Does Satisfaction with Democracy Really Increase Happiness? Direct Democracy and Individual Satisfaction in Switzerland

Abstract

This paper takes the influential “direct democracy makes people happy”-research as a starting point and asks whether direct democracy impacts individual satisfaction. Unlike former studies we distinguish two aspects of individual satisfaction, namely satisfaction with life (“happiness”) and with how democracy works. Based on multilevel analysis of the 26 Swiss cantons we show that the theoretical assumption on which the happiness hypothesis is based has to be questioned, as there is very little evidence for a robust relationship between satisfaction with democracy and life satisfaction. Furthermore, we do not find a substantive positive effect of direct democracy on happiness. However, with respect to satisfaction with democracy, our analysis shows some evidence for a procedural effect of direct democracy, i.e. positive effects related to using direct democratic rights, rather than these rights per se.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Similar to Frey and Stutzer (2000a, b, c) “satisfaction with life” is used here interchangeably with the terms “happiness” and “subjective well-being”.

  2. 2.

    In this context we also refer to the literature on other political determinants of individual satisfaction with life and democracy, which are however not at the center of this paper (e.g. Andersen and Guillory 1997; Radcliff 2001).

  3. 3.

    However, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2002) this does not mean that American citizens want to be more strongly involved in political decision making. Contrary to the prevailing view whereby people want greater involvement in politics, empirical results by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2001, 2002) as well as Hibbing and Alford (2004) show that a majority of American citizens do not care about politics and do not desire a more direct voice in political decision making.

  4. 4.

    Recently, Dorn et al. (2008) re-evaluate the relation between direct democracy and subjective well-being in Switzerland using new data from the Swiss Household Panel. In contrast to Frey and Stutzer (2000a, b) they find that once language is controlled for, no robust significant relationship between the extent of popular rights and life satisfaction can be observed.

  5. 5.

    Combining these two criterion Veenhoven (2000, p. 6) distinguishes four types of life quality, namely “Livability of the environment”, “Life-ability of a person”, “Utility of life”, and “Appreciation of life”.

  6. 6.

    This view varies from other perspectives that either perceive individual satisfaction as a biological factor or a trait (Diener et al. 2003) or follow a social comparison approach (Easterlin 2003).

  7. 7.

    For a discussion of multilevel structural equation models see Hox and Maas (2004).

  8. 8.

    Of the 7,409 persons interviewed, 1,844 show missing values for the dependent and/or independent variables and are therefore excluded from the analysis. The number of respondents per canton are as follows: Zurich (896), Bern (669), Lucerne (254), Uri (73), Schwyz (117), Obwalden (62), Nidwalden (83), Glarus (76), Zug (66), Fribourg (181), Solothurn (178), Basel-Town (166), Basel-Country (183), Schaffhausen (89), Appenzell Outer Rhodes (76), Appenzell Inner Rhodes (71), St. Gall (290), Grisons (132), Argovia (387), Thurgau (142), Ticino (244), Vaud (438), Valais (189), Neuchâtel (136), Geneva (285), Jura (82).

  9. 9.

    Unfortunately, the question does not explicitly relate to the cantonal level. In the Swiss context, it can however be assumed that individual perception of how democracy works in Switzerland is largely influenced by the canton in which an individual lives. On the one hand, Switzerland is one of the most decentralized countries in the world (Filippow et al. 2001), in which policy making largely occurs at the cantonal level. Various authors, on the other hand, argue that this primacy of the canton transfers to citizens’ perceptions. As Auer (1990, p. 15) states: “For the Swiss, the state is not the federation, but the canton” (own translation). Similarly it is often argued that the Swiss Federation is just an emanation of the cantons, in other words a “secondary or derivate body, a mere product of inter-cantonal agreements” (Germann and Klöti 2004, p. 321). These arguments refer to the political, but also historic, symbolic and emotional importance of the Swiss subnational units, which generally look back on a very long history involving important identity-forming forces.

  10. 10.

    Dorn et al. (2008, p. 234) propose to account for individual cultural background in terms of language spoken at home. As this information is not contained in our data set we do not consider this variable. In order to account for the Dorn et al.’s (2008) finding whereby individual belonging to a language group is the crucial aspects we measure cantonal linguistic culture not only in terms of regional dummies, but also use the population share of German-speakers in a canton, which better capture linguistic culture and heterogeneity in bilingual cantons like Fribourg, Berne or Valais. Further analyses not presented here indeed show that the models including this variable better fits the data compared to a dummy specification.

  11. 11.

    We refrain from integrating further institutional aspects such as local autonomy (Frey and Stutzer 2000a).

  12. 12.

    This suggestion is supported by further analyses not shown, in which a Dummy is included taking the value of one if foreigners are allowed to vote at the cantonal level. (This applies to only two cantons: Jura since 1978 and Neuchâtel since 2000). It can be seen from these models that cantons allowing foreigners to participate in the political process exhibit less satisfaction in democracy than cantons that exclude foreigners. Also, this effect does not substantially differ between Swiss and foreign citizens.

  13. 13.

    In further estimations not presented here, the opposite direction of the path, leading from life satisfaction to satisfaction with democracy, has also been tested and proved to be of similar size than the one shown in model 2. Overall, this further corroborates our previous finding whereas individual satisfaction with democracy and with life must be seen as correlated concept—maybe even reinforcing each other to a certain extent (Graham and Pettinato 2001, p. 255)—but that we cannot speak of causality between them.

  14. 14.

    The inclusion of direct democracy completely explains the cantonal differences in happiness in the models presented in Fig. 2. In the following models (Figs. 4, 5) the random intercept at the cantonal level is therefore omitted in the happiness equation.

  15. 15.

    It could also be argued that direct democracy differently affects individual satisfaction depending on the linguistic, i.e. cultural context. Further models not presented including an interaction between linguistic diversity and direct democracy however revealed that the relationship between direct democracy and individual satisfaction in Switzerland does not substantially vary between different linguistic environments.

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Acknowledgments

This article was written as part of the research project on “Quality of Democracy in the Swiss Cantons” that was financially supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF). We are grateful to the anonymous referees and the editors for their helpful comments and suggestions, and Bianca Rousselot for linguistic assistance.

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Correspondence to Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen.

Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Table 2 Hypotheses, operationalization and sources
Table 3 Estimated means and standard deviation of models as shown in Fig. 2
Table 4 Estimated means and standard deviation of models as shown in Fig. 4
Table 5 Estimated means and standard deviation of models as shown in Fig. 5

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Stadelmann-Steffen, I., Vatter, A. Does Satisfaction with Democracy Really Increase Happiness? Direct Democracy and Individual Satisfaction in Switzerland. Polit Behav 34, 535–559 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-011-9164-y

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Keywords

  • Direct democracy
  • Satisfaction with democracy
  • Happiness
  • Multilevel analysis