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Turnout decline in Western Europe: Apathy or alienation?

Viktor Valgardsson, University of Southampton

Tue 19 March 2019

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


Academic literature on democratic developments in recent decades routinely cites turnout decline as a primary indicator of more fundamental changes to democracy, but this posited relationship is rarely tested. Conversely, studies of turnout decline have thus far failed to incorporate a major divide in this literature: that between theories of political apathy and political alienation. The former type of theories argue that citizens have become less interested in politics generally, while the latter argue that citizens are still interested but do not identify with their formal political systems. In this study, I test these fundamentally different expectations about the nature of turnout decline by using an extensive new dataset, consisting of combined national election studies from 121 elections in eleven Western European countries in the period 1956-2017. The results indicate that political apathy has in fact been declining in the region, while political alienation has been rising substantially. Reported turnout has been declining significantly in four of these countries and while alienation can only account for a small part of that decline, the negative effect of apathy on turnout has become much stronger over time; those citizens who are apathetic today are less likely to vote than before.

About the speaker

Viktor Valgardsson is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Southampton. His PhD focuses on drivers of turnout decline in Western Europe and his broader research agenda is on changing political attitudes and behaviours in established democracies and the implications of this for democratic theory and reform.

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