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Support for democracy: Social capital, civil society and political performance

Kenneth Newton

No SP IV 2005-402, Discussion Papers, Research Group Civil Society, Citizenship and Political Mobilization in Europe from WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Abstract: Two main theories are widely used to explain the widespread loss of political support in western democracies. One is largely society-centred and built around the concept of social capital and civil society, the other is predominantly politics-centred and focuses on the performance of government and the political system. Social capital and civil society theory argues that a decline in democratic support is a consequence of a decline of social trust, engagement in voluntary associations, and civic and community engagement. The performance hypothesis is that falling support is the consequence of government failure, primarily political but also economic. They are usually used separately and independently, although they are not incompatible. Cross-national comparative research shows that there is an association between social capital and political support, though not a particularly strong one. Case studies of countries that are notable for their loss of political support, however, show that loss of social capital is not responsible. The solution to the puzzle that this conflicting evidence presents is not to throw away either or both the theories but to recognize that they work together. Social capital, political performance, and political support are mutually inter-dependent, though sometimes loosely connected. Some case studies suggest that loss of support may be greatest in countries and among social groups with high social capital, but that these countries and groups may quickly regain support if performance improves.

Date: 2005
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