In the 2011 referendum regarding the electoral system used to elect MPs, for example, turnout was just 42 per cent nationally (www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/journalist/electoral-commission-media-centre/news-releases-referendums/Complete-set-of-provisional-turn-out-figures-for-referendum-now-published). Turnout in the 2012 elections to elect local police commissioners was even lower.
European Social Survey respondents are asked:
In politics people sometimes talk of “left” and “right”. Using this card, where would you place yourself on this scale, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?
Responses 0 to 4 on the scale are categorised as being on the political left, 5 is categorised as centrist (group not shown in analysis) and responses 6 to 10 are categorised as being on the political right.
The items were the same as in Table 1.2 with one exception. Respondents were not asked to evaluate whether “… the courts are able to stop the government acting beyond its authority” applies in Britain. This item is not therefore included in any subsequent analysis.
The full question wording was:
Now some questions about the same topics, but this time about how you think democracy is working in Britain today. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, so please just tell me what you think
Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
Responses on the importance and evaluation scales were rescaled to be between 0 and 1 rather than 0 and 10. The democratic deficit measure for each item, y, was then calculated as follows: (Importance of y (0 to 1) – Evaluation of whether y applies in Britain (0 to 1)) x Importance (0–1).
Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows:
European Social Survey data collected in 2010/11 as part of a module of questions on Trust in Justice provide further insights on this topic (Jackson et al., 2010). As many as 50 per cent of people in the UK think that a poor person is more likely than a rich person to be found guilty of an identical crime they did not commit while 30 per cent of respondents feel that someone of a different race or ethnic group from the majority would be more likely to be found guilty. (European Social Survey Round 5 Data (2010). Data file edition 3.0.)
The average deficit on the social democracy dimension was -0.35 among those placing themselves on the left of the political spectrum, -0.25 among those in the centre and -0.20 among those on the right.
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