Participation Paradoxes: Voting, Contention and Satisfaction with Democracy

27 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2012 Last revised: 16 Oct 2015

Date Written: 2012


The relevance of research on satisfaction with democracy has often been justified by the concept’s effect on participatory behavior. However this justification is undermined by the paradoxical proposed effects in the literature. Democratic dissatisfaction, it is argued, causes both political disengagement and contentious participation. Both arguments are intuitively appealing and have empirical support, but how can something simultaneously cause abstention and participation? I argue that this apparent contradiction results from weak grounding in theory. In this paper, I seek to correct this gap by deriving competing resolutions to the paradox from democratic theory and theories of participatory choice. Democratic theory can be divided into two broad families. The first group, associated with liberal conceptions of democracy, views political participation as instrumental: citizens engage in democratic politics for the purpose of advancing their private, self-interested goals. The second, associated with participatory democracy, assumes that participation in public affairs has intrinsic value to individuals, and participatory choices are motivated by non-material concerns. Potential resolutions to the paradox can be derived from each assumption. I use data from the 2008 European Values Study to estimate a general structural equation model in order to conduct these tests. I find strong support for the participatory democracy approach.

Keywords: satisfaction with democracy, participation, democratic theory

Suggested Citation

Rhodes-Purdy, Matthew, Participation Paradoxes: Voting, Contention and Satisfaction with Democracy (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Matthew Rhodes-Purdy (Contact Author)

UT Austin Department of Government ( email )

College of Liberal Arts
1 University Station A1800
Austin, TX 78712
United States
5123331576 (Phone)

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