No more Stress with Politics: Direct Democracy, Personality and Political Interest in Comparative Perspective

Political interest is seen as a key antecedent of civic engagement, effective self-governance and thus as the lifeblood of democracy. If we accept a citizen’s degree of attention and curiosity towards politics as that important, it is necessary to know how and why it is generated and under what political circumstances it flourishes and subsides. Direct democracy actively involves citizens in the decision-making process of a country and should thus influence their interest in politics. While some studies have already shown a positive impact of the contextual degree of direct democracy on an individual’s level of political interest other studies find no significant correlation whatsoever. Some literature even assumes a negative relationship between direct democracy and political interest that could be explained by an increase in democratic fatigue as direct democracy increases. Altogether, it has to be noted that empirical findings on the effects of direct democracy on political interest remain rather inconclusive.

This is the starting point of our investigation. We argue this inconclusiveness can be partly attributed to the diverse effects direct democracy has on each individual. In particular, and looking to political psychological approaches, it is more realistic to suggest that people react differently to environmental stimuli depending on their personality. People process information differently and therefore may have diverse reactions to the signals and stimuli environmental factors send. Accordingly, the way a person perceives the frequency of popular votes may influence his or her level of political interest. We use the Big Five model as a broad framework to portray individual-level personality attributes and then deliver evidence on the function and value of this framework for understanding the impact of personality on political interest.

Empirically, we focus on the cases of Switzerland and the United States, two countries with the most advanced forms of direct democracy worldwide. Both the United States and the Swiss cantons present an excellent opportunity to assess the relevance of direct democracy. While this unique institutional arrangement is almost impossible to study comparatively at the national level because the range of variation is so limited, all of the 26 Swiss cantons allow for some form of referenda and initiatives and in the United States about half the states have either referenda or initiatives as direct democratic measures.

Using data of 6800 respondents in Switzerland in 2015 and of 15,400 U.S. citizens in 2009, we document three findings: First, we show that the number of popular votes is not directly related to political interest. Second, we reveal that the Big Five personality traits are linked to political interest. Third, neuroticism in particular alters the relationship between direct democracy and political interest, thereby suggesting that a certain personality type is likely to be more sensitive to popular votes, and that a highly democratic environment can help to inspire interest in politics for people who, because of their personality, tend to be detached from it. Quite intriguingly, these relationships hold irrespective of the country and research period.


Markus Freitag & Alina Zumbrunn, University of Bern

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