The recession that hit in 2008 led to the loss of millions of jobs and soaring levels of unemployment, but what effect has it had on political participation? Based on a recent study, Anna Kern, Sofie Marien and Marc Hooghe write that while economic growth is positively associated with forms of political participation that ‘challenge elites’, such as protests or boycotts, crises that raise unemployment, such as that between 2008 and 2010, also generate similar types of participation.
Of the French Revolution, Saint Just famously stated that it is the miserable masses who constitute the power of the earth and the idea that grievances cause political action remains up-to-date to this day. However, when we compare a larger set of countries, political participation tends to be highest in economically advanced democracies. The recent economic and financial crisis provides a unique setting to investigate what happens to political participation when a number of economically advanced democracies are confronted with a substantial and profound economic shock.
Recently, massive protests have erupted in those southern European countries worst hit by the crisis, as governments and the European Union were held responsible for their lack of determination to address the crisis and its consequences. In Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, demonstrators took to the streets to express their frustration with the way their governments reacted to the crisis. Such a reaction seems logical, following the “grievance argument” which claims that threatened economic interests function as a major incentive for political engagement. Following this idea, dissatisfaction with important aspects of life, such as living standards, income, or employment, stimulates political participation and protest behaviour in particular.
Yet, we also know from a large number of studies that actors require resources to be able to participate politically. Following this “resource argument” we would expect a positive relationship between having access to meaningful material resources and levels of political activity. Assuming that the financial and economic crisis led to depleting material resources, it should depress levels of political engagement. Consequently, the “grievance argument” and the “resource argument” lead to contrasting expectations about the impact of the crisis on political participation.
Using cumulative data from the European Social Survey (2002-2010) and economic indicators from the World Bank, we tested these “grievance” versus “resource arguments”. By using a multilevel analysis we can examine whether the effects of economic crisis on political participation differ for the 26 European countries while also taking the individual situation of the respondents into account.
Thereby, we distinguish between two broad categories of political participation; institutionalised forms of political participation which are related to the electoral process and organised by the political system on the one hand, and non-institutionalised forms of political participation which represent potentially elite-challenging forms of political engagement on the other hand. Given that the “grievance argument” has predominantly been associated with protest behaviour, we expect that economic downturn mainly comes along with an increase in non-institutionalised forms of political participation.
The results of the multilevel analysis show that when investigating the 2002-2010 period, countries’ rising prosperity levels were associated with higher levels of non-institutionalised political participation, which corresponds with the “resource argument”. The finding is supported on both the country as well as on the individual level. However, the financial crisis which developed from 2008 onwards can be considered as highly exceptional, therefore we investigated, in a second step, the changes in participation levels that occurred right after the crisis had hit in 2008.
In 2010, numerous European societies were confronted with rapidly rising unemployment levels. Indeed, if we only look at the 2010 figures, the results are not in line with what we find for the overall observation period. In 2010 rising unemployment levels are strongly related to increasing levels of non-institutionalised political participation. Rapidly growing unemployment levels, therefore, seem to be associated with a wave of protest behaviour. While this result seems difficult to understand from the perspective of the “resource argument”, it can explained based on the “grievance argument”: As citizens clearly felt deprived they wanted to convey a message about their grievance to national and supra-national political decision-makers even though the pool of resources shrank.
While this study was set up as a test between two alternative arguments, the results of the analysis reveal a more complex reality. An analysis covering a longer period of time provides strong support for the “resource argument”, while a more specific analysis of the period after the crisis had emerged tends to be more in line with the “grievance argument”. Yet, we argue that it is possible to reconcile these seemingly contradictory findings if we consider the “resource argument” as a baseline model for the explanation of long term trends in levels of political engagement. Generally, those that are well off have more resources that they can use to participate.
This seems to hold at the individual level, as we show that those with high educational credentials and those who are more satisfied with their income tend to participate more intensively, while the unemployed tend to be more passive. With higher participation levels in the wealthy countries of Europe compared to those with a lower GDP per capita level, this finding also holds at the country level. The exception to this pattern is that citizens who are less satisfied with the state of the economy are more likely to become involved in non-institutionalised manners. Engaged citizens were found to be characterised by a combination of resources and dissatisfaction.
However, when focusing on the period right after the economic crisis hit Europe, a different picture emerges. At this point the “grievance argument” is supported. It has to be remembered, however, that in this time period the rise in unemployment was highly exceptional and for some countries even historically unprecedented. Public opinion reacted strongly to this shock, and this led to more protests, as could be observed in countries like Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.
This kind of dramatic and sudden change can lead to the occurrence of “suddenly imposed grievances” which allows for the baseline model of a positive relationship between resources and participatory behaviour to be overcome. Yet highly unusual levels of grievances are required to boost participation levels. Hence, these suddenly imposed grievances will most likely not lead to long term periods of enduring mobilisation and high participation levels.
Note: This article originally appeared at our sister site, Democratic Audit, and gives the views of the author, not the position of the British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Anna Kern is an academic at the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
Sofie Marien is assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher at the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy in Belgium.
Marc Hooghe is professor of political science at the University of Leuven.