Sebastian Adrian Popa
Politically Competent Citizens: The Role of Predispositions and Political Context in Comparative Perspective

2015, Budapest, Central European University. (Dissertation)

Both normative democratic theories and empirical research strive to identify a set of basic competences that should help ordinary citizens to make political decisions that are in their best interest and thus help realizing the democratic ideal. It is by now axiomatic that citizens need to possess at least some basic political competences for them to be able to live up to the role assigned to them in democratic theory. Therefore this dissertation focuses on identifying a set of essential political competences and the factors that favor the development of such competences. Based on existing research I identify the three political competences which received the most attention in the political behavior literature: the level of political knowledge, the capacity to develop a coherent and consistent set of attitudes (i.e. attitude constraint) and the capacity to cast a vote that best represents ones interest (i.e. “attitude-congruent” voting) . I investigate both the “stable” factors that lead to inherent inequalities in political competences (e.g. socio economic status), but I also point to those factors that would lead to an increase in political competence across all groups (e.g. use of heuristics, political institutions, political elites). Furthermore, I show that at least in some cases the factors in this latter category have the potential to reduce inherent inequalities in the level of political competences that stem from differences in individual factors. After a brief introduction and overview of the existing literature I examine separately the factors that favor the development of each of these competences. In Chapter 3 I focus on the capacity of political parties to supply their supporters with cues and thus increase their level of political knowledge. I show that support for parties that have stronger incentives to fight the status quo (i.e. opposition, a smaller and/or a right-wing party) is, either directly or in an interaction with individual characteristics, related to higher levels of political knowledge. These results suggest that by relying on cues coming from such parties even the less educated and those who are not frequent media users can find alternative tools to acquire political knowledge. In Chapter 4 I confirm the role that political knowledge has for generating attitude constraint, but at the same time I show that citizens can effectively rely on constrained political elites to supply them with information that can effectively increase the level of attitude constraint. All in all Chapter 4 confirms that citizens can at least partly rely on political elites in order to acquire political competences. In Chapter 5 I concentrate on the quality of electoral decisions by developing an operationalization, i.e. “attitude-congruent” voting, that improve on existing measures. Contrary to prior research I find no empirical support to confirm a positive impact of political knowledge. Instead, Chapter 5 reveals consistent positive effects of what are generally regarded as substitutes of political knowledge in the development of more complex political competences. To be more specific Chapter 5 reveals an optimistic picture since the quality of electoral decision does not seem to be influenced by political knowledge. Instead, citizens can rely on heuristics and make use of a more simple and stable institutional structure to effectively choose the representative that best matches their interests.