New directions in legitimacy research

Panel 16: New directions in legitimacy research

Chaired by: dr. Carolien van Ham (UT), dr. Anchrit Wille (UL), prof.dr. Jacques Thomassen (UT)

Is there a crisis of legitimacy of representative democracy in established democracies? Among journalists and academics alike, the growing disillusionment with politics seems to be beyond dispute. Signaling widespread democratic malaise, eroding political support and ever further declining trust in political leaders and politics, the question “why we don’t trust government anymore” or even “why we hate politics” has been frequently researched in recent years (Nye et al. 1997, Pharr and Putnam 2000, Pharr, Putnam and Dalton 2000, Dalton 2004, Hay 2007, Norris 2011). Yet, despite the wealth of cross-country and over-time data now available, and the soaring number of publications on the topic, scholars have not been able to reach agreement on whether there is indeed a decline in the legitimacy of representative democracy in established democracies.

Recent research that re-evaluates the data on trends in political support in established democracies considering a large number of cross-national datasets (Hendriks et al. 2013 for the Netherlands, Van Ham and Thomassen 2014 for Europe), indicates that:


from the 1980s there is little evidence for a secular decline in political support;


if there has been a decline, it seems to have occurred before the 1980s;


after the 1980s we find large variation between countries in both levels and trends of support.

These findings lead to two questions:

1. What is wrong with theories of legitimacy decline?

First, they ask for a critical reappraisal of existing theories explaining a secular decline in political support. What remains of their validity if the predicted secular decline of support does not occur? What is the validity of the theoretical notions at the micro-level on which most explanatory theories are based?

2. What (new) theories can explain divergence in trends?

Second, which (new) explanations can account for differences between countries in levels and trends of support? Could differences in macro-level factors explain different levels and trends of support in different countries? Or should we look at contingent, idiosyncratic explanations within countries such as events and scandals?

In this panel we invite contributions that address these questions. We also welcome papers that reflect more broadly on legitimacy research, including conceptualization and measurement.