Satisfaction with Democracy and Perceived Performance of the Welfare State in Europe

Text: Tomáš Sirovátka, Martin Guzi, Steven Saxonberg

Aligning government policy with the expectations of citizens strengthens satisfaction with the political system. These are the results of a study examining the link between welfare state performance and satisfaction with democracy. The authors show that government intervention aimed at poverty reduction during crisis periods helps to maintain the legitimacy of democratic political systems.


Within democratic countries in the industrialized world, social policy and welfare issues have become a key issue and the source of democratic political contestation (Offe, 1987). Because satisfaction with democracy (SWD) reflects how the political system appears in the eyes of citizens (Quaranta and Martini, 2016), the welfare state can also stimulate satisfaction with the way democracy works by strengthening the sense of economic security. In this regard, contemporary European democracies are running a certain risk: the austerity policies that emerged during the economic crisis of 2008 and beyond reduce overall welfare state capacity in most countries and can thus lead to a drop in SWD (Armingeon and Guthmann, 2014).

In this context, it is worth investigating whether satisfaction with democratic institutions can be increased through improvements in welfare state performance (WSP).

How welfare state arrangements may affect satisfaction with democracy

Subjective assessment of welfare state performance is a critical factor in forming the degree of satisfaction felt among citizens with how democracy is working in their country (Offe, 1987; Rothstein, 1998). If a persistent discrepancy emerges between citizens’ expectations and the actual policies implemented by the government, rising levels of distrust will likely result (Oskarsen, 2007: 127).

People with a lower social status feel less economically secure and, therefore, less satisfied with democracy than those with a higher status (Schäfer, 2013). Correspondingly, increases in social inequality lead to lower satisfaction with how democracy is working in their country (Anderson and Singer, 2008). Thus, SWD decreases when welfare states decrease their protection against economic fluctuations. In contrast, strong WSP can reduce poverty and social inequality (Lühiste, 2014), thereby preventing disappointment with democracy.

„A strong welfare state performance can prevent disappointment with democracy.“

This, however, does not directly imply that more generous welfare support ensures high SWD: the welfare state also has a “formative effect” in that it influences the attitudes and expectations of citizens (Dallinger, 2010) and their political and ideological beliefs (Jaeger, 2009). Thus, liberal countries may attain relatively high levels of SWD because the welfare regime meets residents’ somewhat lower expectations of what the state can and will do. In contrast, demands for social protection in post-communist countries may be high because people’s expectations were formed by the paternalism of the communist regime and these expectations continue to exist in the post-communist era (Dallinger, 2010; Lipsmeyer and Nordstrom, 2003).

Satisfaction with democracy and experienced policy deficit vary strongly between welfare systems

Figure 1 shows average values of SWD. A clear divide emerges here between Northern and Western Europe on the one hand and Southern and Eastern Europe on the other. We observe favourable assessments of the functioning of democracy (around 7 or above 6 on a scale of 0–10) in almost all social-democratic countries. Mean values for the conservative group are around 6, except in the case of Switzerland (which scores above 7) and France (with a score close to 5). Scores are above average in the liberal group and below average in the post-communist and Mediterranean groups. Mean satisfaction in most post-communist countries is around 5 but falls below 4 in Slovenia and Bulgaria. Several countries in the Mediterranean group score around 4 except Cyprus (which comes close to 5).


We investigated empirical data from the 2012 round of the European Social Survey, which contains a special module with questions on the performance of the welfare state and of democracy.

Our dependent variable satisfaction with democracy is based on the question: ‘On the whole, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in [country]?’ Responses on the 11-point scale vary from extremely dissatisfied (0) to extremely satisfied (10). We proposed new indicators of welfare state performance that combine an objective measure with subjective assessments. The subjective measure is the policy deficit, which captures the gap between one’s expectations about the actual performance of the welfare state and one’s assessment of that performance. The policy deficit in reducing poverty is constructed by taking the difference between two survey questions as measured on an 11-point scale: (i) ‘Thinking generally rather than about [country], how important do you think it is for democracy in general that the government protects all citizens against poverty?’; and: (ii) ‘To what extent do you think the following statement applies in [country]: the government in [country] protects all citizens against poverty?’ For constructing the policy deficit in reducing inequality we used the corresponding two questions.

The objective indicator, policy efficiency, meas­ures the percentage of persons lifted out of poverty by social transfers (excluding pensions) and is sourced from the Eurostat database.

Figure 2 shows preferences and assessments as regards government efforts to reduce poverty (this article leaves out the results for preferences and assessments of efforts in reducing inequalities). The gap between the north-west and the south-east of Europe is again clearly visible. In Northern and Western Europe, expectations for the reduction of poverty and inequality are lower than in Southern and Eastern Europe. For reducing poverty, expectations in the north-west are 8.50 compared to 8.71 in the south-east; while for reducing inequality, expectations are 7.75 in the north-west compared to 8.50 in the south-east.

It is worth noting that country differences in expectations about poverty reduction are less pronounced than the differences in inequality reduction. We assume that the formative effect of the welfare state builds a consensus on poverty reduction even in liberal countries because such governments claim that one of the goals of liberal, means-tested policies is precisely to fight poverty by targeting the neediest.

When it comes to the assessment of social policy performance the results are very different, with the Mediterranean countries and the post-communist countries showing very low scores compared to Europe’s northern and western regions. The policy deficit is thus larger in the south and east of Europe.

How can satisfaction with democracy be explained?

We investigated which individual- and countrylevel factors, including the WSP indications mentioned before, affect SWD.1

First, at individual level, people from privileged backgrounds (those with higher levels of education and larger incomes) appear to be more satisfied with democracy than people from less-privileged backgrounds.

Second, people in richer countries express higher SWD and consistent with this finding, the economic/business cycle also matters. The fall in GDP and increase in unemployment between 2007 and 2011 influenced SWD negatively in the European countries affected.

Third, WSP matters greatly in several respects. Policy efficiency (that is, the amount of poverty removed by income redistribution) is positively correlated with SWD. Similarly, a cut in spending on social benefits2 during the crisis is associated with lower levels of SWD. And, finally, subjective assessments of the policy deficit – on the reduction of both poverty and income inequality – are the most significant predictors of SWD levels. In addition, policy efficiency mediates the negative impact of policy deficit on SWD more significantly in countries with large policy deficits.

Taking conservative countries as our reference category, we find higher satisfaction in social-­democratic, liberal and post-communist countries. Conversely, Mediterranean countries – with their under-protective welfare regimes – show lower levels of satisfaction. The legacy of communism in Central and Eastern Europe may contribute to a slightly more positive assessment of the state of democracy than expected when controlling for other country-level variables such as economic level, unemployment and welfare state performance. We assume that this is because people in these countries are more satisfied with their current governments than they were with the previous communist dictatorships. The higher level of SWD in liberal countries is likely due to lower expectations about redistribution and welfare support.

Policy implications: How can the welfare state help to increase satisfaction with democracy in European countries?

First, it seems vital for increasing SWD to reduce the subjective assessment of policy deficits in reducing poverty and social inequality among citizens. Because subjective assessments of policy deficits are due less to the formative effect of the welfare state (learned expectations) than to the assessment of the WSP in these respects, improvements in WSP are the key to increasing SWD.

Second, there are apparently objective policy realities behind subjective assessments of WSP. In particular, policy efficiency in reducing poverty matters for SWD and on top of this, the effect is more significant in countries where the policy deficit is large. Thus, increasing policy efficiency leads to higher SWD.

Third, welfare state capacity and generosity indicated by spending is positively correlated with SWD while cuts are correlated negatively. This means that avoiding welfare cuts but improving welfare state capacity can bring higher SWD.Finally, the above policy implications seem to be more important in less affluent countries and in times of economic downturn. This means that not only for economic reasons but also for political reasons as well, WSP should be improved rather than reduced in poor economic times.


Multilevel modelling was used for controlling reliably the effects of the individual factors.
We use the total welfare state expenditure measure after deducting expenditure on unemployment and old-age benefits, which often mirror only the demographic structures and unemployment level in the country and not welfare state generosity.


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