The long-term effects of the economic crisis on political trust in Europe: Is there a negativity bias in the relation between economic performance and political support?

Abstract

Studies have shown that the economic crisis that started in 2008 was followed by a sharp decline in political trust in some liberal democracies. These findings suggest that an economic downturn might contribute to a more structural crisis of democratic legitimacy. From 2011 on, however, unemployment levels in industrialized democracies started to decline again. In this paper, we investigate how public opinion reacted to this gradual economic recovery. Previous studies examining economic evaluations by the public suggest that there is a negativity bias, with public opinion reacting stronger to an economic downturn than to economic growth. We analyse the ESS data from 2002 to 2016 (eight waves) and find that public opinion reacted positively to economic recovery, with levels of political trust gradually rising to pre-crisis levels in most countries. In the discussion section, we reflect on the implications of our findings for the study of trends in political trust.

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Fig. 1

Source: World Bank Indicators for Growth and Unemployment, European Social Survey for Economic Perceptions

Fig. 2

Source: European Social Survey, wave 1–8

Fig. 3

Source: European Social Survey, cumulative file

Fig. 4

Source: European Social Survey, cumulative file

Notes

  1. 1.

    ESS is conducted biennially, so our dataset consists of observations in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.

  2. 2.

    The countries included in our analysis are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK. Table of countries and years that are included in the analysis is provided in Appendix 5.

  3. 3.

    See Appendix 1 for a full description of the questions. See Appendix 9 for full tables using Bartlett scores and Regressions scores as our dependent variable of the three trust items.

  4. 4.

    Since all three variables are on the same scale, we prefer composite score for calculating the latent concept of trust, compared to other more refined measures based on factor scores.

  5. 5.

    Aggregates are based on constant 2010 US Dollars. GDP is the sum of gross value added by all resident producers in the economy plus any product taxes and minus any subsidized not included in the value of the products (World Bank Indicators).

  6. 6.

    Where 1 indicates that the respondent is close to a political party and 0 is not close to a political party. We also controlled whether this is closeness to an incumbent political party, of more specifically the party of the incumbent Prime Minister. These results are reported in Appendix 12, and they do not change any of the results of the main models.

  7. 7.

    We also use several other control variables such as experience with unemployment, job status, income (Appendix 11), as well as political interest, socialization, political party and trade union membership—see Appendix 12. Overall, these additional controls do not change our results.

  8. 8.

    Where our baseline year is 2002 or 2004 based on data availability. The question regarding trust in political parties was not asked in the ESS wave conducted in 2002. We also conducted a robustness test, using country and time-fixed effects models for Tables 2 and 3, and these are reported in Appendix 14. Using these models does not lead to different results.

  9. 9.

    As a robustness test, we also run exactly the same models used fixed effects on the country level (Appendix 14). We are glad to report these fixed effects models lead to the same conclusions as the models reported in Tables 2 and 3.

  10. 10.

    As a robustness test, we dropped Russia and Turkey as countries with autocratic rather than democratic characteristics (Appendix 10), yet the results do not differ substantially from those reported in Tables 2 and 3.

  11. 11.

    We also use additional control variables, such as respondents’ unemployment for at least 3 months, feelings towards income of the household and job situation. We report that the results remain robust as those reported in Tables 2 and 3. Second, we control for political interest, socialization and membership of political parties and trade unions, and all results did not lead to different outcomes, either. All these tables can be found in Appendices 11 and 12.

  12. 12.

    2004 was the first year when the question about trust in political parties was asked in ESS.

  13. 13.

    Full table provided in Appendix 3.

  14. 14.

    It has to be noted that that some countries did not participate in the 2014 and/or 2016 waves of the ESS. The selective attrition of countries could be one of the elements explaining this recent upward trend. To control for this effect, we conducted the same analysis on a more restricted sample of countries that participated in at least, or indeed, all eight waves of ESS. This analysis is shown in Appendices 6 and 7.

  15. 15.

    In a separate robustness check, we repeated the analysis, but this time excluding the countries that were worst hit by the economic crisis, and potentially could be considered as outliers (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal). The results of this analysis do not differ significantly from our main analysis presented in Table 2. Full results of this robustness check are reported in Appendix 4.

  16. 16.

    As an additional robustness test, we also ran the analysis for each of the three groups (worst, middle and best performers) separately. In the three groups, the results are similar (Appendix 8), thus providing support for the findings reported in Table 3.

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Hooghe, M., Okolikj, M. The long-term effects of the economic crisis on political trust in Europe: Is there a negativity bias in the relation between economic performance and political support?. Comp Eur Polit 18, 879–898 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-020-00214-5

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Keywords

  • Political trust
  • Economic crisis
  • European Social Survey
  • Longitudinal research
  • Negativity bias