Confidence in politicians and political institutions (such as the Swedish government and parliament) has continuously declined in Sweden since the early 1970s. This trend has attracted a great deal of interest among social scientists, sparking efforts to understand both the driving forces and the consequences to society that the trend entails. Confidence is one of the pillars of democracy, and international research has shown that it is of great importance in determining people’s willingness to pay taxes, obey laws, and accept political decisions that go against them. But what, then, creates confidence in political institutions?
Social scientific research has identified a number of factors that underpin political confidence. One explanatory factor, supported by polls, is that confidence in political institutions is contingent on the service the state provides for the individual. In other words, Swedes who are satisfied with what they receive from the state in the form of benefits, education, infrastructure, etc. tend to have more confidence in their decision-making bodies. But the measure of how satisfied they are is not how many decisions were popular ones; instead, it is more fruitful to look at the popularity of how the decisions were made. It is precisely this kind of reasoning that lies behind a central social scientific hypothesis ¬that an individual’s confidence in political institutions, and thereby the acceptance of unpopular decisions, is based on whether he or she views that decision-making process as fair and legitimate.
In the dissertation from Göteborg University, this hypothesis is tested on an issue that has been highly controversial in Sweden: the expansion of a railroad line to two tracks and the construction of a tunnel. Is the confidence those in the immediate surroundings have in the contractor, the Swedish railway net authority ¬Banverket, solely dependent on the benefits to individuals and their immediate environment or does it also make a difference how Banverket dealt with the decision-making process as such?
The dissertation supports the hypothesis that the confidence that Swedes have in a political decision is largely based on how satisfied they are with the decision-making process. Surprisingly, this factor is so strong that it even impacts the confidence in the route chosen for the track, which is a question in which immediate benefits for individuals would normally be expected to dominate. Another unexpected finding proved to be that the individual’s own ability to exert influence in the matter, being able to affect the result, only marginally decides the confidence that Swedes have in the political process.
Title of dissertation: Democracy’s Infrastructure: The Role of Procedural Fairness in Fostering Consent