What Satisfaction with Democracy? A Global Analysis of “Satisfaction with Democracy” Measures

AuthorViktor Orri Valgarðsson,Daniel Devine
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211009605
One of the most common measures of public opinion
administered in social science surveys is “satisfaction
with democracy” (SWD). This measure is widely used1
within social science research as an indicator of political
support and the political health of a democratic society
(Aarts and Thomassen 2008; Anderson and Guillory
1997; Bernauer and Vatter 2012; Bol et al. 2018;
Dassonneville and McAllister 2020; Grönlund and Setaïa
2007; Karp, Banducci, and Bowler 2003; Reher 2015;
Zmerli, Newton, and Montero 2007). In media and popu-
lar discourse, a lack of satisfaction with political institu-
tions and the elites which occupy them has been cited as
a cause and consequence of the rise of challenger parties,
the stupefaction of status quo institutions, and the catalyst
of discrete events like the “Brexit” vote and Donald
Trump’s presidency (Kaltwasser and Van Hauwaert 2020;
Knot 2016; McCall 2020). In addition, this survey item
forms the backbone of much of the debate on whether
there is a “crisis of democracy” (or a “legitimacy crisis”)
or merely a myth of one (Ercan and Gagnon 2014; Merkel
2014; van Ham et al. 2017). Despite this vast academic
and public contestation, there is still considerable ambi-
guity about the validity of measures of public political
support and how consistent they are across different sur-
vey programs. As a large body of empirical work relies on
SWD measures either as explanatory or outcome vari-
ables, we set out to provide a foundation for understand-
ing the comparability and validity of the SWD measure
across different survey programs, time, and space.
We assemble a global dataset consisting of essentially
all cross-national survey projects2 that have administered
this question as well as data from 135 national election
study (NES) surveys conducted in eleven European coun-
tries and Australia. Unlike most previous research, which
has primarily relied on single datasets or single waves
within a dataset, we combine all these major cross-national
studies and individual NES into one dataset consisting of
09605PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211009605Political Research QuarterlyValgarðsson and Devine
1University of Southampton, UK
2University of Oxford, UK
Corresponding Author:
Daniel Devine, St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1
2JD, UK.
Email: daniel.devine@st-hildas.ox.ac.uk
What Satisfaction with Democracy?
A Global Analysis of “Satisfaction with
Democracy” Measures
Viktor Orri Valgarðsson1 and Daniel Devine2
Asking citizens “the way democracy works” is the basis of a wide literature on the support citizens have for their
political institutions and is one of the most common survey items in political science. Moreover, it is a key indicator for
the purported global decline in legitimacy. Yet, its trends, levels, and dynamics are still debated, and conclusions may
be erroneous. In this paper, we compile a unique global dataset between 1973 and 2018 encompassing all major cross-
national datasets and national election studies in twelve countries to study the dynamics and consistency of “satisfaction
with democracy” (SWD) measures globally. Our results show that while trends and between-country differences in
democratic satisfaction are largely similar, the levels of satisfaction vary substantially between survey projects, and
both trends and levels vary significantly in several widely studied countries. We show that this has consequences at
the individual level: opting for one survey over another may alter our conclusions about the relationship between
key demographics and SWD. Thus, researchers studying SWD should endeavor to consult diverse survey sources
and should be cautious about their conclusions when they do not, especially when it comes to making claims about
changes in SWD over time.
satisfaction with democracy, democratic legitimacy, survey measurement
2022, Vol. 75(3) 576–590

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