Direct Democracy and Subjective Well-Being: The Initiative and Life Satisfaction in the American States

Abstract

This paper considers the effect of direct democracy on quality of life in the American States. Specifically, it seeks to determine to what extent the use of the initiative affects satisfaction with life. The theoretical discussion draws upon traditional arguments over direct democracy, along with contemporary research on the quality of representation in the United States. The empirical results suggest that satisfaction varies positively with the extent to which initiatives are used. We also find that this relationship is mediated by income, such that the positive effects of direct democracy are most pronounced for those with the lowest income. The consequences for our understanding of direct democracy, public policy, and the study of life satisfaction are discussed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Conceptually, “subjective well-being” refers to the degree an individual positively evaluates the quality of his/her life in total. Past work has noted subtle distinctions between happiness (a more emotional response) and satisfaction (a more cognitive response), yet these related concepts are highly correlated in empirical practice (e.g. Veenhoven 1996). As such, we use these terms interchangeably throughout the text.

  2. 2.

    The twenty-four states include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Within these twenty-four states, however, Oregon and California stand out for their frequent and long-standing use of the initiative.

  3. 3.

    Presence and frequency of use are constructed using data from the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California (2012). For ease of presentation in the results, the total cumulative number of initiatives is scaled by division by one hundred.

  4. 4.

    That HLM is unnecessary is further reinforced by noting that the intercept variances are tiny compared to the residual variance—this again confirms that HLM is adding little except unnecessary complexity to the estimation. Results reported in Tables 1 and 2 are also similar if using ordered logit.

  5. 5.

    Income is measured in fifteen categories in ascending order; education is highest level of education completed in six categories with higher values representing higher attainment; employment status is a dummy coded one if respondent is unemployed and zero otherwise; gender is coded one for females, two for males; church attendance is the frequency with which respondent attends “a church or other place of worship” in seven ascending categories; income satisfaction is from the survey question ascertaining level of agreement with the statement “Our family income is high enough to satisfy nearly all our important desires”; personal health is the survey item “I am in very good physical condition” with six response categories with higher values indicating greater agreement. Trust is measured by the degree to which individuals agree with the statement “Most people are honest” in six categories with greater values indicating more agreement.

  6. 6.

    Putnam’s (2000) “Comprehensive Social Capital Index” taken from the “Bowling Alone” website http://www.bowlingalone.com/data.php3 (accessed on 15 January 2006).

  7. 7.

    Interpreting the magnitude of the two coefficients, recall that income is measured in 15 ascending categories. The effect of the initiatives variable becomes negative (i.e. direct democracy begins to have a nominally negative effect on one’s life satisfaction) at the 11th category. In effect, the working and middle class benefit, while the upper-middle class and beyond begin to (rather mildly) suffer.

  8. 8.

    Including an interaction term between the initiatives variable and a dummy for non-white citizens produces a coefficient that, while nominally negative, is small and completely lacking in statistical significance; this remains true if removing the income interaction. The implication is that there is not a negative interaction between race and the use of initiatives, such that racial minorities are not paying a penalty for initiatives. As our data are not especially designed to study race, and as we are not ourselves focusing on this issue in this paper, we are not inclined to focus on this result. We simply note that the present data do not suggest racial minorities are paying a penalty, as it were, through the use of initiatives.

  9. 9.

    The regions (using the standard Census Bureau classification) are New England, the Mid Atlantic, the East-North Central, the West North-Central, the South Atlantic, the East South-Central, the West South-Central, Mountain, and Pacific.

  10. 10.

    Note that results are also unchanged when fitting dummies for states rather than merely regions.

  11. 11.

    We estimate an unstructured covariance matrix to allow the correlation between the two levels (state and state-year) to vary. Results are also similar if we estimate a hierarchical model with state and year levels, as opposed to using states and state-years. The year dummies account for temporal effects that affect all states; the state and state-year random effects account for more localized effects. We also estimated these equations when including a random effect for the initiative variable (a state-year variable) and then allowing its effect to vary by the state-year (so that the interaction will also vary at the state-year), but results that are again similar to those already reported.

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Radcliff, B., Shufeldt, G. Direct Democracy and Subjective Well-Being: The Initiative and Life Satisfaction in the American States. Soc Indic Res 128, 1405–1423 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-015-1085-4

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Keywords

  • Direct democracy
  • Life satisfaction
  • Subjective well-being
  • Welfare state
  • American States