Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication 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.

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


Adler, R. P., & Goggin J. (2005). What do we mean by “Civic Engagement”? Journal of Transformative Education 3(3), 236–253. in Google Scholar

Adler, P.S., & Kwon, S.-W. (2002). Social capital: Prospects for a new concept. Academy of Management Review 27(1), 17–40. in Google Scholar

Aichholzer, J., David, J., & Zeglovits, E. (2014). Wahlbeteiligung. In S. Kritzinger, W. C. Müller, & K. Schönbach (Eds.), Die Nationalratswahl 2013. Wie Parteien, Medien und Wählerschaft zusammenwirken (pp. 177–190). Vienna: Böhlau Verlag.Search in Google Scholar

Balch, G. I. (1974). Multiple indicators in survey research: The concept “Sense of Political Efficacy”. Political Methodology 1(2), 1–43. in Google Scholar

Baumeister, R. F. (1994). The crystallization of discontent in the process of major life change. In T. F. Heatherton & J. L. Weinberger (Eds.), Can personality change? (pp. 281–297). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.10.1037/10143-012Search in Google Scholar

Bhatti, Y., Hansen, K. M., & Wass, H. (2012). The relationship between age and turnout: A roller-coaster ride. Electoral Studies 31(3), 588–593. in Google Scholar

Bergh, J. (2004). Protest voting in Austria, Denmark and Norway. Scandinavian Political Studies 27(4), 367–389. in Google Scholar

Blais, A. (2006). What affects voter turnout? Annual Review of Political Science 9, 111–125. in Google Scholar

Burden, B.C., & Wichowsky, A. (2014). Economic discontent as a mobilizer: Unemployment and voter turnout. The Journal of Politics 76(4), 887–898.10.1017/S0022381614000437Search in Google Scholar

Campbell, A., Miller, W. E., & Gurin, G. (1954). The voter decide. Evanston, Illinois: Row, Peterson.Search in Google Scholar

Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Converse, P. E. (1972). Change in the American Electorate. In A. Campbell & P. E. Converse (Eds.), The human meaning of social change (pp. 263–337). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Search in Google Scholar

Cortés, J. J. (2019). Process, theory, and practice in direct democracy: Avenues for new research. Politics & Policy 47(4), 673–698. in Google Scholar

Craig, S. C., Niemi, R. G., & Silver, G. E. (1990). Political efficacy and trust: A report on the NES Pilot Study Items. Political Behavior 12(3), 289–314. in Google Scholar

Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.Search in Google Scholar

Erbe, W. (1964). Social involvement and political activity. American Sociological Review 29(2), 198– 215. in Google Scholar

Ekman, J., & Amnå, E. (2012). Political participation and civic engagement: Towards a new typology. Human Affairs 22(3), 283–300. in Google Scholar

Eurostat. (2018). Methodological manual on territorial typologies – 2018 edition. Retrieved December 13, 2019 from KS-GQ-18-008-EN-N.pdf/a275fd66-b56b-4ace-8666-f39754ede66bSearch in Google Scholar

EVS. (2016). European Values Study 2008: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2008). Cologne.Search in Google Scholar

Ford, R., & Goodwin, M.J. (2010). Angry white men: Individual and contextual predictors of support for the British National Party. Political Studies 58, 1–25. in Google Scholar

Foskett, J. M. (1955). Social structure and social participation. American Sociological Review 20(4), 431–438. in Google Scholar

Franklin, M. N. (2004). Voter turnout and the dynamics of electoral competition in established democracies since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511616884Search in Google Scholar

Glavanovits, J., Aichholzer, J., Hajdinjak, S., & Kritzinger, S. (2019a). The European Values Study 2018 – Austria Edition Vienna: AUSSDA.Search in Google Scholar

Glavanovits, J., Gründl, J., Kritzinger, S., & Oberluggauer, P. (2019b). Politische Partizipation [Political participation]. In J. Bacher, A. Grausgruber, M. Haller, F. Höllinger, D. Prandner & R. Verwiebe (Eds.), Sozialstruktur und Wertewandel in Österreich: Trends 1986–2016 (pp. 439–456). Springer VS.10.1007/978-3-658-21081-6_18Search in Google Scholar

Integral. (2018). Austrian Internet Monitor Consumer, Q2 2018. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from in Google Scholar

Klandermans, B. (1997). The social psychology of protest Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Kritzinger, S., Aichholzer, J., Glavanovits, J., Hajdinjak, S., Klaiber, J., & Seewann, L. (2019). European Values Study 2018 Austria (SUF edition) AUSSDA Dataverse, doi:10.11587/8A4CWK.10.11587/8A4CWKSearch in Google Scholar

Lane, R. E. (1959). Why people get involved in politics Glencoe: Free Press.10.2307/1891593Search in Google Scholar

Lilleker, D. G., & Koc-Michalska, K. (2017). What drives political participation? Motivations and mobilization in a digital age. Political Communication 34(1), 21–43. in Google Scholar

Lin, N. (1988). Social resources and social mobility: a structural theory of status attainment. In R. L. Breiger (Ed.), Social mobility and social structure (pp. 247–271).Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Loury, G. C. (1987). Why should we care about group inequality? Social Philosophy and Policy 5(1), 249–271. in Google Scholar

Magni, G. (2017). It’s the emotions, Stupid! Anger about the economic crisis, low political efficacy, and support for populist parties. Electoral Studies 50, 91–102. in Google Scholar

Niemi, R. G., Craig S. C., & Mattei, F. (1991). Measuring internal political efficacy in the 1988 national election study. American Political Science Review 85(4), 1407–1413. in Google Scholar

Passarelli, G., & Tuorto, D. (2018). The Five Star Movement: Purely a matter of protest? The rise of a new party between political discontent and reasoned voting. Party Politics 24(2), 129–140. in Google Scholar

Pettigrew, T. F. (1967). Social evaluation theory: Convergences and applications. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (pp. 241–311). University of Nebraska Press.Search in Google Scholar

Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work. Civic traditions in modern Italy Princeton University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Quaranta, M. (2015). Political protest in Western Europe Springer.10.1007/978-3-319-22162-5Search in Google Scholar

Sloam, J. (2013). ‘Voice and Equality’: Young peoples’ politics in the European Union. West European Politics 34(4), 836–858. in Google Scholar

Steenvoorden, E. (2015). A general discontent disentangled: A conceptual and empirical framework for societal unease. Social Indicators Research 124(1), 85–110. in Google Scholar

Tajfel, H. (1978). The achievement of inter-group differentiation. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between social groups (pp. 77–100). London: Academic Press.Search in Google Scholar

Teorell, J., Torcal, M., & Montero, J. R. (2007). Political participation: Mapping the terrain. In J. van Deth, J. R. Montero, & A. Westholm (Eds.), Citizenship and Involvement in European Democracies (pp. 334–357). Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Thompson, J. L. (1989). Deprivation and political violence in Northern Ireland, 1922–1985. Journal of Conflict Resolution 33, 676–699. in Google Scholar

van Deth, J. W. (2014). A conceptual map of political participation. Acta Politica 49(3), 349–367. in Google Scholar

van der Bles A.M., Postmes, T., & Meijer R.R. (2015). Understanding collective discontents: A psychological approach to Measuring Zeitgeist. PLoS ONE 10(6). 10.1371/journal.pone.013010010.1371/journal.pone.0130100Search in Google Scholar

van der Bles, A.M., Postmes, T., LeKander-Kanis, B., & Otjes, S. (2017). The consequences of collective discontent: A new measure of Zeitgeist predicts voting for extreme parties. Political Psychology 39(2), 381–398. in Google Scholar

van Stekelenburg, J., & Klandermans, B. (2013). The social psychology of protest. Current Sociology 61(5-6), 886–905. in Google Scholar

van Zomeren, M., Leach, C. W., & Spears, R. (2012). Protesters as “passionate economists”: A dynamic dual pathway model of approach coping with collective disadvantage. Personality and Social Psychology Review 16(2), 180–199. in Google Scholar

van Zomeren, M., & Spears, R. (2009). Metaphors of protest: A classification of motivations for collective action. Journal of Social Issues 65(4), 661–680. in Google Scholar

Verba, S., & Nie, N. H. (1972). Political participation in America: Political democracy and social equality University of Chicago Press.Search in Google Scholar

Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality. Civic voluntarism in American politics. Harvard University Pres.10.2307/j.ctv1pnc1k7Search in Google Scholar

Walker, I. & Smith, H. (Eds.) (2002). Relative deprivation: Specification, development, and integration. Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Webb, P. (2013). Who is willing to participate? Dissatisfied democrats, stealth democrats and populists in the United Kingdom. European Journal of Political Research 52, 747–772. in Google Scholar

Woodward, J. L., & Roper, E. (1950). Political activity of American citizens. American Political Science Review 44(4), 872–885. in Google Scholar

Zeileis, A., Kleiber, C., & Jackman, S. (2008). Regression models for count data in R. Journal of Statistical Software 27(8), 1–25. in Google Scholar

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

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

Scroll Up Arrow