The Political-Economic Correlates of Discursive Engagement in Europe

Published date01 June 2022
AuthorShane P. Singh,Quinton Mayne
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 291 –306
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912921998457
The health of democracy suffers when citizens disengage
from politics. Voter turnout is on the decline in many
democracies (Blais 2010; Kostelka 2017). Large numbers
of citizens care little about political matters; in Europe
and the United States, for example, well under half of
recent survey respondents report being moderately or
very interested in politics (Russo and Stattin 2017).
Voters with low levels of political interest, who tend to be
less educated (Dostie-Goulet 2009, Jacobs, Phalet, and
Swyngedouw 2004), are less likely to cast meaningful
ballots (Lau and Redlawsk 2006). They are instead prone
to make choices based on misperceptions of economic
and societal conditions (Anderson 2007; Healy and
Malhotra 2013), candidate appearance (Lenz and Lawson
2011), conspiratorial beliefs (Lamberty, Hellmann, and
Oeberst 2018), or the order in which candidates appear on
the ballot (Brockington 2003; Shue and Luttmer 2009).
In this paper, we consider a fundamentally important
and little studied manifestation of political engagement:
citizens choosing to take part in interpersonal political
discussion. Even individuals with relatively low thresh-
olds for general political engagement may take part in
political discussions. This is because, compared to other
kinds of political participation, discussing politics—at
least in the context of free democracies—is a low-cost
activity. Political discussion should, in principle, be an
activity in which anybody can easily engage. Discursive
engagement is also normatively important (Kim and Kim
2008), as even elitist theories of democracy (see, for
example, Schattschneider 1960; Schumpeter 1950) imply
a minimal level of political discussion, albeit intermittent
and short-lived at the time of elections. A democracy in
which citizens rarely or never discuss politics is more
normatively troubling still for defenders of models of
democracy that are more demanding of citizens, includ-
ing accounts rooted in civic republican, deliberative, and
participatory thought (see, for example, Barber 1984;
Pateman 1970).
Political discussion does not always produce demo-
cratic benefits. During political conversations, people
often internalize information that aligns with their beliefs
and disregard messages with which they disagree (e.g.,
998457PRQXXX10.1177/1065912921998457Political Research QuarterlyMayne and Singh
1Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
2University of Georgia, Athens, USA
Corresponding Author:
Quinton Mayne, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard
University, 124 Mount Auburn St. 200N-252, Cambridge, MA 02138,
The Political-Economic Correlates of
Discursive Engagement in Europe
Quinton Mayne1 and Shane P. Singh2
We examine the individual-level characteristics and political and economic conditions associated with political
discussion. To build our model of discursive engagement, we draw on existing research on political participation as
well as our own theoretical reasoning. Our data cover two million individuals in twenty-eight European countries over
forty-five years, and we employ a little-used approach to multilevel analysis that distinguishes variations in engagement
attributable to cross-country differences from those stemming from within-country changes. Our primary findings
reveal that, within countries, citizens are more likely to talk about politics at election time, when there are more
electorally competitive political parties, during periods of recession, when unionization levels are higher, and when
racial and ethnic diversity is greater. Across countries, political discussion is more likely where elections are ongoing
and in countries with lower levels of income inequality and corruption. We also find that men and the higher-educated
are more likely to discuss politics, as are those who are middle aged or employed. Our approach is wide-ranging, but
it is also deliberately correlational. Future observational and experimental studies might expand on and identify the
causal underpinnings of the associations we establish here.
political discussion, political engagement, democratic citizenship
292 Political Research Quarterly 75(2)
2 Political Research Quarterly 00(0)
Huckfeldt, Johnson, and Sprague 2004; Huckfeldt and
Sprague 1987, 1995). Still, recent empirical studies pro-
vide evidence of the ways in which discursive engage-
ment may bolster democracy. Partaking in political
discussion can lessen partisan biases (Beck 2002; Lupton,
Singh, and Thornton 2015), increase other forms of polit-
ical participation (Klofstad 2007; McClurg 2003; but see
Mutz 2002b), and foster political tolerance (Mutz 2002a;
Pattie and Johnston 2008). Talking about politics also
provides opportunities to acquire political informati on
(Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Finkel and Smith 2011;
Smith 2018), and those who are discursively engaged
are more likely to select parties that align with their
interests (Ryan 2011; Sokhey and McClurg 2012).
Political discussion may also moderate the relationship
between political system characteristics and attitudes
toward democracy (e.g., Hoerner and Hobolt 2020).
We assemble the largest data set ever used to analyze
political discussion, pooling data for roughly two million
respondents from over 2,000 Eurobarometer surveys,
spanning forty-five years and twenty-eight European
democracies. We measure engagement in terms of citi-
zens’ self-reported propensity to talk about politics. To
analyze our data set, we take advantage of an underuti-
lized approach to multilevel modeling that distinguishes
variations in discursive engagement attributable to cross-
country differences from those due to within-country
changes in our explanatory variables. This allows us to
ascertain whether the likelihood of citizens discussing
politics is more or less related to changing circumstances
within their country or enduring characteristics that dis-
tinguish countries from each other.
To determine the model’s inputs, we review the large
literature on political participation and the much smaller
body of existing work on discursive engagement. From
this review, along with our own theoretical reasoning, we
arrive at a group of macro-level political and socio-eco-
nomic predictors of political discussion. On the political
side, we focus on elections, party systems, and political
corruption. On the socio-economic side, we examine the
relationship between discursive engagement and eco-
nomic recessions, unionization, inequality, and ethnic
heterogeneity. While we are constrained by the temporal
and spatial consistency of the questions asked on the
Eurobarometer, we also incorporate a set of well-known
individual-level correlates of participation.
To preview our results, we find that, within countries,
citizens are more likely to talk about politics at election
time, when there are more electorally competitive politi-
cal parties, during periods of recession, when unioniza-
tion levels are higher, and when racial and ethnic diversity
is greater. Across countries, political discussion is more
likely where elections are ongoing and in countries with
lower levels of income inequality and corruption. We also
find that men and the higher-educated are more likely to
discuss politics, as are those who are middle aged or
While our analysis is broad, our aims are decidedly
non-etiological. We have great regard for the recent
“credibility revolution” in the social sciences (cf. Angrist
and Pischke 2010; Samii 2016), but we see continuing
value in large-scale investigations, such as ours, that
probe the key correlates of important political phenom-
ena. Subsequent studies can and should use design-based
methods to identify the extent to which such correlations
are also causal. Finally, despite its breadth, our study also
leaves room for future associational research to identify
additional correlates of discursive engagement.
A Political-Economic Model of
Discursive Engagement
In what follows, we develop expectations about the
micro- and macro-level correlates of discursive engage-
ment, a term we use to describe taking part in political
discussion or debate with others. We do so with reference
to extant literature on citizen engagement. While this
work places comparatively little focus on the conditions
associated with private political discussion, it provides
important insights into the scale, causes, and correlates of
other important forms of political engagement. The most
sizeable body of work in this area concerns voter turnout,
and we reference this literature frequently. In some cases,
we expect that predictors of voter turnout will have an
opposing relationship with political discussion. Our aim
is to develop a comprehensive but not oversaturated
model, and we thus focus on individual-level, political,
and economic factors with clear empirical and theoretical
links to discursive engagement. We outline the expected
relationship between each explanatory factor and discur-
sive engagement in Table 1.
An individual’s likelihood of voting is often expressed
in terms of the balance between expected benefits and
costs. Turning out is more likely when a party or candi-
date contesting an election is more preferable than others
(b) and when the probability of the individual’s vote
being decisive is higher (p), when the costs of voting (c)
are lower, and when the intrinsic benefits one would
receive from turning out (d) are higher (Downs 1957;
Riker and Ordeshook 1968). In a meta-analysis of 90
studies, Smets and van Ham (2013) find education, mid-
dle age (as opposed to being very young or very old),
income, concern about the outcome of the election, feel-
ings of civic duty, partisan identification, political knowl-
edge, and political interest to be reliably and positively
correlated with voting. Each of these factors has a direct
relationship with the cost-benefit calculation. Those who
are more interested in politics or the election outcome,

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