The Winner Takes it All: The Effect of Direct Democracy on Democratic Satisfaction and Political Trust Revisited

Paper prepared for the ‘Political Trust in Contemporary Representative Democracies’ 24-25 November 2016, Barcelona


Despite the strong theoretical expectations about the beneficial effects of direct democratic institutions on citizens’ opinions vis-à-vis the political system, the empirical evidence is scarce and inconsistent. We add to this literature by examining the effect of direct citizen involvement in the political decision-making process on democratic satisfaction and political trust as well as the underlying causal mechanism. We use a unique panel collected in the context of a local Belgian referendum, including inhabitants of a neighborhood that held a referendum and a comparison group (i.e. inhabitants of a comparable neighborhood without referendum). This design combines a strong test of causality with a high level of ecological validity. In line with our expectations, we show that the increase in democratic satisfaction and trust in local political institutions following the referendum is not driven by involvement or procedural fairness perceptions but by an increase in satisfaction and trust levels among the winners of the decision.