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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter August 7, 2020

Discontent as motivation: Why people engage with the democratic process

  • Katrin Praprotnik and Flooh Perlot
From the journal Human Affairs


Despite the rich variety of entertainment in Western European countries, some people choose to spend their limited spare time participating in the democratic process. They not only go to the polls at election time, but also sign political petitions, take part in legal demonstrations, contact politicians and participate online. These people’s actions are relevant to their democratic systems so this paper aims to provide a better understanding of their participation. We present new evidence from a large-scale survey in Austria. In our analysis, we examine a new concept of feeling discontented, we focus on individuals’ perceptions of how society is developing in relation their own situation, and argue that these judgements drive their participation. We find that a feeling of discontent has a positive effect on participation, as do internal efficacy and social capital. However, discontented people with high levels of external efficacy tend to participate less.


When asked about the importance of different aspects of their lives, people ranked politics last. Only 10 percent or less of respondents in Western Europe (in countries like Austria, Germany or Italy) consider it very important, while at the other end of the spectrum, between 80 and 90 percent, say the same thing about family. Only one in every five people discuss politics frequently (EVS, 2016). One might argue that not only is it unfair to compare politics with personal life, but it also ignores the political architecture in these countries. These Western Democracies are all representative democracies. Consequently, elected politicians are responsible for most political decisions and regularly scheduled elections provide citizens with an opportunity to reward or punish political decisions. Since electoral turnout is usually high, people fulfil their political duty and are free to focus on their personal lives in between elections.

However, this argument misses the point. While voting can be seen as the core act in a representative democracy, it is evident that it is not enough to support a democratic system. Verba and Nie (1972, p. 1) have argued, “[w]here few take part in decisions there is little democracy; the more participation there is in decisions, the more democracy there is.” [2] Recent studies on participation seem to agree with this line of argumentation and include additional activities in their definitions of participation (Adler & Goggin, 2005; Ekman & Amnå, 2012; Teorell et al., 2007). Although there are differences in the definitions of political participation, van Deth (2014, pp. 351–352) identified four characteristics that most scholars accept: Political participation is (1) an activity (but see Ekman & Amnå, 2012) and this activity is undertaken by (2) ordinary citizens and not politicians. Furthermore, political participation is (3) voluntary and, finally, relates to (4) the sphere of government, state, and politics.

Given the importance of participation in democratic systems, the self-evident question—particularly with regard to voluntarism—is: Why do people participate in politics at all? It is a costly endeavor, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of time, information and skills (Bradey et al., 1995; Erbe, 1964; Franklin, 2004; Lilleker & Koc-Michalska, 2017; Verba et al., 1995). We contribute to the literature on participation as follows: To the best of our knowledge, we present an innovative research design on political participation. Our study is the first to focus on general public discontent and to tie this in with the concepts of (internal and external) political efficacy and social capital. Our results confirm that growing discontent leads to higher political participation. Furthermore, we detect a significant interaction between discontent and external political efficacy. This is particularly interesting because previous studies found that external efficacy had no effect on participation, despite theories on the subject contradicting this (e.g. for Austria: Glavanovits et al., 2019b). In addition to this theoretical contribution to the literature, we present a case study on Austria, based on the democracy radar (Demokratieradar), a mass survey we conducted by telephone and online of more than 4,000 people in the summer of 2018. It is the largest cross-sectional empirical study on political participation outside of elections in Austria. We explicitly designed the survey to answer the research question on participation, and the present paper now reports the results.

Theory and hypotheses

At the center of our considerations were citizens of representative democracies who organize their limited spare time. They are aware of the different kinds of options available to them and are able to rank these options according to their preferences. Consequently, their actions are only rational from their own perspective and not necessarily from an objective point of view. For example, some argue that it is irrational to participate in demonstrations because of the time required compared with the possible outcome of such activity. However, some people demonstrate anyway since it is important to them. We are interested in the point at which participating in the political process becomes important enough to citizens that they use their spare time to do so. In contrast to classical socio-economic models on participation (SES models, e.g. Erbe, 1964; Foskett, 1955; Woodward & Roper, 1950), we move away from the classical Downsian rational utility-maximizer (Downs, 1957) that is also found in the Civic Voluntarism model by Verba et al. (1972, 1995). The subjectively rational citizen described here is more similar to citizens in the most recent studies in the socio-psychological literature on collective action. Van Zomeren et al. (2012, p. 180) conclude that participants in protest activities are “passionate economists” that take both cost-benefit calculations and emotions into account (also see Klandermans, 1997; Quaranta, 2015; van Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2013; van Zomeren & Spears, 2009).

Based on this understanding of subjectively rational citizens, our key argument holds that a feeling of discontent will make political participation so important to individuals that they are more likely to participate. Politics aside, being dissatisfied can have many different reasons and is seen generally as a motivator that can culminate in major life changes (Baumeister, 1994). Marital or work-related problems, however, do not necessarily lead to political participation. In order to be relevant to this paper, the discontent has to concern an issue that falls within the jurisdiction or at least the sphere of influence of politicians and that it is not—from a subjective point of view—dealt with in a satisfactory way. In this sense we follow a broader understanding of discontent that is not limited to criticism of the political system or the political elite as found in research on protest voting (Bergh, 2004; Passareli & Tuorto, 2018; see also Ford & Goodwin, 2010; van der Bles et al., 2017). Examples of relevant issues include citizens who may have become discontented with the way society handles equal rights for women and men, treats its immigrants, or combats climate change. The reasons for feeling discontented are diverse and we could continue this list arbitrarily. In that sense, even marital dissatisfaction becomes relevant if it is due to a dispute about sharing parental leave; and work problems fit the definition if they concern the employer’s interpretation of legislation on working hours (for general economic discontent and voter turnout see Burden & Wichowsky, 2014). It is not necessary for the individual to be personally affected by the current situation; however, we acknowledge that social identity theories claim that whenever identification with a disadvantaged group is strong, collective action increases (Tajfel, 1978). Note that we refer to a subjective perception of undesirable developments since it is irrelevant whether the injustice is based on facts. As relative deprivation theories on collective action have argued, perceived disadvantages compared to other social groups lead to a subjective sense of injustice, which favors participation (Pettigrew, 1967; Walker & Smith, 2002).

To sum up this line of reasoning, we define the feeling of discontent as a subjective perception of undesirable developments in society and/or the individual’s personal life that are connected with the public sphere. This feeling of discontent will render political participation important to citizens so they will use their limited free time to become politically active. We focus on discontent experienced individually as opposed to a general societal feeling (Steenvoorden, 2015; van der Bles et al., 2015).

Consequently, our first hypothesis is:

H 1: The stronger the feeling of discontent, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

Yet a general feeling that something is wrong may not be enough for someone to try to introduce change by actually participating in the democratic process (as illustrated by several negative findings of studies testing the relative deprivation theory: e.g. Gurney & Tierney, 1982). Therefore, we will look at two other important individual characteristics that might further influence the probability of political participation: political efficacy and social capital. A vast amount of literature on political attitudes has shown the relevance of these most frequently used variables (compare e.g. Craig et al., 1990 p. 289). By including the interaction effect between our new concept—feeling of discontent—and these two variables (see hypotheses 4 and 5 below), we aim to enhance the literature and our understanding of the political participation mechanisms.

Political efficacy as a concept dates back to the mid- 1950s (Campbell et al., 1954) and was originally defined as “the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process” (Campbell, Miller, & Gurin, 1954, p. 187). People with a higher level of political efficacy were expected to be more likely to show up at the polls than people with lower levels.

Following this influential work, efficacy was split theoretically (Lane, 1959) and empirically (Balch, 1974; see also Converse, 1972) into two dimensions. While external efficacy means a respondent’s belief that the political elite will respond to citizens’ actions, internal efficacy refers to a respondent’s evaluation of his or her competencies with respect to politics (the distinction between internal and external efficacy was further analyzed and confirmed by Craig, Niemi, & Silver, 1990; for the further development of the internal efficacy items see Niemi, Craig, & Mattei, 1991).

Our paper will take these two aspects of political efficacy into account and will test their effect on political participation but not voting. We expect both internal and external efficacy will have a positive effect on participation such as posting political statements online or taking part in demonstrations. First, if someone believes they are competent in political issues, then he or she should find it easier to take the next step and actually get involved. Second, if someone believes that his or her actions matter, then he or she should equally be more willing to participate in the political discourse.

The next hypotheses therefore read:

H2a: The higher the internal political efficacy, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

H2b: The higher the external political efficacy, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

The concept of social capital originates from economic literature aiming to explain commercial success (e.g. Lin, 1988). The term was introduced by the economist Glenn Loury (1987) as “non-transferable advantages of birth that are conveyed by parental behaviors bearing on later-life productivity” (p. 272). He argued that—although important—group-conscious state actions and civil rights laws cannot fully equalize disadvantages for blacks and females. Economic success hinges on a person’s social environment. Families group themselves into certain social clusters that are able (or unable) to provide community goods to group members and functioning economic relationships rely upon trust and respect between the actors. The absence of fruitful social surroundings impedes an individual’s career (Loury, 1987).

His work clearly influences today’s understanding of social capital in the social sciences in general, and in political science in particular. Coleman (1990, p. 302) defines social capital as the relationships between actors and therefore, unlike physical or human capital, social capital does not lie within individuals, but in the linkage between them. Furthermore, these social structures can ease cooperation between actors and may thus prove beneficial for the actors involved. Consequently, social capital needs to be understood as a resource or an asset (also see Adler & Kwon, 2002, p. 18). Coleman’s reasoning on social capital is similar to that of Putnam (1993), who emphasizes the significance of trust for social capital. Looking at the case of Italy, he concludes that the presence of social capital in the North explains much of this region’s economic and political lead over the southern part of the country. His main argument is that although economics and politics often require cooperation between political institutions, parties, non-governmental organizations, or members of civil society, establishing and monitoring rules or contracts in all these cases would be far too cumbersome. Trust, however, is able to stimulate cooperation even in the absence of specific contracts. If cooperation is embedded within norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement, then trust relationships—and ultimately social capital—is strengthened further (Putnam, 1993, pp. 170–171).

Therefore, we hypothesize that trust in particular, and social capital in general, have an important impact on the decision to participate. Taking part in political discourse requires cooperation and builds on a certain level of trust between the actors. Why should someone contact a politician with his or her problems if the person does not trust the recipient of the message? Why should someone sign a petition if he or she does not trust in the initiator’s purity of intentions? Finally, to give one last and probably the most extreme example, why should someone engage with a political party or organization, if he or she does not trust fellow members? This argument is based on the rationale that no one wants to waste his or her time or wants to be betrayed by others. If these risks become prevalent, then political cooperation should decrease. Following Putnam (1993, p. 171), we further acknowledge that social norms and networks may enable or strengthen social trust and are thus relevant components of a social capital concept.

Thus, our third hypothesis reads:

H3: The higher the social capital, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

Finally, we turn to the interaction effects. We assume that the feeling of discontent can be fueled by both political efficacy and social capital. In other words, we argue that especially people who feel dissatisfied and are furthermore equipped with high levels of political efficacy or social capital will engage more with the democratic process than others. The empirical studies in that field mainly concentrate on the effect of discontent concerning the system/the political elite (Passarelli & Tuorto, 2018; Webb, 2013). There is scarce empirical evidence that feeling dissatisfied is conditioned by the level of political efficacy. Magni (2017) looked at British politics and found that anger over the economic crisis is conditional to political efficacy. She found that while angry people with low efficacy would refrain from voting, angry people with high efficacy were going to vote.

Therefore, we specify interaction hypotheses that read:

H4a: The stronger the feeling of discontent and the higher the level of internal political efficacy, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

H4b: The stronger the feeling of discontent and the higher the level of external political efficacy, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

H5: The stronger the feeling of discontent and the higher the level of social capital, the higher the number of different participatory acts performed.

Data and method

We present a case study on Austria as an example of a typical Western European, representative democracy. Our analysis uses data from the first wave of the Demokratieradar (democracy radar), a bi-annual mass survey conducted by the Austrian Democracy Lab. It took place between June and August 2018 and is based on a combined telephone/online-sample of 4,838 people living in Austria (see Online Appendix A1).

Our dependent variable measures participation in the democratic process. We asked respondents whether they had at least once been involved in each of the six different political activities over the last twelve months (see Table 1). We deliberately excluded voting as one of the forms of participation. While turning out to vote is no doubt a centerpiece of representative democracy, we wanted to focus on other ways people take part in politics. The activities are key participatory acts that all comply with the four characteristics of participation as identified by van Deth (2014, pp. 351–352).

Table 1

Measures of political participation

Participation activity
Signing a popular petition or signing/collecting signatures for a political issue 45%
Contacting a politician 20%
Posting about political issues online 19%
Working in a political party or any other political organization 10%
Participating in a legal demonstration 8%
Wearing a button or attaching a sticker with a political message 7%

In the absence of a common definition, van Deth concluded that most scholars seem to agree political participation is a voluntary activity by ordinary people in relation to the sphere of government, state, and politics. We decided to include online political postings because they clearly differ from political discussions among family, colleagues, or friends and are part of the public discourse that may influence politics. We did not survey whether these inputs were directly or only indirectly (via the political debate) targeted at politicians or parties. Furthermore, we do not distinguish between whether the respondents participated online or offline. Our research interest is in participation itself, in whether someone decides to use his or her spare time to become politically active (but see e.g. Lilleker & Koc-Michalska, 2017 for research on the comparison of online/offline participation). The most common form of participation was signing a popular petition or collecting signatures (chosen by 45 percent). This was followed by contacting a politician (20 percent) and blogging about politics online (19 percent). The other forms of participation were only mentioned by roughly ten percent each. If we compare these descriptive results with previous surveys, we see that our findings fit in well with our current knowledge of participation in Austria (Glavanovits et al., 2019a, b; Kritzinger et al., 2018).

In our statistical analyses, we summed the items in a single index in which “yes” was coded as one and “no” as zero. The most “participatory” respondent would get a score of six, while respondents who did not participate in any of the mentioned forms would get a score of zero. This left us with a rather heavily right-weighted distribution, with about 40 percent scoring zero points, meaning that they had not used any of the forms to participate in the last twelve months. Another 31 percent had performed at least one and 16 percent at least two participatory actions in this timeframe. At the other end of the spectrum, only about five percent had done four or more things from the list.

The dependent variable, the sum of our different forms of participation, can be seen as a count variable. It is also over-dispersed as the variance exceeds the mean. Therefore, we used a negative binomial regression model to assess possible effects (see for instance Zeileis et al., 2008). We ran several robustness checks that we discuss in the paper and present in our online appendix.

Independent variables

In our theoretical section, we argued that a feeling of discontent is key to explaining political participation (H1). We now turn to the operationalization of this new concept. Two items were implemented in the survey and together they make up the main independent variable feeling of discontent (the exact questions can be found in Online Appendix A1). These are, first, the degree to which respondents are concerned that society is growing further and further apart; and second, the degree to which respondents agree that people like themselves are facing more and more difficulties in Austria. The combination of these two items takes the arguments of both social deprivation and social identity theories into account (Tajfel, 1978; Walker & Smith, 2002). We test the subjective evaluation of societal developments and the respondents’ sense of belonging on the disadvantaged group. At the same time, in contrast to the literature on collective action, the wording of this question allows us to predict participation, irrespective of the participation activity under scrutiny. We do not measure the respondents’ affiliation with for example feminist groups or gay movements in order to predict participation in these areas but measure sense of belonging more generally. Both questions were answered on a four-point scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The share of people seeing a division in society was the following: 38 percent agreed strongly, 40 percent agreed somewhat, 17 percent agreed strongly with the personal statement, and 25 percent agreed somewhat. We summed the answers to create a feeling of discontent index, ranging from zero (no feeling of discontent whatsoever) to six (very high feeling of discontent). Four percent of the sample fall into the lowest category (no feeling of discontent) and twelve percent into the highest category (both personal and societal feeling of discontent). About two percent declined to answer the society-centered question and about three percent did not answer the personal-centered question (see Online Appendix A2 for additional descriptive statistics on the independent variables). Note that we assume that this feeling of discontent is present ahead of taking any participatory action, although our data come from a cross-sectional survey, rather than a longitudinal panel. However, we argue that if there is an effect to be found, it is much more likely that discontent played at least some role in motivating the respondents to become active, rather than it just being an unrelated variable.

Next, we built our internal and external political efficacy scales, allowing us to test hypotheses 2a and 2b. As discussed in our theoretical section, the various studies measure political efficacy differently. In order to measure internal efficacy, we included proven statements about whether respondents feel that politics are too complicated for them and whether they are confident in participating in a political discussion. Analogously, we identified two reliable statements in the literature to measure external efficacy: How politicians address the respondents’ interests, and one’s subjective power to influence the government (for both measures compare the American National Election Study or, for Europe, the German ALLBUS survey).

Those statements could again be answered on a four-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree (0-3). We reversed the codes as necessary and calculated the sum of the answers to arrive at two indices of political efficacy, internal and external. Again, the index ranges from zero (no efficacy at all) to six (high efficacy). Between two and three percent declined to answer. In our multivariate models, the variables are labelled Internal and External efficacy.

Hypothesis 3 posits the positive effect of social capital on participation. In line with the most-cited work on social capital in the political science literature, we followed Putnam (1993, p. 167) who defines social capital as “features of social organisation, such as trust, norms, and networks.” He examined a variety of data derived from both official statistics (e.g. number of associations) and mass surveys (e.g. trust items). Whenever necessary, he then aggregated these data at the regional level and set them in relation to the institutional performance of the respective region. Since we are interested in an explanation of political participation at the individual level, we exclusively rely on survey data. We translated each of the three key elements—trust, norms, and networks—into one or more questions to assess each individual’s level of social capital. First, people were asked to evaluate the statement whether most people can be trusted. Second, respondents rated a statement about whether they were willing to help others and get help in return. Both of these statements were answered on a four-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree (0-3). Third, we included several questions on membership of social networks. To measure this aspect of social capital, we calculated a variable consisting of whether the respondents were members of a trade union (yes=1, no=0), a member of any association or club besides a trade union (yes=1, no=0) and an active member of a church (attending services at least once a week=1, everything else, including having no denomination=0). This last coding is based on the idea that having a denomination is not a strong indicator of involvement, as many people in Austria are only members of a church on paper but do not actively participate in the congregation. These three potential networks were summed up in one indicator. Finally, the three variables recording trust, norms, and networks were added to one variable Social capital that ranges from zero to nine (we ran additional models that rely only on the trust item in Online Appendix A7).

Finally, to test H4 and H5, we included interaction terms in our models (feeling of discontent interacting with each internal/external efficacy, and social capital).

Control variables

We controlled for the following variables: Female, Age, Education, Left-right self-placement, and Interested in politics (see Online Appendix A1). When analyzing the data, we also considered including the residence of the respondents, whether they lived in an urban, intermediate, or rural area (for the classification see Eurostat, 2018). However, as the data shows there is little difference in participatory activities between those categories when viewed activity by activity or in total. In fact, the mean of the sum of all activities deviates only by 0.05 between urban and rural areas. Including the variable in our models yields no significant effect and does not change the outcome overall either.


This paper aims to enhance our understanding of participation in the democratic process. We now present our multivariate negative binomial regression models. Recall that the dependent variable measures the number of political activities over the past twelve months. Hence, the minimum is zero and the maximum is six.

In Model I, we include all variables except the interaction terms (see Table 2). In Model II, we add the interaction effects. Since we find no significant interaction effect between feeling of discontent and both internal efficacy and social capital, we present and interpret Model III, which includes only the significant interaction effect with external efficacy (see Table 3).

Table 2

Explaining political participation

Model I
IRR % z
Feeling of discontent 1.086*** 8.6% (6.72)
Internal efficacy 1.168*** 16.8% (11.87)
External efficacy 1.005 0.5% (0.4)
Social capital 1.102*** 10.2% (8.4)

Control Variables
Female 0.946 -5.4% (-1.49)
Age 0.994*** -0.6% (-6.15)
     Compulsory education Reference category
     Apprenticeship 1.212*** 21.2% (3.55)
     Intermediate technical and vocational school 1.136* 13.6% (1.91)
     Academic secondary school and higher technical and vocational school 1.148** 14.8% (2.23)
     University 1.240*** 24.0% (3.47)
Left-right self-placement
     Extreme left 1.352*** 35.2% (5.42)
     Left 1.257*** 25.7% (4.76)
     Center Reference category
     Right 1.050 5.0% (0.89)
     Extreme right 1.260*** 26.0% (3.72)
Interested in politics 1.740*** 74.0% (9.52)

Lnalpha 0.106
N 3,416
pseudo R2 (McFadden) 0.280
  1. Note: Negative binomial regression models; IRR=Incident Rate Ratio; %=Percentage change in participation incident rate ((IRR-1)*100%); z=z-statistic; * p<0.10, ** p<0.05, *** p<0.01.

Table 3

Explaining political participation (with interaction effects)

Model II Model III

IRR % z IRR % z
Feeling of discontent 1.233*** 23.3% (4.77) 1.154*** 15.4% (6.58)
Internal efficacy 1.205*** 20.5% (5.97) 1.167*** 16.7% (11.78)
External efficacy 1.078*** 7.8% (2.58) 1.094*** 9.4% (3.23)
Social capital 1.132*** 13.2% (4.27) 1.098*** 9.8% (8.10)

Feeling of discontent*Internal efficacy 0.991 -0.9% (-1.16)
Feeling of discontent*External efficacy 0.981*** -1.9% (-2.71) 0.977*** -2.3% (-3.41)
Feeling of discontent*Social capital 0.992 -0.8% (-1.16)

Control Variables
Female 0.942 -5.8% (-1.58) 0.946 -5.4% (-1.49)
Age 0.994*** -0.6% (-6.07) 0.994*** -0.6% (-6.02)
     Compulsory education
     Apprenticeship 1.22*** 22.0% (3.68) 1.22*** 22.0% (3.69)
     Intermediate technical and vocational school 1.138* 13.8% (1.94) 1.137** 13.7% (1.93)
     Academic secondary school and higher technical and vocational school 1.154** 15.4% (2.31) 1.154** 15.4% (2.32)
     University 1.248*** 24.8% (3.58) 1.246*** 24.6% (3.56)
Left-right self-placement
     Extreme left 1.371*** 37.1% (5.68) 1.366*** 36.6% (5.61)
     Left 1.266*** 26.6% (4.92) 1.265*** 26.5% (4.90)
     Center Reference category Reference category
     Right 1.051 5.1% (0.90) 1.052 5.2% (0.92)
     Extreme right 1.248*** 24.8% (3.57) 1.251*** 25.1% (3.61)
Interested in politics 1.726*** 72.6% (9.40) 1.73*** 73.0% (9.43)

Lnalpha 0.101 0.102
N 3,416 3,416
pseudo R2 (McFadden) 0.281 0.281
  1. Note: Negative binomial regression models with interaction effects; IRR=Incident Rate Ratio; %=Percentage change in participation incident rate ((IRR-1)*100%); z=z-statistic; * p<0.10, ** p<0.05, *** p<0.01.

Discussion of main variables

Our key argument related the feeling of discontent to a higher number of different participatory acts performed (H1). The feeling of discontent coefficient displayed in Table 2 corroborates our expectation. The corresponding incident rate ratio (IRR) in Model I is greater and highly significant. In order to interpret the magnitude of the effect, we report the percentage change in the participation incident rate both in Table 2 and in Graph 1. Since the corresponding IRR shows a value of 1.086 in Model I, a one-point increase in feeling of discontent leads to an increase in the current participation incident rate of about 8.6 percent. This is close to the effect of social capital and lower than the effect of internal efficacy (see discussion below). Recall that our new measurement, Feeling of Discontent, is based upon two different survey items. We asked respondents whether they were concerned with current societal developments and their personal situation. To put our measurement to an additional test, we reran the models including only one item at a time (see Online Appendix A5 and A6). The main effect remains stable and, interestingly, both items are equally strong in predicting the number of participatory activities.

We followed the literature on political efficacy (especially Putnam, 1993) and tested separately the influence of internal (H2a) and external (H2b) efficacy on political participation. While we see a significant positive effect on internal efficacy that corroborates H2a, external efficacy fails to meet a standard level of statistical significance, which compels us to reject H2b (Model I). This result contradicts the theoretical expectations but is in line with the study by Glavanovits et al. (2019, p. 450) on participation in Austria. In their models, internal, but not external efficacy was a significant predictor. We will discuss this result in combination with our interaction hypotheses in detail, after presenting the main effects in Model I. Again, the magnitude of the significant internal efficacy effect can be interpreted based on the percentage change in the IRR. For each additional point on the internal political efficacy scale, we calculate an increase in the participation incident rate of about 17 percent (see Graph 1). Internal efficacy, whether people feel politically competent, is a strong predictor of political participation.

In addition to political efficacy, our theoretical section covers the effect of social capital on political participation (H3). The statistical evidence displayed in Table 2 and Graph 1 shows support for the idea that social capital has a positive effect on political participation and hence, Hypothesis 3. In Model I, we find that an increase of one unit of social capital leads to an increase in the IRR of 10.2 percent. As signaled in the data section, we run additional models to test the effect of trust—the main component of the social capital concept—separately (see Online Appendix A7). The trust item remains statistically significant. This adds empirical evidence to the theoretical setting of the social capital concept and the relevance of trust in it.

In Model II, the interaction effects are added into the calculation. In particular, we test the combination of feeling of discontent and (internal and external) efficacy and feeling of discontent and social capital (as explained in the theoretical section). We cannot report any significant effects for the combination of feeling of discontent and internal efficacy and feeling of discontent and social capital. Note, however, that the main effects of our coefficients remain significant and increase in size. For the group of people without political efficacy or social capital, Model II calculates that the number of political activities increases by 23.3 percent when the feeling of discontent increases by one unit. These people will become more involved if they perceive troublesome developments for themselves or society.

The significant main and interaction effects with respect to external efficacy deserve a closer look. Like Glavanovits et al. (2019b, p. 450) and their study on participation in Austria, we found no effect of external efficacy on participation activities in the additive model. Including the interaction effect in the feeling of discontent, however, yields both significant main and interaction effects. In order to make it easier to interpret the effect, we run and present Model III in Table 3. Hypothesis 2b only holds for the group of people that are satisfied with current societal developments and their own lives. Here, the expected number of political activities increases by 9.4 percent when external efficacy increases by one unit. Furthermore, the data contradict what H4b postulated, namely an interaction effect between the feeling of discontent and external efficacy. While being discontent results in an increase in the expected number of political activities, this effect decreases when the level of external efficacy increases.

Figure 1 
            Effects on political participation (Model I + Model III)
            Note: The dots show the incident rate ratio (IRR), i.e. how much this ratio increases if one variable gains/losses one unit (and all others are kept constant); an increase in social capital by one unit increases the IRR by 10.2%; in the right graphic the empty dots represent the results of Model I for comparison; dark dots show significant results (p < 0.10).
Figure 1

Effects on political participation (Model I + Model III)

Note: The dots show the incident rate ratio (IRR), i.e. how much this ratio increases if one variable gains/losses one unit (and all others are kept constant); an increase in social capital by one unit increases the IRR by 10.2%; in the right graphic the empty dots represent the results of Model I for comparison; dark dots show significant results (p < 0.10).

At first glance, these results seem contradictory: While feeling of discontent promotes participation, interaction with external efficacy decreases the incident rate ratio. On second thought, however, this finding seems quite plausible considering our insufficient knowledge on the effect of external efficacy on participation. Looking at Model III in Table 3, we interpret this finding as follows: People who perceive a higher level of discontent participate more in political activities. If, however, their level of external efficacy begins to increase, then they begin to rely on the government to correct the undesirable development and participate less themselves. Recall that people with high levels of external efficacy believe that they are able to influence the government’s behavior and that politicians take care of their interests. Thus, it seems that participation levels fall in people who are discontent, but at the same time confident in the ability of their politicians.

At this point, we have to take a closer look at the models that explain each of the six types of political behavior individually (see Online Appendix A4). These models explain whether a specific action was taken during the past twelve months, using the same independent variables as before.

We see that the effects of both feeling of discontent and internal efficacy work in the same direction across all models and significantly increase the likelihood of participation. The picture is entirely different when it comes to external efficacy. Here, external efficacy increases the likelihood of people contacting politicians or working in a political party, but at the same time it decreases the likelihood of participating in demonstrations (external efficacy is not significant in the other main models). This supports our previous line of interpretation: People with higher levels of external efficacy believe in the government and are more likely to get in touch either by contacting a politician or by working in a political party. They are, however, less likely to demonstrate (which is in most instances against the government). Interestingly, in the binary models we see that the significant interaction effect between feeling of discontent and external efficacy is found in the models looking at contacting a politician and working in a political party. Again, satisfied people are more likely to engage with a political group. If, however, the level of political efficacy increases, then involvement becomes less likely and the political work is handed over to representatives.

Effects of control variables

Coming back to the control variables in our negative binomial regression models in Model I in Table 2, a relatively high effect can be found with placement on the left–right scale: Identifying with the extreme left or left of the political spectrum increases the incident rate ratio by 35.2 percent and 25.7 percent, respectively. Interestingly, the effect is much less pronounced at the opposite end of the scale. Here, only people on the extreme right have a higher probability of political participation (IRR +26 percent). This effect might be driven by the government’s ideological position. Recall that we conducted the survey in the summer of 2018 and people were asked to report their participatory acts during the last twelve months. Somewhere in the middle of that period, national elections were held, and a center-right wing government replaced the coalition representing the political center. During the first phase, people thinking of themselves as either extreme left or right might have felt misrepresented by the government and used forms of political participation to influence public policy. When the new government took office, people from the right might have become more satisfied with their representatives and less willing to participate themselves. At the same time, people from both the left and the extreme left were faced with a government that no longer represented their ideal ideological position. Overall, people from the left were less represented during the relevant period and directly participated in politics more often. Whether people from the left are more open to participation as such needs to be tested in a further study looking at participation under left-wing governments. This general picture remains stable if we include different versions of left-right self-placement (see Online Appendix A8).

Interest in politics is very important in explaining participation and significantly increases the participation incident rate ratio by 74%. This comes as no surprise: A general interest in political affairs can be seen as the basic prerequisite for even thinking about taking action. This finding is especially important in debates on expanding instruments of direct democracy in representative systems. If people who are interested in politics are more likely to participate, then direct-democracy decisions might not favor equal participation in the democratic process, and lead to biased results in favor of this group.

Finally, while “female” has no impact, age plays a role in participatory activities. The same is true of any form of further education compared to the reference category of only having completed compulsory education.

Conclusion and discussion

This paper is motivated out of our interest in the impact of participation on democracy. We believe that active citizens are the blood of a vital democratic body and fully agree with Verba and Nie’s (1972, p. 1) assessment that more participation means more democracy. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, voting. A modern understanding of participation refers to voluntary activities by ordinary citizens that are directed at the political sphere (van Deth, 2014).

Although admirable from a normative perspective, we acknowledge that these ordinary citizens are free to spend their time according to their needs. To better understand why some of them decide to participate, the theoretical section developed several hypotheses centered around our new concept, Feeling of Discontent.

Influenced by the social psychology literature on collective action, we measured discontent as a general concern with societal developments and a more specific sense of belonging to a disadvantaged group. This allows us to predict participation irrespective of the issue and method of participation. The paper thus goes beyond the literature on collective action that mainly links membership of certain groups or movements to demonstrating or signing a petition for a cause. It also goes beyond the literature on participation that focuses on electoral participation, which we deliberately exclude from the analyses since different factors such as sense of civic duty or habit dominate here. Our models show that discontentment is in fact a significant predictor of political activism. In addition, we see that people who feel competent in political questions (i.e. display higher levels of internal efficacy) are more likely to engage in more forms of participation. Interestingly, our research design sheds light on the puzzling relationship between external efficacy and participation. Like a previous study (Glavanovits et al., 2019), we find no main effect of external efficacy on the number of participatory activities. However, once an interaction effect with discontent is introduced into the models, satisfied people act according to the theoretical expectations and participate more if their level of external efficacy is high. At the same time, if both discontent and external efficacy are high, then people become inactive—probably because they believe their representatives will act on their behalf. This explains why the previous study on participation in Austria found no significant effect with respect to external efficacy.

These results on participation are most relevant to the ongoing debate on expanding direct democracy instruments in Austria, which mainly concerns holding a mandatory referendum after a successful people’s initiative. While we know from our survey that a majority of the people would welcome more rules on direct democratic decision-making, the multivariate analyses remind us that not everybody is equally willing to participate in the democratic process. People who are interested in politics are much more likely to spend their free time on political activities than those who are not. Again, we believe that participation is vital to any democratic system. The decision to reform a representative system by introducing a direct law-making route outside parliament, however, should not be taken lightly and without consideration of these empirical findings.

Recent political developments show that policymakers are aware of the discrepancy between support for direct democratic decision-making and actual participation. The discussion on direct democratic instruments was already underway during the 2017 electoral campaign when both future government parties, the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), promised to hold mandatory referenda following successful people’s initiatives. However, in their coalition agreement, the partners agreed on higher thresholds than either had campaigned for in the run-up to the election. The results reflect this behavior, since we see that while their potential voters were in favor of direct democratic decision-making, people from the ideological left are more likely to participate (also see Online Appendix A4).

Clearly, the scope of a single case study is limited compared to cross-country studies that include a large number of countries. Looking at the characteristics of the Austrian political system, we believe that our results are largely translatable to other Western European states with multi-party systems and some type of proportional representation. Our theoretical considerations on the subjectively rational citizen who uses his or her time for political participation if the level of discontent rises should be viewed independently of the Austrian context. Further research, however, is needed to confirm this claim.

1 We conducted this research as part of the Austrian Democracy Lab. The Austrian Democracy Lab (ADL) is a scientific project analyzing the state of democracy in Austria using different quantitative and qualitative instruments such as the mass survey democracy radar. The ADL is run by the Danube University of Krems and the Karl-Franzens University of Graz in cooperation with Forum Morgen. For detailed information, see


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Published Online: 2020-08-07
Published in Print: 2020-07-28

© 2020 Institute for Research in Social Communication, Slovak Academy of Sciences

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